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Off to the London Review Bookshop yet again, (by way of a Starbucks where the bacon and egg panini seemed to consist mostly of mushrooms) to see John Banville in action once more. This could get to feel like stalking. This time he and John Gray are talking about Georges Simenon, whose books I’ve found unreadable though I’ve enjoyed the Maigret dramatisations on the radio.

This time, the audience seems younger and less determinedly middle class than last time, though still as uniformly white. I wonder, briefly, if the slightly different audience is attracted by the subject, until it becomes obvious during the course of the evening that most of the audience have never read anything by Simenon. I wonder why they are here. But then, I could ask the same of myself.

I find a convenient chair upon which to deposit coat and bag, then wander to the front to grab a glass of wine and browse a bit. There’s a big display of NYRB books at 20% off, very handsome volumes and I wished I’d been able to afford to run riot. There’s also a notice adding a third name to the programme, Edwin Frank, Editor of NYRB Books. No sooner have I spotted the name than a thin little man, balding, sharp-featured, hunched, bustles in and seeks out the bookshop manager. He has to be a New Yorker, I think to myself, though what gives me the clue I couldn’t say; and yes, it turns out this is, indeed, Mr Frank.

The event, it would appear, is part of the celebrations for the 10th anniversary of NYRB Books, and Simenon is the author they’ve published most of, hence tonight’s discussion.

It’s too painful to spend a long time browsing the shelves at the LRB bookshop, there’s just too much I’d like to take home with me, so I settle down quickly with my glass of, to be honest, a fairly rough red. The majority of the audience settle down just as quickly, a rather disconcerting number of them immediately pulling out a book, notebook and pen, as if they are all engaged in significant research. A man behind me goes to look at the Simenon books on display and returns to murmur to his wife: “I don’t think they’re going to be talking about Maigret, dear.”

A man I immediately decide must be John Gray appears and disappears several times. Eventually, just on seven o’clock, John Banville wanders in from the restaurant across the courtyard, still clutching a glass of red wine and with a scarf wrapped unfeasibly many times round his short neck. Banville murmurs something to Gray, they both turn round and examine the shelves, then laugh. Then they take seats at either end of the counter, with Frank hunched between them. During the next hour, Frank will often make contributions to the discussion that are sharp, knowledgeable and interesting, but he always looks as if he’s trying to disappear from between the other two. He speaks hesitantly, lots of ums and ers, and his short peroration rambles as if he hasn’t worked out what he wants to say. Then he turns to Banville and the event takes off.

Both Banville and Gray speak crisply and authoritatively, picking up on each other’s points, challenging, pushing forward. They often seem to be working out ideas as they go along, but with none of the pauses and fractured speech that you might normally expect. They pack an awful lot into the hour. Banville begins by admitting that he used to have a standard snobbish view of Simenon: someone that prolific couldn’t be any good. But John Gray insisted he read Dirty Snow (Simenon’s novels, as well as being numerous, seem to go under numerous different titles, I’m taking the titles as in the NYRB editions), and he became hooked. Gray then adds that someone he’d known, an active communist in Occupied France who was arrested, sent to a concentration camp, escaped, and spent the rest of the war in hiding in Vichy France, had told him that if he wanted to understand what it was like in France at that time the only book to read was Dirty Snow, so that was his introduction to Simenon also.

They talk a lot about psychology in Simenon, or rather the absence of psychology. In Monsieur Monde Vanishes, a book that is probably the most talked about during the course of the evening, a staid bourgeois man leaves his home, sees a pretty girl in the street, and immediately disappears. We see the action, but we are never told his thought processes. The world is mysterious because it is made up entirely of events, never of motivations. Simenon is like an alien, Banville says (throughout the evening I notice that Banville often uses metaphors drawn from science or science fictio, though in this instance I’m reminded more of Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian Writes a Postcard Home’), watching behaviour that is only ever a series of actions seen from outside, never from within. We don’t think, Gray adds (his metaphors are drawn more from psychology), we only think we think. Life is made up of actions that are impulsive, unconsidered, and no writer is better than Simenon at capturing that evanescent sense of events driving life without consideration.

But later we get another, darker side of this existentialist aspect of Simenon. Returning to Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Banville says: he returns a monster. Gray chips in: he’s away only three months, not a very long time, but in that time he has some sort of transcendental vision (if that doesn’t sound too psychological for Simenon), some new perception of himself. He returns not to resume his old life, not to the expected round of welcome and forgiveness on all sides, instead he returns as a dictator, a fascist, made sure of his own power.

Does that make him evil? Ah, this leads into one of the longest and most interesting discussions of the evening. The conclusion is that Simenon didn’t believe in evil, the word had no meaning to him. Evil comes from within, but that is something Simenon never explores, in his work all action is directed from outside, people just accommodating themselves as best they can to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Which is why there are virtually no villains in his work: in one novel a man commits multiple murders all the time believing he is doing good, and cannot understand how anyone might object to what he has done. One of his few villains, in a novel set in wartime Paris, is actually presented as being an avatar of Simenon himself; perhaps, Gray suggested, a response to his own compromised behaviour during the German Occupation.

At times, Banville and Gray behave like a well-rehearsed comic turn. Banville tells the familiar story of how Simenon claimed to have had sex with 10,000 women. But, says Gray, jumping in quickly, his wife said that was ridiculous, it couldn’t have been more than 3,000. The maids, Gray continues, would come into the house each morning and say: “Have you been done yet?” That’s not a relationship, Banville adds, at most it’s a few seconds of contact.

During questions, someone who says he has translated a couple of Simenon’s novels says he doesn’t recognise the man they’ve talked about. There was more compassion in his later books. But the panellists stick to their guns: no, Banville says, there was pity but not compassion.

Then the haystack of a man from Banville’s previous appearance at the LRB bookshop, still apparently wearing the same sweat pants and t-shirt, stood up to make a long and rambling statement, during the course of which he suggested that Simenon (died 1989) had ripped off Banville’s latest novel. In the end the question seemed to be: did Simenon have a beard or moustache, because all great writers have a beard or moustache, and a beard is clearly better. The clean-shaven Banville ad Gray looked at each other and asked: was that a question?

The novels they were talking about were called, by Simenon, “romans durs”. I couldn’t work out if they were hard to write, hard to read, or just hard-edged in their attitude. Certainly, Banville remarked that men and women seem to read Monsieur Monde Vanishes very differently, women tend to see it as a story of desertion men as a story of discovery. Even so, I walked out of the bookshop that evening thinking I really must try reading some Simenon once more.

First published at LiveJournal, 15 October 2009.

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