I’m speeding up, currently reading my 7th Book of Summer as hosted by Cathy. Yes, I’m cheating again – but only a little bit. I’m on the second of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn, but reading from an omnibus edition of the first four – but counting them as 4 books rather than 1 – you can buy them separately after all, as I have done for the 5th. The aim is to do a buddy read with Rebecca soon of the 4th in the series, Mother’s Milk. Meanwhile here are write-ups of books #3 and #4 of summer…
The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin by Georges Simenon
Translated by Siân Reynolds
I always squeeze in at least one Maigret book each summer as I slowly make my way through the Penguin reprints, and despite Simenon being Belgian, Maigret is based in Paris, so they qualify for Paris in July, hosted each year by Thyme For Tea.
The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin is the tenth Maigret novel, originally published in 1931. The action nearly all takes place in Liège in Belgium. It’s a strange novella, Maigret does put in an early appearance – but doesn’t say a word until half way through – he just sits and watches.
The story is a convoluted one. Two young men, still teenagers, one rich, reckless and cut-off from his allowance, one poor and hanger-on, plan to sneak into the toilets to hide at the seedy Liège nightclub so they can rob the till after the club is closed. But when they venture out in the small hours they are confronted by a body on the floor of the club, they think it’s the businessman they saw in the club earlier. They panic and run, and the poor one is later caught. The question is, why is Maigret in Liège? Who is the dead man, and who murdered him? The local police are convinced it was one of the boys, rather than the Club’s staff which include the dancer Adèle. When Maigret makes his presence known to Inspector Delvigne, all becomes clear – as mud!
I found the plot of this Maigret too contrived, and the fact that the Belgian police let Maigret get away with tampering with evidence and play at entrapment is not very satisfactory. However, it shows Simenon’s pared-back style as usual in Reynold’s great translation. I did enjoy that Madame Maigret puts in an appearance right at the end, with her husband now returned to Paris, she shows a little flash of jealousy as she questions her spouse about that dancer! My least favourite Maigret so far. (6.5/10)
Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn – The Patrick Melrose novels #1
I’ve been meaning to read this series of five novellas in sequence for so long, especially after watching the fantastic TV adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch back in 2018. Finally, spurred on by Rebecca to read the 4th novel, Mother’s Milk together, I launched into the books. The TV series swaps the order of the first two novels around, beginning with Patrick’s father’s death in the 2nd, Bad News – which does serve the dramatic arc for telly better. The books, however, follow Patrick’s life in chronological snapshots, beginning with his childhood, aged five in 1967 in Never Mind.
Poor Patrick: born to an American heiress and a never-quite-made-it-at-anything upper class British father who were never really there for him, except when they were – and that was never good. Set in the big old farmhouse-cum-chateau where they live in the South of France, the novel follows the events of a few days when Eleanor and David Melrose have visitors coming over from England to stay, toff Nicholas, a much-married baronet and his new teenaged girlfriend Bridget. They will be joined by other posh ex-pat neighbours, Anne and her Austrian philosopher husband, Victor.
When Eleanor met David, he was a student doctor, and she thought he understood her. Now, that has changed, she questions whether he was a gold digger, or on the contrary whether ‘it was her money that had cheapened him.’
At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.
Eleanor is taking Anne with her to the airport to collect Nicholas and Bridget. She has to leave her big American car at the bottom of the drive, and walk up past their peasant farmer neighbours house.
She had seen one of the Fauberts in the Crédit Agricole and he had the sullen air of a man who looks forward to strangling poultry.
St Aubyn’s text is full of delicious comic one-liners like that. Half of the novel is the six grown-ups being rude and nasty to each other, verbally fencing and scoring points like 17th C Restoration comedy wits; David always has to win though. Nicholas is telling Bridget all about the Melroses on the plane, delighting in telling her about the time David had made Eleanor eat the fallen figs off the ground like a dog, but then his confidences take an even darker turn…
‘Even their son is the product of rape.’ Nicholas watched for her reaction. ‘Although you mustn’t tell anyone that. I only know because Eleanor told me one evening when she was very drunk and weepy.’ …
‘… such people, though perhaps destructive and cruel towards those who are closest to them, often possess a vitality that makes other people seem dull by comparison.’
By this stage a few chapters in, we’ve already seen David’s awful behaviour towards adults, and his chastisement of Patrick when he picked him up by his ears, but this is where he becomes more than just a bored rich bully, and becomes a rapist again – not his wife this time, but of Patrick. A comedy no more, now a tragedy.
The thing is, however uncomfortable David’s monstrous behaviour makes us, St Aubyn’s mordant wit continues unabated throughout, forcing us to laugh behind our shielded faces. I’ve never read as funny a novel that is also so sad and made me squirm so much, especially knowing that it is based on the author’s own childhood. At five, Patrick is scarred for ever by his dysfunctional (to say the least) parents – but he does survive to grow up. Bad News will see him aged 22 in St Aubyn’s second snapshot of Patrick’s life.
Having finally read the first book in this series, there is no way that I’m not carrying on to read all five books. The writing is absolutely sparkling with no words wasted, coming in at a novella length. The descriptions of lazy summer in the South of France and the ministrations of the long-suffering housekeeper Yvette are also beautifully crafted and contrast strongly with the ex-pats behaving badly abroad. A superb tragicomedy. (10/10)
See also what Tony at Tony’s Book World thought of Never MInd – Serendipitously, we read this book at the same time!