“Pardon was tired. For quite some time his features had been drawn, and sometimes a kind of resignation appeared in his eyes.”
The start of ‘Maigret and the Killer’ sees Maigret’s old friend Dr Pardon discouraged and pessimistic, ruminating on how the job he loves has become frustrated by bureaucracy, turning doctors into bad civil servants. It’s a thought that feels startlingly relevant as I find myself having experienced the strangest end of summer term in twenty eight years of teaching, where a significantly greater part of my time and energies seems to have been spent on helping plan and implement operational procedures and reacting to piecemeal ‘guidance’ from a government that appears to be using a pandemic as a means to carry out a stealth re-imagining of the teaching profession as EduCare. To be fair, this shift is one that has been taking place for some years now with what feels like significantly greater emphasis on Parent and Child as customer, The Market being the all powerful god (or goddess) before which we must all supplicate ourselves. Still, here comes Madame Pardon with coffee and calvados, so here’s to your good health.
‘Maigret and the Killer’ marks the beginning of the end of my last summer of Simenon as the final six of seventy five Maigret novels in their exquisite Harry Gruyaert covers move from the ‘to be read’ pile into my eager hands. It’s a comforting feeling to settle back in with characters and a writer with whom I feel so well acquainted, all the more so with the sounds of birdsong in the garden, a fine Fino Sherry to hand and an expanse of Not Thinking stretching out ahead. There is an awkwardly delicious calm to Simenon’s Maigrets; a curiously benign tension between anger and acceptance, between youth and age, between love and despair. And as much as I feel a peculiar dread at eventually completing ‘Maigret and Monsieur Charles’, I am also looking forward to looping back to ‘Pietr the Latvian’ and starting the whole process over once again.
If I don’t see myself ever going back and re-reading Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels then it is certainly not because all those I have read this year have been less than thoroughly entertaining. Unlike so many contemporary crime thrillers, Leon escapes the temptation to write in the first person and this is very much to her credit. It is surely one of the key reasons why her novels feel rather effortlessly timeless even whilst inevitably being observations on contemporary cultural and political contexts. Her knowledge and love of Venice is apparent in every book, and whilst there is always a pleasing enough pace to the narratives, this is never at the expense of space to pause and take in the surroundings. Indeed in many respects the entire book always reads as something of a celebration of a more relaxed approach to life, one where investigations can be put on pause as everyone enjoys fine food and wine over a pleasant lunch break. And believe me, to someone for whom the concept of ‘lunch break’ during the working week is a two-minute window to pee and cram half a cheese pitta down their throat, this vision is absurdly heavenly.
If I have a frustration with Leon’s novels though it is in the amount of time spent on the relationship between Brunetti, his wife Paola (it’s surely no stretch to see cultured English Professor Paola as proxy for Leon herself) and their family. I understand that this preoccupation (or indeed obsession) with Family is as timelessly Italian as pasta, but it is nevertheless something that leaves me cool. Similarly the infatuation with children which forms the core of ‘Suffer The Little Children’ which is the latest in the series that I have read. Leon just about carries off the difficult balancing act between simultaneously fetishising the act of parenthood and condemning the commodification of children, but it results in by far the least enjoyable of the eight (of twenty nine, and counting!) Brunetti novels I’ve read to date. I know I will pick up the series again later in the year (not least because Rupert has so kindly sent me his stash of second hand copies), but this feels like a sensible punctation point at which to put Guido on hold.
If Donna Leon and Georges Simenon are/were prodigiously productive souls, then so too is Ian Preece, whose ‘Listening To The Wind’ is an enormously impressive (just feel the weight!) documentation of his ‘encounters with 21st Century Independent record labels’. At some 700 pages it is almost certainly not a book to read in one sitting but is certainly one that will reward repeated dipping and sampling. Preece’s writing is chatty and entertaining, and if that sometimes means imparting too much personal knowledge then that’s a fair trade-off to make for a book that is brimming with detail and anecdote covering a dizzyingly broad spectrum of music and recorded sound. It would likely be fair too to say that this particular spectrum is peculiar to Preece in that I can’t imagine anyone else being quite so fascinated by the varied and esoteric corners of sonic culture that he explores. That said, Preece does an admirable job of pulling us into his world and keeping us enthralled there. In the chapter on the Dust-To-Digital label (whose ‘I Listen to the Wind that Obliterates My Traces’ release of photographs and sounds surely gives the book its title) he nods to Socrates’ observation that “The more I know the more I realise I know nothing” before going on to say: “None of which quite prepares you for Sekinomu spitting bars like a 1940s Ugandan Crazy Titch about young work hands impregnating the boss’ wife, over even more fevered one-string ndingidi fiddling.” No. I have no idea what means or sounds like either, but goodness it does make me want to find out. It’s Preece’s so obvious enthusiasm that makes the vast wealth of detail in these 34 chapters penetrable, and for anyone remotely interested in the wild obsessive qualities of lives lived deep in the landscapes of recorded sound this book will act as a series of seductive signposts to be revisited on a regular basis.