THREE BEDROOMS IN MANHATTAN (1946) by Georges Simenon

Simenon-Three-BedroomsRecently reprinted with an appreciative intro by Joyce Carol Oates, this is one of Simenon’s ‘Romans durs’ – that is to say, a mainstream stand-alone fiction that does not include Maigret (though some of his subalterns occasionally appear). Instead we get a ‘harder’ depiction of people and their failings in the Noir tradition. Originally published in French as ‘Trois Chambres à Manhattan’ it tells the anguished story of a pair of malcontents who find a very tortured kind of love. It is said to be closely modelled on how the author met his second wife …

I submit this review for Tuesday’s Overlooked Media meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“It was an odd sensation. She was speaking he was moved by what she was saying. But not for a moment did he lose his clarity of mind. he said to himself, She’s lying!

Francois is living on his own in a small, dingy flat in Greenwich Village. He was once the toast of Paris, one of its most popular actors. But suddenly he left it all behind and he has been in New York for the last six months. One night at a restaurant he runs into Katherine, an American brought up in Europe, known to her friends as Kay. They spend the evening together going from one restaurant and bar to another before heading to a small hotel to spend the night together too. As they begin a passionate, tortured affair, we learn why he left Paris and why she was on her own that night looking for shelter – but can she be trusted? Why is it so hard for them to express the emotions that dominate them? Why does she lie about so much? Just how many lovers, children and ex-husbands does she really have in her life? And will both be able to cast off the shadows of their respective pasts, which so haunt them, and make a new start? Things come to a head when Kay has to leave the country and Francois, in despair, starts an affair with June, a sweet young woman he only just met.

“They were hardly man and woman. They were two beings who needed each other.”

This brief novel was lent to me by my good friend Josephine with an accompanying frown – she is not usually a Maigret fan anyway but had liked some of Simenon’s other non-series books and thought this would be another good one. However, she found this disappointing. I think I know why, as it is very small, compressed and claustrophobic (there are really only the central pair and a handful of peripheral characters) and ultimately could be dismissed as a story of obsessive love with an unlikely ending. But it is told with Simenon’s trademark pungency and economy and with that sensuousness and feeling for time and place that are to be found in all his best work. The existential malaise it explores is the stuff of endless cliches about French movies and literature, but with its out of place characters and with its autobiographical elements (Simenon had also left France for America under something of a cloud), it makes for a brief but fascinating read.

Trois_Chambre

And as with so much of the author’s work, it has been adapted in several forms. Marcel Carné, the master of 30s and 40s French poetic realism, turned the book in a rather overlong but basically faithful film that was shot beautifully, using real New York locations (a very young Robert de Niro can be spotted as an extra in the first scene at a bar between Kay and Francois). Stylistically, by updating it to the 1960s, it ended seeming rather old-fashioned, its slender plot expanded slightly but otherwise rendered without much flair. It has been quite a while since I saw it, admittedly, but I remember thanking that while Annie Girardot and Maurice Ronet (who was not the director’s choice, apparently) are well cast in this kind of roles they were so often seen playing then (the ‘difficult’ woman and the neurotic man), this was not particularly memorable.

More recently, the novel was adapted for BBC radio – at 45 minutes the play does condense things somewhat, especially at the end, but does this very well, keeping most of the dialogue. Well, at least until right at the end, which instead closes with a line added by scriptwriter Ronald Frame and which serves this version very well. Michael Maloney in particular is really good as Francois, the decision to make him the narrator (in radio a tactic that is often deployed, for obvious reasons) really helping to make the story more personal and affecting.

The Other Simenon / Three Beds in Manhattan
BBC Radio 4 (6 June 2014)
Adapted by Ronald Frame
Produced and Directed by David Neville
Cast: Michael Maloney (Francois), Clare Corbett (Kay), Dan Starkey (Hourvitch), David Seddon (Laugier), Gabriele Ferzetti, Geneviève Page

Trois chambres à Manhattan (1965)
Director: Marcel Carné
Producer: Marcel Carné
Screenplay: Marcel Carné, Jacques Sigurd
Cinematography: Eugen Schüfftan
Art Direction: Léon Barsacq, Mayo
Music: Martial Solal, Mal Waldron
Cast: Annie Girardot (Kay), Maurice Ronet (Francois), O.E. Hasse (Hourvitch), Roland Lesaffre, Margaret Nolan (June)

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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20 Responses to THREE BEDROOMS IN MANHATTAN (1946) by Georges Simenon

  1. It sounds like a really interesting look at a dysfunctional relationship, Sergio. And trust Simenon to explore this sort of relationship in that way. Shame the film wasn’t gripping; that sort of story could have lent itself so well to a really compelling film.

    • It has been a while since I saw the film but it made no great impression – the radio adaptation I really liked. And I really hope it wasn’t as autobiographical as some people say!

  2. Colin says:

    Interesting. I’ve read a few Maigret novels in the last couple of months but I’ve yet to samople any of Simenon’s non-series stuff.

  3. JJ says:

    The existential malaise it explores is the stuff of endless cliches about French movies and literature, but with its out of place characters …it makes for a brief but fascinating read

    Sounds not unlike The Blue Room in this regard – a tiny cast and plenty of agonising that should barrel it straight into self-parody…but it’s all so compelling that you almost can’t bear to look away.

    The same was not, unfortunately, true of The Stain on the Snow, which I just found to be a parody of the expectations of Simenon.

    • Thanks JJ. Recently got THE BLUE ROOM in fact but have not read it yet, so that may appear here at Fedora soonish – I also want to see the recent film adaptation by Matthieu Almanic: https://youtu.be/AXru7gOWV-I

      • JJ says:

        It didn’t strike me as a terribly filmic novel, and that trailer…dunno. Definitely read the book first! It exists in that peculiarly sparse world of Simenon’s where all the emotion is very close to the surface (more a factor in his non-Maigret titles, now I think about it) and I think a film would veer unavoidably into melodrama to capture it well. Having enjoyed the book immensely, I’m not rushing to see the movie on that evidence, put it like that… 🙂

        • Thanks very much for that JJ – the DVD is a little hard to find (it seems to only English-friendly edition is from Portugal) – maybe there is a commercial download option – I do really like Almaric.

  4. Yvette says:

    The truth is, Sergio, that I’ve yet to read (or attempt to read) a book or watch a film about this tortured subject which resonates with me in any favorable way. I’m just not curious (or maybe not sophisticated) enough. Though just to be contrary, I did enjoy THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN which was Rex Stout’s contribution to the trials and tribulations of obsessive love.

  5. I came late to Simenon (mostly because of terrible movie adaptations that made him look dull and boring, which he is definitely not) but have now become a fan though I tend to prefer his more mystery-friendly work – the Maigrets and the “13” collections in particular. I’m not much of a client for mainstream, psychological fare, which is rather weird for a Frenchman (we’ve been doing that stuff ever since The Princess of Clèves) but you know by now that I’m no ordinary Frenchman. 😉

    • Well Xavier, you are most definitely an extraordinary Frenchman here 🙂 I am very much enjoying re-reading Simenon in new translations though what I should be doing is improving on my school-boy French and learn the lingo properly!

  6. tracybham says:

    I have read some Maigret novels and some of the non-series novels but it was long ago. The most memorable one I read was one of the ‘Romans durs’. But it has been a long time since I have read anything by Simenon. I have a few of both types to read and I should get to them soon since they have been sitting on the shelves a long time.

    • Look forward to seeing what you say about him Tracy – I’m a big fan but really like to dip in and out. but then I have about 50 or so of his on the shelf to choose from, so I tend to binge a bit 🙂

  7. I have got a Maigret novel that I got to tuck into. It’s been with me for a while. I enjoy reading novels with minimum characters and would be at ease even if there were just the protagonist or two. Interesting study of book and film adaptation, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant – the Maigret books are great examples of the fusion of character and plot elements in a mystery and it is interesting to see how that works here when the plot and charter elements are so noticeably reduced. Not his best but certainly worthwhile.

  8. David says:

    Do you have any special Simenon favorites you would recommend? I’ve read a few Maigret novels but would like to read more, especially any that stand out above the others (e.g., favorites of respected book bloggers like you).

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