Pedigree by Georges Simenon (trans. Robert Baldick). NYRB Classics. 543pp, $17.95.
At first it looks like the literary find of the year: a Georges Simenon novel that’s languidly paced, written largely from a female point of view, explicitly autobiographical. Except, it’s ultimately a little boring. At first glance, particularly for anyone who’s read the other Simenon romans durs published by New York Review Books over the last six years, Pedigree comes off like a fascinating change of pace; its heavily detailed Liège setting and relatively relaxed emotional tenor have their own unsettling effect, almost by default. Quite simply, I kept waiting for the interpersonal atrocities of Dirty Snow, The Widow, or Red Lights to appear. But Simenon hunts subtler game over these 543 pages. Pedigree still displays his unrivaled gift for depicting intimate cruelty, but its characters tend to stew in their own negative impulses rather than showering them violently upon others. Rather than showing, as in his other novels, how impulsive decisions can rend a person’s life apart, in Pedigree Simenon explores how our less immediately dramatic actions can temper and gnaw at our happiness and shape the lives of those around us.
Luc Sante’s able introduction illuminates exactly how autobiographical this novel was—so close to the factual record, in fact, that Simenon was sued for libel by many of his childhood acquaintances after the first edition ran. The author changed all the names, deleted entire passages and characters, and, in his words, “pruned my book of everything which could appear suspicious or offensive.” Tempting as it is to wonder what sprawling, spiteful masterpiece might have been lost to history, it’s hard to imagine that Pedigree—a more detached, clinical title than the project’s initial one, I Remember—would greatly improve from the inclusion of additional detail and spiteful characters. While certainly comparable in style and form to the masters of fin de siecle autobiographical European fiction, Proust and Joyce, Simenon bests either in his unromanticized depiction of childhood.
Take for instance the relationship between Élise and Désiré Mamelin, the stand-ins for Simenon’s parents. They emerge on the page totally devoid of the kind of sympathy we might expect from an introspective son, such that without the prior knowledge that these characters were purely the fruit of memoir and remembrance, it seems impossible that we’d expect as much. This is not to say that Simenon treats them cruelly, as he often did his maternal characters elsewhere; rather, they are rendered with such honesty and convincing flaws that they both, particularly Élise, completely lack the mythic quality often afforded to formative adults in coming-of-age novels. Roger, Simenon’s doppelganger, never balances on his father’s knee like Stephen Dedalus; nor does he hide under his grandmother’s voluminous skirts like Günter Grass’s Oskar Matzerath. Instead, Simenon’s narration remains relentless and omniscient, with no one safe from the authorial glare:
There was some black pudding on a plate, two or three Hervé cheeses under a glass cover, half-a-dozen tins of sardines, and some biscuits. Something was cut. Something was weighed. Then the brass tubes knocked against one another again and the street resumed its absolute calm.
That was what Désiré had not wanted.
To reward her sister for her complaints, Louisa went to get a box of cakes, a box she would never be able to sell because the mice had nibbled a corner of it.
This closing sentence is classic Simenon: Élise’s sister, to whom she confides her mounting depression and frustrated marriage, has schaudenfreude down to a brisk social gesture that itself is additionally pickled by cheapness. Their lunch together, a pathetic attempt by Élise to find some solace in her family, is expressed only through vague movements of nondescript food. Were it not for the insistent physical descriptions that pop up throughout this scene, as in all others, this terse interaction could take place in any of the far-flung settings that Simenon visited and wrote about in his shorter, harsher work. But it’s those same descriptions that ultimately rob Pedigree of the forward propulsion that Simenon is rightly celebrated for. His great gift was for wedding his characters’ internal desperation to their external circumstances; in a less hurried mode, that same desperation comes to feel grating and pointless.
How odd, for instance, to open the novel with the implication of political intrigue, only to abandon this tack altogether by its second half. In a masterful, moody set piece that simultaneously introduces Pedigree‘s major characters and Liège’s winding, lamp-lit streets, Élise walks through the city and notices not only her best friend and husband at work but also a couple of conspiratorial young men in an alleyway, one of whom resembles her estranged older brother, Leopold. Élise, “a frightened, unhappy little mouse,” is bowled over by Leopold’s sudden reappearance in her life, but before the shock fully wears off, a bomb destroys the downtown Grand Bazaar. And as if to pile on the thematic resonance, Roger is born later that night.
From this unlikely confluence, it appears that Simenon intends to tell a story about the overlap of a family’s history and future, while acknowledging the constant presence of socio-political turmoil and its effect on personal dramas. And for about a hundred pages, he follows all the characters—not only Élise and Leopold but the improbably affable Désiré and Leopold’s conspirator and friend Fèlix Marette—more or less equally. And then these various strands are just . . . left to dangle, as if Simenon changed his mind about Pedigree‘s structure as he went along. He was in fact famous for cranking out his shorter work in harrowing eleven-day productivity binges, following his stories wherever they led, but in his preface, Simenon states, “Pedigree was written neither in the same way, nor in the same circumstances, nor with the same intentions as my other novels.” By his own account, the structure of this work was more considered, or at least deliberate, than his shorter work, so why does it feel so ambling?
Not that he lacked for inspiration. Once Pedigree sheds its initial thematic power, it settles into an intimate character study of Élise, and this section is the most impressive rendering of early maternal emotion and experience I’ve ever read, by a man or woman. Élise’s medical worries, her stifling class-consciousness (a symptom of her relatively low-class Flemish upbringing), her disappointment with Désiré’s apparent lack of career ambition and her hatred of his family—all are expressed with diamond-sharp clarity, and Élise emerges as Pedigree‘s most sympathetic character, if not exactly its hero. Yet this mode too is eventually abandoned, for more familiar bildungsroman trappings: Roger grows up to despise his parents, reject the church, rebel at school, and fall in love with literature. We’ve been here before, in every sense.
If there’s a thematic or moral message behind Pedigree‘s progressively uninteresting alternations of focus, it was lost on me. Occasional glimpses of Simenon’s emotional directness do pop up, like this economical descriptive gem, concerning the Mamelins’ young lodger:
Mademoiselle had not changed. Élise could not stand her and yet she did not dare to throw her out; perhaps, indeed, she would have missed her, she was used to having this enemy installed in her house, giving her material, with her daily vexations, for morose reflections or silent feelings of revolt.
This is the essence of depression, an unblinking portrait of a woman so reliant on her own neuroses and ill will that she comes to crave unhappiness and value the company of people she hates. It’s the kind of thing we read Simenon for, but it’s also afloat in a sea of tactile description and exhausting plotting. You typically finish a Simenon novel feeling out breath but somehow invigorated. Here, in a steady marathon pace rather than a mad dash, he seems more focused and ambitious than ever, just not so desperately human.
John Lingan is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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