Georges Simenon Essay - Simenon, Georges (Vol. 3)

Simenon, Georges (Vol. 3)

Simenon, Georges 1903–

Simenon, a Belgian-born French novelist and short story writer, is beloved by millions of readers in thirty languages. He has written about 600 novels, about 120 of which are the psychologically-taut detective stories featuring the inimitable Inspector Maigret.

Georges Simenon is not only the greatest story-teller of our day. He is—to put the matter in blunt, critical shorthand—an eighth type of literary ambiguity. His range, versatility and sheer production baffle his addicts and enrage his critics. Part poet and part journalist, part showman and part shaman, he is among the supreme craftsmen of the art of fiction, its contemporary Pied Piper, one who has created a whole discothèque of disturbing dreams under the hill. Each of his seasoned listeners begins a new melodic line with the sinking certainty that the music will gradually but inevitably draw him into some original and sinister cave of the imagination. 'God knows,' he murmurs, as he turns Page One, 'into what heart of darkness he is going to lead us now!'

At his best, because he sounds this very note of uncertainty—man's uncertainty of himself and of his relationship to others—Simenon is the most significant and the least difficult writer of our time….

Simenon, for the most part, refuses to judge. He is content to present—and leave it at that. It is chiefly for this reason that none of his readers sees his work in quite the same way [as another], just as none of us [dreams] the same nightmares. Hence the diversity of opinions, the enthusiasm and antipathy, the violent reactions that his work arouses on all sides and at many levels. For Simenon has not only slain his tens of thousands of readers; his fellow-artists—Gide, Colette, Mauriac, Eliot, Cocteau, Max Jacob, Maugham, Céline—have all owned to his widdershins power. (pp. ix-x)

At the age of sixty-five, Georges Simenon is not only creating works of art, but he is still evolving and powerfully changing his shape as a writer. Such a case is without parallel in contemporary literature. It is not simply a question of the sheer number of books he has piled up behind him. In terms of the variety of atmospheres and ambiances he has explored, the countless changes of scene that he has shifted, the different methods and tempos he employs and the vast repertory of characters he has created, Simenon remains an amazement, almost an enormity. He can only, so it seems, be explained by comparison. Hence the inky thumbs pointed knowingly backwards towards Balzac—an obvious but a highly misleading reference-point…. (p. 15)

Writing some six years ago, M. Roger Stéphane estimated that with an average of six novels being published every twelve months in some thirty languages, a new Simenon made its appearance somewhere in the world every third day. Since 1929, Simenon has written some two hundred works of fiction under his own name. Previously, partly to free himself from journalism, partly and quite deliberately to prepare himself for his vocation as a writer, he produced, under one or another of his sixteen pseudonyms (including the original 'Sim') countless specimens of what he now calls 'my pulp fiction'; all this beside short stories and articles. These vilely printed and garishly illustrated twopence-coloureds are now rare collector's items. (pp. 15-16)

[His style is one] in which, as Raymond Mortimer has well described it, 'clichés remain side by side with brilliant images, so that the style presents a model not of elegance but economy' and hence 'the resulting works appear more akin to films at their best than any previous novels'. This ability to combine the excitement of a good film with the realization of character in depth is an original mark of Simenon's fiction, and partly owes its success to his development of the fictional flashback. Yet it remains a paradox that such a stream-lined writer should at the same time be one of the most poetic of living novelists, a stylist who by no means always prefers the mot moyen to the mot juste. (pp. 17-18)

[His] universe contains neither God nor the Devil. This, while it leaves most of his assembled repertoire joyless and partly living, never denies to his most effective men and women their passionate intensity or, as Bernanos would suggest, degrades the majority to a state of aimless brutishness…. Simenon has never had much belief in active happiness, feeling that it exists most recognizably as a state of equilibrium, more or less stable at various moments in our lives. In any case it would be fair to say that Simenon qua novelist, like Proust …, believes that 'those who pose for happiness are not, as a rule, able to spare us many sittings'. (pp. 74-5)

[Few] writers' work is as saturated with sexual feeling as the fiction of Simenon. It is not only that so many of his plots turn on sexual conflict and the sexual act itself, or that sexual motifs—of betrayal, infatuation and so on—recur again and again in his novels. Nor is it only that the whole gamut of sexual emotion is revealed therein—from all the nuances of a bodiless and platonic love affair, wonderfully caught in the exchange of 'period' letters between Princesse de V—and the ex-ambassador in Maigret et les Vieillards, to the psychological ravages of impotence as described, for example, in that curious, highly ingenious and little-known masterpiece of melodrama, Ceux de la Soif. Rather, you might say that sex is the capsule in which most of Simenon's fiction is embedded. It encloses his novels, just as Time encloses Proust's Recherche or will and action enclose the world of Stendhal. In Simenon's case, Nietzsche's emphasis on the importance of 'this most ancient and original form of frenzy' is no mere generalization but has intense, specific reference to his whole creative nature and autonomy as an artist. In fact sex bulks so largely, often so unconsciously, in his work as to suggest that it is the one separate creative bank account on which this most sparing and economical of writers has imaginatively overdrawn. Yet, if sexual feeling gives Simenon his driving force and his vision as a writer, one must agree that such withdrawals are compensated a thousandfold by the yield of the total investment. (pp. 77-8)

Asked to name his literary parentage, he chooses Gogol for his original tragi-comic attitude towards the world, as it is expressed in Dead Souls, and Tchekov, instancing the latter as the great artist of compassion (Simenon is presumably thinking less of the plays here than of Tchekov's short stories). In this connection he again cites Maigret and his role as a 'mender of destinies' (raccommodeur des destinées). As he again points out (and it is a fact that any consideration of Simenon's work must always take into account) he discovered the great Russians—Gogol, Dostoevsky, Pushkin (Tolstoy is unaccountably absent)—long before he read Balzac or Stendhal. Obviously, he much prefers the latter. (p. 80)

Creatively, there is something very Gaullist about Simenon. To a greater extent than any novelist in this century, he believes in holding all the threads in his own hand, and perhaps it is this, more than anything else about his work, that causes many readers to find his imaginary world as psychologically stifling as he himself finds Balzac's stifling and smothered in stage properties. He is as absolute and arbitrary as Zeus and—we are about to see—as unfathomable, under certain aspects, as Jehovah. (p. 87)

One of the great drawbacks to interpreting Simenon's fiction successfully in terms of conventional criticism of the novel is that where everything—persons, places, actions, gestures—is made so immediate and photographic (cinematic, one should say, perhaps), so overwhelmingly present to the reader's eye, the reflective imagination is liable to go by default. The kind of critical rationale that presupposes what might be loosely called a writer's philosophy of life or reality—the rationale that one can apply to, say, a novel by George Eliot or Conrad or Henry James—is correspondingly difficult if not impossible in the case of Simenon, where everything that is needful to the development of the tragedy is given and little or no margin for moral speculation is provided.

Because the best of Simenon's work stems from his own striking and original conception of contemporary tragedy rather than from the assumptions of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novel, the old aesthetic precept of 'in the subjective element immerse' is inapplicable in his case…. [It] must be emphasized that the creative root of his matter is to be found in Greek drama rather than in the novel proper. In one sense the huge body of his work might be figuratively described as a repeopling of the House of Atreus, the invasion of Thebes and Tauris and Mycenae by the petits-gens of Liège and Montparnasse and Poitiers, or … the smart, brittle society of the Île St. Louis and the soiled, shabby corridors of the Palais de Justice. (p. 121)

Insofar as any artist can be unconditioned, he is the most determinedly unconditioned writer of our time: classless, in the literary sense that he is negatively or disinterestedly anti-bourgeois and that the novel, from any point of view, sociological, aesthetic or otherwise, is still the purest bourgeois art form in existence; stateless in his own sense that by being born a Belgian citizen he can claim to be 'without nationality'; and entirely unmetaphysical, without any epistomology or theory of human ends and means. His only loyalty is to his own imagination—to the vast mythology of private destinies over which he arbitrarily and autonomously presides, spinning the fates of each, striking or releasing at his will or as the hidden lines, the undiscovered ends of their character, direct. (p. 127)

The chronicles of Maigret are fortunately so well known that it is unnecessary to examine his case-book in detail or even to summarize any of his more famous adventures. (Since Simenon's later fiction is mostly concerned with placing and developing a situation rather than telling a story, reader and writer can be excused any further analysis of plot.) The pipe, the heavy overcoat, the anachronistic bowler, repudiated by Maigret himself, the office in the Quai des Orfèvres with its view of the Seine and its old-fashioned black stove, the glass-fronted waiting room, the trays of beer and sandwiches sent in from the Brasserie Dauphine across the way—all these stage properties have likewise passed into legend….

Strictly and unkindly speaking, one could say that there are three Maigrets—on the lines of Philip Guedalla's enumeration of the three Henry Jameses, James the First, James the Second and the Old Pretender. There is certainly Maigret the First—a false or rough-hewn and uncompleted Maigret, the harsh, red-faced, suitably bowler-hatted investigator of Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien—just as there is, in one or two of the later volumes, something of an Old Pretender. In between—indeed, all through the series, as much in some of the earliest adventures as in his most recent—is the Maigret that we recognize and feel we know. (pp. 153-54)

Maigret's delight in all kinds of weather—snow, thick fog, sea mist, spring mornings in Paris, fierce heat on the Côte d'Azur and, above all, rain—is part of his childlike pleasure in stopping and staring, following his nose, savouring the moment. (Rain, it has been remarked, plays the same part in the early Maigrets as light played in the work of the Impressionists.) Sitting at the window of his flat in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, tranquilly smoking a pipe and watching the lorries coming and going in the warehouse opposite, he experiences 'a sensation which took him back to certain days of his childhood, when his mother was still alive and he was not going to school, because of a cold, or because term had ended. The sensation, in a way, of discovering "what went on when he wasn't there" … he was beginning to notice, again, certain tricks of the light, the advance on the pavement of the line between shadow and-sunlight, the way things are distorted in the quivering atmosphere of a hot day'. Significantly, Maigret is never more at ease, or more himself, than when he is questioning children (L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre, Le Témoignage de l'Enfant de Choeur). His general approach to human-beings, what M. de Fallois terms with great exactness 'the mixture of timidity and irony' with which he observes the characters in his cases, is all part of his determination to understand rather than to judge. It is Maigret's disposition to regard so many of his guilty men and women merely as gamins and gamines that moves him…. (p. 158)

'You know my methods, Watson.' Maigret's strength is that he has no method at all. Just as Le Grand Bob's logic of feeling defies all the firm Cartesian principles of his father and his family tradition, so in Maigret's approach to the human mysteries confronting him, 'the intelligence loses its rights', swallowed up in his intuitive effort to put himself in the place of everyone concerned. Each case is less a problem to resolve than a drama to be understood, with Maigret himself playing each part in what Desmond MacCarthy once called 'the theatre under my hat'…. (p. 159)

With all this, Maigret is no prodigy, no Sherlock Holmes, let alone his brother Mycroft. In his private capacity, his psychological need to go beyond the line of duty (La Première Enquête de Maigret, Maigret et al Grande Perche), his low resistance in face of a human mystery, he is very much a hero of our time. If, as M. de Fallois thinks, the essence of heroism is the ability to get mixed up with what does not concern you, Maigret is heroic. (Fittingly, his favourite reading, when confined to the house with one of his frequent colds, are the novels of Dumas.) Yet he remains un fonctionnaire, that is to say, a man of limitations, dependent on the hierarchy of his profession and its adjuncts, his superiors at the Quai, the examining magistrates of the Parquet (the odious Coméliau, the sarcastic Amadieu, the agreeable Urbain de Chezaud, the sympathetic Ancelin) and his own devoted squad of inspectors. The last have been depicted so deftly over the years that each of them has long ago taken on a distinct identity of his own and now forms a firm part of the Maigretian legend. There is Lucas, senior of the Chief-Inspector's henchmen, the one with 'the greatest flair and judgment' whose only fault is that 'it was so easy to guess his profession'; there is Janvier, faithful and uxurious, the burly Torrence, and young Lapointe who, with less training and experience than the others, can often pass for a student or a young clerk…. (pp. 161-62)

John Raymond, in his Simenon in Court (© 1968 by John Raymond; excerpted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1968.

Simenon is a truly modest man. He knows his own limitations and does not make for himself the claims that have sometimes been made for him by some of his more florid admirers. He describes himself as a craftsman, has a healthy distrust of intellectuals, of belle-lettriens, of literary occasions and intellectual conversations, feels ill at ease at social functions, and is quite unambitious in conventional terms: recognition, decorations, and so on. He can, it is true, well afford to be….

He is no hero and has an engagingly healthy distrust of heroics and of display. La grandeur is not for him, for he knows its cost in human suffering and easily penetrates the confidence-trick behind the posturing. He and his characters are the antithesis of André Malraux and of Saint-Exupéry; and he is not deceived by the conscious public image adopted by Anatole France and by Gide. He is a modest, limited man who has sought to write about humble, ordinary, unprestigious people. There is nothing patronizing about his approach to any of his characters. He is also kind; he is even prepared to grant that politicians may sometimes believe in what they are doing. He does not subscribe to the thesis of total badness even in public figures….

He is a moralist who does not expect too much. Most of his novels are deeply pessimistic. One is not surprised that he took to Dostoevsky rather than to Turgenev. His pessimism is sometimes facile, like his psychology; but it is part of him. For an author so little inclined to flippancy and facetiousness, a declared enjoyment of Raymond Queneau comes rather as a surprise. Whatever Simenon is, he is not a humorist.

We can accept him on his own evaluation as a social anarchist. (He is by no means the first anarchist to be very, very rich; but at least, unlike some, he has worked for his wealth and, in doing so, has given only pleasure to a great many people.) His rejection of all collective ties other than that of the family is both defiant and, perhaps, reassuring. Or perhaps it is a further expression of ultimate pessimism.

"Simenon on Simenon," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), March 24, 1972, pp. 335-36.

[Simenon] is the only European crime writer (if we regard Britain as an offshore island) to have become famous outside his own country since Gaston Leroux and Maurice Leblanc. He is certainly much more than a crime writer, and is regarded by his greatest admirers as a novelist comparable with Balzac. He wrote for many years an average of six short novels a year, books so varied in subject, setting, and characterization that nobody could possibly call them production-line articles. Yet in spite of this variation his work is so even in tone and manner that there is not much question of talking about an early or a late style….

[In the Maigret stories the] settings never fail, giving always an impression of personal involvement with Paris or Antibes, a shop by the Belgian frontier or a guinguette by the Seine. The weather is described with such vigor and pleasure that it is, again, as though the writer were actually soaking up the rain or sun that he is writing about. Simenon's susceptibility to physical experience of this kind is greater than that of any other contemporary novelist. And the characters grow in this thick soil of sensuous experience; they fit perfectly into sleazy or criminal city life, a small town's close provincialism, or the uneasy potential violence of a port. They take color and conviction from their surroundings, and there seems absolutely no limit to the kinds of people Simenon knows, and into whose personalities he can enter. Well, perhaps there is. Has he produced a convincing Englishman?…

I do not think it has been noticed that never in these stories does Simenon stand back and write in the third person. Everything that happens is as Maigret sees it, or as it is told to him. He really is the stories, in a way that is not true of any other detective…. Obviously some of the stories are better than others, and my own feeling is that the early tales, which often find Maigret mixed up with professional criminals, are preferable to the sometimes ramblingly philosophical books of recent years, but the important thing is Maigret himself. We know him better, in the sense of knowing him all round, than we know any other detective, certainly better than we know Sherlock Holmes….

[Maigret, a] son of a bailiff is never at ease with aristocrats, or for that matter with politicians, as he is with children, criminals, and bourgeois of the lower class, and with professional men like doctors and solicitors. There are certain kinds of people about whom his understanding is limited—artists, scientists, eccentrics generally. His instinctive respect for but also distrust of the rich is shown in L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre (1933)…. If he solves the cases in which such people are mixed up, it is through his gift of empathy combined with the sudden moments of instinctive understanding that come to him. The personage created by Simenon, through stroke after stroke in book after book, has a plodding energy and endless patience. He is not of great intellectual stature, but has flashes of what can only be called artistic penetration, through which he understands ways of life alien to his own. We do not know how he votes, but are sure that it will always be for stability rather than for change. We do not know his sexual habits, but they will certainly not be markedly unusual. Maigret is a typical bourgeois, but with a breadth of sympathy that most bourgeois lack. He is one of the most completely realized characters in all modern fiction….

The Maigret stories stand quite on their own in crime fiction, bearing little relation to most of the other work done in the field. (Simenon is not much interested in crime stories, and has read few of them.) The bases of the stories are often slight, almost anecdotal. There are no great feats of ratiocination in them, and the problems they present are human as much as they are criminal. The ambience of the stories is wonderfully real, the characters are true and often memorable, yet we are not often emotionally moved by them. Maigret's detached sympathy becomes our own, and like him we do not care to dig too deeply into the roots of crime; we are ready to move on to another case. Simenon is an undoubted master of the crime story, but his mastery rests primarily in the creation of Jules Maigret.

Julian Symons, "Simenon and Maigret," in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 145-50.

Georges Simenon has written, in the Maigret series, some of the most distinguished detective and thriller stories I have ever read. But his influence has been baneful. The Maigret books tread delicately the line between real and psychological detection. You wonder whether Maigret has caught the villain because he has worked the matter out according to the evidence or because he has divined the villain's psychology. Increasingly, Simenon's books tilt toward the latter conclusion.

Patrick Cosgrave, in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 8, 1973, p. 44.