Three Bedrooms in Manhattan
by Georges Simenon
The prolific Simenon (and I really do mean prolific with almost 200 novels and 150 novellas just part of his output) is best known as the creator of Belgian detective Maigret, brought to life by mumble-meister Michael Gambon (amongst others) on the small screen. I was intrigued by the prospect of reading something more autobiographical and the trusty NYRB colophon gave me the confidence to pick up this slim-ish volume, a fictionalised account of his affair with Denyse Ouimet, a woman who was 17 years his junior and whom he later married after divorcing his first wife.
In this telling the author casts himself as a famous actor, François Combe, who has fled Paris for the US to escape his past, much as Simenon did himself in the wake of allegations of collaboration with the Germans during the war, although in this case it is the humiliation of his wife leaving him for a younger man. He has been leading a rootless existence in New York, allowing his career to stagnate and drifting aimlessly amongst Manhattan's alienating streets, until one night he meets Kay in a diner. They begin to talk, François' impatience at the possibilities of this encounter causing him frustration.
She began to eat her eggs so slowly that it annoyed him. She stopped to shake pepper into the glass of tomato juice she had ordered...They had sat there a whole hour and still he knew nothing about her. It irritated him that she kept drawing things out.This may not be the most romantic of beginnings but it signals the tone of what is to come and they do leave the diner together to begin walking the streets at five in the morning, leaning on each other for support. They go to a bar, have a drink, listen to the jukebox, go out onto the streets again and it isn't long before they get themselves a room at a seedy hotel. It is the next day, when confronting the unknowable 'what next?', that we learn from François with what desperation they have thrown themselves together.
In his mind, they had already agreed to leave together, and her inexplicable stubbornness was cheating him of the little time they had.
What did he know about the future? They knew nothing about each other, even less than last night, perhaps. And yet had two beings, two human bodies, ever plunged into each other with such savagery, with such desperate fury?
They begin walking the streets again and François is immediately, absurdly jealous. Who has she walked these streets with before? This is just the first of many ways in which their accelerated relationship covers in just a few days what many lovers or couples would take months or even years to achieve. Much of this is driven by François' jealousy and in Simenon's unfettered prose he describes the motions and speech with which a couple love, hate and interrogate one another.
There were moments when he hated her and moments, like this one, when he wanted to put his head on her shoulder and cry.
He was tired but he felt relaxed. He waited, smiling a little, and she caught the smile and understood it, too, since she came over and kissed him for the first time that day, not greedily like the night before, not desperately, but very slowly bringing her lips close to his, hesitating before they touched, then pressing them tenderly together.
He closed his eyes. When he reopened them, he saw that hers were closed, too, and he was grateful.
Some moments are tender as above but others contain the violence and passion demanded by jealousy. Whilst in their concentrated form in this novel they can feel heightened they only come from that feature common, in some shape or form, to the beginning of any relationship: the desire to know someone, to know everything about them, the need to know everything before making that huge step of committing to them. François is relentless in his questioning of Kay, his interrogation about past lovers and relationships, his pursuit of truth which is destructive at the same time as it aims to bring them together. Simenon even allows this to grow in pitch into a moment of violence which might be honest but some readers may find distasteful.
The three bedrooms of the title, the hotel first followed by François' and then Kay's apartments, are like stages in their relationship, enclosed spaces where they can develop from desperation into comfort, companionship and trust. That then alters the exterior landscape. The cityscape that Simenon, with his European eye, has rendered so acutely is transformed into a much less forbidding place.
And everything he'd seen on his pilgrimage through this gray world, the little dark men bustling about under electric lamps, the stores, the movie theaters with their garlands of light, the butcher shops, the bakeries with their disgusting pastries, the coin-operated machines that played music or let you knock metal balls into little holes, everything the whole great city could invent to help a lonely man kill time, he could look at all that now without revulsion or panic.
I haven't even mentioned the strand involving François' friends attempts to lure him back into work or how an enforced split alters the trajectory of the two lovers and all of this occurs within the space of 150 pages. Simenon's treatment of his own tempestuous relationship is distilled into something pungent and powerful, worthy of the genre he ascribed it to - dur, meaning 'hard'.