January and February Reading, 2020: Simenon, Chandler, Evans, Markson

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January was largely taken up with Simenon – for a piece still forthcoming, for which I tried to read as much of the famously prolific novelist as possible. This was not an entirely rewarding experience. After all, which writer can you honestly binge-read to the extent of weeks and weeks of nothing but them? Bear in mind that your average Inspector Maigret novel is around 170pp long, and you can absolutely blaze through them, so unencumbered are they by much in the way of plot, description or linguistic complexity.

The fact that they are crime novels, that they mostly open with a murder, and are peopled by rough, tough types, don’t stop them being, essentially, soft reads. They are close to Barthes’ Degree Zero Writing. As books, they practically read themselves. This is a good thing, individually: the Maigrets are ideal comfort reads; you can pick them up in confidence that you know what you’re getting. In conjunction, in succession, this is not the case.

Simenon’s romans durs (straight or hard novels) are different. Without the broad, brooding humanity of Maigret – so long as you’re not Jewish, or eastern European, or female and ugly – they give off an acid, acrid stench. Their anti-heroes are nastier than Patricia Highsmith’s basically amoral villains.

So, reading lots of Maigrets back to back was not a particularly edifying experience – in my photo they’re represented by Maigret in Vichy: a fine example. It doesn’t help that Simenon seems to have got more slipshod in the later novels. Nowhere really do the books offer up an ‘extended universe’, beyond the dependable lode stars of Madame Maigret and the inspector’s closest colleagues at the Quai d’Orfèvres, but they do repeat themselves, and they get sloppy. I will go on reading them, and acquiring them in their lovely new Penguin editions, and I will seek out more of the non-Maigrets, but by the time I filed my piece I was desperate for something sparkier, something punchier, something with more heart and mind. I turned to Raymond Chandler, thinking I could make do with one story from Pearls a Nuisance, but actually reading all three of them: the title story, ‘Finger Man’, and ‘The King in Yellow’.

Oh, Chandler is such a joy. Like Simenon he knew well enough to make his hero(s) good, honest men with gruff exteriors, knights in tarnished armour. Like Simenon, he knew that we don’t want Poirot or Holmes-style clever-clever cryptic crossword mysteries; we’re quite happy to tag along behind the detective, picking up clues with them. Bad guys are usually pretty obvious, after all. Most murder is decidedly uncryptic. Unlike Simenon, however, Chandler is a delicious prose stylist, who would never settle for Degree Zero. (He is so even in ‘Pearls are a Nuisance’, in which the first-person private dick protagonist talks like a Dulwich College stuffed-shirt, rather than a laconic, tooth-pick chewing gumshoe; when called on it, he answers:

‘I cannot seem to change my speech, Henry. My father and mother were both severe puritans in the New England tradition, and the vernacular has never come naturally to my lips, even while I was in college.’)

But it’s not just the case of a way with a particular vocabulary. The is a splendid sharpness to the narration in terms of what is told, and what is not. Here is a paragraph from ‘Finger Man’, in which the hero, another standard-issue private eye, comes back to his office to find a client, a standard-issue femme fatale, in his waiting room.

I unlocked the other door and she went in and sat in the chair where Lou had sat the afternoon before. I opened some windows, locked the outer door of the reception room, and struck a match for the unlighted cigarette she held in her ungloved and ringless left hand

The ‘ringless’ is a good detail, but you’d expect that from a private eye. It’s the fact of how that unlit cigarette comes right at the end of the paragraph, like the verb in a German sentence, and the way it sits there, patiently, on the page, shows us that she’s been sitting there like that for a while – for the time it takes him to lock the door and open the windows – waiting for him to light it, in the way of femmes fatales down the ages. And it only takes a second look at that sentence to realise (or guess, if you’re being picky) that he, the private eye, had spotted the cigarette, there in her hand, just as he spotted the ring, at some point in his tour of the office windows, and left her there, waiting, while the rest of the sentence rolled itself out. It’s not narrated, but it’s there.

Chandler is, for me, rock-solid (pillow-soft?) comfort reading, as is Maigret. (Not the others, the romans durs; they’re dis-comfort reading.)

But February had been so full-on, that comfort reading was all I wanted.

Big books I’ve picked up over the past few weeks, that I put down, variously unfinished, over the past 15 years: The Pale King, The Man Without Qualities, Ducks, Newburyport, Proust. I picked them up, and put them all back down again. (As March started I did pick up Proust again. You can follow my interrupted reading of it on a Twitter account here.)

Instead I picked up Wed Wabbit, by Lissa Evans, hand-sold me by the good people of The Alligator’s Mouth in Richmond, where I had taken a group of creative writing students. Oh, what a lovely book: what a lovely presentation of older/younger-sibling love/hate; what a clever narrative, in part in the way that it makes use of tropes of children’s television (it’s Teletubbies meets Boobah); and what a warm, accomplished ending. I knew I’d cry, and I did – in part because the book demanded it, in part because my own boys are now too old to have it read to them. But I intend to steal it into their reading piles somehow. It’s too good to miss out on due to the happenstance of birth.

Still unable to settle on a big novel, I turned to David Markson, as I have done before.

Vanishing Point is the third of his final four books, and the second of that quartet that I’ve read. (The order is: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel.) I bought This is Not a Novel years ago, and was confused by it. It took his earlier Wittgenstein’s Mistress for me to understand his modus operandi. That one, at least, has the vestige of a novel structure: it is the ramblings and recollections of a woman who either is or believes herself to be the last person alive on earth. It is quite simply one of my favourite ever books. It is a sublime achievement, a kind of vade mecum for all of humanity. It should have been sent out onboard Voyager along with the Golden Record.

The books that follow it strip away a sense of narrative to become a sort of commonplace book of facts about great artists interwoven with reflections of the author’s own mindset and mortality. There is a bit of A House’s pop song ‘Endless Art’ about it, in that most of the artists mentioned are men, and there is an obvious Western bias to it, but the prevailing mood of irony and the frailty of life hopefully mitigates against that. I love Markson’s distinctive syntax (these four exemplary entries coming on page 17):

Ingram Frizier, who stabbed Marlowe, pleaded self-defense and went unpunished.

Superb administrative talent, Kafka’s superiors at the insurance company said he possessed.

Brahms so respected Dvorák as a colleague that he several times willingly assumed the chore of reading proofs of his scores for him.

Typewriter ribbons, too, Author finds it harder and harder to locate.

Occasionally, underlining his point with a repetition:

From the earliest biographical note on Rembrandt:
He could read only the simplest Dutch. And that haltingly.

Rembrandt.

There could be very little to this, beyond a sense of the greatness of art reduced to a kind of warm bathos, but then things do weave together in more meaningful way towards the end: the vanishing point, of course, is death.

The ending shows a kind of organisational cleanness that I saw also in Tim Etchell’s story ‘Strange Weather’, which won the Manchester Fiction Prize 2019, and for which I was a judge. You can read the story, and the others on the shortlist, here. Look what happens towards the end. Not disintegration loops, but evaporation loops. That’s kind of what happens at the end of Vanishing Point.

It’s comfort reading, then, in terms of the simplicity of diction. And the reassurance of content: that life is long, and artists suffer, but all of this can be boiled down to something small enough to put in your pocket, or hold in your hand: a button or a coin or a stone you can rub, for reassurance.

I can imagine the book will work as a kind of comfort, if I’m lucky enough to see my own vanishing point approaching.

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