Assessing Georges Simenon

There seem to be three ways at least of assessing the achievement of Georges Simenon. I like many of his books and find myself getting confused in going from one perspective of him to another, hence these notes about him, written partly to help clear things up, in my mind at least.

The bibliography given in Eskin’s book referred to below is also a summary of le cas Simenon, the Simenon problem. There are 204 books listed as pseudonymous, written 1924-1937; 207 books written under the name Simenon, 1931-1972, including 78 featuring Maigret; and 23 ‘autobiographical’ works written 1975-1981. Of what value are the 130 novels and almost 80 detective stories?

One perspective on Simenon is that he is one of French literature’s greatest writers, someone whose explorations of human nature are profound and illuminating, intensely moving, and written with an almost unexcelled mastery of style that creates atmosphere and character in a few deft strokes. This is a judgment usually made by French writers and critics, and refers to Simenon’s over 100 novels, not his detective stories about Chief Inspector Maigret nor his later autobiographical works, let alone his over 200 pseudonymous works. Jean Cocteau and André Gide were among prominent French literary figures to proclaim Simenon’s greatness, and among English and American writers were Thornton Wilder, Henry Miller, William Faulkner, Somerset Maugham and TS Eliot. Film makers such as Federico Fellini and Jean Renoir gave extravagant praise, though these two were close friends and may not have been entirely uncritical. Comparisons were made to Chekhov and Balzac. French critical opinion remains high, though there are signs that in the English speaking critical world Simenon’s literary fame is in decline.

Another way to look at Simenon is to rank him with the great detective story writers. With one of the most popular detectives, Jules Maigret, active in over 75 cases over a 40 year period, Simenon is equalled by only Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, and by Agatha Christie and Miss Marple and Hercule Poiret. There are those who prefer the cinematic or television Maigret: there are over 50 films and eight series to choose from. The Maigret stories have been the ones predominantly translated into English, and many English readers are not familiar with Simenon’s other work. Critical estimation of the Maigret books, as of detective fiction in general, is usually non existent, at least in English. I can think of only two or three books written on the general subject. Most reviewers praise the ‘atmosphere’ in Simenon’s books: the weather, the description of streets and buildings, the food and drink. Few note that Simenon seems to be saying that a person’s environment has a lot to do with their actions. Not much notice is taken that Maigret stories are unlike most detective fiction. There is very little detection for one thing. Maigret, a high ranking police official, behaves in most stories like an American PI, following the suspects around, soaking up personalities and atmosphere, understanding the crime, then exhorting a confession. Many Maigret books are out of print in English translation now, and he is largely, it looks like, a character seen mostly in TV series re-runs.

Yet a third way to assess Simenon as writer is to take all his works into account, almost 500 of them, love stories, pornography, crime, adventure, mystery. He wrote whatever would sell. By most accounts Simenon was an astute businessman who assessed a market, then mass produced for it, achieving high sales in each market he attempted. He was phenomenally productive in turning out ‘copy’ (he started as a journalist) and would usually write a novel within a week. He stated once that he came across half a dozen plots for books every day of his life, through the stories people told him. An apocryphal tale is that Simenon was so successful in turning his large sales into favourable contracts that he came to reverse the standard royalty contract, offering instead 10% of sales to the publisher he preferred and reserving all rights, plus the remaining 90% of sales. Returns were so high it was a viable offer for publishers (it’s worth repeating the story to give heart to writers, who receive a small royalty cheque once a quarter). In the 70s Simenon was the world’s best selling author and is still classed as one of the world’s most prolific writers. Right from his start as a writer called Simenon, which was 1931, he made a fortune from the film industry. Over a quarter of his books were eventually filmed.

Simenon is hard to come to grips with because these three assessments are incompatible with one another. You can’t be a literary artist and a mass producer of pulp novels (let alone one who became a billionaire by so doing) and a doyen of detective genre fiction (which is always assessed uncritically, by ‘fans’).

An alternative that occurs to me is that Simenon could be assessed a fourth way, as not conforming to any category of writer usually considered by critics. Simenon assessed himself as ‘semi-literary’. He dismissed his pulp novel productions as his way of learning to write (and of making a fortune, though he doesn’t mention that aspect). I agree with that. No-one now would want to seek out any of Simenon’s pulp writing, under more than 17 pseudonyms, even for light entertainment. But his other work is idiosyncratic, not easily categorised. Followers of the detective and crime genre generally agree to divide it into the classical puzzle mystery exemplified by Agatha Christie stories, and the hard boiled urban crime books of writers like Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Without even bringing up the literary value of the books of these last two writers it is plain that the Maigret stories do not belong in either category. There is little or no deduction, seldom a mystery, and little or no violence. While in the classical literary novel the protagonist is explored through social interaction. There is none of this in Simenon, who writes of loners, whose only social interaction is to strike out in violence against their imagined oppressors. Simenon just doesn’t fit anywhere.

The key to Simenon’s writing is that he seeks to understand. This is also the theme of the Maigret books. Simenon’s subject is human nature, observed under stress, under extreme conditions, when aberrant behaviours are more obvious. He is a psychologist. Unlike most psychologists, he writes fictional accounts of cases he imagines. And he composes these ‘cases’ by reliving the trauma of his fictional creation and writes down what he experiences. In fact Simenon brings up the subject of the compulsive nature of the writer and creator generally. Psychologically the creator has a gap, something missing. The question they ask is “why?”. And the work of creation fills that gap, though only temporarily. (I think it would be illuminating to compare the behaviours – not the writing – of Simenon and Charles Dickens. Dickens was an obsessive and an astute businessman who made a fortune from his writing; he was also a writer who overproduced, and if regarded as a great English novelist now it is because of only four or five of his many novels). Simenon is an empath, but he doesn’t seek to repair any problems, despite claims to the contrary. He simply explores, relives a psychological crisis, then moves on to the next subject, almost with an anxiety to find out more. Yet he is not a disturbed writer, as, for instance, Patricia Highsmith could be considered ‘disturbed’ (and disturbing). Simenon was socially integrated, loved (for a time) his wives, mistresses and children, had many friends, and played an active part in the society he chose to function in. He was, nevertheless, displaced, as Joseph Conrad was, and had a need to explain. He didn’t fit into a literary category, despite the enthusiasm of his supporters. His books have a powerful effect on all those who feel they don’t belong, the ‘outsiders’.

So I think, for the moment, there is a ‘Simenon’ category where we can file him.  What do writers about Simenon say?

Stanley G Eskin’s Simenon (McFarland 1987) comes to an ambivalent conclusion about Simenon’s achievement.  He was both an artist and not an artist, says Eskin. He produced an astonishing number of effective first drafts, but never revised them to a finished form, preferring to start another work instead.  Motivated by an obsessive curiosity about human behaviour, Simenon put himself in the place of a central character, and re-enacted with considerable force that character’s disintegration, writing as he did so. Eskin devotes a whole chapter to Maigret, and turns out to be a Maigret buff. Though he passes no judgment, he makes one nevertheless, that Simenon doesn’t fill the bill as a literary artist because he was not craftsman enough; yet is quite adequate as a detective story writer. Which is the position of most English critics.

Patrick Marnham’s The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret (Bloomsbury 1992) refers to the Simenon problem, of being both a best selling author and one of high critical reputation, but seems to see it as a problem for critics, perhaps those too conservatively immured in traditional categories. As befits a biography, Marnham sees Simenon in human, not critical terms, and so he charts Simenon’s incredible success story, highly esteemed by critics and rich and famous.  Marnham points out what might be the sources for Simenon’s creativity such as his mother’s rejection of him (this was Simenon’s own theory), and underscores the hidden tragedies in his life such as the failure of his second marriage, the suicide of his beloved daughter (a victim of that failure), his increasing isolation, and Simenon’s lack of understanding of his own talent and it’s eventual loss. Like Eskin, Marnham makes no attempt to select from the 200 titles Simenon wrote those with artistic or literary value.

Fenton Bresler in The Mystery of Georges Simenon (Heinemann 1983) is interested in Simenon as a phenomenon, looking at his many claims to fame, such as his comment he must have made love to 10,000 women in his life, but also manages to make insightful comments on many of his books. Bresler has the novelist’s gift of sketching in characters and environments in a vivid way and has a fund of stories. He has the intriguing idea that Simenon’s exploration of France and especially of Paris, and the corollary exploration of French people he met was a coming to terms with his family and ancestry. Simenon wanted to know who he was, and wanted to be a “man like any other”. But first he had to understand the other. Bresler covers the extraordinary method of composition of the novels, and looks briefly at why Simenon stopped writing (at the time his mother died). He has a too brief look at variations of achievement in Simenon’s output, and why the size of that output has stopped critical evaluation of Simenon’s books.

Some of these different perspectives are unavoidable , as authors have different purposes in writing about a writer: a biography is obviously not the same as a critical study. And there is a necessary change of focus as a contemporary writer, ie one who provides news copy, gradually becomes a figure assessed within their historic times.

But, on the longest perspective it is possible to take, perhaps it can be said that Simenon was not a novelist at all. Instead, he was a focal writer. That is, one who signified a change in literary directions. The novel as an art form was originally the romance, until Cervantes came along and satirised it, creating a character of such depth and humanity in Don Quixote that the picaresque tale became the novel. The form was given another direction again when Jane Austen took this character based tale and examined the central characters within a finely observed study of social contexts. Many older forms of narrative were once again incorporated within the novel when James Joyce innovatively introduced symbolism, pastiche, puns and non narrative elements such as interior monologue. And one of the ‘shifts’ the novel has made in recent times has been to incorporate popular fiction, such as the crime story, into the structure of the novel, a process where Simenon has been an important innovator.

Two important factors in modern culture have been the invention, or at least recognition, of ‘popular culture’, the non cultural activities of the rest of us, such as reading crime novels and comics: and the popularity of the cinema. Both have had an enormous influence on the literary novel. I think that Simenon’s achievement has been as a pioneer figure who introduced these elements into literary fictions. He did this in two ways. Firstly by capturing a popular market, then ‘going literary’. And secondly, by writing books that were very like film scripts. Simenon limited his vocabulary to 2,000 words, wrote as generally as he could, ie ‘tree’, not ‘oak tree’ or ‘jacaranda’. The effect was to enable the reader to create a picture of each scene that was ‘real’ to them as they read. By striving for an accessible style Simenon created vividly evoked pictures, of figures going through an elemental psychosis. By focusing on the outsider, the self reflexive character suffering both alienation and breakdown from excessive self examination and analysis, Simenon made the novel real, not the nineteenth century anachronism it had become through the efforts of academics offering courses in modern literature. Like the so called ‘magic realism’ of South American writers, Simenon is contemporary.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Simenon was the way he wrote. Not initially, when he mass produced pulp fiction, nor even when he started writing Maigret novels. But at some stage in the 30s he decided he could write literary novels: the way he went about it was instinctive. He never understood why he worked that way. A character would enter his mind, sometimes someone about whom he ‘knew’ only a single fact. He felt disturbed, tense, and knew he was about to write. He defined the character as well he could, name from the phone book, brief biography jotted on an envelope. Slowly the central process the character was to go through became clear to him. Simenon then locked himself away, together with all the writing materials and reference materials he might need. He went through the process of his character. He felt hatred for the wife of many years he had come to loathe and plotted her death for instance (The Cat, 1967). It was a harrowing experience for Simenon, and his companions have all recounted the toll it took on him and them. When it was over Simenon was exhausted, and he had a book. The experience was so unpleasant it was difficult for him to go back and revise, though he did so. It took about a week, sometimes two. This is quite an uncommon way to write a book, so how seriously Simenon can be taken as a literary artist depends on how valid this process is thought to be.

The thing is, it worked, a lot of the time. Simenon conveys the central character’s process unforgettably, and the books are frequently very moving.

So Simenon was not really a literary artist in the conventional sense. And he introduced non literary material into the novel by focusing on psychological breakdown, crime, characters who were isolated, outsiders, and conveying his effects with cinematic techniques. And he did all this instinctively, without really knowing he was doing it. Did he produce literature?

Labels don’t help in defining a writer. Simenon was an accomplished businessman who made himself a multi millionaire by exploiting his writing skills. He created one of the most popular of detectives in that genre of writing. He wrote from a compulsion bordering on psychosis. Yet he was not really a hack, a detective story writer nor a seriously disturbed human being. Criticising him for what he didn’t do as an artist is not going to explain his achievement either, nor is an examination of the sheer quantity of what he wrote. No matter how he is assessed, much of what he wrote can be dismissed, as much of Shakespeare and Homer can. Faults don’t need explaining. The extraordinary thing about Simenon is his successes, a dozen or so stories which are transforming for any reader to read.

The danger is that not many will read the 230 novels he wrote to find the 12 or so that are superb. The 75 detective stories will all be read, uncritically, good and bad alike, by devotees of that genre. But not the 150 ‘hard’ novels dealing with how the mind works under self imposed pressure. People seem to want to live this out themselves rather than read about it. Simenon had a visceral ability to recreate the inside of a person’s head. It wasn’t in the least an intellectual process, and so can’t be compared to a technique, such as stream of consciousness. It is much more comparable to the method actor’s technique. However one categorises his achievement, there is no doubt at all it was substantial. And no doubt that looking at his work as a whole will obscure the nature of Simenon’s achievement.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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