Man of 100 masterpieces: Georges Simenon

Georges SimenonThere are two Georges Simenons. In Europe and Latin America he is a major author, mentioned in the context of Dostoevsky, Durrenmatt and Patricia Highsmith. In English language countries he is just a detective story writer, a peer of Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane.

While the legitimacy of assigning works of fiction to a graded rank of genre classification is now seen as a little suspect, there are other reasons why Simenon loses face in the English speaking critical world.

Firstly he over-produced. He wrote 87 books featuring his detective Maigret and 113 other books describing crimes, and as many again under a host of pseudonyms, as many as 12 books a year over a 40 year period (as Simenon).

Secondly he was spectacularly successful. His personal contacts and genius as a publicist made the launch of his first eight books in 1931, all featuring Maigret, a national media event in France and himself a national celebrity. Simenon went on to become one of the highest grossing authors in history (1.5 billion books sold) and was a mainstay of French cinema (and still is today).

Thirdly he wrote stories of crime. The English speaking world has a strange attitude to books of this nature. They’re popular, but not critically considered. To be considered critically the subject of crime has to be disregarded, as happens with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for instance. There is a huge audience for detective fiction, and as Simenon wrote a large number of books featuring a detective, English readers usually only have the opportunity to read these, and remain ignorant of the bulk of Simenon’s output, that which is valued more highly by Europeans.

On the other hand, Simenon’s detective fiction is quite unlike any other author’s in that genre, and much closer to his other work than is often recognised. The Maigret novels, like the ‘hard’ stories (Simenon’s term) are novels of atmosphere, both of landscape and of feeling. In the ‘hard’ novels Simenon does what Highsmith does, gets inside the mind of someone under tremendous psychological pressure and allows us to experience what it is like to commit a crime of violence. In the Maigret novels Maigret gets inside the mind of someone under tremendous psychological pressure and intuits how a crime was committed.

Simenon’s method of composition was unusual. His books were a psychological process, a kind of primal therapy. He began as other authors have, naming his characters and keeping a card file on their characteristics and history. Slowly he would identify with one of these characters and experience a catharsis through this involvement, writing all through the process. Those who lived with him said it was a devastating experience for him.

Two characteristics of Simenon’s writing are his intimate sense of place, and his sensitivity to smells. Belgian though he was he knew Paris better than most Parisians and as well as Dickens knew London, and in the same way, through tirelessly walking its backstreets. He also travelled restlessly throughout Europe, often sailing his own barge around its canals. And he not only saw his world. Simenon was as sensuous a writer as Keats.

There is a writers’ adage that says what makes a work great is not what you put in but what you leave out. Simenon found this out. His early pseudonymous work, after his time as a journalist, was not very distinguished. He committed all the faults authors can. Slowly Simenon learnt to write until he was ready to write as Simenon. His mature writing is exceptionally sparse. Few writers can draw such convincing pictures with so few words. You read Simenon quickly because he doesn’t distract you. You are in his world without a jarring note and once there you experience his character’s obsessive passion. This is why film makers like Simenon’s books.

Another characteristic of Simenon’s work is its compassion. He describes people’s actions under pressure. The festering hate that consumes an elderly couple that have grown to detest one another; the fantasies that obsess someone who spies on another until they lose all sense of reality; the fight against family rivals to gain an inheritance until murder seems logically the only solution. Throughout his work there is never a judgement. Nobody is ever condemned. I, and you, he says, could come to this.

To talk about specific works of Simenon is quite a problem. Look for Simenon today in an English language bookshop and you’ll find only a handful of Maigret novels, not necessarily the best ones. You have to be prepared to shop second hand, or learn to read French. The complete works, in a learned edition, are available in French, and apparently sell very well.

Simenon retired from writing fiction in 1973 and for the next 10 years poured out a stream of autobiographical writings. It is interesting then that one of his very best works is an autobiographical novel called Pedigree, published in 1948. It was a rewrite as fiction of a straightforward memoir (‘I Remember’), under the encouragement of Andre Gide, who thought and proclaimed Simenon as France’s greatest writer.

The most accessible of Simenon’s work may still be the Penguin omnibuses. There were 14 of these published 1970-80 and still many second hand copies available. They consisted of three novels each and include some of Simenon’s best work: Monsieur Monde Vanishes; The Old Man Dies; November; The Cat; Betty…the effect of many is poignant and moving, with the lighter Maigret titles included providing some welcome entertainment. Number 1. Number 2.

Over 55 films based on Simenon’s books have been made (over 120 including TV episodes and series), beginning with Jean Renoir’s 1931 film La Nuit du carrefour, and including Marcel Carné’s La Marie du port, 1950, with Jean Gabin; Henry Hathaway’s 1956 film, The Bottom of the Bottle, starring Van Johnson and Joseph Cotton; 1963’s L’Ainé des Ferchaux, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo; L’Horologer de Saint-Paul of 1974, director Bernard Tavernier and star Philippe Noiret; Patrice Leconte’s 1989 film Monsieur Hire with Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire; and Claude Chabrol’s Betty of 1992 with Marie Trintignant. It’s been a fruitful collaboration. A surprising number of these turn up with an Amazon search of ‘simenon’. Monsieur Hire is still in the video libraries.

The Little Man from Archangel was written in 1957 and translated by Nigel Ryan. It is the story of Jonas Milk, a refugee who has married a younger woman not of his choosing who now has left him. Milk does not know what has happened to his wife. A victim of persecution in the past, he feels wary of his neighbours and makes up a story that his wife is visiting relations. When his neighbours find that Milk’s wife has vanished while he is still pretending she has not they assume he has killed her and call in the police. This is the story of how persecution begets persecution, of how fear breeds violence. The opening of a Simenon, with its beautifully condensed layout, is always worth quoting.

“He made the mistake of telling a lie. He felt it intuitively the moment he opened his mouth to reply to Fernand Le Bouc, and it was actually from timidity, lack of sangfroid, that he did not alter the words which came to his lips.

What he said was: “She’s gone to Bourges.”

Just as succinctly Jonas’ relationship with his wife is sketched.

“They sometimes ate without uttering a word, as quickly as possible, as if to have done with a chore, and he would still be at table when she began, behind his back, to wash up the dishes at the sink”.

Husband and wife, with their differing backgrounds and temperaments, are shown as uncomprehending of each other. Both behave in what seems a normal manner to each of them, yet the interaction proves fatal. Jonas, it transpires, carries the ghetto around with him and the neighbours eventually sense this and turn on him. Jonas’ fear does the rest.

This short book sketches in a believable community, a plausible family relationship and a needless tragedy and shows the inner springs of the behaviour which make it all possible. There are more than 100 such books as good as this by Simenon.

Though I don’t read French and the translations vary in quality, I have been reading Simenon’s novels for many years with pleasure. He’s the best represented author in my book collection (about 150 titles). Collectively these titles form a major reading experience and make Simenon one of the most influential authors I have read.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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