Monday, February 21, 2011

Books I read: "Red Lights" by Georges Simenon; "Let the Great World Spin" by Column McCann

I spent the weekend reading one of Georges Simenon's American novels, Red Lights (Feux Rouges, 1953). The book is about a couple who quarrel on a road trip and are separated, each of them encountering, at different times, an escaped convict. As usual for Simenon's romans durs (or "hard" novels, a phrase he used to distinguish them from lighter genre fare, particularly his endless series of Maigret detective novels), the story is a tense psychological thriller, bearing down on the spirit of an ordinary man until he breaks.

Filled with mid-century period detail -- the casual practice (if not exactly acceptance) of drunken driving, the difficulty of interstate travel before the interstate highway system, the insanely manual nature of a long-distance telephone call, and the utterly strange mixture of casualness and strictness of the hospitals of the time -- the book is also a curiously off look at American culture. The Belgian author composed the book while living in the U.S. for several years between 1945 and 1955*, and he gets many things right, but there are also many other details which receive a weird emphasis or which are simply wrong. (Adding to the strangeness was the fact that the copy I procured was a British edition and contained an occasional British spelling, such as tyre.) But even though these missteps occasionally were jarring, I didn't really mind them because the pacing and plotting were so effective. A Simenon book is a universe unto itself, rendered in complete detail (and not a detail more than necessary); once inside, the reader surrenders all disbelief.

Just before this, I read another novel of American life by a foreigner, "Let the Great World Spin" by Column McCann, an Irish writer. While the book uses as its centerpiece the World Trade Center tightrope walk by Philippe Petit, none of the characters in the book, except for the judge in whose court he appears after the escapade, ever meets the acrobat. Instead they are people who watched it, or more often merely heard about it. Their lives, ranging from Bronx street hookers to a Park Avenue matron, are decidedly earthbound; the transcendence of Petit's feat is a major contrast.

Looked at from this perspective in 2011, these two books -- one set in the early 1950s, the other in the mid 1970s -- are both set in the long-ago past, and drew my attention to the amount of change that has occurred in the years since. Aside from McCann's excellent writing, which in its way is just as intense and insightful about the human spirit as the dark work of Simenon, I was very much struck by how much New York changed from 1974 -- during the depths of its gritty decay, pre-Saturday Night Live, pre-Times Square cleanup, pre-Yankees resurgence, pre-almost everything we associate with New York these days -- to today. Of course, the subtext is that it is also pre-Nine Eleven, but in drawing attention to the World Trade Center itself, not to mention hinting at the amount of planning and subterfuge that went into staging the tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, it foreshadows their identity as a backdrop for world historical events.

Finally, what struck me was the complete lack of reluctance of non-American authors to take on the American landscape. It makes me feel better about my portrait of Bangalore in my unpublished novel Mango Rain.

* This 1953 Paris Match article sets a profile of Simenon in the house where he lived when writing "Red Lights."

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