Three Short Novels – Simenon – Fitzgerald – Johnston

Georges Simenon – The Grand Banks Café

Translated by David Coward

Maigret and Mrs Maigret are about to go on holiday. Mrs Maigret is packing as Maigret reads a letter that’s arrived from an old friend.

“…Listen, are you still set on passing our week’s holiday in Alsace?”
She stared at him, not understanding. The question was so unexpected. For the past twenty years they’d always spent their holidays with family, and always in the same village in eastern France.
“What if we went to stay by the sea instead?”

A pupil of his old friend had been arrested for the murder of the captain of the fishing trawler on which he’d been working. Could Maigret help? Mrs Maigret gives in, and off they go in the opposite direction to Fécamp near Le Havre.

Once there, Maigret does his usual quiet questioning of other crew members in the titular café, who having been paid are mostly drunk and he visits Pierre but finds himself saddled with Pierre’s girlfriend Marie who has come hotfoot to help rescue her beloved. It’s not long before the rumours surface that there had been a woman on board ship – and soon she appears in town too. Take a woman on board a ship full of men, and problems are inevitable… was Pierre involved?

What I particularly liked about this Maigret, was Mrs Maigret. She plays her part in this one, especially in being a minder for, and consoling poor Marie. So even if the plot in this one was a little convoluted, the drunken sailors and Mrs Maigret made for another great Maigret story. (8.5/10)

Source: Own copy.   Georges Simenon, The Grand Banks Café (Penguin Modern Classics)  160 pages.

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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

This quietly brilliantly novella was our book group choice for July, and it certainly gave lots to discuss, everyone enjoyed it. Published in 1978, it tells of a time, not so long ago that was pre-Waterstones, books were mainly sold in WH Smiths, small localised chains of bookstores or independents. So, when Florence Green decides to open a bookshop in a small East Anglian town on the coast, there is every possibility that it could be a success. She buys a property, old, damp and with a resident poltergeist (so they say) and sets about transforming it into her little shop. Many of the locals are delighted, and she recruits a ten-year-old afterschool assistant, starts a library subscription club, sells shedloads of copies of the controversial Lolita, which she stocks on the advice of the only real friend she makes, old Mr Brundish, who urges her to trust her own judgement:

Florence considered. ‘I trust my moral judgment, yes. But I’m a retailer, and I haven’t been trained to understand the arts and I don’t know whether a book is a masterpiece or not.’

Although you support Florence from the start, the above did make me wonder why she had chosen a bookshop for her emporium. For her, books are primarily a commodity. However, she will soon have other battles to fight for it turns out that the local landowner Violet Gamart had had her eye on the Old House for an Arts Centre – and she is used to getting what she wants.

This short novel was a superb character study, all the local inhabitants we encounter are clearly drawn, their personalities incisively dissected – apart from the more worldly Milo, an author between works, who is harder to read…  Being the second Fitzgerald novel I’ve read, (see here for my thoughts on At Freddies) I expected the wry humour, but there is a despondency that emerges as Florence’s clashes with Violet play out, presaging things to come in the book trade. There is one really sad moment – you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read the book. This book is a little gem. (10/10)

Source: Own copy.  Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978), 4th Estate paperback, 176 pages.

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Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston

My 7th book from my 20 Books of Summer.  The veteran Irish author is now 87, and is still writing – her most recent novel was published in 2013. I’ve long been meaning to read more by her having enjoyed The Illusionist some years ago, (see more here). Truth or Fiction was published in 2009, and is another story of secrets and lies which, at around 150 pages, can be read in one session.

Caroline, a London journalist, ostensibly happy living with her partner in Notting Hill, but in reality in a bit of a rut with impending middle-age. When her editor sends her to Dublin to interview an ageing old author who had once been a literary giant ripe for rediscovery, she goes reluctantly, but as Herbert finally proposes to her just before she leaves on the trip, the space apart to think it over is welcome.

When she finally meets Desmond Fitzmaurice, she is stand-offish. He, however, offers her access to his archive – she’d been expecting just a couple of interviews:

‘It was really only a couple of interviews…’
‘Rubbish. Here I am offering to let you hear my tapes, read my diaries…’
‘My editor-‘
‘Will be over the moon. This will be my life, rough and raw, as it was lived. Lots of sex and some violence.’

He won’t take no for an answer, and she finds herself agreeing to meet him at his club, to which he’ll invite his first wife Pamela to give her side of the story, her ‘truth’. Unwittingly, she finds herself inveigled into Desmond’s life, meeting the glamorous ex-actress Pamela, and the current Mrs Danvers-ish wife Anna – and then things take a dramatic turn.

This was another entertaining read, with sculpted dialogue-driven prose. Desmond was quite clearly a monster, but not entirely unloveable; Caroline is angry; the wives are chalk and cheese. All have their own secrets to hide but you fear and hope they’ll come out in the wash, and wonder what article Caroline will finally write. What is clear though is that one’s truth is another’s fiction. (8.5/10)

See also: Kim’s review here at Reading Matters.

Source: Own Copy.  Jennifer Johnston, Truth or Fiction (Headline review, 2009), oaoerback.

BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link).  P.S. Don’t believe the Amazon reviews – this novel is way better than they suggest!

13 thoughts on “Three Short Novels – Simenon – Fitzgerald – Johnston

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I love the Maigret books, and Madame Maigret is a particular delight! As for Fitzgerald, I didn’t get on brilliantly with my first read of her, but I’ve heard great things about The Bookshop so I may give her another try!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve been lucky I think, that the two Fitzgeralds I’ve read have been great. The bookshop was, in particular, a great book group choice.

  2. kimbofo says:

    I missed this (I haven’t been reading blogs much lately), but so pleased to see a Jennifer Johnston review! You know she’s my favourite writer, right? If I remember correctly, I think this one is based very much on her father, who was a famously cantankerous playwright.

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