I once had a vague plan to write a crime novel. It never happened and I suspect it never will happen in the future. But if I had succeeded in producing a “who done it?” alongside my other writing projects, I would not have been the first to combine theological activity with thinking up plots for detective books. The famous Dorothy L Sayers (1893-1957), for example, did just that. She had even more talents, for besides mystery novels and theological treatises, she also wrote poetry and translated some of Dante’s books into English. As far as the Dutch language area is concerned, the name of Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) comes to mind. He was an orientalist and diplomat, who was successively ambassador of the Netherlands in a number of countries. He wrote various scholarly works about oriental culture, but as an author he became best known for his series of seventeen crime novels that were set in China, with Judge Tie as the main character.
This week, I was presented (on the occasion of the honor I received a fortnight ago) with a book written by an author who, in addition to the crime genre, also mastered the genre of the psychological novel. I am referring to Georges Joseph Christian Simenon, who was born in 1903 in Liège, Belgium, and died in 1989 in Lausanne, Switzerland. The ever-pipe-smoking Simenon wrote no less than some 500 novels and countless short stories. He owed his international fame mainly to his 75 Maigret books, in which a police inspector with this name was the main character. Who of my generation in the Netherlands does not remember the popular Zwarte Beertjes paperback series, with Havank and Simenon as the most famous authors? As a teenager I devoured both Havank’s books and Simenon’s Maigret books, but until a few days ago I had never read a “serious” book by Simenon. Until I read The Bells of Bicêtre in one breath last weekend.
It was an extraordinary experience. Not only is this book by Simenon beautifully written and very well translated from French into Dutch, but also the subject matter of the book really fascinated me. I should add, however, that you should not read this book if you are low in spirit, because most likely it will push you even deeper into your depression. It is not a book that makes you happy, but it is a book with depth that makes you think.
The main character is René Maugras, the successful publisher of a Parisian newspaper. One day he wakes up in a private room in a large hospital. He is one-sidedly paralyzed and has also temporarily lost his speech. Naturally, he wonders what will become of him. It is difficult for him to experience some structure in the small world to which he now seems to be confined. As the days go by, snippets of his past life pass by. The doctors and nurses work hard for him, but he does not know whether he will find the strength to return to everyday life.
The reason why this book made such an impression on me is not primarily Simenon’s writing skill (although that is beyond dispute), but the realization that so many people of my generation are struck down by a sudden stroke or another serious illness. It can just happen to you, as evidenced not only by Maugras’ misery, but also by the experiences of friends and acquaintances who have been immobilized by Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia or other serious illnesses. Last week I visited the closed ward of a nursing home and looked around. I did not come away happy.
We do not know what our personal future holds. Will we celebrate our hundredth birthday with flying colors, without being restricted by any nasty illness, or will the degree of our mobility be determined by rollators and wheelchairs? We do not know, and nothing can be taken for granted. But let us be grateful for all the days of good health we are experiencing, and for all the beautiful things life still gives us.