In “The Maigret-a-Month Club” in the Wall Street Journal, Allan Massie begins with this pronouncement:
Georges Simenon was a phenomenon, a hack who became a great writer.
Massie’s article is filled with similar bons mots. It is a beautiful summation of the distinctive peculiarity of Simenon’s achievement in the field of crime fiction.
Massie is particularly concerned with the Maigret novels. These have been receiving renewed attention of late, due to an initiative undertaken by Penguin Press. They have commissioned new translations of all 75 of them, in handsome soft cover editions replete with eye-catching new covers.
The library has been acquiring these erratically, and I’ve been reading them just as erratically. (The Maigret books I’d read previously tended to be of a later vintage.) Penguin is issuing these novels roughly in chronological order. Simenon apparently dashed off a slew of them right at the outset of Maigret’s career. Steve Trussel – the “go to guy” for all things Maigret – assigns to each of the first eight titles above the same original publication date, 1931.
I’ve skipped Pietr the Latvian deliberately. It’s the first in the series; critics seem to agree that it’s quite obviously a journeyman effort (“a somewhat rough diamond” in the words of John Banville).. Recently I’ve read – I’m almost wanting to say ‘devoured’ – the following: The Yellow Dog, Night at the Crossroads, The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, The Grand Banks Cafe, and The Saint-Fiacre Affair (aka Maigret Goes Home, in an earlier translation). Ever since reading in Allan Massie’s article that no less a literary light than Muriel Spark considered Madame Maigret to be a her favorite character in fiction, I’ve kept a weather eye out for her appearance in the novels. (Massie observes of Madame Maigret: “She is the model wife of pre-feminist times.”)
At the outset of the series, appearances of, and references to, Madame Maigret are few in number. From The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin:
For all that she was married to a detective chief inspector of the Police Judiciaire, she had kept all the innocence of a true daughter of rural France.
Lovely phrasing, that. The same goes for this, from The Grand Banks Cafe:
The kiss he placed on the forehead of his drowsy wife was solemn and sincere.
Simenon’s depiction of the Maigrets’ married life is securely placed in this placid ground. Maigret, though sensitive to feminine beauty, seems never to be seriously tempted to stray outside his conjugal vows. For him, Madame Maigret is an entirely satisfactory life partner; she harbors the same sentiments towards him. (They have no children.) I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an element of wistfulness in this picture, as if, at least in respect of the domestic aspect, Simenon wishes from time to time that his own life could have more closely resembled that of his creation.
Not all of these early works are of the same high caliber, though I am finding, as I go along, that they’re getting better and better. The plotting becomes more deft, characters become more intriguing, the sense of place more resonant. The above two, from which I quoted, are my favorites so far. The Grand Banks Cafe in particular would be a good choice for a book discussion group.
What do “literary” novelists admire in Simenon? The combination of a positive and a negative, perhaps: a mixture of what he can do better than they, and of what he can get away with not doing. His admirable positives: swiftness of creation; swiftness of effect; clearly demarcated personal territory; intense atmosphere and resonant detail; knowledge of, and sympathy with, les petites gens; moral ambiguity; a usually baffling plot with a usually satisfactory denouement. As for his enviable negatives: Simenon got away with a very restricted and therefore very repetitive vocabulary (about 2,000 words, by his own estimation) – he didn’t want any reader to have to pause over a word, let alone reach for the dictionary. He kept his books very short, able to be read in one sitting, or (often) journey: none risks outstaying its welcome. He eschews all rhetorical effect – there is rarely more than one simile per book, and no metaphors, let alone anything approaching a symbol. There is text, but no subtext; there is plot but no subplot – or rather, what appears to be possible subplot usually ends up being part of the main plot. There are no literary or cultural allusions, and minimal reference to what is going on in the wider world of French politics, let alone the international arena. There is also – both admirable positive and enviable negative – no authorial presence, no authorial judgement, and no obvious moral signposts. Which helps make Simenon’s fiction remarkably like life.
Julian Barnes, in the Times Literary Supplement
I have recently downloaded a sample from this: . I’m intrigued, and may spring for the whole book. (Maigret, Simenon and France was a 2014 Edgar Award nominee for Best Critical/Biographical Work.)
Penguin has bestowed new titles on the entries in this latest re-issue of the Maigret novels. Unfortunately, they’ve not provided information on how they’ve been titled in the past. This has resulted in some confusion, understandably. Thus far, I’ve found two sites that display that information and are up to date. Steve Trussel’s site provides the original French language title followed by English language variants. The Wikipedia entry is equally current, though it helps to know that the new Penguin titles are listed at the bottom of each cell.
Simenon’s prose is famously stripped down and lean. Early in his career as a novelist, he was advised by the writer Colette to keep his writing from becoming “too literary.” When pressed to clarify this directive, Simenon explained:
Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.
In accordance with this injunction, Simenon learned to choose his words with care. In brief bursts of dead-on prose he could conjure up a world:
He turned his head. He saw the trawler’s funnel, from which smoke was gently rising, for the boilers had just been lit. Fécamp was asleep. There was a wide splash of moonlight in the middle of the harbour. The wind was rising, blowing in off the sea, raw and almost freezing, like the breath of the ocean itself.
from The Grand Banks Cafe
Simenon wrote with incredible speed. A story is told about a time in which Alfred Hitchcock was trying to get in touch with him:
In the latter years of Georges Simenon’s prolific writing life, when he had already published close to 400 novels, Alfred Hitchcock was said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon’s secretary that he couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock, knowing that Simenon was capable of writing one novel — or two or three — every month, replied, ”That’s all right, I’ll wait.”
I’ve read a number of Simenon’s titles that do not feature Maigret and are not strictly speaking police procedurals. As works of psychological suspense, they can be quite gripping. This is especially true of Monsieur Monde Vanishes and Act of Passion. Now, though, I am finding the Maigret books oddly soothing. Julian Barnes has a good grasp on the reason why:
Apart from delivering the usual satisfactions of crime fiction, the Maigret books work because they offer a continuous, reliable, easily re-enterable world. Those early readers never had to look up a word in the dictionary; and we later readers, whether foreign or French, never have to get out histories of the first half of the twentieth century to understand what is going on….The world he describes may exist as a moral and economic consequence of the First World War, but in the first six Maigrets that war is mentioned on only two occasions, once as part of a rare simile: The Carter of La Providence is set among the chalk hills of Champagne, “where at this time of year the vines looked like wooden crosses in a Great War cemetery”. Where the larger, outer world has been, is and may be heading does not impinge, any more than it does on, say, the world of Jeeves and Wooster. We enter Maigretland confident that the weather will be extreme, the Inspector will solve a seemingly insoluble crime, and that we shall not need to Google anything. This blithe sense of security will now continue for another sixty-nine volumes.
(To read the Julian Barnes article in its entirety, click here.)
There have been numerous film and television versions of the Maigret novels and stories. I’m pretty much wedded to the one made by Granada Television in the early 1990s and starring Michael Gambon as the taciturn inspector. The introductory film clip is wonderfully atmospheric (even though the series itself was actually filmed in Budapest).