More Thoughts on Realism with Vargas and Simenon

I don't know what it's like for most people when learning a foreign language, but for me I find that there's something extra-juicy about reading suspenseful stuff when my reading is necessarily slowed down by my need to ponder a sentence or run for the dictionary.  It's almost as if the need to proceed cautiously at a time when I would like to just fly ahead allows me to enjoy the rush of not knowing what is going to happen next.  I've become somewhat addicted to Simenon's Maigret series, and I am comforted by how many stories there are.  I own the first volume in the complete series and if I finish it someday I might go on to the second, up right through the twentysomething or whatever that exist.  I'm also in the middle of a Fred Vargas mystery that I started a long time ago and just recently came back to:  Dans les Bois Éternels.  (Incidentally, the word "bois" has at least a triple meaning here when linked to the story: wood as in forest, wood as a material, and antlers.  This makes the title as a whole impossible to translate, and in fact the English version is titled This Night's Foul Work, which bears no resemblance to the original.)

Vargas is a resourceful writer who manages to weave several bits of factual and intellectual threads together in a way that would be impressive in itself, even without the added task of constructing a compelling and believable plot.  The world she creates is one that I find myself wanting to live in, minus the murder and grisly stuff of course, but that exists in the real world already.  Vargas just allows her murderers to have more complex and interesting motives than we would anticipate even in your average mystery story.  In this world, practical knowledge and medieval history collide, average citizens who have amateur but very focused expertise in a certain subject become important consults for crime investigations, and, to cite a specific example from this book, a police officer occasionally speaks in verse.  At the same time, the human aspects of her work are very believable and her characters, for all their oddities, don't ever become purely sentimental or cute.

This has all made me reflect more on exploiting certain aspects of realism, such as I recently mentioned with Rohmer and which I see with Simenon, too, in how Maigret understands and genuinely sympathizes with some criminals, who themselves (at least in what I've read) come off as genuinely sympathetic (rather than possessed of the kind of sociopathic charisma that is more often the trademark of the American television criminal).  I've started to think that it is a mistake to consider realism a condition of writing.  It is more of a tool or an element of style.  As I already mentioned, I don't believe that realistic writing (if there is even any way to judge whether writing is objectively realistic or not) should be considered a virtue in and of itself.  But I see realism as a device that can be used to bring to light a certain aspect of the human condition that is normally not given undivided attention.  In the examples above, what is seen as realism is actually reality made disproportionate in order to lead the reader to a certain understanding.  Truly realistic writing wouldn't have any kind of art to it because it wouldn't involve the element of choice, but in seeing what the creator of a certain work values, we are forced, if we allow ourselves into their world, to value it also.

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