Three Bedrooms in Manhattan,
by Georges Simenon
Translated from the French by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman, with Introduction by Joyce Carol Oates
New York Review Books, $12.95
Reviewed by Rick Skwiot
Although the late Georges Simenon (1903-1989) may well be the best selling novelist ever, relatively few American readers know him. And if they do, it’s likely for his Parisian Inspector Maigret detective series.
However, Europeans know him well. They even call any compressed, economically written and tense psychological novella of obsession a simenon, after the Belgian-born writer. This newly released edition of his searing 1946 novel of sexual obsession and isolation, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates, fits the category perfectly.
In it a dissolute French actor François Combe, stranded and sleepless in his New York room after a devastating split with his wife, chances to meet Kay Miller in an all-night Greenwich Village diner. Kay, another European, Viennese, and likewise rebounding from a broken marriage—hers to a Hungarian diplomat—echoes Combe’s loneliness and decadence. Together they walk: from seedy bar to seedy bar swilling whiskey, chain-smoking, revealing bit by bit pieces of their broken pasts, and eventually succumbing to a sexual frenzy, all of which leads eventually to a type of desperate love.
In the hands of a less deft writer, such a story might melt into melodrama or dissolve into a weak, predictable cliché. But here, as always, Simenon rejects sentimentality, infusing his taut story with a sordid tension in a dreary, mechanistic world where loneliness and isolation ironically thrive amid throngs.
Simenon wrote his novels (some 400, which have sold over 200 million copies in scores of languages) in grueling two-week immersions into his characters, taking himself to the edge of physical and emotional exhaustion. With this novel the emotional cost must have been heavy, as it mimics his impassioned affair with Denyse Ouimet, whom he met in Manhattan in 1945 and who, five years later, after he divorced the current Madame Simenon, would become his wife.
When so submerged in a novel, Simenon pushed himself to write a chapter a day—a practice reflected in this novel, whose chapters generally run some 15 pages: a day’s work. But it’s the quality, not the prodigious quantity, of his output that causes it to endure.
The lean prose; the simple declarative sentences (or sentence fragments); the absence of metaphors, modifiers and writerly ostenation mark his simenons. He once remarked that he had learned from the French short story writer and editor Colette to eschew literary affectations. So, in writing, he cut “adjectives, adverbs and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it…cut, cut, cut.”
Simenon’s spare written words carry weight. An admirer of impressionist artists, he strove to give his novels a third dimension and fullness, as those artists did to their paintings. Like the pointillist Georges Seurat, who painted in discrete dots that took shape and value at a distance, Simenon, who once described himself as a pointillist writer, uses staccato sentences and short paragraphs with few transitions.
Yet somehow, in reading, it all blends together to form a vibrant, believable and often chilling whole. Mere words don’t get in the way of the emotional experience being conveyed by them; the dream that Simenon creates remains unbroken by any egotistical authorial intrusion.
Indeed, at times the emotion experienced by the reader grows so intense that it is painful to turn the page. When Kay leaves to visit her ailing daughter in Mexico City and Combe latches onto (or is latched onto by) a beautiful girl in the Ritz bar, the reader cringes at the string of misjudgments Combe then makes, apparently fateful errors that seem certain to lead him into a self-destructive sexual encounter.
But as always—even in his mystery novels—Simenon never judges and never averts his piercing gaze from the most sordid and depraved human actions, the weakest and most human failings. His is a decadent world, where wives betray their husbands with young gigolos, where mothers abandon their daughters for money, where strangers have sex in taxicabs and cinemas, where men inexplicably beat the women they love.
His world is also one of seeming meaninglessness, where true human contact and communication appear nearly impossible. Where men and women alike are driven to despair and destruction by inner compulsions that defy logic and undermine their own happiness.
Yet here, for once, as Combe and Kay move from a cheap hotel to his rooms to her bedroom, they achieve a sort of connection, remarkable if only for its honesty. Somehow Simenon has created a romantic novel without romantic moments, a moving love story devoid of loving acts.