"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 20, 2014

French Crime Writer: Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon (1903-1986) has been dubbed "the most famous Belgian," which is probably true as far as literature is concerned (although many people think he was French, as that was the language he used). He also has been called "superhuman" - for he crammed into one lifetime what others would have taken a couple of existences. Besides writing more than 500 novels at the pace of 60 to 80 pages a day, he was addicted to smoking (he had a collection of 300 pipes, which he chain-smoked, exactly like Maigret in the novels), drinking, sex and travel, and still managed to live to the ripe old age of 86.

Georges Simenon spent his youth and formative years in Lieges, in the French-speaking part of Belgium, where he was born in 1903 as the son of an accountant. In 1918 Simenon left school without graduating, and after some trial and error with several jobs, the next year he became a journalist with a local paper. He started living as a bohemian and explored the seamier sides of life. He also started publishing fiction under several pseudonyms - his first novel appeared in 1921.

In 1922, Simenon moved to Paris where he lived from his pen, writing pulp novels and stories, as well as numerous articles. This went on for about ten years, but the big change started in 1930 when he was in the Dutch city of Delfzijl. Simenon owned a boat and was at that time trekking along the canals of northern-France, Belgium and Holland. While he sat imbibing the indeed very inspiring Dutch jenever (schnapps), he suddenly came up with the idea for the Maigret novels - reason why Delfzijl now has a statue dedicated to Maigret (see photo below).

Maigret, of course, is the pipe-smoking, Paris-based inspector of police who is the central character in Simenon's crime novels. Simenon immediately started writing at a tremendous pace - in 1931 eleven Maigret novels would see the light of day (starting with Pietr le Letton), followed by another six in 1932 and one in 1933 and 1934 each. These first 19 Maigret books were published by Fayard and were immensely successful, making Simenon rich and enabling him to stop with his pulp novels. After the first 19, Simenon took a break from Maigret and then wrote six more during the war years (1942 to 1944). Next, from 1947 on, he settled in a stable rhythm, writing between one and three Maigret books a year until 1972. In total, Simenon wrote 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories.

But Simenon had higher ambitions - he also wanted to be serious writer, so in the 1930s he started writing what he called his "romans durs." These "hard novels" were not detective stories but darkly realistic psychological novels, books in which he displayed a sympathetic awareness of the emotional and spiritual pain underlying the routines of daily life. Some famous titles are: Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Pedigree, The Strangers in the House, Monsieur Monde Vanishes, and Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. Simenon wrote in total 110 "romans durs." While the Maigret novels were written for money, in the "romans durs" Simenon tried to show the range of his talent.

Simenon writes in a very concise style, without literary flourishes or unnecessary descriptions. His revisions consisted only of cutting away, of taking out every unnecessary word or sentence. The early novels still have the abruptness and sudden shifts characteristic of the pulp novel; later, Simenon's style would become more polished, but one still finds traces of the haste in which Simenon wrote: he would finish a novel in just one week, a chapter a day, then put it aside for a week, and review it only once via the above-mentioned "cutting method."

After 1972, Simenon stopped writing novels, but concentrated on his memoirs, which appeared in 1981 as Memoires intimes. Simenon traveled a lot - he also moved house about 33 times - and after the war he spent about ten years in North America. Back in Europe, he lived in Southern France, before finally settling down in a large house in Lausanne (Switzerland).

Simenon's novels were translated into more than 50 languages and sold more than 550 million copies. The Maigret novels were immediately filmed - La Nuit du Carrefour was filmed in 1932 by Jean Renoir - and since then 80 other novels were adapted for the screen. Maigret has been many times adapted for television as well, both in France and elsewhere (even in Japan, with the action transposed to Tokyo!). And Maigret remains popular - Penguin Books has just started the project to publish new translations of all 75 novels, more or less in the order in which they originally appeared.

Paris-based Inspector Maigret ranks with Holmes and Poirot in the pantheon of immortal fictional detectives. Maigret's crime-solving method was unique: to try to imagine what the life of the victim was like, how his or her relations with other people were, and so finally to enter the mind of the criminal. Simenon's interest lay almost entirely in the reasons for the crime rather than in the solving of it - his novels are typical "whydunits" rather than "whodunits."

The human interest in Simenon's novels reminds me of that other great French author, Guy de Maupassant; Simenon has also been compared to Chekhov. He himself said that he was in the first place inspired by Balzac, and indeed, his long series of "romans durs" can be seen as a modern "comedie humaine."

What are the best Maigrets? (I will look at the "romans durs" in a future post.) It is difficult to select absolute peaks, for all books by Simenon have a rather stable level and there are no real ups or downs, so it comes down to personal preference (and what one has read).
  • I like the first 19 Maigrets for the atmosphere of France in the 1930s. My favorite at present is Night at the Crossroads (La Nuit du Carrefour), for the character of the "femme fatale," Else, who plays a weird psychological game with Maigret. The setting is a lonely crossroads outside Paris, with only a garage and two houses, where the inhabitants are constantly spying on each other. Also interesting is that almost all suspects are guilty. The Charter of the Providence (Le Charretier de la Providence) is set completely along a certain stretch of a French canal from Épernay to Vitry-le-François (both in the Marne département). We have the wonderful atmosphere of those living in their barges on the water and find Maigret in a local cafe soaking up the atmosphere and inhaling the distinctive odor of stables, harnesses, tar and oil (the stables and harnesses are for the horses who in the 1930s still pulled the motor-less barges). And all the time, the rain is pouring down... A third one is The Late Monsieur Gallet (M. Gallet, décédé), about a commercial traveler who has been found shot in his hotel room and who is not at all the man his family thinks he is. He has a meager face with thin lips and also Maigret dislikes him at first, until he discovers that M Gallet has been doing good behind everybody's back. Really unpleasant is the status-conscious, bourgeois wife of M Gallet - and Gallet has in fact died on behalf of her... 
  • As regards the later Maigrets, I have several favorites among those written in the 1940s and 1950s, for example My Friend Maigret (Mon Ami Maigret, 1949) which has a sunny and indolent Mediterranean setting, on the small island of Porquerolles, where an ex-criminal has been killed after claiming that Maigret was his friend. Maigret is in the company of M Pyke of Scotland Yard who has been sent to observe his methods - but the problem is that Maigret has no method, he works by intuition... Another good one is Maigret and the Dead Girl (Maigret et la jeune morte, 1954), set in Parisian nightlife with its picturesque characters. This novel is a good example of Maigret's characteristic ability of putting himself into the skin of the victim or perpetrator: investigation by empathy, rather than by logical deduction. Because Maigret has gotten to know the murdered girl, Louise, he knows that certain behavior ascribed to her by persons he interviews doesn't fit her character - and so these people must be lying...
  • A good later Maigret novel is Maigret's Boyhood Friend (L'Ami d'enfance de Maigret, 1970). An old schoolmate, Florentin, who used to be the class clown and a habitual liar, comes to Maigret's office and tells him that Josephine, the woman he has been living with, has been shot. She has four other lovers who all visited her on different, fixed days. Interesting portrait of a loser (as we often find in Simenon's work), a man who has failed in life because he tries to trick his way out of everything. 
  • And of course there are many other memorable Maigrets, such as The Yellow Dog (Le chien jaune, 1931), The Bar on the Seine (La Guinguette a deux sous, 1932), The Madman of Bergerac (Le fou de Bergerac, 1932), The Hotel Majestic (Les Caves du Majestic, 1942), Maigret in Court (Maigret aux assises, 1960), Maigret and the Ghost (Maigret et le fantome, 1964), etc. etc.
Extensive Maigret website