Like his literary inspiration, Honoré de Balzac, Georges Simenon attempted to overwhelm life by dint of numerical superiority. A latter-day Comédie humaine, his work would capture turn-of-the-century France by probing it from as many angles as possible, albeit eschewing Balzac’s more detached, taxonomic approach for rough, existentialist mysteries. This method resulted in nearly 300 novels over sixty years, a remarkably prodigious, remarkably consistent body of work that required extremes of brevity and discipline. In a 1955 interview with The Paris Review he declared, “after I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel . . . it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t — its impossible . . . I am too tired.”
Granting that Simenon’s remarks are best seasoned with a grain of salt, there is little doubt that his method was typified by short bursts of utter exertion. As he further explained to the Review, a break would be so ruinous to a work in progress that he cleared his schedule before writing and made certain to consult a doctor “because I have to be sure that I am good for the eleven days.” Knowing the strain it took to write, Simenon’s doctor rationed him out by prescribing rest time between bursts of productivity.
But then what to make of Simenon’s singular doorstop, the nearly 600-page Pedigree, completed in 1951? How to fit into an oeuvre of pebble-like pearls this cracked geode that not only triples the length of an average Simenon novel but also omits the author’s trademark noir for the mannered strife of domesticity and the innocence of childhood?
To be fair, Simenon couldn’t scrape every last bit of criminal intrigue from his truncated bildungsroman. Pedigree’s opening pages find its central character and stony-eyed matriarch, Élise Mamelin, pregnant to bursting and stepping into a back alley to adjust her garter. No sooner has she glimpsed her drunken brother Léopold and an unknown young man in the shadows than an anarchist’s bomb detonates, causing an afternoon’s worth of chaos. Were this a typical Simenon novel, we could expect Élise and Léopold to fall into a close two-step, inevitably complicated by the presence of the other man, the whole thing winding up about 200 pages later with a hard moral and an even harder ending. But here Élise’s brush with deviance gives way to far more prosaic concerns: wary as she is of blemishing her hard-won bourgeoisie respectability, Élise is intrigued by the chance to learn more about her Belgian childhood, and she forgets all about the bomb to host Léopold every afternoon while her husband is off earning the day’s bread.
It is a portentous way to begin an autobiographical novel about one’s childhood, but then Léopold fades from the picture, the energy Élise once spent on him now dedicated to money-hoarding schemes to free the family from its dingy apartment. This is the method of Pedigree. Its action seeps forward like a stream, first pooling around one piece of drama, then emptying from that hollow to fill the next. Simenon’s skill is to effortlessly build up each new incident from the remains of the prior, to imbue characters he will soon discard with the fullness of life in just a few short lines (and then to resurrect them, familiar but changed). He does it page after page with a simplicity that is both utterly charming and a bit too flat.
The book foregoes a strong plot to instead trace out the bird’s nest of relationships among the family and their neighbors over the first fifteen years of Élise’s son Roger’s life. Simenon claimed he wrote Pedigree so that his own son, Marc, could know the era surrounding his father’s youth, and, indeed, Pedigree was to be followed by a complete suite of autobiographical books forming a picture of early 20th-century Liège. The following books were never to written, however, as Simenon was spooked by a series of lawsuits lodged by individuals he identified by name in Pedigree. Thus the story is cut off at the Armistice, with the adolescent Roger just showing the first signs of a writing career.
Perhaps if the entire series had gotten written Roger would have become the center of a multi-generation family saga, but in its amputated state Pedigree is the story of Élise. She is a memorable — if not singular — example of the alternatively self-abnegating and domineering wife and mother, a woman obsessively driven by the belief that she has married poorly and come down in the world. Her stifled life of constant shame is counterpointed by Désiré, who walks home to eat his mother’s soup every Sunday and who is utterly content with the miserly, impoverished existence granted him by his work as a fire insurance adjustor.
The tragedy of the novel is that once Roger leaves his infancy, Élise’s youthful love for mild Désiré turns to bitterness, the happily borne deprivations of early adulthood turning to the recriminations of middle-age. By Roger’s adolescence, Élise has grown so hard that she is content to let Désiré drift into a stranger in order to become a governess to her own son. Yet Élise is far too emotionally destitute and powerless a character to seem in the least a villain. She is a depressive determined to get on with the hard work of life despite that she has no one — not even her drunken brother Léopold — to whom she feels safe baring her soul. It is touching to see her despondently wonder “Was there a race of human beings more sensitive than the rest, who suffered more and whom nothing could satisfy?”
The adult world of quiet desperation, scrounging, and, so often death, starkly contrasts with Roger’s world of constant discovery and possibility. In those moments where the child and adult worlds overlap but don’t quite intersect Simenon creates some of the book’s most lasting and emotive scenes. That is precisely what happens here, when Roger experiences the first recountable memory of his life as Élise casually references her miscarriage while talking with a friend:
“The worst of it all, you know, Julie, ever since my accident, has been the pains in my stomach. Sometimes, at night, I feel as if I was being torn up inside.”
Now this moment was to remain engraved for ever in a certain memory. Roger, who had just knocked over his bucket of gravel, had looked up at the bench. The picture he saw, the piece of life which offered itself to his gaze, the smell of the square, the fluidity of the air, the yellow bricks of the house on the corner — all the other bricks in the district were red or pink — Godard’s empty butcher’s shop on the opposite corner, the newly painted wall of the church club at the end of the Rue Pasteur, all that constituted his first conscious vision of the world, the first scene which would accompany him, just as it was then, through life.
His mother would always be that woman he saw from below, still dressed in black, in half-mourning as from today, with a lace collar around her neck, a jabot held in place be a locket and billowing over her chest, and lace at her wrists, a bare-headed woman with fair hair which curled and quivered in the March breeze.
He gazed at her. He listened. He tried to understand and his forehead creased.
Here we see Simenon’s penchant for precision of detail, as well as something of the energy and cubism of his sentences. Note how the one that starts out “The picture he saw” snakes from Roger’s perspective to an objective third-person, alighting in turn on the corner house, Godard’s butcher shop, and the church before dropping neatly back inside of Roger’s skull and concluding with that portentous remark about Roger’s future.
Pedigree abounds with defectless sentences like this, and they can be enjoyed for a good many hours, but amidst all this casual excellence one begins to want for the potent twists of Simenon’s best novels. Perhaps the book’s most finely wrought scene comes when Désiré’s mother dies ten days after the family celebrates a feast-day. Mother Mamelin cares for nothing but her children, and as she sits there contentedly watching her family revel during the feast-day, Simenon quietly tells us that this will be her last. With that knowledge we watch Élise fake a backache so that Désiré will leave early from the celebration that he loves and she loathes. Élise’s shame over her small act of revenge is magnified by the knowledge that she has spoiled Désiré’s last chance to be with his mother, and we must watch the agreeable Désiré bear it with an equanimity that is in no way fit to the weight of what Élise, unknowingly, has just done.
This dreary, utterly affecting scene is vintage Simenon — life’s horror brought home — yet these prickly moments are dulled by Pedigree’s flood of consistency. That is not to slight Simenon’s talent: it is certainly no mean achievement to write very good, continually entertaining prose for nearly 600 pages. But for all the writerly ease it displays, it leaves one hungry for the briefer works that were born out of those punishing moments of strain. Their narrowness of focus feels more appropriate to Simenon’s method and aims than this digressive, sprawling book.