Tuesday, March 18, 2008

No prospect of retreat

A lengthy read -- a foreword, apparently, to a new edition of Simenon's novel The Widow, published by New York Review Books. Simenon's output is intimidating but his writing is clean and very to-the-point; ample evidence, Theroux argues, of the anti-intellectual bent the self-educated Simenon favored throughout his life. Much of the piece is a summary of The Widow's plot, but the biographical info and critical discussion that bookend it are fascinating.
What to make of the gifted and unstoppable writer who has a rarefied existential streak but also a nose for what the public wanted? The universities are seldom any help. Simenon dropped out of school at thirteen to become a reporter, and like many self-educated people, he tended to be anti-intellectual in a defiant and mocking way, despising literary critics and giving literature departments a wide berth. The universities returned the compliment, rubbishing him and belittling or ignoring his work. The academy is uncommonly fond of the struggler and the sufferer; scratch even the most severe academic and you find a supporter of the underdog. How can (so the argument seems to run) a prolific and popular writer be any good? Usually, like Ford Madox Ford or Trollope they are nailed as graphomaniacs and subjected to cruel simplification, represented by one book, not always their best. Professorial philistinism dogged Simenon; so did snobbery. It was, after all, an embittered provincial university librarian who wrote of “the shit in the shuttered chateau / Who does his five hundred words / Then parts out the rest of the day / Between bathing and booze and birds . . .”. Simenon was the living, intimidating embodiment of Larkin’s envious lines, plenty of booze and birds available, though his daily output in the chateau was more like 5,000 words.
It's a great overview of Simenon and his work, although Theroux the globetrotting travel writer can't help himself from butting in:
The figures associated with him are so extravagant that he seems a victim of them – the numerous novels, the 500 million copies sold, the fifty-five changes of address, and his often quoted boast that he bedded 10,000 women. (His second wife put the figure at “no more than 1,200”.) But the statistics were misleading in the way that record-breaking is misleading, merely the helpless adoration of the exceptional. Simenon trotting out his big numbers sounds to me like a man’s mendacious self-reckoning, not different from the modestly endowed group of islanders in Vanuatu who call themselves Big Nambas.

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