20 Books of Summer #3-4 – Simenon & St Aubyn

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)

Source: Own copy from the TBR (Penguin, 2014, 153 pages). BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

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!

Source: Own copy. (Picador US omnibus, 130 pages). BUY at Blackwell’s or Amazon UK via affiliate links (as single books, also omnibus available).

24 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer #3-4 – Simenon & St Aubyn

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Oh, interesting Annabel! That’s not a Maigret I’ve ever come across or read (and the early translation is by someone who apparently butchered the books). Even though you were disappointed I’m curious enough to think I should check it out! ;D

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m very gradually reading all the new Penguin editions in order. So higher hopes for the next one The Two-Penny Bar.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The best are superb – I loved Night at the Crossroads in particular of the earlier ones I’ve read. I also loved the last one #75, (I got a proof of that one else I wouldnt’ have read out of sequence)

  2. Elle says:

    I couldn’t hack the Melrose books at all. I tried, with the first one, and the scene where David makes her eat the figs off the ground made me feel so sick, I couldn’t go on. Not many books have had that effect on me, so I’ve concluded I should pay attention to the fact that this one did!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The first one was certainly very uncomfortable to read, especially as the humour was so biting, so I can understand that. The second, where Patrick is 22 and a junkie is hilarious in a different way…

  3. Tamara says:

    You know, every year i think ‘i might enjoy this Mairgret’ but have still not read one.. so a big thanks for continuing to share your journey through this great collection. (I just struggle to read much anyway)

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      As they’re so short, I hope to squeeze in a couple more, if not this summer, for Novellas in November. With their Frenchness (or Belgian-ness) they are rather a breath of fresh air in classic crime.

  4. Brona says:

    I’m not reading my Maigret’s in order, but I also like to save one for Paris in July/20 Books of Summer each year.
    I’ve often wondered about the St Aubyn (even before the Cumberbatch factor!!) – you’ve certainly piqued my interest – thanks.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I always have a Maigret for Paris in July and Novellas in November! 🙂 although at that rate it’ll take far too long to get through them all, so I’ll aim to double-up I think.

      I probably would never have picked up the St Aubyn books had I not seen the TV series which was so good.

  5. marmeladegypsy says:

    I have rarely been disappointed by the Maigrets but this doesn’t sound like his best. I love most all I’ve read and am glad to hear about this one!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thankfully, most of the Maigrets are great fun. This one was strange. Stout man in a hat walks into a nightclub and asks for beer close to the start – we know it’s him, but he doesn’t identify himself or do anything else except watch until half way through the novel.

  6. JacquiWine says:

    I struggled somewhat with the first Melrose novel, mostly because the scenes involving David’s sadistic behaviour were so distressing. Nevertheless, the payoff at the end of the series was well worth the emotional angst of those early books. As you say, St Aubyn has such an eye for witheringly cutting one-liners. That mordant sense of humour was probably part of his coping mechanism, I suspect…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I was actually glad to have seen the sublime TV series first, so I wasn’t as shocked by David’s behaviour as I might have been knowing what would happen. I did feel guilty when St Aubyn made me laugh all the time though – the true mark of tragicomedy.

  7. Liz Dexter says:

    I’ve never fancied the Melrose books, especially having transcribed something about the TV series at some time! But good going and yes, totally separate books for counting, of course!

  8. Deb Nance at Readerbuzz says:

    My Paris-in-July books have been disappointing so far—I was starting to think I have already read all the good set-in-France books. I’ve read a single Maigret, but I’m not much of a mystery reader. I am delighted to see how much you enjoyed the Patrick Melrose novels.

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