Discussed in this essay:
Pietr the Latvian, by Georges Simenon. Penguin. 176 pages. $11.00.
The Two-Penny Bar, by Georges Simenon. Penguin. 160 pages. $11.00.
The Mahé Circle, by Georges Simenon. Penguin. 160 pages. $11.00.
And other novels by Georges Simenon.
In 1929, the Belgian novelist Georges Simenon (1903–89), at the time living in Paris and making good money producing, at a rate of three or four per month, semipornographic romances and pulp thrillers under a variety of pseudonyms, decided he wanted to be a serious novelist, a great novelist. The way he would go about this was to first become “half-literary,” as he put it, and so he invented a policeman, a commissaire of the Paris Police Judiciaire, by the name of Jules Maigret, around whom the author could shape novels he was willing to put his own name on. Maigret would end up becoming one of the most popular literary detectives in the history of the crime genre. Simenon wrote eighteen of these novels in the first three years of the character’s existence. He then took nearly a decade off in favor of his earliest attempts at what he deemed fully serious novels, before reviving the Maigret character in 1942. Thereafter, he would generally produce one or two Maigret novels per year, along with a similar number of his other books, which he came to call his “romans durs,” or “hard novels.” When he quit writing fiction, four and a half decades later, he had published 76 Maigret titles (along with a robust bouquet of short stories), and 116 romans durs, a number of which go well beyond being “literary” and rank with the best French novels of the twentieth century, among them Pedigree, The Train, The Mahé Circle, The Blue Room.
Despite the immense popularity of the Maigret books, until recently no publisher saw fit to issue the entire series in English. In 2014, however, after decades of haphazard publishing under many houses and imprints, Penguin Classics commenced production of the entirety of the Maigret collection in new English translations and fresh uniform designs, at a rate of one per month, in a program that, by the time it’s over, will have lasted over six years. It is a labor-intensive enterprise, but no publisher in English has more experience than Penguin Classics with keeping available titles that sell modestly over many years. This series is a significant achievement for which we can be grateful.
Simenon was born in Liège and raised in one of the oldest and most insular working-class neighborhoods of the city, Outremeuse. The conditions of his upbringing, grim and oppressive, are detailed meticulously in his only overtly autobiographical novel, Pedigree. Désiré, his father, a French-speaking Walloon whom Georges adored and who died young, was easygoing and low earning, an agent of permanently minor rank at an insurance firm, whereas his mother, Henriette, of Dutch and Prussian origins, was a joyless woman desperately ambitious for social and economic betterment. Madame Simenon tortured young Georges, his father, and herself with her dreams of bourgeois elevation. Her effect on Georges was to instill in him a long-burning rage at the bourgeoisie and a misogyny that is discernible both in what we know of his personal life and in his work. His mother loudly resented the genial and beloved father, permanently alienating the loyal son, yet we have to believe it was at least in part the inheritance of her inflamed ambitions that drove Georges to a lifetime of obsessive work habits, extravagant displays of wealth, and ruthless negotiations with publishers and movie and television producers, in which matters he rarely permitted anyone to represent him.
Simenon was a good student, but abruptly, at fifteen, he quit school and took a job with Gazette de Liège, one of the city’s established daily papers, where, in short order and despite his extreme youth, he was rewarded with his own column and frequently assigned to cover major stories. In 1921, he published his first novel. In December 1922, not long after his father died, and before his twentieth birthday, Simenon departed for Paris.
In his day, Simenon was so famously productive, of both Maigrets and romans durs, that there’s a story of Alfred Hitchcock calling Simenon’s home one day, being told Georges couldn’t come to the phone because he’d started a new novel, and replying, “That’s all right, I’ll wait.” Thus it’s common for the Simenon story to be treated as a numbers game: he wrote a staggering quantity of books, he slept with a staggering number of women, and, through both his books and the scores and scores of films and television series based on them, he made a staggering amount of money. In his early and mid-twenties in Paris, while producing well over two hundred pulp fictions of various lengths and types, all of which he later disparaged and which almost no one reads now, Simenon learned to live lavishly. He married, but that was never an estate that slowed him down; even writing junk under pseudonyms, he was able to create a persona of literary celebrity, dedicating himself to nights on the town, prostitutes, and affairs with the likes of Josephine Baker, on whose behalf he acted, for a time, as a sort of manager, a stint that might well have helped train him to become the iron-willed guardian of his own literary rights and profits that, after the initial success of the Maigret novels, he soon became.
He owned and built for himself over the decades a number of enormous homes as well as, in his early career, a large boat, on which he, his wife, their maid (with whom he carried on a decades-long affair), and their dog all lived for a while, sailing along the rivers and through the myriad canals of northern Europe (several of his novels are set on those rivers and canals or involve European waterfront life). In addition to all this activity, he claimed (in an interview with Federico Fellini, no less) that he had bedded ten thousand women. It was a number his second wife, Denyse, contested; she guessed it was closer to twelve hundred.
Simenon lived, frequently, on the far edges of sanity: one thinks of Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, mad-eyed, tumescent, gripping himself beneath his enveloping cloak. The comparison to Balzac is one Simenon himself cultivated. In his 1955 interview with The Paris Review, Simenon described the trancelike state he entered when writing his books, and claimed to work for no more than eleven days at a time on any of his books. This included the Maigret novels as well as all but two or three of his dark, powerful romans durs, for which he strongly hoped to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. No one was allowed to disturb him, he took few breaks, smoking pounds of tobacco in one of his never-absent pipes. The process was exhausting. He was unfit for company or the love of family; he could function only in the productive mode. When the book at hand was finished, he needed days to recover from the exhaustion, after which he wanted little more to do with the work in question: he was among the most reluctant revisers in the history of literature and fought with publishers and copy editors for years over his refusal to go back and make any but the most minor corrections to his original texts. This process of working—which seems as much a compulsion as a method—was key to Simenon’s enormous productivity.
What drove him? In part a kind of lifelong argument with the middle and upper classes, whom he’d worked so hard to join and surpass. A keen sense of social strata and their signifiers is essential to the best crime novels, and Simenon, with his upbringing and tumultuous ascendancy, carrying his mother’s obsessions on his back, was perfectly suited to exploit this world of manners. He had one of the sharpest eyes for gestures of social class since Dickens.
As primary mouthpiece for Simenon’s social skepticism, Maigret keeps his irritation with the bourgeoisie, and his bafflement at the ways of the very rich, controlled and tempered. He is large and soft, a buffer; he is of the working classes but knows well the aristocracy because his father was estate manager for the titled family that owned the château at Saint-Fiacre. He thus stands between two worlds.
The young Jules Maigret began as a student of medicine, which would have provided him a solid bourgeois income, but, like Simenon’s, his father died and he had to go to work. Within the police he ranks high and his work puts him, with too much frequency for his taste, in the circles of pompous officialdom and so-called important people, among whom he invariably creates discomfort with an immovable peasant stubbornness and oversize physical presence, a quietly hostile pose that does not go unnoticed.
Here is a scene from one of the early Maigrets, The Two-Penny Bar,in which Maigret, not revealing himself as a policeman, is mingling with a bunch of weekenders in a riverside country house on the Seine. Within a page or so, Simenon has established the hosting couple and just about all the others present in such a way that everything they do or say for the rest of the novel feels mannered, calculated, and false.
Everything was brand new. The villa was like a city dweller’s fantasy: a profusion of red-checked curtains, old Norman furniture and rustic pottery.
The card table was set up in a living room that opened on to the garden through a large bay window. Bottles of Vouvray were chilling in an ice bucket frosted with condensation. Bottles of liqueur were set out on a tray. Madame Basso, dressed in a nautical outfit, did the honours. . . . It was almost like the set of a light opera, so vivid and spruce was the décor. Nothing to remind you of the serious business of life. [Outside] the child had clambered into a white-painted canoe, and his mother called out:
“Be careful, Pierrot!”
Simenon’s Maigret novels are often in large part fueled by anxiety and contempt about the spiritually and intellectually imprisoning nature of bourgeois life, along with a mystification at the mandarin habits and inhuman restraints of the aristocracy. Virtually all the books, however, demonstrate Simenon’s lasting fondness for and understanding of the country peasantry and the urban working classes. From his teens onward, Simenon had enjoyed the company of prostitutes, and there’s rarely an unsympathetic streetwalker, call girl, bar girl, dance-hall girl, mistress, or courtesan to be found in his books. One of Simenon’s last written works was a short and emotionally violent volume entitled Letter to My Mother, but it was easy to suspect that all his books, his Maigret novels and romans durs, were letters to her as well.
What middle-class life in particular denies, from Simenon’s perspective, is the tactile and sensual fact of humanity in all its expressions, which is what as an artist he was so eager to reveal and explore. There are romans durs that are like versos to the Maigret rectos: The Strangers in the House, Monsieur Monde Vanishes, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, all of which feature just the kind of humans Maigret chases down in the crime novels, doing what the criminals in those novels do, except the narrative point of view is turned around, no longer taking into account the regulating social order brought to bear by the policeman.
But there are others among the romans durs that share little of that tone. The Blue Room, The Iron Staircase, The Mahé Circle. These are, essentially, existential books, novels of psychic unraveling in the face of unshakable obsession or the mere uncontrollable quality of life.
The Mahé Circle concerns a stout doctor, prosperous and habitual, who lives in the town of Saint-Hilaire with his wife, mother, and two children, who rides a motorbike to express his limited sensual flamboyance, and who decides one year to take his family to the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles rather than spend the holiday as they usually do, at a pleasant riverside inn in the Vendée. Porquerolles is tropical and frightening; Mahé’s son is found with a scorpion in his bed. Mahé and his wife pretend to like the place but both actually find it horrible and share an unspoken resolution to return next year to their usual inn on the Sèvre river. But come the next summer, the doctor changes his mind and decides to return to Porquerolles. His wife cries; his mother is mystified. He has been quietly nurturing a moment of erotic shock he received on his first trip and he must return to find the young woman who was its cause. He brings his nephew with him and induces the nephew, as if his ambassador, to seduce the young girl. Then of course he is horrified. Here is a passage representative of Simenon’s psychological atmosphere and the techniques he uses to achieve it.
Why, oh why had he . . . Oh, now that he had been drinking, he understood. It was complicated, but he understood. In the first place, he had perhaps been hoping she wouldn’t give in . . .
No! That wasn’t true. He had on the contrary supposed that . . . But anyway, if she hadn’t given in, what good would that have done him? . . .
He wasn’t even in love, it wasn’t that. If he had been in love, the problem would no doubt have been a great deal simpler.
No, it was an obsession, that was the word, a haunting obsession. And it had started that very first day, but faintly, insidiously, like those incurable illnesses that you only become aware of when it is too late for treatment.
It wasn’t about a woman, it wasn’t about the flesh. It was about two stick-like legs under a scrap of red fabric, a little figure curled up alongside a dead woman in a miserable hovel, two blue eyes, clear and dry; about a kind of doll, stiff-legged and indifferent, who led a small girl by the hand to the nuns, and who went fearlessly up to a man in the harbour to confiscate the money hidden in his pockets.
It was all that and much else, it was the disavowal of his own life, of everything his life had been, the four-square gray stone house, as tidy as a child’s building set, with its box trees trimmed into topiary by his maniacal predecessor, the black metal gate, and himself, a fat man of thirty-five—for he was thirty-five now—playing at making his motorbike roar along the country lanes, playing at hunting partridge or rabbit, the disavowal of Saint-Hilaire and the two women sewing for him from morning to night, and telling him when to change his underwear.
It was . . . he needed another drink.
It almost goes without saying that this obsession—an erotic obsession, as it often is in the romans durs—doesn’t end well. Stylistically, the ellipses serve, in the romans durs and the Maigret books as well, as a method of shortcut that gives the sense of speed, so characteristic of one’s experience reading Simenon, but also, as here, the sense of a mind not able to hold its thoughts in order. He rarely lays out an entire sentence of dialogue or a complete thought—as soon as you have enough . . .
Come to know Maigret and you see that what the burly detective most resembles, more than he resembles any other literary crime fighter, is a novelist. He concerns himself almost absolutely with “character”—not in the sense of one’s constituent values and ethical habits, but in the sense of persona. This principle is announced early in Pietr the Latvian, the first of the Maigret books:
Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools . . . that have turned detection into forensic science. But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.
There is a sequence in this novel in which Maigret waits in the rain outside a proper little bourgeois house until his suspect emerges, then follows him, encounters him in a bar, watches him get drunk, and listens to him rave. An international fraudster and con man, Pietr has earlier posed flawlessly as a very rich businessman staying at the Majestic Hotel on the Champs-Élysées, but Maigret discovers he has another false life, as a sea captain with a wife and children; and a third pose, within that role but only when away from the proper little house, of an intolerable drunk. Yet, as a rich businessman, Pietr never shows the least sign of drunkenness. Maigret studies Pietr’s techniques of character creation with a dogged intensity. When he’s staggering drunk, this description: “It was the straightforwardly vulgar body-language of a guttersnipe. Even if he’d tried, Maigret couldn’t have imitated it.”
Maigret’s aim is not to “catch” the man, whom he is confident he will have in hand when the time comes, but to understand him. He is not interested in the legal procedures we call justice but in humanity and its confusions, contradictions, passions, and profound errors. He is interested too in that contest between himself and the criminal—highly personal, psychological, immersed in the details of manners and preoccupations. In this and in many such scenes in the Maigret crime novels, the police detective soaks up the gestures and underlying reality of the central characters so that the figures each can be rendered generally in hours-long interrogations. In this way Maigret is able to justify putting them in prison or sending them to the guillotine. Sometimes he allows certain crimes, once he’s faced the agent involved, to go unpunished, the inevitable outcome of such empathy and understanding.
Maigret’s resemblance to the novelist carries across most of the books: he is melancholy and slow-moving, and while he appears to others to be fatigued from beginning to end of a given case, we know from his interior world that he is actually passing through phases akin to those of a writer, finding and attacking and at last mastering a story: excitement, discouragement, a sense of oppression, and the sadness that accompanies completion and release.
At the same time, when you talk to people who love the Maigret novels, the word “comforting” frequently arises. If you’ve also read the darker of Simenon’s romans durs, it’s hard to pin down exactly what makes the Maigret books, recognizably from the same author, so easygoing. You cannot say that the comfort of the Maigret books comes from their stories, which are usually negligible, the “plot” as such being one of accompanying Maigret as he seeks to go deeper into the act, into the crime, in order to understand it. One remembers the moods, certain characters: the old woman and her dog, she the mother of a thief who’s been murdered, in the close air of the small apartment she keeps for herself and her late son, as she tends the stew bubbling on her old stove. I can still see her in my mind’s eye, as she is under Maigret’s gaze, adding a bit of water to the pot and leaving the lid slightly ajar. Or the mussel farmer, thickset young Airaud, leading on a poor girl while endeavoring to marry a rich one, until it all goes wrong and a man is dead, and Airaud is on the lam, hiding in a barnlike shed, having eaten (under Maigret’s gaze through a dim window) his sausages and fire-roasted potatoes. (“He scraped his teeth with the point of his knife and rested his head against the wall.”) And the smells—there are always the smells, complex and precise. Simenon may be our greatest novelist of odors:
Perhaps it was indeed the smell of sweat that lingered in the air, but mixed with other vague and bitter odours, a child’s urine, sour milk, garlic and fish, as well as the fragrance of the pines and arbutus . . .
Such details are Simenon’s specialty, produced by laser-precise observational powers and what the French-American writer Marcelle Clements described to me as a “ruthless economy” in his prose. The details come off the page with the quiet vividness of the truly seen. Simenon has taken in, even loved what he is writing about, and gives the sense of an author who is forever looking at the details of reality, and remembering them, closely, not from afar. Simenon gives you endless pleasure in quick evocations of time of day, weather, light, smells, sounds; he’s a master at all of them, and they fill the work.
Given the tumults of Simenon’s life and the existential gloom, the oppressions and obsessions dominating his most serious novels, it might well be that the character Maigret relieved Simenon from himself and from the nightmarish immersions of his other books, helped him turn his obsessions outward into a world of precisely rendered characters whose realities were mediated by the burly detective. Perhaps he invented Maigret not just to comfort his readers but to comfort himself—as well as to teach himself what a novelist does, how he handles the lurid clamor of reality. Maigret is in certain key areas Simenon’s opposite, his alter ego, his other. Simenon was mercurial, fancy, vain, he drank too much, had violent fights with his wife—while Maigret is stolid, unswayable, as regular as soap, a man of appetites who loves food and wine and tobacco and who, like Simenon, has a strong appreciation for women, but who is unyieldingly monogamous, quietly loving, able to abstain, vividly alert but always controlled.
Simenon, one of the best-selling authors in the modern history of letters, wildly prolific and wildly admired by so many other famous writers, is not well known among serious readers here. It is unfortunate, because he is the equal of any of the major French figures of mid-twentieth-century letters and is fascinating and rewarding in his own way. This Penguin Classics series of Maigret novels, along with the dozen or so titles the company is issuing in the same design from among the romans durs, provide a remarkable opportunity to change that.