Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Red Lights (Feux Rouges), by Georges Simenon

I'm on a bit of a New York Review of Books imprint kick lately. So much so that I recently joined the Good Reads NYRB Classics group in hopes that this would bump some of these great books up the list a bit for me. That idea has already paid off. But the idea of reading this roman dur from the great Simenon came through a slightly different channel, when I read fellow Good Reader James Henderson's brief review of the book. I was intrigued, because I had no idea that Simenon had written any novels that were not set in Paris or its environs, let alone in the U.S.

This novel came out here in 1953. It starts off on Labor Day weekend, when Steve and Nancy Hogan are preparing to leave New York and join the mad throngs heading to pick up their kids in parts north. For Steve and Nancy, the road leads to Maine.

As it's the nineteen fifties, they are of course going to have a drink first. For Steve, it's clear early on, that it's not going to be just one.

Simenon is pitch perfect on his mid last century American suburbanites. It's not a surprise in one sense--he lived for some years in Connecticut.  We are in Mad Men territory, of course, but Simenon's vision is less of an exaggeration than the television show. But the feeling rising in the heart of our protagonist is very similar to that of Don Draper, without the mysterious past (which Simenon's book reveals to be an unnecessary dramatic twist). Despite the good life that they have, Steve feels somewhat strangled by it, which comes out when he drinks as a nasty sort of antagonism towards his wife, who has risen to a position of somewhat greater stature than Steve's and which he resents.

I was somewhat surprised that Simenon chose to characterize Steve's hostility to Nancy as a rare thing, brought on by the end of summer and an uncharacteristic overindulgence in alcohol. His manner, though truthfully rendered, would seem to me to be more realistic as a more common occurence. However, perhaps this is just a different kind of pattern. In any case, although Steve's longing for a more manly, freer, life comes across as selfish and immature, it also comes across as authentic. Faced with his part in the annual automotive migration north, which will restore all to domesticity come the end of the holiday weekend, anyone would resent that feeling of being a mere cog in the great wheel. And it is really only when he falsely turns Nancy into the prime denier of his wishes for freedom that he begins to go very badly wrong.

I happened to watch Goodfellas for the first time in its entirety the other night. I  am not particularly interested in gangster flicks, so I was probably a bit overdue to appreciate this one. It was good, and I was struck by a similar longing in the main character to escape what he considered the pathetic life of the schnooks--the ordinary, law-abiding, slightly boring civilians who in the end he finds himself among despite all his intentions.

Steve's story takes him to a different place. But the question of how to escape the subjugation of self that is part of what civilized life asks of us is not really answered. I have a feeling Simenon didn't answer it for himself completely, either. Nor have we.


  1. On reflection there is actually a plot twist that is probably equivalent to Don Draper's secret, and it may strain the belief of those less credulous than I am.

  2. I have to open my mind a little to imagine Georges Simenon writing a character called Steve Hogan. But if Simenon opened his mind, I can, too, by god.

  3. I really think that if you did not know it was written by Simenon, well, you would not know it was written by Simenon.

  4. Yes, I think it does. Although some credit is probably due his translator in this case.

  5. You have intrigued me, too! And I like how one blog sends us to another!

  6. Thanks, Kathleen. I'm of two minds about the blog linkage, but I think I'll try to pursue it for awhile.

    I'm intrigued to read some more stand alone Simenon myself.

  7. Seana ,Wow what a splendid and insightful review.It appears that the "Hollow Men" seem to find misogny as their choice intoxicant after that great enabler.Best Alan

  8. Thank you, Alan. Misogny may not be the intoxicant of choice, but it is certainly the easiest to come by in a lot of cases.