Original title Le Pendu deSaint-Pholien, 1931. For comparison, here's the first Penguin edition of 1963, cashing in on the imense popularity of the BBC television series (today's Scandinavian crime phenomenon is the latest manifestation of our national predilection for Continentals as long as they're murdering each other):
We all like a classic Penguin Crime cover, and this one has some nice touches: the black border, the casual omission of the author's first name, the hint of a tricoleur; but it's generic. The modern version is just way more cool, which is presumably the point. Having read a couple of them — this one and the first, Pietr the Latvian — I'm beginning to unbend towards Maigret: some starchy, whodunnitish plotting is made up for by the seedy, strained atmosphere, the documenting of petit-bourgeois struggle and disillusionment. Around the same time, the early Thirties, American authors like James M. Cain were fusing the same elements into noir; but Simenon, to his credit, refuses the implied glamorization and stays gris.
Perhaps it's the new translations that have changed my mind (Pietr the Latvian was done by David Bellos, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien by Linda Coverdale): they have a terse, demotic flow that owes a lot to the American hardboiled tradition; though to be fair to the old translations, they occasionally hit the same sweet spot. But I suspect I'm just a sucker for smart packaging, trash dressed up as literature. The fly-leaves bear admiring quotations from heavyweights: Faulkner, Gide, Muriel Spark, A.N. Wilson (yeah yeah, middleweights as well). Simenon's original titles have been restored —Maigret and the Enigmatic Lettwas not an improvement on Pietr the Latvian — and while I can take or leave the typography, the moody cover photos are smartly picked. An odd thing about the one for The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, though: the story concerns a group of men tugged back to the scene of an ancient crime, in Liège in Belgium, Simenon's home town. Harry Gruyaert, who took the photo, is another Belgian, and he's produced a collection, Roots, precisely about going home to small-town Belgium; perversely, the photo Penguin used here was taken in small-town Morocco, in Ouarzazate. Still, the rusty colours and broken concrete, the shadows and solitude suit the atmosphere of mystery and poverty.
My solution to the problem of Maigret, by the way: stop reading 20 pages before the end — better yet, tear those pages out before you start. That way you're guaranteed the desirable enigma and stress without the distracting final neatness.
Here's a small treat: the only video I can find of the Rupert Davies Maigret.
(Granada did two series with Michael Gambon 20 years ago — those are available.)
The prose is dry and perfunctory, but sometimes revealing of the period — the book Minds and Machines isn't about computers, it's about "computing machines", inverted commas and all; that good old-fashioned word "gay" gets splashed about without a trace of self-consciousness. The range of books is startling by modern standards, with handbooks on growing dahlias and delphiniums, a guide to trade unions in post-colonial Africa, a study of the Hittites, a Puffin cut-out book of the Olivier Hamlet — "Mummy, Peter tore the head off my Felix Aylmer!" No, I'm not seeing it.
My friend George Morley believes that a good novel works as a map or a handbook to help you through life — this was à propos science fiction which, she maintains, fails as literature because it doesn't perform that function. Instrumental thinking about fiction can easily get reductive (vide Thomas Rymer on Othello: "First, this may be a caution to all maidens of quality how, without their parents’ consent, they run away with blackamoors. Secondly, this may be a warning to all good wives that they look well to their linen. Thirdly, this may be a lesson to husbands, that before their jealousy be tragical, the proofs may be mathematical"). And aren't there other functions a novel can perform? For example, SF can offer a way of criticizing our social arrangements, or asking questions about human nature.
But with all those caveats I kind of agree with George, and I thought of her while reading Richard Ford's Canada. Every so often the narrator, Dell Parsons, distils some lesson from his unhappy youth and, while there's no reason you should rely on Dell, it feels worth hanging on to:
"Still, it's something any person needs to do – to recognize the feeling when something around you isn't good, when there are threats – to remember that you've felt this sensation before, and that it means you're out on some empty expanse all by yourself and you're exposed, and caution needs to be exerted."
And right at the end:
"What I know is, you have a better chance in life – of surviving it – if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find. We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try."
"Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick."
First Penguin edition, 1963. No design credit, but Phil Baines, in Penguin by Design, credits it to Stephen Russ, and I'd have assumed it was him in any case. After a long gap, I thought it would be nice to pick up this series with an old friend.
"this selection has been made by the author from eleven booksofpoems; ten of them constituting a volume called Poems 1923-1954, while the eleventh (published in 1958) is entitled 95 Poems."
I was going to say that I'm in two minds about cummings but it would be more accurate to say that I am in one mind with reservations: he irritates the pants off me — because he thinks capitalization is beneath him, and because I hold him largely reponsible for the Mersey poets. And "booksofpoems" — what point am I missing?
Still, there are lines that sit in the memory: "i sing of Olaf glad and big", "how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death", "singing each morning out of each night / my father moved through depths of height", "And death i think is no parenthesis". Like Kurt Vonnegut, he gravitates towards a tone of highly ironized naivety, offering exaggeratedly round eyes and a suppressed giggle as a substitute for thinking; well, sometimes thinking gets in the way, though not all the time.
The cover conveys the idea nicely: what draws the eye is those childish blobs of colour, like beads on an abacus; but notice how crowded and agitating that black and red background is, the op art buzziness.
This copy was £5, which is pretty good, from the Old Station Pottery and Bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea. The flyleaf bears the name P. A. Thomson in a large blue italic hand. Presumably P.A. was responsible for the underlinings: "took bedfellows for moons mountains for friends // — open your thighs to fate and(if you can / witholding nothing)World,conceive a man"; "beware of heartless them / (given the scalpel, they dissect a kiss; / or, sold the reason,they undream a dream)". Random.
Views Quarterly, No. 10, Spring 1966. Five shillings (One dollar). I paid £3 from the box of old leftist magazines at Bookmarks on Bloomsbury Street.
The main attraction is the Dennis Potter script, and the accompanying discussion of the state of TV drama, but the rest of the magazine is worth a browse. In early 1966 Harold Wilson's Labour government had been in power for 18 months, having won the general election of October 1964 with a majority of five. The editorial that opens this issue talks of "the logic by which a compromised Government of very limited aims has sprung out of long years of groping, ineffectual, and morally incorerent opposition," and says that "Our Prime MInister stirred more blood when he was attacking Conservative failures in housing, social welfare, and poverty, than in asking us to trust his pragmatic judgment for the next five years." I don't know whether to file this under "Plus c'est la meme chose" or "Prophetic lesson".
Views is interesting for a couple of other reasons. One is that, despite having been run by a distinguished bunch, it seems to have left no trace: the editorial board has Richard Gott, Stuart Hall and Kenith Trodd, while the long roster of "contributing editors" includes James Cameron, John Gittings and Michael Walzer. The difficulty of finding out anything about it is partly a consequence of the title: typing "views" into Google gives you a lot of choices. I haven't spotted any references to it in online material about the leftwing groupings and groupuscules of the Sixties, though its editor, Sabby Sagall, was (and is) a presence on the left.
'Any of you got cats in your cells throw them out,' said Tiny. Two cats at the end of the block, thinking perhaps that Tiny had food, came toward him. One was big, one was little. Tiny raised his club, way in the air, and caught a cat on the completion of the falling arc, tearing it in two. At the same time another guard bashed in the head of the big cat. Blood, brains and offal splattered their yellow waterproofs and the sight of carnage reverberated through Farragut's dental work; caps, inlays, restorations, they all began to ache. He snapped his head around to see that Bandit had started for the closed door. He was pleased at this show of intelligence and by the fact that Bandit had spared him the confrontation that was going on between Tiny and Chicken Number Two: 'Throw that cat out,' said Tiny to Chicken. 'You ain't going to kill my pussy,' said Chicken. 'You want six days cell lock,' said Tiny. 'You ain't going to kill my pussy,' said Chicken. 'Eight days cell lock,' said Tiny. Chicken said nothing he was hanging on to the cat. 'You want the hole,' said Tiny. 'You want a month in the hole.' 'I'll come back and get it later,' said one of the other men.
It was half and half. Half the cats cased the slaughter and made for the closed door. Half of them wandered around at a loss, sniffing the blood of their kind and sometimes drinking it. Two of the guards vomited and half a dozen cats got killed eating the vomit...'
— Falconer by John Cheever, 1977
The reason for this: I have a vague idea that there is a lot of this stuff — cats in fiction are subjected to unimaginable pain and indignity; dogs get off lightly. Contributions or contradictions welcome. I'll keep posting any examples I come across.
She told him that these gulls took kittens from time to time, blind and newborn or just emerging into seeing, with milky marble eyes. The gulls took out the eyes at a swoop without even the mercy to devour the rest of the creature. His mother had dropped a stone on one such kitten, though it pained her to do so. The wee cat was mewing at the gulls. Their own kitten cries out of their hard screaming beaks mocked it. The kitten had been so surgically murdered that in every way it appeared new and hopeful but for its absent eyes.