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In May 2011 I began a project to reread a representative selection of Georges Simenon’s novels. I didn’t want to read all his books: there were too many, over 200. But of the about 150 I have read over the years I had the impression there were quite a few that had had a strong impact on me.
My problem was that I couldn’t put this experience into context. The more I read about Simenon the more I realised there was no critical evaluation made of his work, in English at least. None at all. Simenon is widely regarded as a significant contemporary novelist, so this was surprising.
I was also confused by the fact that much of what I did come across about Simenon was not only not critical, but focused on how much he wrote, how many copies he sold and how much money he made. He was evidently a good businessman, but was that relevant in exploring his achievement as a novelist?
Much that wasn’t statistical about Simenon was uncritical. He is chiefly known as a detective writer to the English language reader, and so attention was focused on Jules Maigret, Simenon’s detective, in the kind of approach which is really a form of hero worship, applied by readers to heroes such as Nick Carter, Superman, Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. The giveaway is the byline: “a Maigret novel”; “Maigret #45” etc.
I don’t know why critics baulk at assessing Simenon, why they don’t see him as in the tradition of Franz Kafka or Friedrich Dürrenmatt for example. As I read I realised the problem may be that Simenon was an uneven writer. Much of what he wrote was mediocre, hack work in fact. Some of his work could be disparaged and dismissed, some was worthy of critical analysis, a fairly unusual choice for critics to have to make. Simenon no doubt made just as much money from his lesser work as from his masterpieces. His unevenness was due to his unusual method of writing. I have written about my own estimate of Simenon in other essays here. Now I just want to summarise my reviewing exercise, limited as that may have been. I won’t mention much about the books, as I have reviewed them all on this site. https://phillipkay.wordpress.com/2011/05/01/the-first-simenon-omnibus/ I append an on the fly ratings checklist made as I read the titles.
Over the past 18 months I’ve read 58 novels by Simenon, reviewed in 10 posts on this site. This represents just over one quarter of his output of fiction as the author Simenon (he wrote as much again pseudonymously). There were 129 novels and 78 Maigret stories all told. Of these I read 27 novels and 31 Maigret stories, comparatively more Maigrets, as the Simenon titles most available in English are the Maigret stories.
I took as my basis of selection the Penguin Simenon Omnibuses, 18 volumes of which were published 1970-82. On looking back I realise this was a non representational selection. Simenon was an enormously productive writer, one of the most prolific we know about. He was capable of writing a novel a month for long periods. He wrote in the period 1930-1973. But over the years he ran out of steam, producing fewer and fewer great novels among his many mediocre ones. Eventually he stopped entirely, unable to write novels at all. The Penguin Omnibuses focused on Simenon’s later contemporary work.
I read seven titles from the 30s, seven from the 40s, 12 from the 50s, 23 from the 60s and 9 from the 70s. As Simenon began to decline as a writer from the mid 60s, and stopped writing from 1973, my selection was comprised of more of his lesser work. But Simenon was an uneven writer, producing good, and bad, work throughout his career.
Of the 58 books I read and reviewed, 17 I considered masterpieces or near masterpieces (six of these were Maigret stories). This represents almost one third of all titles I read. If this proportion was applied to his whole production, this might mean Simenon wrote about 70 masterpieces in his career, probably more bearing in mind the bias in my selection of titles, along with about 140 lesser works, most of which are quite readable and almost all with good qualities.
Simenon began his career in 1931 as a prodigy, publishing 11 titles and garnering much publicity from his prolific output. How extraordinary that a protégé of Colette, soon to be a protégé of Gide, and a writer compared to Balzac, should be a detective story writer, and a supreme one. The very first novel, Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, was one of the best Simenon wrote, possibly the best of all the Maigret stories. Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, the third Maigret, was also one of his better efforts. In 1932 Simenon published another 11 books, including another good Maigret, Maigret Mystified.
My selection then jumps to 1939, the year of Simenon’s great novel about racial prejudice, Chez Krull, an extremely powerful, perfectly realised tale. In 1942 came the Maigret I liked the best, Maigret and the Hotel Majestic. One of the most celebrated of Simenon’s novels, and justly so, was the moving Monsieur Monde Vanishes of 1945. In 1949 came Four Days in a Lifetime, a novel about honesty and deceit, and in 1950 The Heart of a Man, one of Simenon’s greatest books, about a great actor. In 1955 another good Maigret, Maigret and the Headless Corpse. And in 1958, Striptease, a tragic tale of a woman’s fate. The next year came The Widower. In 1964 The Man With The Little Dog charted the career of a dying man with great pathos. The next year saw the publication of the acclaimed The Little Saint, a poignant tale of a good man and great artist. One of my favourite Simenon novels is 1966’s The Old Man Dies, about division in a family through financial success. 1967 saw publication of The Cat, about a vindictive marriage, and also a great Maigret, Maigret’s Pickpocket. Almost the last book Simenon wrote was the powerful The Innocents of 1972.
My selection omitted many other great books. Mr Hire’s Engagement published 1933; The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, 1938; The Stain in the Snow, 1948; and Simenon’s greatest book in my opinion, that same year of 1948, Pedigree; 1952’s The Brothers Rico; and The Little Man From Archangel in 1956. Also of note are volumes of Simenon’s short stories. He was a great short story writer, much of this work unpublished in English. There are the collections Maigret’s Pipe and Maigret’s Christmas, and The Little Doctor.
A separate study could be written on Simenon and the cinema. Almost 50 films have been made based on Simenon’s books. And there are the many TV series as well.
Surely 70 great novels is an extraordinary achievement for a writer. The other 140 titles shouldn’t be allowed to obscure this. Nor the man’s productivity, nor his popularity as a detective story writer. I certainly gained a lot from reading the 17 titles again that I saw as his best work in my selection of titles. Before Simenon can be seen as more than a phenomenon, and seen for the major author he is, an attempt should be made to sort his output into that of major and minor achievement, as I have attempted here.
Checklist of Titles and Ratings
the Simenon Omnibuses (Penguin v. 1-18, Hamish Hamilton v.2)
rating, title, year of publication, and Omnibus volume
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett 1931, v.16
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets 1931, v.16
◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret Stonewalled 1931, v.18
◊◊◊◊ Maigret Meets a Milord 1931, v.16
◊◊◊ Maigret at the Crossroads 1931, v.18
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret Mystified 1932, v.18
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Chez Krull 1939, v.19
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Hotel Majestic 1942, v.15
◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Spinster 1942, v. 14
◊◊◊ Maigret in Exile 1942, v.17
◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Toy Village 1944, v.17
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Monsieur Monde Vanishes 1945, v.1
◊◊◊ Three Beds in Manhattan 1946, v.15
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Four Days in a Lifetime 1949 v.17
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Heart of a Man 1950, v.19
◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Gangsters 1952, v.12
◊◊◊ The Magician 1953, v.12
◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard 1953, v.13
◊◊◊◊◊ Big Bob, 1954, v.5
◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Minister, 1954, v.3
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Headless Corpse, 1955, v.4
◊◊◊◊◊ The Accomplices 1956, v.2
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Striptease 1958, v.19
◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Millionaires 1958, v.11
◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret Has Doubts 1958, v.3
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Widower 1959, v.19
◊◊◊◊ Teddy Bear 1960, v.8
◊◊◊ Betty 1961, v. 14
◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Black Sheep 1962, v. 14
◊◊◊ The Others 1962, v.13
◊◊◊ Maigret and the Dosser 1963, v.12
◊◊◊ Maigret and the Ghost 1964, v.15
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Man with the Little Dog 1964, v.4
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Little Saint 1965, v.4
◊◊◊ The Venice Train 1965, v.11
◊◊◊◊◊ The Patience of Maigret 1965, v.2
◊◊◊◊ The Confessional 1966, v.7
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Old Man Dies 1966, v.3
◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Nahour Case 1967, v.1
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Cat 1967, v.9
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret’s Pickpocket 1967, v.2
◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Neighbours 1967, v.1
◊◊◊◊ Maigret takes the Waters 1968, v.7
◊◊◊◊ The Prison 1968, v.6
◊◊◊◊ Maigret Hesitates 1968, v.8
◊◊◊◊◊ The Man on the Bench in the Barn 1968, v.10
◊◊◊◊ Maigret’s Boyhood Friend 1968, v.5
◊◊◊◊ November 1969, v.5
◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Killer 1969, v.7
◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Wine Merchant 1970, v.6
◊◊◊◊ The Rich Man 1970, v.6
◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Madwoman 1970, v.10
◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Loner 1971 v.13
◊◊◊◊ The Disappearance of Odile 1971, v. 9
◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Glass Cage 1971, v.10
◊◊◊ Maigret and the Flea 1971, v.8
◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Innocents 1972, v.11
◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and Monsieur Charles 1972, v.9
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