Authors: Georges Simenon
GEORGES SIMENON (1903â1989) was born in LiÃ¨ge, Belgium. His father was an insurance salesman, easygoing and unambitious; his mother, an unhappy, angry woman whose coldness and disapproval haunted her son. Simenon went to work as a reporter at the age of fifteen and in 1923 moved to Paris, where under various pseudonyms he became a highly successful author of pulp fiction while leading a dazzling social life in the company of his first wife and such lovers as the American dancer Josephine Baker. (He is said to have broken up with Baker because their affair was a distraction: he had produced a mere twelve novels in the year.) In the early 1930s, Simenon emerged as a writer under his own name, gaining renown for his detective stories featuring Inspector Maigret. He also began to write his psychological novelsâbooks in which he displays his remarkable talent for capturing the look and mood of a place (whether West Africa, the Soviet Union, New York City, or provincial France) together with an acutely sympathetic awareness of the emotional and spiritual pain underlying the routines of daily life. Simenon remained in France throughout the Second World War, at the end of which he was accused of collaboration with the Germans; though quickly cleared of such charges, he moved to America, where he married his second wife and lived for close to a decade, returning to Europe in 1955. Having written nearly two hundred books under his own name and become the best-selling author in the world, whose stories had served as the inspiration for countless movies and TV shows, Simenon retired as a novelist in 1973, devoting himself instead to dictating memoirs that filled thousands of pages: “I consider myself less and less a writer â¦ All this is nothing but chatter â¦ Since dictating has become a need, so to speak, I will dictate every morning whatever comes into mind â¦ I would like to be able to be silent.”
WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN was born in Los Angeles in 1959 and attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University. He is the author of many works of fiction, long and short, including
The Royal Family, You Bright and Risen Angels, Whores for Gloria
The Rainbow Stories
, as well as an ongoing series of seven novels, collectively entitled
Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes
, about the collision between the native populations of North America and their colonizers and oppressors. (Four volumes have been published so far:
The Ice-Shirt, Fathers and Crows, Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith
.) Vollmann has also written two works of nonfiction:
An Afghanistan Picture Show
, which describes his crossing into Afghanistan with a group of Islamic commandos in 1982, and
Rising Up and Rising Down
, a treatise on violence. He lives in California.
Translated from the French by
WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
for a chance event, what Frank Friedmaier did that night wouldn't have had much meaning. Obviously Frank couldn't have foreseen that his neighbor, Gerhardt Holst, would pass him in the street. But Holst did pass by, and he recognized him, too, which changed everything. And yet that, and all that later followed, Frank accepted.
That was why what happened that night by the tannery wall was very different, both then and in the future, from, for example, what losing his virginity had been like.
Because at first that was how Frank thought about it, and the comparison amused and disturbed him at the same time. Fred Kromer, his friendâthough Kromer was already twenty-twoâhad killed someone again last week, coming out of Timo's. Just a few minutes earlier, Frank had also been at Timo's. Now he stood waiting, pressed against the tannery wall.
But did Kromer's dead man really count? Kromer had been heading toward the door, buttoning his coat with his usual air of importance, a big cigar between his thick lips. He was shiny. He was always shiny. He had thick coarse skin like an orange's, skin that always seemed to be sweating.
Someone had compared him to a young bull that never got enough. At any rate, it was something sexual that his heavy shiny face, moist eyes, and full lips brought to mind.
A skinny little man, pale and feverish like so many others you saw, especially at night, had stupidly blocked Kromer's way. You wouldn't have thought he had enough money to be at Timo's, by the look of him. Taking hold of Kromer's fur collar, he had begun to yell.
What had Kromer sold him that he wasn't happy about?
Very dignified, puffing on his cigar, Kromer had pushed him aside. But the hungry little man, perhaps because he wanted to impress the woman he was with, had followed him out onto the sidewalk, shouting.
In Timo's street, people weren't much startled by shouting. The patrols passed by that way as seldom as possible. Still, if one of their cars did happen to go by somewhere near, then they would be sure to stop to see what was going on.
“Go home!” Kromer had said to the gnome, who had a head too large for his body and a crop of bright red hair.
“Not before you hear what I have to say â¦”
If you had to listen to everything people wanted to say, you'd find yourself in the loony bin before long.
Was the redhead drunk? He looked more like he was on drugs. Perhaps Kromer had gotten them for him, and they'd been stepped on one time too many. It didn't matter anyway.
Kromer, in the middle of the dark alley between the two banks of snow, took the cigar out of his mouth with his left hand. He punched with his right, just once. Then two arms and two legs were in the air, just like a marionette, and then the black form sank down into the pile of snow along the sidewalk. The strangest thing was that there was an orange peel beside the headâsomething you probably wouldn't see anywhere in town except in front of Timo's.
Timo came out without his overcoat or cap, dressed just as he had been at the bar. He poked the marionette and stuck out his lower lip.
“He's had it,” he growled. “In an hour he'll be stiff.”
Had Kromer really killed the redhead with a single punch? That's what he wanted people to believe. The little runt wouldn't say one way or the other. At the suggestion of Timo, who wasted no time, he had been carried some two hundred yards away and dumped in the Old Basin, where the sewers drained and kept the water from freezing over.
So Kromer could claim he'd killed his man. Even if Timo was right, even if the marionette, which had had to be tossed into the air over a little brick wall, hadn't been quite dead.
Proof that Kromer didn't attach too much weight to the incident was that he continued to tell the story of the strangled girl. Only that hadn't happened in town or anywhere anyone knew. There was no evidence. And in that case, anyone could boast about anything.
“She had big breasts, practically no nose, and blue eyes,” he always said.
On these points he never varied. But he added fresh details each time.
“It was a barn.”
Okay. But what had Kromer, who'd never been a soldier and hated the countryside, been doing in a barn?
“We were going at it in the straw and the whole time bits of straw kept tickling me and making me mad â¦”
Kromer always told the story while chewing on his cigar and staring straight ahead with an absent look, as though out of modesty. Another detail that never changed was something the woman said.
“I want you to get me pregnant.”
He claimed it was this remark that had started everything. The idea of having a child with that stupid, dirty girl he was kneading like a piece of dough had seemed grotesque, unacceptable.
And she had kept getting more tender and clinging.
He had reached a point where, without closing his eyes, he could see the monstrous head, blond and pale, of what would have been his and the girl's child.
Was it because Kromer himself was dark and hard as a tree trunk?
“It disgusted me,” he always concluded, letting his cigar ash fall.
He was good. He knew what gestures to use. His little mannerisms made him interesting.
“I thought it safer to strangle the mother. That was the first time. And let me tell you, it's very easy. Not in the least upsetting.”
It wasn't just Kromer. Everybody at Timo's had killed at least one manâin the war or wherever. Perhaps by informing on someone, which was the simplest way. You didn't even have to sign your name.
Timo, who didn't brag about it, must have killed piles of people, or else the Occupation authorities wouldn't let him stay open all night without bothering to check on what was going on. Even though the blinds were always closed, even though you had to come through the alley and say who you were before you were allowed in, they weren't so stupid as not to know.
Losing his virginity, his actual virginity, hadn't meant very much to Frank. He had been in the right place. Others made it a story they still talked about years later, adding flourishes like Kromer did with the girl he strangled in the barn.
And for Frank, who was nineteen, to kill his first man was another loss of virginity hardly any more disturbing than the first. And, like the first, it wasn't premeditated. It just happened. As though a moment comes when it's both necessary and natural to make a decision that has long since been made.
No one had pushed him to do it. No one had laughed at him. Besides, only fools let themselves be influenced by their friends.
For weeks, perhaps months, he had kept saying to himself, because he had felt within himself a sort of inferiority, “I'll have to try â¦”
Not in a fight. That would have been against his nature. To have it count, it seemed to him, it would have to be done in cold blood.
Now the opportunity he'd been waiting for had presented itself. Was it because he had been on the lookout for it?
They'd been at Timo's, at their table near the bar. Kromer was there in his coat that he kept on all the time, even in the hottest places. And with his cigar, naturally. And his shiny skin. And his huge eyes that seemed almost bovine. Kromer must have thought he was made of different clay from everyone else, since he never bothered putting his money away in a wallet. He just stuffed the bills, big crumpled wads of them, into his pockets.
There was a man with Kromer Frank didn't know, someone from another crowd, who introduced himself to Frank by saying, “Call me Berg.”
He must have been at least forty. Cold and mysterious. He was somebody. The proof was that Kromer's manner toward him was almost fawning.
Kromer told him the story of the strangled girl, but without making a big deal of it, as though it were unimportant, just a funny story.
“Frank, look at the knife my friend here just gave me.”
Kromer took the knife out of his warm coat, like a jewel that seems even more impressive because it's taken from a rich jewel case. He laid it on the checkered tablecloth.
“Feel that edge.”
“Can you read the trademark?”
It was made in Sweden, a knife with a folding blade, so pure of line, so sharp, that you got the feeling the blade was actually intelligent and could find its way all by itself into someone's flesh.