First published in 1946, Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan features a forty-eight-year-old down-and-out actor named François Combe. François has come to Manhattan to escape the scrutiny of the Paris milieu following his wife’s decision to leave him for a much younger (and less talented) actor.
One night, unable to sleep, he leaves his apartment at 3am and goes to a bar where he meets a woman named Kay. Somehow Kay instinctively knows that François is French, and she strikes up a conversation with him. Even though he finds her habits and slow movements rather annoying, François is strangely drawn to Kay. It’s as if he sees her as a reflection of himself, another wounded soul in a lonely city. He can sense it in her voice:
A low voice that made you think of a scar that hadn’t healed, of a hurt that lingers beneath consciousness, soft and familiar, deep inside. (pg 8)
They have a few drinks, smoke a few cigarettes and leave the bar together at 5am. After drifting through the sidewalks for a couple of hours, they end up taking a room at a shabby hotel. (Kay has been locked out of the apartment she shared with a girlfriend and François doesn’t want to take her to his place, not yet). When François wakes up the next day, even though he has known Kay for less than 24 hours, he is a little fearful of the thought of losing her. Perhaps he is also afraid of losing something of himself:
Strange, they’d gone to sleep in this room as the night ended and woken up again as the night began. He was almost afraid to leave it – frightened of forgetting some part of himself there that he might never be able to find again. (pg.16)
What follows is a portrayal of François and Kay’s relationship as it develops over the course of a few weeks. It’s a connection based on loneliness and abandonment. We follow the couple as they drift around the sidewalks of the city: they move from bar to bar; they play the same song on the jukebox; they drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes. The novel’s title refers to the three bedrooms the couple visit as their relationship continues: first the hotel room, then François’ apartment and finally Kay’s room. As Kay sees the actor’s apartment for the first time, the depth of his solitude is painfully apparent:
The still-lighted lamp greeted them. The room was quiet, and the quietness was almost spectral. He had thought it would look sordid, but it was tragic, that was all, full of the tragedy of loneliness and abandonment. (pg. 45)
Kay has been around the block a few times – her face looks a little tired and worn for a woman in her early thirties. She claims to have been married to a Hungarian Count, a relationship that ended when she ran away following months of abuse. As the story unravels, it becomes clear that there is a possessive, almost obsessive, side to François’ character. He harbours feelings of jealously about the men in Kay’s past, men he has never met and probably shouldn’t be worrying about. He suspects her of lying to him. At times he is tender towards Kay; on one or two occasions, however, he is cold and abusive:
He watched her take her clothes off, and he remained cold. Yes, he could remain cold to her. She wasn’t beautiful or irresistible, as she thought she was. Her body, like her face was marked by life.
And now, thinking about her, he felt himself carried away by anger, by a need to wipe out everything, to consume everything, to possess everything. (pg. 37)
This is a strange story, quite dreamlike and hypnotic. There is a sense that François and Kay are existing outside of a reality, a world where time seems to expand and contract. Things that happened only moments earlier seem distant and far away. By day three of their relationship, it feels as if they have been together for several years.
In her introduction to Three Bedrooms, Joyce Carol Oates states that the novel is a fictionalised account of Simenon’s impassioned love affair with Denise Ouimet, a woman he met in Manhattan in 1945. It’s one of the reasons why I found this novel quite intriguing. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite reads of the year, but something about this couple’s story got under my skin. François and Kay are two people who need each other. They cling desperately together and they can’t help but bruise one another in the process.
The writing is spare but affecting. The earlier quotes should give you a feel for the style, but here’s another example, a short quote from a passage where François is trying to figure Kay out:
She seemed to be seeking out the despair of others, as if she wanted to rub against it, to wear it down before it could pierce her. (pg. 43)
Simenon’s descriptions of Manhattan are wonderfully atmospheric. This is a dark and melancholy place, the New York of brooding streets and seedy bars:
Two wide streets, almost deserted, with garlands of luminous globes running down the sidewalks.
On the corner, its high windows lit violently, aggressively, with boastful vulgarity, was a sort of long glass cage where people could be seen as dark smudges and where he went in just so as not to be alone. (pg. 6)
Simenon’s description of the Greenwich Village bar in which François meets Kay reminded me of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (a painting thought to have been inspired by a Greenwich diner).
I’ll end with a short quote on the atmosphere in the bar, one that conveys a sense of loneliness in the city:
The place smelled of fairgrounds, of lazy crowds, of nights when you stayed out because you couldn’t go to bed, and it smelled like New York, of its calm and brutal indifference. (pg. 6)
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (tr. by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman) is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 19/20 in my #TBR20.