Georges Simenon Essay - Simenon, Georges (Vol. 2)

Simenon, Georges (Vol. 2)

Simenon, Georges 1903–

A Belgian-born French novelist, Simenon is the author of hundreds of novels under his own name and various pseudonyms. He is highly respected for his psychological novels, but best known for his inimitable detective stories featuring Inspector Maigret. He has now reportedly ceased to write.

Georges Simenon does with his characters the same thing that his character Chief Inspector Maigret does with the criminals he is after: he puts himself in their boots, identifying himself with them in order to reconstruct the chain of their reasoning and emotions. In fact, all his heroes resemble him.

Therefore, there is perhaps no writer who confesses more intimate secrets to us than this author of detective and popular fiction whose fertile imagination is justly famous.

The stranger his creatures' actions are, the more Georges Simenon depends on them to express what is important to him without betraying himself. This is disclosed by a certain style and the indiscriminate repetition of references that have a personal significance….

As he finds it difficult to please himself, Georges Simenon is no longer satisfied with current psychology. If he suggests more than he expresses, it is primarily, as Gilbert Sigaux has noted, because "the choice of a certain quality of silence is not a choice that leads to the elimination of problems but to stating them without recourse to speech." But it is also because these presentiments of truth, without being indescribable, are still too little known to make it possible for anyone who uncovers, and perhaps discovers them, to bring them out into the open….

[The] two themes, that of expatriation and that of guilt, are found … in all of Simenon's works…. [It] is Simenon himself who refers to Kafka, from whom we definitely cannot escape, no matter how hard we try to discover areas of modern literature where his prophetic shadow does not fall….

A theme that runs through all Simenon's works is the impossibility of explaining oneself…. Thus in The Watchmaker of Everton we see the father learn, little by little, to understand his son, until he feels he shares the responsibility for the murder the son has committed. The same is true of the judge in The Witnesses. There is not a novel of the new-style Simenon which does not deal with this effort toward comprehension on the part of an individual overwhelmed by the incomprehension of others…. From the impossibility of understanding others stems the impossibility of judging them. If no one is completely innocent, no one is really guilty either. Most of Georges Simenon's accused people feel unjustly treated….

The reader may easily be disappointed by a given book of Simenon's, especially when one is already familiar with his method of writing. Surprise and admiration often come with the last pages, which renew, renovate and clarify the preceding chapters retrospectively. One is almost always disillusioned in a detective story by the key to the enigma, since it is much too elementary in relation to the difficulties gratuitously accumulated by the author in the course of his story. Instead of disillusionment and despite all we thought we knew about Simenon, we discover psychological perspectives that we had not anticipated…. The very last lines of Georges Simenon's novels almost always have the greatest value: it is there that in a few very simple words, insignificant in appearance, he reveals what he knows about the secret of men. A unique secret which manifests itself in a different way according to the individual, but which is summed up to a great extent by the mystery of filiation and paternity once it has been experienced and understood.

Claude Mauriac, "Georges Simenon," in his The New Literature, translated by Samuel I. Stone (George Braziller, Inc.: from The New Literature by Claude Mauriac; reprinted with permission of the publisher; copyright © 1959 by George Braziller, Inc.), Braziller, 1959, pp. 133-50.

The Train is probably the book everyone has been expecting from Simenon…. If we aren't satisfied now, we are ingrates.

It has been a problem of, precisely, satisfaction. Despite the fame and the high-class praise, Simenon's reputation has never been quite established enough, and I think it's because, up till now, no one book has ever clicked quite satisfactorily home. He has been a master—an acknowledged master—without a masterpiece. Virtuoso technician, he was eluded by some tiny technical knack. Novel after novel was without fault; something much less important, some mere and hardly more than mechanical flaw, disrupted their proportions. This is nothing, of course, to do with the absolute size. The Train has the usual Simenon brevity: he simply gives more condensed value than the standard package….

In The Train he achieves perfect breath control. So far as I can scrutinise it, the miracle (artistically it's nothing else) is worked by almost literally invoking heaven. Simenon always composes on two planes (perhaps the ultimate disproportion in the other novels is a flawed gear-change between them): he incarnates the universal in the particular. Like Chardin, he creates an artistic archaeology—people are implied by their possessions and their utensils; and his method, like Chardin's, is to super-saturate these objects in their own essence, so that something spills over into universality. And when you come to his people—come on them, as it were, in their things—they in their turn are so particularised, just as his settings are so localised, as to become general. I think the psychology of it must be that he makes the habits and idiosyncrasies of his characters so known to the reader that each and every reader emotionally equates the character with the person of his most intimate acquaintance, himself. Similarly, localities realised in such exact and penetrating detail can be treated by the reader's emotions only as the one locality we have all apprehended in truly vivid detail, the setting of our childhood….

I have long held that the Maigret books let us into Simenon's workshop, Maigret himself being essentially a novelist. Eternally dispossessed, eternally a Belgian in Paris, the novelist sits on the Métro wondering about the man opposite: what does such a man carry in his pockets, what sort of room does he go home to at nights? If Maigret is a detective, it's because only the detective—once the victim has been opportunely knifed—has the chance to search the room and itemise the contents of the pockets. Maigret's relationships are almost always more with the victims than with the assassins. He doesn't really want to know whodunit—only what it was like to be the victim before it was done. Other detectives demonstrate the triumph of ratiocinative, Maigret of imaginative reconstruction. They sit and think; he sits and imagines. He has a novelist's passivity….

Maigret is contrasted with the well-born and au fait judge Coméliau, who is in charge of the instruction. Maigret's social standing probably represents Simenon's own Belgianness, a motif Simenon cannot leave alone even in French settings….

Brigid Brophy, "Simenon" (1964), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 145-49.

Simenon is essentially a miniaturist, dealing with small situations, yet he often writes interesting stories with characters that hold the attention. Most of his novels are unrelievedly grim, even the ones penetrated by Maigret's dry humor….

Too many of Simenon's books crumble toward the end or close with a jolting abruptness. But The Little Saint, like some of the others, deserves the reader's gratitude if only for the current of life that goes so wonderfully through most of the story.

Harry T. Moore, in his Twentieth-Century French Literature Since World War II (© 1966 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966, pp. 107-09.

Every artist has a personality, his own spectacles through which he sees the world; by his spectacles he is known, and we decide whether we like his work or not. Simenon's spectacles may be said to be of pure glass, distorting nothing. It is interesting that Simenon is the most widely read of living authors. The public evidently prefers its "facts" straight. Simenon says he does not plot before starting a book, or even during it….

Simenon reads Balzac, but finds him "materially stifling." Balzac built a world around his characters, was concerned with social stresses and the possibility or impossibility of movement in that society during a certain time. Simenon takes the individual out of society, and is determined that each of his novels be placed in a "timeless contemporary background." Splendid! This is why Simenon's novels do not and will not date. This is his signature, his personality….

A copy of a Simenon book can be said to appear somewhere, in some language, every few minutes around the clock. It almost matches the birth rate, and the product is considerably more interesting.

Patricia Highsmith, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 16, 1969, pp. 5, 50.

"The Prison" [is] one vast maze of cliché about the moneyed power elite of Paris. And speeding through it are verities everywhere. As literature "The Prison" has a modest future. As fictional entertainment, apparent truth reconstructed as an imaginative lie, Simenon's novel is a brain drainer….

In the world according to Simenon, all action has consequence. But Simenon's world moves far more decisively than the one we know….

It's too easy to brush off a Simenon novel with "So what else is new?" It won't work to knock the oily style of a man who writes six books a year, numbers his total output in hundreds and his readers in tens of millions. The thing to do is to try to grasp his appeal. It's story. It's speed. He detects conflict. He races to its exposure and resolution. He misses a great deal enroute. No time for nuances. He trades in commonplace values and beliefs. His wisdom is conventional. Safe.

But if Simenon writes elaborately plotted clichés, he might ask life to share the blame. And if he ever took time, he might even penetrate the surfaces and improve on what life passes off as reality.

Webster Schott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 16, 1969, pp. 5, 50.

When Simenon writes about Paris (her streets, her weather, her restaurants), he provides such solid happiness for his readers that it seems mingy to quibble about plot or method, but Superintendent Maigret used to be such a quick, decisive man that it isn't right to have to watch him standing about cogitating on crime instead of moving to avert a murder that is being committed almost before his eyes [in Maigret Hesitates].

The New Yorker, April 25, 1970, p. 139.

In Inspector Maigret (the very name connotes "thinness"), Simenon has created the minimal hero, a Gallic gumshoe as renowned as Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason—but with none of their flamboyant traits. He exhibits no flashing forensics, slight deductive genius, rarely encounters personal violence and never steps out with the dolls. If anything, Maigret is utterly bourgeois, egoless, sympathetic and understanding toward criminals, a man whose home life is unruffled domesticity and who wearily laments his shortcomings. His only indulgences seem to be his pipe, an occasional calva or flowers for his wife. He never celebrates his solutions to a crime, never feels a sense of victory: tomorrow is another day….

"Don't philosophize," Maigret tells himself. And the same feeling is reflected in Simenon's sparse, investigative prose….

Stepping back—taking Simenon's entire oeuvre—one stands before a great though unprepossessing tapestry of human nature with its panoply of passions inflamed or unrequited, a catalogue not of blaring sensations but of how the world is. Even Cheever or O'Hara could hardly have achieved so much with such economy. That is perhaps Simenon's true achievement, to muck about endlessly, methodically, in the middle ground and make it live. Book after book, he has charted that vast territory between the bang and the whimper—where most lives end and where most human nature is essentially rooted.

S. K. Oberbeck, "The Simenon Marker," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1970; reprinted by permission), April 27, 1970, pp. 102-03.

Simenon is, as always, the master novelist, stroking in quiet, subtle character studies…. Each new Maigret adds dimension to the chief inspector and his relationships with his wife, with his chief assistants, Lapointe, Janvier, and Lucas, and with Paris, the city he loves.

Jean M. White, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 17, 1972, p. 13.

Emile [in Simenon's La cage de verre] belongs to a certain psychological family that reappears in Simenon's universe, the members of which are different from other men. They are separated by an indefinable essence, recognized not only by them but by others. Each one of these protagonists has established a modus vivendi which permits him to function in society until an accidental occurrence disturbs the precarious balance he has developed and triggers a series of reactions leading either to murder or suicide. In Novembre, it is the father's seduction of the maid; in La veuve Couderc, it is a reminder of his former existence in the person of his sister; in Les accomplices, it is the crash of a school bus caused by the hero's carelessness; in La main, it is the death of the friend in a snowstorm; and, in La cage de verre, it is the suicide of his brother-in-law that starts Emile on his desperate path to the murder which has always been his destiny. When he finally commits his murder, he feels no pity, since the victim represents all of mankind who, he feels, has never had pity for him; the murder was natural and inevitable.

As we read this fascinating psychological study, we seem to leave the realm of fiction, for we realize that we have already met Emile. His pattern has become only too familiar in the newspaper accounts of the lives of Arthur Bremer, Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan.

Lucille Becker, in Books Abroad, Autumn, 1972, pp. 620-21.

La disparition d'Odile follows for the most part the pattern of what Simenon has called his romans-tragédie (tragedy-novels). These works begin at a moment of crisis and work inexorably to a violent and tragic conclusion. The opening crisis in this novel is Odile's disappearance from her home in Lausanne, prompted, she informs her brother in a farewell letter, by her determination to kill herself. From her letter and from the inquiries made by her brother among friends and acquaintances in Paris, where he has followed her, we discover that Odile resembles the majority of Simenon's protagonists. Like them, she is different from others but, unlike them, she does not blame others for her solitude and accepts full responsibility for her alienation. As the novel progresses, a psychological study emerges of a young woman stifled by the weight of existence and unable either to establish meaningful relationships with others or to carry any project to its conclusion. She has manic-depressive tendencies, at one moment feeling the need to assert herself and to demonstrate her exceptional qualities, while at others, she is overwhelmed by feelings of humility and self-disgust.

Paralleling the psychological novel is a novel of suspense which traces Bob's and Odile's movements throughout Paris as he tries to locate her in time to prevent her suicide. In the true fashion of Simenon's romans-tragédie, he is unable to reach her before she cuts her wrists. However, atypically, and this is where the novel rings false, her life is saved by a remarkable stroke of luck.

Lucille Becker, in Books Abroad, Winter, 1973, p. 105.

As in any Simenon book, the writing here [in A Maigret Trio] is sharp, economical, realistic. God knows how the industrious Simenon manages to get variety into his books, but he does. Each plot is different, characters are carefully defined, a world is created. An offhand phrase here, a sharp observation there, and a person springs to life. There is some formula writing in Simenon—there would have to be, considering the vast number of Maigret books he has written—but his ability to involve the reader and continue to keep him interested is a positive miracle.

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 25, 1973, p. 50.

So it's ture? Georges Simenon has announced his retirement. Word from Lausanne has it that the Belgian-born author whom we all thought indefatigable has at last been wearied by the pace that he himself set—an average of six novels a year during his most productive period! Now, at the age of 69 and suffering dizzy spells, he says he has written his last…. Only a fool would doubt him, for Simenon has again and again proven himself a man of his word….

[While] he is best known here as the creator of Inspector Maigret, the canny Parisian detective who has appeared in about 80 mysteries bearing his name, Simenon has also produced over 200 novels of real merit, most of them psychological thrillers in which characters are pushed to existential limits in crisis situations. These have attracted the serious readership he certainly deserves. In Europe, at least, he is an altogether respectable author, his reputation not in the least tainted—as it seems to be here—by the fact that he also writes mysteries. There are rumors that the last few years running he has even been discussed quite seriously by the Swedish Academy as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Yet, in spite of the number and quality of his novels, American readers seem to find it difficult to accept Georges Simenon as something more than just the writer of the Maigret mysteries. This is partly because he has succeeded all too well at that—you have only to look at the latest collection, A Maigret Trio …, to satisfy yourself that his are among the most taut and cleanly written of any produced today in that genre. But even more, I think that our failure to give him his due as a serious novelist can be laid to American critics, who are for the most part academic in their outlook and elitist in their predilections….

[Perhaps] the best possible introduction for American readers to Georges Simenon would be his American novels. These include not only the 46 written while he lived here in America from 1946 to 1955—among them some of the most important in the Simenon canon, such as Letter to My Judge and The Snow Was Black—but the handful he wrote which really have American settings and characters.

There is only one "American" Maigret—Maigret in New York's Underworld, in which the inspector comes out of retirement as a favor to a young man to help guard his father in New York…. The New York adventure is notable, though, for Simenon discovered that in bringing him to America it became necessary to give him a first name; in Paris he had been simply Maigret. Thereafter, he was Jules Maigret. Simenon continued to turn out the mysteries at an astonishing pace while here in America—22 others, all set in Paris—and he was happily accepted by the American detective fiction fraternity….

[Gradually] he began to make use of American settings in his literary novels. Three Rooms in Manhattan is set from first to last in New York City but has no American characters. Account Unsettled begins in his native city, Liège, and comes to a violent climax out on the Arizona desert…. No non-American writer, at least none who writes in a language other than English, has done a better job of it. The guilt-ridden college teacher in Belle, the angry New York couple in The Hitchhiker, and the runaway psychopath in The Watchmaker of Everton—all of these and others who people these tight, urgent little novels come across as real Americans, with some of our best qualities, as well as monstrous flaws.

The one real masterpiece among Simenon's American novels is The Brothers Rico. Until Mario Puzo came along with The Godfather, this one was the best novel anyone had done with a Mafia background. He has it all down with startling accuracy—not the cosa nostra ceremonies, or details of those eternal New York gang wars, but rather an accurate feeling for the kind of people who become involved in organized crime, their petty motives, their mean ambitions….

He never came back to America. He is a man who makes sudden decisions and sticks to them. That, evidently, is how he decided to retire. And unfortunately he is likely to stick by that one, too.

Bruce Cook, "Simenon: The Last Word," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 4, 1973, p. 2.