Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” has to be one of the first existential short stories ever penned, if not the first. In it, the title character shows up to work one day at his law office, and when a stack of papers is set before him, he refuses to engage in his task of copying, muttering the immortal phrase “I prefer not to.” Bartleby is not making a political statement, he is not angry, he is not depressed. He merely refuses to continue his work. He prefers not to.
While Georges Simenon’s fellow French-speaker Albert Camus (Simenon was Belgian, Camus French) won the Nobel Prize for his existentialist works of fiction such as The Stranger and The Plague, it is Simenon and not Camus who writes of the existential state of the businessman, one whose whole life is defined by a job, and then one day says of his working existence: I prefer not to. In two of his roman durs (hard novels), The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938) and Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1952), Simenon lets the seed of Melville’s theme germinate and then bear fruit. What grows out of this are two forward-thinking crime novels that serve as a pair in that they are a kind of grim dialogue—an evocative conversation about and exploration of the limitations and the possibilities of the crime novel. Both Kees Popinga (The Man Who Watched Trains Go By) and Norbert Monde (Monsieur Monde Vanishes) are successful businessmen and family men with wives and children. As is the mantra of Bartleby, both men reject the world that they have created for themselves. There is nothing dramatic, there is no great uproar or statement; they just plain walk away from their lives and their responsibilities. Kees Popinga, the manager of a ships’ chandlery, and Norbert Monde, the head of an export firm, differ from Bartleby in that their actions after their initial refusal to continue in their now-meaningless bourgeois existence are immersed in the degenerate subterranean world of petty criminals and thugs, which Simenon loved so much. In other words, Simenon takes advantage of the medium of the crime novel to push the limits of their quiet rebellion. He does this with a signature cruel, spare, unsentimental tone, delighting in filling up the void of the existentialist cup with the very palpable and dark desires of his characters who have resisted conventional lives.
Kees Popinga’s departure occurs after he finds out that his boss has ruined the firm through squandering the capital on risky deals and then cooking the books to hide the results. Kees, by today’s standards a workaholic, frightens his wife by staying in bed. He knows the firm is doomed and refuses to go to work. Each day in bed, his defiance grows. He calls up for cigars. He painstakingly peels an orange. The air of the novel is fraught with the quotidian meticulousness of Popinga, masking the forthcoming conflict. Then one day he bids his wife good-bye and leaves. The entire power of the mundane scene of his leaving forever culminates in one inspired Simenon dry, declarative sentence:
It took all the will in the world not to turn back.
Monsieur Monde’s exit is less incident-driven. He merely feels a general malaise and disconnect in his life. His wife is a bore, his daughter likewise, his son a sexually repressed man who makes passes at one of Monde’s employees. Like Kees Popinga, Monde is painfully aware of the physical toll his life of privilege and excess has taken. He examines his pudginess, his soft face, in the mirror. And then one day he sees a man dressed much as himself, another nameless businessman, walking down the street:
He stared at the man going off, and felt himself, as it were, impelled forward, he had an irresistible longing to go off too, to go straight ahead.
To go somewhere!
Later, at the train station, on the day of his disappearance from his life as a Parisian businessman, Monsieur Monde has his Bartleby moment of recognition, his rejection of the futile:
Standing on the platform of the bus, he patted his pockets; he leaned forward to see his reflection in the window. He felt no surprise but he was still waiting as he had for his First Communion, for something he longed for, which was slow in coming.
Still this is Simenon in style. Even as Monde experiences his moment of epiphany, he pats his pockets for the money, small bundles of franc notes that he will need to survive in the strip joints, absinthe bars, and cheap hotel rooms of the French Riviera underworld.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By was written more than a decade before its companion piece, Monsieur Monde Vanishes. The story of Kees Popinga once he leaves Holland reads like Bret Ellis’s American Psycho, only spare in style. He murders a high-class prostitute, strangles a woman he meets in a café, and consorts with a league of criminals who hide him while he flees the tightening net of the French police. Simenon is keenly aware that he is writing a fugitive-on-the-run crime novel. The plot moves along at a blistering pace as the murders build in their sadistic nature and Kees’s methods of evading the police become more outlandish and desperate with each turn. On the surface he transforms from a bourgeois Dutch burgher and family man into a breathless serial killer lying down on the train tracks, waiting for the express train to run him over. Yet the magic of Simenon is that while he is performing tricks of a Fugitive-esque escape plot with his right hand, through the eyes of Popinga—the detached, mysterious, inner world of one man’s—Simenon is composing an existentialist work of fiction with his left hand. In the end, the reader doesn’t necessarily care what happens with the crime plot. It has become irrelevant. What matters only is the hypnotic, creepy, detached sociopathic tone of Kees Popingas’s monologue. Sentences like:
Finally, this is what he wanted: he wanted to be the only one, absolutely the only one, to know what he knew. He alone could identify Kees Popinga. He could move freely through the crowd while others brushed by, clueless, with all their different stupid ideas about who he was.
This is not the hysterical madness of Dostoyevsky’s murderer, Raskolnikov. It’s the voice of a businessman. An everyman. Someone we no doubt walk by in the street every day. And Simenon’s seamless blending of two distinct genres—the character-driven literary novel with the plot-driven, page-turner crime novel—raises this question: Shouldn’t crime novels aspire to be literature?
Monsieur Monde Vanishes, like The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, is a novel of a man on the run. However, in Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Simenon operates without the aid of a crime-driven plot. The only things Monsieur Monde is fleeing are his family and his life as a Parisian businessman. So how does Simenon, the consummate entertainer, a writer afraid to bore the reader with high sentiment and show-off feats of literary poignancy and intellectualism, structure the narrative to keep us turning the pages? Without the crutch of a real plot to rely on, Simenon goes where David Goodis and later Charles Bukowski would go in their novels: He makes milieu a character. Simenon’s milieu is the underworld of Nice on the French Riviera. After meeting a runaway-cum-call girl in Lyons, Monde helps her escape the clutches of her abusive pimp, and they travel to Nice, where Monde finds work in the cloakroom at a smoky strip club and adopts the pseudonym Desiré. With no murder, no betrayals, no desperation to fuel the plot, Simenon quickly sets about creating a world, the seedy side of a licentious resort town. It is here among the garish rich tourists at play, the drug addict strippers, the con men on the make, and the pick pockets, washed-up jazz musicians, and hardworking brothel proprietors that Simenon inserts his blank slate, his “I’d prefer not to” Bartelby, who now “prefers to” absorb this degenerate world of last-chance characters. In Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Simenon’s prose attains heights that the straightforward rendition of scenes and imagery never achieves in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, such as in this description of Monde’s unfaithful, thieving lover Julie:
And presently her lips stained the pallid tip of a cigarette with a vivid pink that was more sensuously feminine than a woman’s blood.
Again Simenon juggles the mundane with the poetic. Money is the one trope that Simenon comes back to repeatedly and uses to keep the reader in the dangerous, suffering world of the here and now.
He had a great deal of money in his wallet. He had slipped in as many notes as it would hold and it embarrassed him to open it; he did so with reluctance, in the furtive manner of a miser; he realized that Julie had noticed, that she had seen the bundle and was once more observing him with a suspicious eye.
This is the trick of a seasoned crime writer: While the story is not about the fact that his mistress will steal his money, the thought surely enters the reader’s mind and keeps us reading.
Simenon has another minor plot development that appears more quickly and more naturally than a Bruce Lee punch. Three-quarters of the way through, when the symphony of degenerates could start to lag, he brings Monde’s ex-wife, Therese, on the scene. She is now a heroin addict lost soul who begs her former husband’s help. Monde provides this aid in a unique way that only an icy, twisted Simenon novel can deliver without cheese. Yet it is Simenon’s rendering of character, the once again mysterious, detached nature, the Bartleby thrust into crime and seediness, that defines the novel and Monde’s flight from the everyday:
He had given up. He had stopped struggling. He had hurried far away—the train journey no longer existed, there was only a sense of endless flight—he had hurried here, toward the sea, which vast and blue, more intensely alive than any human being . . . was breathing peacefully close to him . . .
He was ageless now and his lips quivered like a child’s.
Monsieur Monde Vanishes is Simenon’s more mature, more ambitious response to his earlier The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. The two novels present both a duet and a dialogue. The answer that Simenon poses to his earlier question (“Shouldn’t crime novels aspire to be literature?”) is turned on its head in an almost Nietzschean fashion, embracing hypocrisy and destroying conventional fictional forms.
With Monsieur Monde Vanishes the crime novel has evolved into something that can exist beyond plot. The literary novel, meanwhile, should aspire to entertain. Simenon never won the Nobel, yet like all true mavericks and innovators who moved the possibilities of fiction forward by taking risks, Simenon is a writer for all time.
Cortright McMeel’s first novel, Short, is coming out on Dec 7th 2010 from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press. He was also the publisher of the literary magazine, Murdaland. He has published short stories in Mississippi Review, Gettysburg Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review.