Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2280
Named by the highly regarded André Gide as the greatest modern French novelist, Georges Simenon indeed compiled an enviable record of achievement, producing a body of work equally remarkable for its quality as for its quantity. The apprenticeship he served in writing his so-called potboilers appears to have served him well, allowing him to write fluently while maintaining rigorous standards of content and characterization. Simenon’s demonstrated proficiency in the mystery genre alone would no doubt suffice to secure his position in the history of modern letters; nevertheless, he further confirmed his reputation with a solid list of mainstream titles valued for their psychological insights.
Simenon’s prodigious accomplishment may be explained, at least to a point, by acknowledging that his fictional universe remains essentially the same regardless of whether Maigret is involved in the action; in both types of novel, the trueprotagonists are hounded, uncommunicative creatures with little more than the most marginal knowledge of what makes them behave as they do. The main difference, as Becker has observed, lies in the thoughtful, reconciling presence of Maigret, who functions almost as a psychoanalyst in “solving” the mystery of behavior to the satisfaction of characters and readers alike; in the mainstream novels, the characters remain in their own private hells, understood (if at all) only by the narrator and his reader. Rarely, and then with remarkable effect, does Simenon surprise the reader with his conclusions; even then, as elsewhere in Simenon’s novels, the denouement soon appears inevitable, amply prepared for by what he has revealed of the characters’ makeup and motivations.
By his own admission, Simenon “discovered” Maigret at a time when, still unsure of his skills as a novelist, he was seeking a viewpoint character who could move about in space and time as the conventional narrator (or novelist) could not; eventually, he settled on a policeman as ideally suited to his needs and proposed the Maigret series, initially planned for eighteen volumes. The result, by now almost legendary, was one of the most durable characters in the history of detective fiction, further established by his omnipresent pipe, his childless wife, and cold meals ordered “to go” during the late-night hours from the obliging Brasserie Dauphine. Modeled on Simenon’s own pensive, easygoing father, Maigret is on occasion so appealing that he makes the prospect of crime seem nearly attractive to the reader. The eminent playwright Jean Anouilh paid indirect homage to Maigret with L’Arrestation (pr., pb. 1975; The Arrest, 1978), in which an aging gangster, mortally wounded in a motor accident, is fortunate enough, in his final moments, to have his entire life explained to him by an even older inspector who has devoted his own career to studying the gangster’s lifestyle and habits. Habitual criminals are, however, rather rare quarry for Maigret; more commonly, the crimes with which he deals are perpetrated by inhabitual offenders, seemingly normal people suddenly propelled toward violence by an accumulation of privation or resentment.
Maigret’s murderers frequently kill for love or for its cherished memory. In Maigret and the Loner, one of Simenon’s later Maigret adventures, more than twenty years elapse before a lovesick painter avenges his girlfriend’s murder with the apparently gratuitous killing of his erstwhile rival, who has since become a homeless derelict. To Maigret, as to his creator, the painter could not possibly have behaved otherwise, his crime having long since been predetermined. Indeed, Maigret solves easily half of his initially baffling mysteries by reconstructing the lives of the victims in search of signs of irregularity or stress that could have engendered violence. Simenon himself claimed that, upon study of the evidence, “there are at least eight crimes in ten in which the victim shares to a great extent the responsibility of the murderer.” Similar cases abound throughout Maigret’s career, from nagging spouses and sadistic lovers to the “public enemy” Fumal in Maigret’s Failure, who himself victimized so many people that Maigret is hard put to choose among them as he reluctantly searches for Fumal’s killer.
Occasionally, as in Maigret Sets a Trap, the identity of the murderer is known early in the novel, lacking only Maigret’s deductive analysis to render the case against him (or her) conclusive. Identified by a police “plant” and hemmed in by circumstantial evidence, the admittedly unlikely mass murderer, a mild-mannered interior decorator named Moncin, eludes conviction only because an additional, identical murder was committed after he was taken into custody. As Maigret, following a hunch, delves deeper into Moncin’s life and career, he finds a spoiled and highly intelligent man dominated by his wife and mother, who compete ceaselessly for top billing in his life. Either woman, Maigret reasons, would have had both motive and capacity to commit the “decoy” murder; in fact, it was the wife who did it, thus scoring a final, irrefutable “point” against her husband’s mother.
Strangers in the House
Generally similar in theme and subject matter to the novels featuring Maigret, Simenon’s mainstream titles likewise abound in ill-adjusted characters who live in quiet desperation, occasionally bursting out in violence. The expository method employed is frequently similar to that of the detective novel, with one or more characters attempting to solve the mystery in their lives. A case in point is that of Loursat in Strangers in the House, an intriguing novel perhaps even more timely in the twenty-first century than when it first appeared. A once-promising attorney, Loursat has responded to his wife’s desertion by hiding out for years, bottle in hand, in the sanctuary of his personal library. A gunshot and the discovery of a body in his attic one night forces his attention to the fact that his adolescent daughter, Nicole, who lives in the same house but whom he has seen only at mealtimes, is in fact the leader of a housebreaking ring and that their accumulated loot is stored in Loursat’s own attic. The dead man proves to have been a criminal who was blackmailing Nicole’s band. Nicole’s lover, Émile Manu, a poor young man who proves a convenient but innocent suspect, is arrested. As Loursat—his professional instincts and sense of justice awakened from long dormancy by what he knows is an unjust arrest—attempts to track down the real killer, he proceeds as well toward a long-overdue assessment of his own strengths and weaknesses; in time, Loursat discovers the true murderer and obtains Manu’s freedom, proceeding thereafter to resume the life and career that he had abandoned years earlier.
Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In
Such happy endings are rare in Simenon’s work; more frequently, the self-knowledge reached through deduction is then used for self-serving means, with little prospect of true liberation. Such is the case in Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In, in which deduction leads a petty embezzler toward the even greater satisfaction of “invisible” blackmail.
Mild-mannered and unprepossessing, like many of the criminals ferreted out by Maigret, “Uncle” Charles Dupeux has for years nursed a grudge against his overbearing employer and brother-in-law, Henri, occasionally feeding that grudge with small thefts that, carefully managed, have grown into a considerable fortune; presumably, he will one day make his “break,” supported by the embezzled nest egg. Before that can happen, however, Charles discovers that Henri is being blackmailed, and with good cause: Henri, although not legally responsible for his late partner’s early death, in fact conspired to bring it about. Armed with this knowledge, Charles retreats to the attic, where he keeps his hoard of stock certificates, trying to decide how best to use what he has learned. To Henri’s consternation, he refuses a generous offer for his silence, knowing that Henri does not even suspect him of embezzlement. Instead, Charles prefers “the revenge of the underdog”—to hold over Henri’s detested head the potential threat of exposure and thus avenge himself, albeit in secret, for what he regards as years of exploitation.
Yet another of Simenon’s memorable character studies is The Witnesses, which recalls the Maigret series as it carefully considers the often fragile foundations of justice. The Witnesses presents the tale of two men, the judge and the accused, and of circumstances that might, on occasion, be assessed as “circumstantial evidence.” Little but the judicial bench, indeed, separates Judge Lhomond from Lambert in the dock; both men have notoriously bad marriages and have lately been prone to irregular behavior. As Lhomond successfully enjoins his jury to allow for “reasonable doubt” in Lambert’s case, he is sure that the man would be convicted were not he, Lhomond, sitting on the bench that day.
Simenon’s exotic novels of the 1930’s, although few in number, contain some of his best-remembered insights and descriptions; as elsewhere in his work, however, the setting is of interest to Simenon almost solely for its effects on human behavior. Joseph Timar, the ill-starred protagonist of Tropic Moon, arrives in the Congo only to find that the company that hired him is about to go bankrupt, that his job lies ten days upriver, and that his predecessor is still in place, having threatened to kill anyone who might be sent in to replace him. Soon thereafter, somewhat corrupted by an older woman of his acquaintance, Timar goes more than a little mad; aboard the ship that has been sent to fetch him home, he confidently declares that “there is no such place as Africa.”
Hardly more fortunate is the engineer Dupuche of Quartier Nègre, who, like Timar, discovers upon arriving at the site of a new job that his position has been abolished as a result of the firm’s bankruptcy. Set in Panama, Quartier Nègre is perhaps even richer in atmosphere than Tropic Moon. In any case, both novels resulted in lawsuits against Simenon by residents of the Congo and Panama, respectively, who considered themselves ill represented in his works. Unlike Timar, Dupuche never leaves the tropics. Necessarily separated from his wife, who finds employment while he does not, Dupuche gradually but definitively goes native, residing in a tumbledown shack with his black mistress and their several children until he eventually dies, still young, of a tropical disease. Somewhat more fortunate is Ferdinand Graux, the title character of Talatala, who survives both the heat and his infatuation with a wanton Englishwoman long enough to rebuild his life and career with the help of his wife, Emmeline.
Unique among Simenon’s many works outside the detective genre is the novel Pedigree, successfully mined by many of his critics in search of clues to his life and technique. Covering scarcely sixteen years in the life of Simenon’s alter ego Roger Mamelin, Pedigree memorably chronicles the sights, sounds, and smells of Liège during the author’s youth, adding unforgettable portraits of “Roger’s” parents, aunts, and uncles. Implicit throughout the novel is the author’s satiric attack on his German-descended mother and her representation of the lower-middle class, which would sooner starve than eat the cheap, abundant food favored by “peasants.” Included as well are detailed portraits of his mother’s boarders, many of whom had already appeared, or would soon appear, with slight fictional disguise, in Simenon’s novels. Of Roger’s parents, the ailing father is by far the more wise and sympathetic, if less forceful and therefore less significant; later, in Lettre à ma mère (1974; Letter to My Mother, 1976), the septuagenarian Simenon would give even fuller vent to his resentment of his mother. In any case, it is clear from Pedigree that were it not for the influence of his mother, Simenon would never have had the determination and perseverance to become a writer and that without his father, he would never have acquired the patience, skill, and compassion that made his work as successful as it is.
Among Simenon’s later novels, Sunday is one of the most memorable and impressive, rivaled perhaps only by The Old Man Dies. As befits its title, the events of the novel take place on a particular Sunday, the day that Émile, an accomplished chef, has selected in advance for the murder of his wife, Berthe, who is also his employer. Impotent in marriage, released from his affliction only in the arms of a wild and uncultured young waitress, Émile remains unaware of his abiding dependence on the domineering Berthe. So great, in fact, is Berthe’s hold on Émile that when he learns that she has outsmarted him, feeding to his young mistress the poisoned lunch intended for herself, he meekly heeds her suggestion that he is already late for the regional soccer match. By the time he returns, all traces of the girl and his act will be gone, and everything will be restored to order.
The Old Man Dies
In The Old Man Dies, similarly concerned with the running of a restaurant, the heir apparent, Antoine, is portrayed initially as an unsympathetic character, but he divides with his brothers, upon their father’s death, a supposed “legacy” that is in fact wholly composed of his own funds. The true legacy, Simenon implies, is the restaurant itself, a business long since spurned by Antoine’s brothers.
Simenon still stands virtually unchallenged in the territory that he claimed as his own between the two world wars. Faulted by some observers for his essentially negative, deterministic view of human nature and by others for his implied derogation of women and marriage, Simenon nevertheless remains among the most accomplished observers and chroniclers of his generation, his own legacy a challenge to any aspiring successors.
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