Recently 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.
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)