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The Engagement (New York Review Books)
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Simenon was very much like his English contemporary Graham Greene in that he simultaneously wrote serious literature (his "romans vers") and popular entertainments (the Maigret detective novels). This explains why at mid 20th century he was admired by Gide and the lions of French letters, indeed, young aspiring writers like Camus and Robbe-Grillet started out by penning stories that pastiched strands of Simenon's oeuvre. But where by the late 20th century Greene's weightier novels had moved to center stage in readers' minds, Simenon's reputation has unjustly declined due his serious ethically-focussed fiction being lost from public view, and the ascendency of the money-spinning thrillers.

Simenon's "romans vers" (hard novels) are gritty tales of sordid and ungiving everyday life, in the tradition of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Gissing (all acknowledged influences). These hard stories usually centre on a seachange event in the life of one of three potential male characters: it might be a figure from the criminal underworld (like the hoodlum in the novel Dirty Snow), an unremarkable middleclass person (the lawyer in The Strangers in the House), or a figure in the seamy side of politics (the anarchist in "The Green Thermos"). Invariably this figure is manoeuvred into some sort of impasse, and presented with a difficult moral decision about his actions.

"The Engagement" is one of Simenon's earliest romans vers where he develops this new form. It is winter in 1933, France is raked by the Great Depression, and Monsieur Hire runs a mail-order scam by using misleading advertisements to sell overpriced products. This is very small scale crime - the return is barely 30 francs on each order - and due to a legal loophole he has cleverly avoided prosecution.

Simenon quickly plots out the lonely pattern of his lead character's daily life in the first two chapters, establishing the miserable atmosphere of a bitter wet winter in the Depression. Monsieur Hire is a pathetic little man, leading a drab little life on the outskirts of Paris. He has a crush on a shop girl living in the room opposite his own, following her about like a hapless stalker. She finds it amusing, and together with her boyfriend taunts him. Actually the book's title - the engagement - ironically refers to the relationship between Hire and this girl, who he clumsily proposes to (the original French title was "Monsieur Hire's Engagement").

Monsieur Hire is hardly a figure of evil, let alone a dangerous criminal. Yet he inadvertently becomes the prime suspect in the police investigation for a violent sex murder. Initially he finds this amusing, making a delightful game out of repeatedly loosing the detectives who are tailing him. However, his "fiance" muddies the waters and the police decide to move; meanwhile the over-confident Hire wanders about not realising the dire position he is in. The premise of the story brings to mind Simenon's later black masterpiece Dirty Snow, where a smalltime hoodlum during the German Occupation of France is mistaken by the authorities for a member to the Resistance. But matters play out in a very different manner in this early book.

"The Engagement" sees all the signature traits of Simenon's hard novels explored and stabilised: the fatalistic mood, the blunt unadorned depiction of a sordid common world, the quickening pace as events take their course, the rejection of literary flourishes, and a deliberate use of plain blunt language. (I noticed metaphors on pages 58 & 74 - "The oilcloth turned the table into a rectangle as hard and cold as a tombstone" & "It was raining buckets ..." - although otherwise the writer has purged his prose of figural language.)

It's a well crafted book, and not just due to the psychological complexity of situations. The handling of the last third of the book, when Paris is innundated by torrential rains and we start to feel the pressure of the impatient police, is superb. Simenon builds a complex picture where much is going on at once: the reader's attention flits from Hire to the worried dairy shop owner, to Alice, to the sick child, to the flirting policeman, to the plumber, to the impatient commissioner, to the harrassed concierge and, of course, to Emile keeping watch over at the bar. This is adroitly organised material, like clips in a movie.

This edition includes a short, pithy essay on Simenon's dark stories by John Gray. Readers interested in knowing more of Simenon's "romans vers" will also find much explained in Paul Theroux's and Anita Brookner's marvellous introductory essays to the reissued Simenon hard novels The Widow and Red Lights.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
but another man shall lie with her." Deuteronomy 28:30

Georges Simenon was nothing if not prolific in both his literary and public life. Born in Belgium in 1903, Simenon turned out hundreds of novels. Simenon's obsession with writing caused him to break off an affair (he was prolific in this area of his life as well) with the celebrated Josephine Baker in Paris when he could only write twelve novels in the twelve month period in which they were involved. Although perhaps best known for his Inspector Maigret detective novels, Simenon also wrote over a hundred novels that he referred to as `romans durs' (literally "hard novels"). These hard stories typically involve a person's descent from normality (or a life that seems to bear the appearance of normality) into nihilism and despair. Usually there is a triggering event, a murder, a bankruptcy, or simply too much to drink on a road trip. The publishing arm of `"The New York Review" NYRB Books is reissuing Simenon's hard novels. "The Engagement" is one of Simenon's earliest hard novels and it was hard to put down. The story line is rather a simple one.

Mr. Hire is a quiet man. But he isn't quiet in the way that he blends into the background. He's quiet in the way that his neighbors find him odd and more than a bit scary. Odd in such a way that children are pulled into their parent's apartment when he is heard walking around in his Paris apartment. And, critically for "The Engagement", odd in such a way that when a neighborhood prostitute is found murdered, the concierge in his apartment tells the police Hire is the culprit. "The Engagement" is a study in contrasts. It gives us Mr. Hire, going about his daily business and gives us the police (with the helpful assistance of Hire's neighbors) going about their business and slowly obtaining enough information to arrest him for murder.

The storyline may not sound unique but the devil is always in the details. Simenon's prose may be direct and to the point but he manages to paint a compelling picture of his protagonists. Mr. Hire, the concierge, and the young girl across the street with whom Mr. Hire shares a voyeuristic relationship that holds the key to the story line, are all wonderfully drawn. Hire is not an attractive person yet this reader could not help but feel no small amount of empathy toward. It is hard to give examples without divulging too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that Simenon knows how to craft sentences that keep the reader turning page after page after page.

Simenon's hard novels are often referred to as psychological novels but I find that term a bit misleading. Simenon does not analyze. He does not delve deep into his protagonists' minds. He presents a story stripped of moralizing or analysis. He presents the reader with a slice of the human condition, usually an unpleasant slice, and lets the reader deal with the implications, the psychoanalysis if you like. They do offer glimpses into his protagonists' lives even though (or perhaps because) he does not fill in the blanks for you. His character's actions speak for themselves and what they have to say is not always pleasant. In a world of fiction filled with happiness and redemption and the ultimate triumph of good against evil, Simenon is a breath of fresh (if pessimistic) air. I recommend highly all of Simenon's romans durs and The Engagement is no exception. L. Fleisig
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 2 April 2010
A prostitute is found dead, a strange lonesome man watches an alluring woman from his dirty, tobacco-stained bedsit. This is the world of Georges Simenon and one in which you should luxuriate in inhabiting. The dank bars filled with unsavoury characters, the quiet desperation of an essentially good, yet flawed man, this is writing that explores the underside of life in an incredibly vivid manner. Simenon is a writer of rare talent who manages to perfectly capture the seedy underside of European culture - you can easily imagine yourself inhabiting this world of rain, neon lights and grey-blue tinge of Gauloises-smoke filled bars. Uncompromising, unsentimental this, along with all his other roman durs or "hard novels", is writing of the highest quality. Forget Maigret and take your first step into Simenon's world with these wonderful republications from the New York Review of Books.
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