“If I were allowed to keep only one of my novels, I would choose this one.” So said Simenon of The Little Saint. On the face of it a curious choice. It is not the grittiest, not the most complex, perhaps not even the best written of his works. Yet it is obvious from reading the work, it is imbued with affection.
There are two main characters here. The first is, of course, Louis. Illegitimate son a street seller, he is small, delicate and with an otherworldly nature that sits at odds with his squalid and often violent surroundings. He lives with his mother, siblings, and a succession of men, some of whom take an interest and most who do not.
The early years of this child are told with realism and without sentimentality. The squalid conditions, poverty, disease, and promiscuous sexual nature are not glossed over. Nor are they sensationalised. Simenon tells a complex, nuanced story, even if it is not, to begin with, apparent what the story might be.
The other major character is the small section of Paris in which Louis grows up. This world expands as he slowly explores and is pushed out into the world. It is drawn with as much skill and affection as the inhabitants and together we get a very real sense of life in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Yet it the double portrait is filtered through Louis’s own sensibilities. And Louis is no ordinary child. He does not engage with the world in the same way as those around him. Not only is he drawn very strongly to visual stimuli in order to make sense of the world, he is, to begin with, extremely passive.
As he grows, he finds expression through painting. And as we read, we discover this is in fact a biography of a famous artist’s childhood. The adult years are glossed over because the book deals with the formulation of the creative imagination and the first exercising of the skills that allow that imagination a voice.
As with all Simenon’s novels, he has much to say, but he never once preaches a message. Much like Louis, if asked about a subject, he would probably have been tempted to say, “I don’t know.” Rather, he presents a complex portrait and pays his readers the compliment of having the intelligence to read and take from the work what they will. For me it is a vivid picture of poverty, of the growth of creative imagination, of the ways in which some people see the world differently.
It may be that Simenon’s fondness for the book stems from his own incessant creative urge. In it he was able to touch something of what may have been within himself, whilst also taking the time to explore a world he knew and clearly cared for. And as always with Simenon, it well written, concise, powerful, and very French.