Georges Simenon Essay - Simenon, Georges (Vol. 1)

Simenon, Georges (Vol. 1)

Simenon, Georges 1903–

A Belgian-born French novelist, Simenon has written nearly two hundred novels under his own name, and several hundreds more under various pseudonyms. Although he considers his psychological novels to be his major work, he is best known for his inimitable detective stories featuring Inspector Maigret.

At the end of his life André Gide was at work on a study of the fiction of Georges Simenon, whom he had called "perhaps the greatest" of contemporary French novelists….

No matter whether he is a case of superior intelligence or gifted imbecility, Simenon is a writer of very great power. His power is no doubt greater for those who read him in the original French, but it comes through in translation, too. His books have been both enormously popular and critically admired in English and in most of the languages of Europe. In this country, though, they have been largely ignored. In the last two or three years they have been getting more carefully reviewed, but the standard bibliographies fail to show a single article about Simenon in an American periodical in the last five years. This is shockingly wasteful. There are not so many good, productive novelists that we can afford to ignore a man like Simenon. If we cannot deal with him in French, let us do the best we can with the English versions of his work. The novel is, after all, the most comfortably international of literary forms; Simenon himself has been most influenced by Gogol and Dostoevski, whom he did not read in the original Russian….

[The] Maigret stories [which Simenon does not consider his major work] reveal the fundamental qualities of Simenon's mind; nearly all of them are, in a sense, fables demonstrating the ways of the creative, or intuitive, intelligence. They most definitely are not mere mystery stories. They are free of the gimmicks and clichés which make most mystery stories tedious to all but the addicts of the genre. Much more concerned with the why's of murder than with the who's, the Maigrets are perceptive about the realities of human behavior. And, like all of his work, they are written in a beautifully spare, unpretentious style that Simenon developed in his twenties, when he trained himself as a writer by grinding out an incredible number of commercial fictions that he published under some sixteen different pen names….

[The] effort to understand, to leave the world of abstractions for the world of the concrete, is characteristic of the Maigrets and of all of Simenon's works. This is what makes the Maigrets so vastly more satisfying than most books in the mystery story genre. It sets them free from the rigors of intricate plots, since plots are devices for manipulation rather than for understanding; and it leads them into the complexities of human motivation….

Good as they are, the Maigrets are only sketches, preliminary studies for the "weightier," more exhausting work of the serious novels. The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, The Murderer, Blue Room, The Bells of Bicêtre, The Brothers Rico, The Bottom of the Bottle, The Snow Was Black, and the others which are or have been generally available in this country all go well beyond the Maigrets. They create substantial characters and the complex, painful worlds they live in. They give us Simenon's mature, unexcited, lucid understanding of what sex and money and alcohol and family and society and culture really do mean to people. They lead to no general theories, they flash no ideas at us; they just give us a sympathetic perception of what these great forces do in the lives of men and women.

The serious novels are individually more complex and as a group more varied than the Maigrets. They deal with characters from all walks of life, though usually with a preference for those who are in or who have come from obscure positions in society. The novels are set in all sorts of places, for Simenon has traveled widely and has lived for extended periods in a number of different countries, including the United States. And they confront, in one way or another, all of the fundamental problems in individual lives. There are very few descriptive generalizations to be made about them which are both valid and useful. They are short, except for Pedigree. They nearly all involve acts of violence (though in The Bells of Bicêtre the "violence" is a severe heart attack) because they are concerned with people who are driven to their limits. And without exception, as far as I know, they compel the reader to recognize what Simenon has recognized, "that the other man is like him."…

The reader can trust Simenon. A person can pick up any book of his and know that it will not diminish his capabilities or offend any of his sensibilities; it will only enlarge them. Any Simenon novel, even a Maigret, gives the reader a large and ample role to play. The reader does not have to suppress any part of his intelligence, his emotions, or his experience to read Simenon. Simenon does what the great artists of prose fiction do: he creates a world in which the reader can explore his entire self.

Edward L. Galligan, "Simenon's Mosaic of Small Novels" (© 1967 by the Duke University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), in South Atlantic Quarterly, Autumn, 1967, pp. 534-43.