By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Holst has a daughter, the innocent and pure-hearted Sissy, who falls in love with Frank, and whose love Frank repays by tricking her into sacrificing her virginity not to him, as she believes, but to Kromer, with whom he switches places in a darkened bedroom. Discovering how she has been betrayed, Sissy flees the house and almost perishes in the snow. Meanwhile, Frank has killed again, in the course of robbing a cache of antique watches, which will be sold to a German officer.
Frank is at last picked up by the authorities, not for the killings he has committed, about which nobody seems to care in the least, but because of his tenuous connection with the German officer, who, it turns out, has paid for the watches with money stolen from official sources; Frank is suspect also due to the fact that one of the girls working for his mother is found to be a member of the resistance on the run.
These details are of scant interest to Frank. In imprisonment, interrogation and torture, he has found a sort of holy task, a ritualized process of atonement and even — although neither he nor Simenon would dream of using the word — redemption. As the days and weeks of his incarceration go on, he descends deep into himself. It is an existential journey, and along the way he comes to understand himself and the impossible predicament in which he is caught — not the predicament of being a prisoner but, on the contrary, of being free, the most burdensome state of all.
At the end, Holst and Sissy are allowed to visit him, perhaps in a devilish strategy to get him to confess. Sissy tells him, to his astonishment and joy, that she still loves him, but almost more important than her declaration of forgiveness is the moment when Holst “laid his hand on Frank’s shoulder exactly as Frank had always known a father would.” After that, death for Frank is a mere incidental, a supererogatory closure to a life already completed.
What Frank wants, as Vollmann points out, is to be known: “He scarcely knows himself, or anything else worth knowing. But if he can somehow stand revealed to the gaze of the Other, then maybe he will achieve some sort of realization.” What makes the book so harrowing, however, is that at the culmination of this search for authenticity, despite Holst’s paternal gesture and Sissy’s vow of love — Vollmann suggests, and surely he is right, that the prison visit by Holst and Sissy is the one false note in the book — what Frank discovers is that even authenticity itself is no great thing.
Unlike Joyce, who boasted of being nowhere to be found in his work yet is everywhere plain to see in it, Simenon really does manage to seem a disinterested observer, standing apart from the world he created, paring his fingernails. Still, in the atmosphere of Dirty Snow, sweaty and soiled and rife with insinuation, we might be permitted to detect a hint of the mauvaise conscience of a writer who lived in France contentedly enough through the occupation and at the war’s end found himself accused of collaboration, so that, although the collaboration charges were eventually dropped, he had to flee to Canada, later moving to the United States.
In Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, first published in 1946, the protagonist, François Combe, a famous Parisian actor in his late 40s, who has fled to America after a scandalous and shaming breakup with his actress wife, is a scarcely disguised self-portrait. In a Manhattan bar, Combe encounters Kay Miller, a Viennese expatriate living in America pretty much by her wits, and falls for her, altogether despite himself. Miller for her part is undoubtedly a portrait of Denyse Ouimet.
Through the bars and the night streets of the city, and the three bedrooms of the title — the first is in a cheap hotel, the second is Combe’s rented bolthole, the third is Miller’s room in her shared apartment — the two stumble, through serious emotional obstacles, including Combe’s violent jealousy and Miller’s emotional fecklessness, into a love that seems to leave Combe as much dismayed as happy. In her NYRB introduction, Joyce Carol Oates accepts the book as a fictionalized memoir and sees Simenon, “master of irony ... overcome by wonder at what is happening to him, succumbing to romantic infatuation in jaded middle age.”
The urge to flee life’s embroilments and disappear into anonymity, common to many men and at least to some women, is an obsessively recurring theme in Simenon’s work. Nowhere is it worked out more neatly or more persuasively than in Monsieur Monde Vanishes. Norbert Monde — Simenon has a wonderful way with names — is a cautiously successful Parisian businessman running the brokerage and export firm founded by his grandfather. On the morning of his 48th birthday — the same age, not incidentally, as François Combe in Three Bedrooms, and as the writer himself just after his marriage to Denyse Ouimet —Monsieur Monde has his barber shave off his moustache, withdraws 300,000 francs from his bank account, exchanges his tailor-made suit for an anonymous secondhand outfit and walks out of his life without a word to anyone.