NYRB Classics, 2007
originally published 1933 as Les Fiançailles de M. Hire
translated by Anna Moschovakis
"... his eyes never left the superintendent's face. Indeed they were fixed on it, with the expression of a beaten animal, wondering why men are so cruel."
The Engagement is not really a "crime fiction" novel, per se, but an unseen crime is what sparks all of the events in this tragic story, so I have no qualms about posting about the novel here. Simenon, of course, is more widely known for his Maigret novels (a whopping 75 total), but he also wrote several bools he called "roman durs" ("tough" novels) which are much more serious both "in tone and intent" than his series novels. According to David Carter in his The Pocket Essential Georges Simenon (which I highly recommend if you're planning to read any Simenon novels in the future), "roman durs" was the term Simenon used "to refer to all those novels that he regarded as his real literary works." I've seen them referred to as psychological novels, but unlike most writers, Simenon doesn't have to spend a lot of time dissecting the motivations of his characters here, nor does he have to enter deeply into their respective heads in any drawn-out way -- his sparse writing style actually heightens the overall effect of the story.
In The Engagement, the murder of a call girl in the Villejuif area of Paris has more than a few people on edge. The murder itself is not an event in this novel, but what happens to the protagonist of this novel, M. Hire, is based on fallout from the fear surrounding the killing. It all begins when the concierge of M. Hire's apartment building spies a bloody towel on his washstand while delivering mail, and she makes the leap that M. Hire must be the murderer, setting this story in motion. From that point on, M. Hire's daily life is scrutinized unceasingly, except at night in the privacy of his apartment, when he watches the beautiful red-haired woman in the apartment across the way. However, everything changes for M. Hire when one night he realizes she is watching him as well.
This book is quite simply outstanding -- not just for the story but also because of how Simenon constructed the story. For example, even though M. Hire, a definite loner, spends quite a bit of time alone in his room, it is really when he is out among others that his unremarkable, solitary existence becomes most evident. He sits in a crowded tram in the same seat every day, doesn't look around at the other people, reads during his time on the train and while walking through the station, sits quietly alone at a cafe
"watching the people go by: more and more of them, the thousands who walked, ran, stopped, caught up with each other, passed each other by, yelled and whispered..."At the same time, as I read into the book it dawned on me that it's not only M. Hire who is the focus here -- Simenon is also offering a look at the people who exist within M. Hire's orbit, both individually and collectively as "the crowd." To me, this is the absolute genius of this novel -- and this technique definitely pays off in the final scenes. And throughout the entire book, the reader feels the confines of Simenon's near-claustrophic settings: the cold winter, the buses and trams crammed full of people, the busy train stations, the crowds on the streets.
What will strike anyone who's familiar with Simenon's Maigret and then reads this novel is the huge difference between the two. The series novels tend to work toward a solution, have a policeman as a main character who cares about some sort of justice and has definite clues to follow. Here, Simenon sort of turns the roman policier on its head, and the result is one of the best books I've read in a very, very long time. The reader reviewers who complain about "no action," or how "this is not Maigret" obviously missed something here. While The Engagement is sometimes tough to read on an emotional level, overall it is a beautiful book that should be (imo) on everyone's reading list. Most especially recommended for people who prefer reading about people over plot.