Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Monsieur Hire’s Engagement by Georges Simenon

Fails to engage until the very end
Specific estimates vary, but it is a fact that Belgian author Georges Simenon published at least a few hundred novels during his career. Cranking them out with such rapidity was no doubt a lucrative strategy while he was alive, but now that he’s gone the prolificity of his output makes it difficult to tell all his books apart, much less figure out which are worth reading and which are not. Most critics just seem to give up, as if all of Simenon’s books are of equal merit, and resort to an oft-quoted line from William Faulkner, who compared Simenon to Russian great Anton Chekhov. The fact that Simenon’s novel Monsieur Hire’s Engagement has spawned three film adaptations seemed a decent indication of literary quality, but this turned out to be not one of his better works. It was originally published in 1933 under the French title of Les Fiançailles de M. Hire and has also been published in English as Monsieur Hire or simply The Engagement.

In the Parisian suburb of Villejuif, a prostitute has been found murdered. In the eyes of the police and many denizens of the neighborhood, the primary suspect is Monsieur Hire, who occupies an apartment near the scene of the crime. A solitary bachelor, Hire is known to engage in shady business dealings and visit a prostitute himself on occasion. As the novel opens, the police have him under constant surveillance and shadow his movements around the city, hoping for some proof of his guilt. The reader doesn’t know whether Monsieur Hire committed the crime or not, but given Simenon’s penchant for criminal protagonists it is certainly a possibility.

The better part of the book chronicles the mundane comings and goings of Monsieur Hire’s lonely and depressing existence, as followed by the police. Hire barely ever says a word, and Simenon never really lets the reader inside his head. There is little to like about the man, and therefore little reason for the reader to care what happens to him. Hire repeatedly peeps through his window into a neighboring flat, where dwells an attractive woman whom he likes to watch undress. Since he’s described as flabby and unattractive, it is difficult to understand why a beautiful young woman would throw herself at him. Because Simenon allows him to display almost no personality, it is hard to believe that Hire has charmed the members of his local bowling club, among whom he is a popular guy. About two-thirds of the way through the book some interesting events start to happen, and the reader finally gains some insight into the mystery of the neighborhood murder. By that time, however, it’s a little too late to sympathize with such a character.

Simenon is best known for his Inspector Maigret series of detective novels, but Monsieur Hire’s Engagement is one of what he called his “romans durs.” These “hard novels” tend to be dark noir tales of crime, often with existential undertones reminiscent of Albert Camus or Franz Kafka. As in many Simenon novels, Monsieur Hire’s world is a futile and indiscriminately pitiless place where everyone gets worse than they deserve. The book is so relentlessly bleak that it becomes tedious. The final chapter, however, is quite surprising, and delivers the novel’s only memorable scenes. Monsieur Hire’s Engagement is the 20th Simenon novel I’ve read, and after a while they tend to blend in to one another, this novel being no exception. Of the romans durs I’ve read, the ones that I would recommend as outstanding are Dirty Snow and Tropic Moon.
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