What will people think when they see you reading the New York Review Books reprint of Georges Simenon’s novel The Engagement on the subway? That cover photo, a voyeuristic glimpse of a woman in her underwear, in grainy black-and-white, has a way of saying: Property of Loner Creep. At the same time, could there be a better badge of urbanity than a handsome NYRB paperback from an author at least canonical enough to be identified on the cover by last name alone?
That’s Simenon for you: Various early career pseudonyms notwithstanding, there was only one of him, which seems impossible given his more than 400 books—and his reconciliation of literary respectability and pulp delight. The books tend to be invitingly slender, possible to power through in a sitting, as you would with a movie. For these reasons, and also for reasons of statistical inevitability, the Simenon oeuvre has yielded a high incidence of film adaptations. Anthology offers a good bundle of them in the next three weeks.
Here’s how Simenon described the protagonist of The Engagement: “He was not fat. He was flabby. His volume was no greater than that of any ordinary man, but one sensed in him neither flesh nor bone, nothing but soft, flaccid matter, so soft and so flaccid that his movements were hard to make out.” To the extent that every filmmaker hopes for a choice lump of dough to work with, the ludicrously prolific late Belgian fiction-writer could be very obliging.
In 1989, the year Simenon died, director Patrice Leconte made that book his source for the film Monsieur Hire, one of the best in the Anthology lineup, with Michel Blanc as the man suspected of murder largely on account of being a Loner Creep. Sandrine Bonnaire is the woman in the window, with whose life his becomes intensely entwined. Although overlit in its late-’80s way, this psychologically penetrating movie is very dark indeed—as pitiless as it is timeless.
Another keeper, Cédric Kahn’s 2004 Red Lights, transposes Simenon’s traffic-clogged corridors of New York and New England into a stretch of France between Paris and Bordeaux, but maintains the unhinging that awaits a man and his wife after too long a drive and too many drinks. In 2007, The Man from London found Simenon taken up by the arty Hungarian miserablist Béla Tarr, with that director’s usual dilatory gloom-swirl of shadows and fog and melancholic accordion vamps—plus a killing, a suitcase of cash, and Tilda Swinton. By now something in the author’s style seems infinitely translatable, an essential lingua franca between literature and film.
Simenon made his name with detective novels, and like every good fictional shamus, his laconic, pipe-puffing Commissaire Maigret somehow seems both bespoke and ready-to-wear. Harry Baur has the character down in Julien Duvivier’s atmospheric 1933 noir procedural A Man’s Neck, but so does Charles Laughton in Burgess Meredith’s hokier The Man on the Eiffel Tower, from 1949, whose opening credits bill “the City of Paris” as a co-star. It may be useful to note that both films derive from the same novel, at least until you further note that Maigret appeared in 74 other movies.
Beyond Maigret, there are more than a few tales of men living in comfortable ruts from which they find themselves frenziedly dislodged. Harold French’s 1952 film version of The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, then known as The Paris Express, stars Claude Rains as a perfectly bourgeois bookkeeper who finds his employer’s precious integrity abruptly voided. Existential degeneration ensues, and while the book has much better control of it than the film manages, Rains is electrifying.
After a harrowing war-footage overture, the first real scene in Pierre Granier-Deferre’s The Last Train, from 1973, has Jean-Louis Trintignant in a bucolic 1940 French village, listening to the radio. An announcer breaks in to report the German invasion: “Circumstances prevent us, understandably, from presenting our scheduled program, The Pleasures of Life.” And so it goes. Granier-Deferre, a frequent Simenon adapter, later celebrated “the ambiguity and ordinary madness of his characters which manifests itself at the least disturbance,” and that’s putting it mildly. Whichever of the books you choose for that subway read, just beware of losing yourself and coming suddenly to the end of the line.