Feux rouges by Georges Simenon, Presses Pocket 1970:
Il appelait ça entrer dan le tunnel, une expression à lui, pour son usage personnel, qu'il n'employait avec personne, à plus forte raison pas avec sa femme. Il savait exactement ce que cela voulait dire, en quoi consistait d'être dans le tunnel, mais, chose curieuse, quand il y était, il se refusait à le reconnaître, sauf par intermittence, pendant quelques secondes, et toujours trop tard. Quant à déterminer le moment précis où il entrait, il avait essayé, souvent, après coup, sans y parvenir.
(He called it "going into the tunnel," an expression of his own, for his private use, which he never used in talking to anyone else, least of all to his wife. He knew exactly what it meant, and what it was like to be in the tunnel; yet, curiously, when he was there he never allowed himself to admit the fact, except for occasional brief instants, and always too late. As for determining the precise moment when he entered it, he had often tried to do this afterwards, but never with success. — translation by Norman Denny)
This is one of Simenon's American novels, written in 1953 when he was living at Shadow Rock Farm (the name!) in Connecticut. Nancy and Steve are driving out of New York for Labor Day to pick up their children from camp in Maine. The roads are crowded, the marriage is cracking up. They stop at a bar, Steve has a couple of drinks, and when he gets back to the car Nancy has walked out on him. Later, Steve gives a lift to a stranger who he realizes is an escaped convict. The stranger robs him; later it turns out that before Steve picked him up he had raped and beaten Nancy.
Thornton Wilder wrote to Simenon after it was published in the US:
Feux rouges is a powerful book. And secondarily a most brilliant one… Bravo! Bravo! Again, out of suffering, and out of suffering in the realms of the homely facts of everyday life, he has revealed beauty and moral radiance… Georges nous fait souffrir mais jamais inutilement. Il n'est pas le moins du monde sadique. Les souffrances que nous subissons — sont élargissantes!
(… Georges makes us suffer, but never pointlessly. He is not the slightest bit sadistic. The sufferings we undergo — enlarge us!)
The letter is quoted in Patrick Marnham's biography of Simenon, The Man Who Wasn't Maigret (1992); it wouldn't have occurred to me that Wilder and Simenon could have known one another. I think most readers would see the story as less uplifting, more ambiguous than Wilder allows.
Marnham thinks this is the most authentically American of Simenon's romans durs (the short, fast, hardboiled novels) — by the time he wrote it he had been living in the US for eight years. But Cédric Kahn's 2003 film version transplants it to France and my recollection is that it fits well. Is that because over 50 years France had taken on something of America, or was the Americanness always superficial, the book's mindset really European? One thing I remember about the film is how much I liked the way the soundtrack keeps being tugged back to Debussy: 'Nuages' from the Nocturnes, music about clouds and nighttime. The book is about alcohol, depression, sex and anger but the Debussy turns the film into a story about, beyond everything else, loneliness.
NYRB Classics has republished the translation by Norman Denny (who is best known for his Penguin Classics version of Les Misérables, which smooths a lot of difficulties, turns two chapters into appendices and cuts 100,000 words — some hate it, others love it). Here's the cover:
It's a still from a video by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana, called Trembling Time, which depicts the annual two minutes' silence to commemorate the dead of Israel's wars. Both she and the unnamed artist of the Presses Pocket edition depict cars as part phantom. It's annoying that the NYRB Classics version doesn't have actual red lights. The old French paperback is, I think, perfect. Artist unnamed; it cost me £4 from the basement at Pages of Hackney.