New York Review Books: 560 pp., $17.95 paper
In 1941, a doctor told Georges Simenon that he had two years to live. The famously prolific author eventually learned the diagnosis was wrong (he died in 1989), but the experience prompted him to start filling notebooks with anecdotes about his childhood in Liège, Belgium to his then 2-year-old son. He showed the material to André Gide, who told him to start over in the third person. Five years later, "Pedigree" was published. Simenon went on to dismiss the label "autobiographical novel," but Luc Sante, who has written the excellent introduction to this reissue, isn't buying it — and I don't either. For the Mamelin household, read Simenon. For the character of Roger, read Georges.
At the center is a mother, Élise (read Henriette), tormented and tormenting, "a girl from the other side of the bridges, a girl who, when she was with her sisters, spoke a language nobody could understand" married to Désiré (Simenon didn't bother changing his father's name). A stolid insurance salesman, Désiré adores routine so much that he sometimes seems more mechanism than man. After news of a general strike, Élise trembles with alarm:
"What's going to happen, Désiré?"
"Why should anything happen?"
They are forever out of sync. Désiré thinks about his cigarette, his chair, patches of sunlight, his fingernail scratching frost on a window pane. But all Élise does is feel, pinging from pity to shame to spite to panic to envy. She has a terror of pending catastrophe and a pounding desire for it at the same time. It comes when the Germans invade.
Élise relocates the family to a new flat without asking Désiré. He doesn't protest. She takes in lodgers without asking. Again no protest. She sneaks her lodgers' food, skimps on their coal, lies about the bedbugs. She is truly astonishing in her capacity for fear and tyranny.
But Elise is not the only source of motion. There are the coals falling in the stove, the tram giving off sparks as it passes, gas jets being lit in a classroom. There is that tactile life so particular to Simenon, the constant prickling to the sensate world.
For the first third of the book, the author's alter ego is barely a presence, at least not one with an intelligence. Roger takes up physical space: Désiré dotes on him, Élise anguishes over him, the way she does over any object. Initially the boy has no detectable consciousness, but when it emerges — when he emerges — it's like lighting a lamp: A couple of flickers, and then a flame:
"A fly went by. A tram. Roger, when he was drunk with sunshine like this, could, if he wished, hear the fly as clearly as the tram. He could mix everything together, behind his lowered eyelashes, the spire of Saint-Nicolas, motionless against a violet background, the brass plate of the Friars' school, and the humps of the cobblestones surrounded by a trickle of water which bore witness to the morning's cleaning."
This is what makes Simenon such an extraordinary novelist: the way he can mix everything together; the way he collects sounds, smells and sights and inflects them with menace, arousal, comfort or some other abstract quality that becomes concrete on the page and blooms into a story. Among other things, "Pedigree" is a remarkable act of mixing memory and imagination, re-creating the textures, places and people the author had left behind.
Simenon dropped out of school, took odd jobs, worked as reporter and left Belgium for Paris after his father died in 1921. He started writing under a pseudonym. By the 1930s he was publishing the Maigret detective stories. The romans durs soon followed. His only return to Liège, decades later, was to fight a libel suit, one of many, that followed the publication of "Pedigree." He lost. The offending passages were removed. He had originally envisioned the book as the first of three volumes but abandoned that plan.
Young Roger doesn't remain half-dreaming forever. Maybe he would if he were only his father's son, more sensate than psychological. And though he comes to loathe his mother — her grasping pettiness, her cringing obsession with her "organs" — he is, without question, her child. He steals, lies, churns with vanity and longing, fuming at his cast-off clothes, his rich classmates. It may be his rebellion, but those are her tactics. Still, he gets further than she ever does.
Brown has written for several publications, including Bookforum and the London Review of Books.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun