Georges Simenon Essay - Simenon, Georges (Vol. 8)

Simenon, Georges (Vol. 8)

Simenon, Georges 1903–

Simenon is a Belgian-born French novelist who has written over two hundred novels under his own name and several pseudonyms. Best known for his detective stories featuring Inspector Maigret, all of Simenon's novels probe the psyche in search of human motivation. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3.)

Georges Simenon is the classic French writer: neat, contained, fastidious and low-keyed. Every tyro could study with profit the first 26 pages of his new novel ["The House on Quai Notre Dame"], simply to see how effortlessly he starts the story turning and how intriguing he makes every scene and incident. And like a Gallic Ross Macdonald, he is at his best in conveying the sense of place in which his stories develop. When his characters speak, more is meant than said….

Simenon never overwrites. Some of the pages in this book read like a series of epigrams on French small-town life. But sometimes he doesn't write enough either. In the new book he never quite explains the twin happenings with which the book starts. Such a shortcoming doesn't make his novella less diverting, but it does leave the reader with a vague and lingering sense of dissatisfaction. (p. 38)

Thomas Lask, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 21, 1975.

This excellent psychological novel [Maigret and the Black Sheep] can only nominally be classified as a murder mystery, since it violates the fair-play deduction rule, and it is far too realistic to be called escapist entertainment. The suspense is extraordinary; I found it impossible to lay the book aside for the two hours it would have taken to watch Deliverance on television. However, what makes it well worth reading is not so much its plot as its mood, which, despite a gloomy reflectiveness, is surprisingly reassuring. It is a paradox that this story of kind, respectable, "good" M. Josselin's violent death—at the hands of a person he knew extremely well—should make us feel optimistic about human nature, but that is what Simenon's sympathetic insight achieves. His Superintendent Maigret is so thoroughly civilized … that his wholesomely masculine presence sets the sad but serene tone for the book. What makes Maigret perhaps the most believable of all famous fictional sleuths is that his qualities are realistically understated. Simenon makes us gradually aware of the character's intelligent fair-mindedness and unfailing courtesy—so obviously deriving not from social convention but from an instinct to do, always, the considerate thing. And it's easy to assume that Maigret's humanism is Simenon's, because a subtle sense of love, all the more moving for its detached and unsentimental mode of expression, pervades his writing. We can feel his compassion even when he is at his most ironic…. (p. 462)

Steve Ownbey, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), April 30, 1976.

How important a writer is Georges Simenon? The greatest storyteller of our day, a writer comparable with Balzac at least in the variety of his themes and characters? Or a marvel of industry and ingenuity who has given us each year six books that must be called production-line rather than custom-made? When one looks again at some of the huge output, the balance drops heavily in favor of the second view….

The high claims made for Simenon are usually based on what he calls his "hard novels," which most of his admirers differentiate sharply from the Maigret stories…. Yet when one looks at the plots of these hard novels, it is clear that they spring from a long French sensational tradition and that purely in terms of plot they are like the detective novels of Gaboriau or du Boisgobey brought up to date. The art consists in making such sensational material plausible by a brilliant flatness of descriptive and physical detail, and by an insistent psychological analysis that succeeds in compelling our acceptance of what is often a preposterous situation.

"The Hatter's Phantoms" is a case in point. Six weeks before the story's opening, M. Labbé the hatter has killed his invalid wife Mathilde and buried her in the cellar. He conceals her death by taking up meals to the bedroom and then flushing them down the lavatory and manipulating a wooden head in an armchair. Also before the story begins he has killed six other women. Why? Because they were all at school with Mathilde and came to see her annually on Christmas Eve. Since Christmas is only a few weeks away, it is necessary to kill them.

Put the story like this, and one doesn't believe a word of it. (p. 4)

[The books of Simenon] that deal with the psychological pressures on individuals who are moved irresistibly to abandon the ordinary courses of their lives are undoubtedly [his] most ambitious works. The approach made in them is remarkable in showing the detachment, not so much of a recording angel as of a tape recorder. This detachment—from political and religious feeling, almost from any feeling about society—gives the stories their peculiar and memorable flavor, but it is also a limitation. The effect, in its bareness and its suppression of "literature," is that of reading a film script rather than a novel, and indeed one's reaction is often to feel, as in "The Hatter's Phantoms," that this would make a marvelous film rather than that it is a marvelous book.

Such a feeling is accentuated by the fact that Simenon has often been badly served by his translators. In "The Hatter's Phantoms" there are many slack and stock phrases and some really appalling repetitions and confusions of pronouns…. (p. 55)

In "Maigret and the Apparition" Inspector Lognon, who like some other members of the Maigret cast, strays over occasionally into the "hard novels," has been murdered immediately after leaving the apartment of a young woman whom he has visited constantly for some weeks. Was the painfully respectable Lognon a philanderer? Maigret investigates and uncovers an absorbingly interesting but outstandingly unlikely plot about art frauds.

On the whole I enjoy the Maigret stories more than the other books. They are less ambitious, and so run less risk of total failure, and the character of Maigret is also something more substantial than any individual figure the novels have to offer us. Simenon's maturing skills are seen most clearly in the development both of Maigret himself from the comparatively crass character of an early book like "Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien" (1931) to the slightly weary philosopher of recent years, and of the plots. The Maigret tales of the 1930's are often very ingenious, and they are convincing within the convention of the orthodox detective stories of that period, but the shift from these to the realistic plotting and psychology of many later books is considerable.

So far as one can generalize about the Maigret stories, they reached their peak during the 1940's and early 50's in books like "Mon Ami Maigret" (1949) and "Maigret et la Vieille Dame" (1953). One has to balance the increasing certainty in tone and plotting with Simenon's own evident decreasing interest in the whole series. "Maigret and the Apparition" … is 1964, not the best vintage but still very acceptable. It is marked by some of the tricks and short-cut devices conspicuous in the later Maigrets, like the one-sided telephone conversation used simply to convey information. (pp. 55-6)

This kind of thing, like the frequent use of conversations repeated to Maigret, is effective in one way, deadening in another. As compensation, there is an excellent verbal and psychological conflict between stolid bourgeois Maigret and an intelligent, arrogant Dutch art connoisseur. This is the kind of thing Simenon does best.

Or is it simply Maigret that Simenon does best? This mild bloodhound epitomizes a central figure in the classical detective story, the workaday detective who is doing a job, but he is surely something more than that. Maigret is the heir not only of all those plodding characters like Sergeant Cuff and Superintendent French but of something more formidable. He appears often to be a bourgeois Nemesis like Hugo's Javert. He is Simenon's most considerable creation, one in relation to whom he has permitted himself (in the brilliantly fanciful "Maigret's Memoirs") a little indulgence in that "literature" which elsewhere is so firmly suppressed. It is said that Simenon dislikes all kinds of lawyers but he respects the Law in the abstract, and Maigret is the most impressive embodiment of the Law in modern fiction. Simenon's achievement is more modest than that claimed for him by his fervent admirers, but it is still considerable. If he is not the greatest storyteller of our day, he has at least created the archetypal official detective of the 20th century. (p. 56)

Julian Symons, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 21, 1976.

Letter to My Mother … is ostensibly a new kind of book for Simenon…. [However,] in one sense the newness is probably more important to Simenon than to the reader. For he is doing in Letter to My Mother essentially what he has always done, both in his romans policiers, where Maigret solves crimes not with Holmesian deduction from physical clues but rather by entering into the criminal's mind, and in his romans psychologiques, where the narrator begins from an established point of view and works backward and forward over time to correct his perceptions. The difference here is that the narrator is Georges Simenon, and the character whose motives he is trying to divine is his own loved-hated mother. There are, alas, other differences as well. Despite its smallness, the book is repetitive in a way that suggests it was indeed not typed but dictated: and perhaps also that its subject robbed the author of the ruthlessness essential to artistic control…. Those who do not know Simenon's work are advised to start elsewhere—The Confessional, or almost any Maigret book. However, dyed-in-the-wool Simenon fans will be interested, and I hope moved, by the real-life basis for the novelist's preoccupations. (p. 1367)

Linda Bridges, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), December 10, 1976.

In 1972 Georges Simenon announced that he would not write any more novels. For years, he stated, "I was dissatisfied…. As a result, I sought a world in which I would find a kindred soul. I tried to create this kindred soul two hundred and fourteen or two hundred and fifteen times without succeeding. And then suddenly I was happy, I felt at peace with myself, with the world, with a person who was not a character in a novel. And I no longer needed to write a two hundred and sixteenth novel." Instead of trying to work out his own problems through his fictional characters, Simenon decided to direct his efforts toward understanding himself directly, to draw from his own experiences lessons which could be of value to others. (pp. 59-60)

Lettre à ma mère … is a poignant inner monologue of the thoughts and emotions of Simenon during the week he spent watching his ninety-one-year-old mother die. Un homme comme un autre, composed of remembrances and veiled confessions, is an effort by an old man to recapture the images of his youth and to marvel at them once again…. Simenon discovered images he thought he had lost forever, images which became mixed with current ones. In this work Simenon was trying to relive certain episodes of his life, not to dictate his memoirs. As a result, he cites very few facts and gives no opinions….

Des traces de pas, the remaining work, provides more intimate details about Simenon's current life…. By means of these [memoirs] Simenon is attempting to do what his fictional characters did—to audit his life. He wonders why, when he was able to understand them—and by extension all of humanity—and why, when his compassion for others was infinite, he is always dissatisfied with himself, "a man like any other" who, like others, does his best.

Simenon's autobiographical works, with the exception of Lettre à ma mère, are less successful than his novels. His genius lies in conveying emotions through fictional characters rather than in analyzing them directly. (p. 60)

Lucille Becker, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Winter, 1977.

Simenon is famous for the speed with which he has turned out several hundred novels. Perhaps he should be infamous for the impatience that has kept many of them from being more than mere entertainments, that has made him better known as a phenomenon than as an artist….

[In "Monsieur Monde Vanishes"] Simenon's impatience intervenes. Instead of letting Monde evolve naturally, instinctively, he pushes him around like a chess piece…. At the end of the novel, Monde reflects that: "He was a man who, for a long time, had endured the human condition without being conscious of it, as others endure an illness of which they are unaware." This is exactly what Simenon has needed in his books: to endure the human condition a little longer, to restrain his awareness a while and let his characters slowly suffer their way into being. (p. 14)

Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 22, 1977.