Georges Simenon

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Simenon, Georges 1903–

Simenon, a Belgian-born French novelist who has written over two hundred novels under his own name and several pseudonyms, is 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, and 8.)

Frank Occhiogrosso

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[Simenon's] novels are taken seriously, I think, because, as they repeatedly demonstrate, Simenon takes human beings seriously. As Julian Symons has pointed out, Simenon may place his characters in sometimes outrageously sensational situations, but those characters are always believable in those situations because they are so fully realized. They are recognizably human, and so their claims upon us are immediate and great. And the character whom we watch with greatest fascination, because he is most fully realized for us again and again, is the character of Inspector Maigret. (p. 310)

Maigret and the Apparition contains none of the exquisite evocation of place found in the fine Death of a Harbor-Master. Nor does it contain a descent into the murky depths of criminal psychology, as in Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. But what it does do, like the best of the Maigret novels before it, is show us Maigret the Observer, Maigret the explorer of the sometimes pathless wood of human emotions, the man who proceeds carefully, gently, but finally securely because he is, ultimately, less the police interrogator than he is a human being aware of and sensitive to the feelings of other human beings. And this sensitivity, coupled with all of Maigret's experience as a student of human nature, makes him—and us—aware of the fact that, as the novel says, "People aren't always what they seem, and if one could see behind the facade, one would find a great many things one wasn't expecting." (p. 311)

Frank Occhiogrosso, "Current Reviews: 'Maigret and the Apparition'," in The Armchair Detective (copyright © 1977 by The Armchair Detective), Vol. 10, No. 4, October, 1977, pp. 310-11.

Lucille Frackman Becker

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The detective novel was to change … in the wake of the disillusionment with science that followed World War I. At the same time, faith in reason was diminishing as Freud gave primacy to the irrational forces of the unconscious. New methods of investigation that relied on instinct, intuition, and empathy replaced rational deduction. Simenon's Maigret, who has been called the Bergson of the detective novel, illustrates this change in emphasis. Maigret's role, unlike that of Holmes, is not to reason but to understand intuitively. (pp. 36-7)

Maigret's ability "to live the lives of every sort of man, to put himself inside everybody's mind" remains constant throughout the Maigret cycle, as do Maigret's methods. While the technique remains essentially the same, there is a change in emphasis from the early novels, where Maigret is solely a sympathetic witness, to the later works in which he occupies the entire novel and his reactions, rather than the case at hand, hold the reader's attention…. When Maigret follows a suspect, he is not waiting for him to commit the blunder that will facilitate his apprehension, but is attempting to feel with the suspect, to adapt to the rhythm of his life, and to understand him. Unlike other detectives, he does not try to set up barriers between the criminal and himself, but, on the contrary, seeks to remove them. (p. 37)

Simenon writes that one of the branches of criminology least known to the general public is victimology, that is to say, the responsibility of the victim in crimes. Often, as in Maigret in Vichy, the victim, who had goaded her murderer beyond endurance, is more villainous than the murderer. At the end of the novel, Maigret expresses the hope that the murderer will be acquitted. (p. 41)

Solving a crime for Maigret does not involve discovering the criminal's method, but attempting to relive the psychological crisis that provoked the crime. Putting himself in the criminal's place, Maigret asks himself whether he would make a certain gesture or say a certain word if he had committed the crime. Simenon presents the precise psychological detail that makes the murderer an understandable, unforgettable human being. (p. 42)

In Simenon's opinion, the worst humiliation for a man is to feel rejected by human society. Maigret represents a forgiving society, identifies with the criminal, and, by understanding him, gives him back his self-respect after the confession, permitting him to a certain degree to be reintegrated into the community. (p. 46)

Maigret is one of the few harmonious characters in all of Simenon's work. He is wise and kind. He knows that it is impossible to understand men completely, but he accepts them as they are. He is astonished by nothing and never moralizes. His wisdom restores faith in life. It is his reassuring presence that constitutes the major difference between the "Maigrets" and Simenon's other novels. Many of the same themes are repeated in both types of novel, and Simenon often takes up subjects in the "Maigrets" that are more serious than those in his other novels. Despite this, in the "Maigrets" Simenon only takes us to the threshold of tragedy, which he crosses in the others. This is due to the reassuring presence of Maigret, the father figure, who convinces us that there is an order, a structure, and a meaning to life. In the other novels, there is no Maigret to whom the protagonist can confess, there is no one to understand or with whom to communicate, leaving him immured in his solitude, stifled and suffocated by repressed confessions. (p. 53)

All of Simenon's novels are built around psychological investigations. While, in the "Maigrets" they are carried out by the detective, in the others they are effected by the novelist rather than his alter ego. In the "Maigrets" Simenon observes the characters from a distance at first and then slowly closes in, while in the others he focuses directly on a character from the beginning and then delves deeper and deeper into his psyche to reveal what neither he nor the reader suspected previously. In the "Maigrets," Simenon starts with a given situation that he examines in order to discover the psychological imperatives behind it; in the other novels, he gradually builds up the pressures leading to the final tragedy. In none of his work, however, does Simenon attempt to provide answers to the problems he presents. Answers, he maintains, are a function of intelligence, and his tool is intuition, not intelligence. While the role of intelligence is to explain, reform, justify, propose solutions, the role of intuition is to attempt to understand and, through understanding, sympathize, the only true means of communication for Simenon. (p. 54)

There is only one clan in all of Simenon's work that exerts a constructive influence. Significantly, it is dominated by a strong patriarch. Omer Petermans of Le Clan des Ostendais, one of the few memorable characters in Simenon's novels, holds his family together under conditions of stress. Because of his strength, the clan maintains its cohesiveness, despite the disasters provoked by the German occupation that threaten to destroy it. (pp. 55-6)

[Very few of Simenon's characters] are at peace with themselves. For Simenon, there is no such thing as active happiness; happiness, for him, is finding a temporary state of equilibrium…. This theme, which Simenon has treated more than any other, as well as the theme of guilt felt by characters who are pushed to existential limits in crisis situations, places Simenon's novels in the mainstream of modern literature despite his use of traditional plot structure. (p. 62)

The acts of violence that conclude so many of Simenon's novels are, to him, "tragic consequences of the fact that for many men and women life is sometimes, if not nearly always, unendurable. In the moment of crisis, they are driven to affirm themselves and, human society being what it is, they can affirm themselves only through murder, rape, arson, suicide, and the rest of the catalogue of crimes." (p. 67)

A desperate attempt to escape solitude through eroticism is evident in many of Simenon's novels. Charles Alavoine, in Lettre a mon juge, describes this frantic effort to lose oneself in another. "The more she belonged to me, the more I felt her to be mine, the more I judged her worthy of being mine … the more I felt the need to consume her even more. To consume her as I, for my part, would have wanted to merge completely with her." (p. 81)

That Simenon's characters rarely succeed in linking their lives to another is, he maintains, a faithful reflection of reality, adding: "What people call 'love' varies in each individual. All my characters have known one type of love or another…. For most of the individuals I know, love plays the same role I assign it in my novels … there are very few whose lives are given over entirely to love, and there aren't many either for whom love is a beautiful thing."

Simenon's work contains endless variations on the theme of the failure of a couple to achieve true union…. A recurring image symbolizing this failure is that of the suddenly empty home. The husband returns one day to find that his wife has abandoned him…. At first, all of them are bewildered by a seemingly inexplicable abandonment but, as they begin to reflect, they understand that it was the culmination of a long misunderstanding that only their blindness had hidden from them. (pp. 85-6)

Successful relationships between men and women stand out in Simenon's work because of their rarity. Maigret's happiness is dependent on the fact that his wife is satisfied to assume a passive role, acting rather like a servant or a paid companion. Her life is one of service and dedication to Maigret. Another successful marriage is that of Omer and Maria Petermans (Le Clan des Ostendais), which is more of an equal partnership since Omer respects his wife's opinions and consults her before making any decisions, even in matters relating to his profession. (p. 89)

The principal theme in the work of Georges Simenon is escape, both physical and psychological. In a group of novels, Simenon deals with middle-aged men who, after years of conforming to the standards of society flee their milieu…. A certain event causes the hero to break with his habits, his duties, and the types of life he has led; his break is often consummated by a crime; his evasion brings him adventure and initiates him into a certain seedy side of life; although his liberation is consecrated by a redemption, he fails—either he goes mad or comes back to his point of departure with a knowledge of the meaninglessness of existence; but the hero who has the courage to take the measure of his life and then return has acquired a form of second sight that helps him to survive.

Before their awakening, the lives of all of these men are characterized by mechanical repetition of a series of gestures and actions, almost as if ritual exorcised the misfortune that might otherwise overtake them…. [Established routines] permit them to live automatically, thereby obviating the need either to appraise the meaning of their lives or to make an existential choice.

The break, or crisis, seems at times to occur spontaneously, but this is only because the cause is not readily apparent. In such cases, however, it is the culmination of a situation that has been developing subliminally for a long time. (pp. 95-6)

[But these protagonists all encounter the harsh truth] that one cannot change one's life or live one's dreams. This message, which is repeated throughout Simenon's work, has caused [Léon Thoorens] to refer to him as the "novelist of useless flight." (pp. 98-9)

In 1962, Pierre de Boisdeffre wrote that Simenon's readers were still waiting for him to give them the great novel in which he would show not only the "infinity of human solitude, but also the grandeur of human communion; not only the libido and the destrudo, but also the will to make something of oneself; a novel in which man could still be the product of his milieu, but where he would no longer be its prisoner because the choice that he, himself, would make, would, in the words of Sartre, become his destiny."

Simenon produced such a novel, Le Petit Saint, in 1964. When he finished it, he exclaimed: "At long last I have done it! With each successive novel for at least twenty years, I have been trying to externalize a certain optimism that is in me, a joie de vivre, a delight in the immediate and simple communion with all that surrounds me, and to attain, in order to describe such a state, to some kind of serenity. However, after the first third or half, my earlier novels invariably turned into tragedy. For the first time, I was able to create, in Le Petit Saint, a perfectly serene character, in immediate contact with nature and life. That is why, if I were allowed to keep only one of all my novels, I would choose this one."

Le Petit Saint takes its name from the epithet applied to the protagonist by his schoolmates because of his serene detachment and the "quiet and almost continuous satisfaction, that could have been taken for placidness, [which his smile reflected]. A gentle smile, without irony, without meanness, without aggressiveness…. He was happy, he watched, he went from one discovery to another, but … he made no effort to understand. He was content with contemplating a fly on the plaster wall or drops of water rolling down the windowpane." (pp. 108-09)

[The protagonist] succeeds because he has never lost the young boy's love of all of life. Almost all of Simenon's protagonists have failed to remain faithful to the children they once were. One day, seized with a longing for a world like the one shown in picture books, they flee in search of innocence and childhood purity. Their defeat is thus inevitable. (p. 111)

The modern novel, for Simenon, is the tragedy of our day and, like those of ancient Greece, poses the basic problem of man's destiny. Simenon has called his novels "romans-tragédie" (tragedy-novels) and in them he has adopted many of the rules that governed the ancient tragedies. Like them, his novels start at the moment of crisis and lead rapidly and inexorably to a tragic conclusion. There are no long introductions or chronological expositions in his novels; the past is evoked rapidly in a series of flashbacks. There are few characters and no subplots, action is limited and attention is focused on the eternal drama of man's existence. What Simenon is trying to produce is the quintessential, or "pure," novel, reduced to its basic elements and containing nothing that can be depicted through other media….

Simenon has mentioned that he believes that what critics call his atmosphere is nothing more than the impressionism of the painter adapted to literature. (p. 124)

Simenon excels in conveying a few decisive sensory impressions that evoke an atmosphere more vividly than any long itemized description…. While his images are primarily visual, Simenon often establishes relationships between diverse sensory impressions. (p. 125)

Sensory impressions are also used to express states of being, both physical and mental….

[Roger Stephane] has pointed out that the sense of touch is so important in Simenon's work that he even invented a new word, or rather transformed an adjective "mouillé" (wet, damp, moist) into the more concrete noun "le mouillé" to signify something indefinable and omnipresent in his work. It is neither rain, nor fog, but something more tenacious, so that you have a face "caked with mouillé," a "night of mouillé," a boat floundering "somewhere in the mouillé." (p. 126)

Simenon's decision in 1972 to stop writing novels provided a rare opportunity to consider the work of a living writer in its entirety. It was possible, from the perspective of a completed body of work, to study the author's narrative genius as well as his psychological perceptions as they apply to all of his novels. There are, inevitably, weak spots in such a vast literary production, principally certain works that seem to be hastily conceived imitations of earlier novels. L'Homme au petit chien, for example, is vastly inferior to Le Temps d'Anaïs, which it copies closely. Yet, even in this work, there are unforgettable passages, poetic transmutations of hideous reality that evoke the genius of Baudelaire.

Considered as a whole, Simenon's work is unique in modern literature. There are few contemporary writers who have recreated an entire period as completely as Simenon. He has evoked the atmosphere of France in the first half of the century, portraying its provinces and cities, its people and customs on a vast canvas that can be compared to Balzac's Comédie humaine, while, at the same time, imbuing the characters with a universality that transcends time and geographical boundaries. His novels form a bridge between the traditional novel, which sought merely to tell a story, and the modern novel, which has more ambitious goals.

Like the traditional novelist, Simenon keeps to chronological plot structure; his novels start at the moment of crisis—the past is evoked by a series of flashbacks—and work directly to a conclusion. Transitions between dream and reality, between supposition and fact are clearly indicated, and characters are easily distinguishable from one another. Simenon employs many traditional plot situations in his novels, such as conflict over an inheritance, desperate actions to maintain a privileged position, sibling rivalry leading to murder. The novels range in mood from tragedy to tragicomedy, to drama, to melodrama. That none of them is a comedy may be attributed to Simenon's view of life, summed up in the words: "It's a difficult job to be a man."

Unlike many novelists of the post-World War II era, Simenon excludes from his work religion, politics, war, history, and metaphysical speculation. His aim, using a contemporary, timeless background, is to explore the eternal problems of man's destiny. For Simenon, success as a novelist implies being understood by people in all walks of life at all times.

Nevertheless, Simenon's novels are very distinctly products of the twentieth century. His impatience with language, his belief that watching one's language distorts thought and that language is a means, not an end, are attitudes shared by the majority of his peers. His novels also express the anguish of the twentieth century, the feelings of alienation, guilt, and expatriation to which the works of Kafka and Camus have accustomed us. Like their protagonists, as well as those of Sartre and Malraux, Simenon's characters find themselves alone in a world without transcendent values and without the social structure and hierarchy that formerly gave order, stability, and meaning to life. They are existentialists inadvertently, for they must find in themselves the answers that were formerly supplied by society and religion; they must act instinctively as they encounter each new situation, for nothing in their past dictates their actions.

Yet Simenon's protagonists go beyond those of Sartre and Camus to join those of Beckett. Unlike the existentialist heroes, Simenon's characters lack lucidity, they are unable to understand their desperate situation. The existentialist hero assumes his role and, by choosing, creates his essence. Simenon's characters, on the contrary, do not choose, but are carried along by forces stronger than themselves; they watch helplessly as they are crushed beneath the weight of pressures too heavy to bear. Like Beckett's characters, they are the object, not the subject, of the dramas in which they are involved. In their perplexity and confusion, they, too, suffer from a strange amnesia, wondering where they were previously and how long they have been in their present situation. This bewilderment, Simenon remarks, results from an internal fissure, a rending of the inner being. Modern literature aspires to have man lose his distinguishing characteristics, to upset his chemistry, to destroy what had previously defined him, what made him what he was and what he believed he was. In this process of redefinition, man has lost what had formerly been called his soul. Unable, therefore, to establish values, he is led only by vague forces; he does not initiate his actions but merely carries them out. As a result, he is not responsible for what he does, a concept that brings with it the concomitant contemporary thesis, the banality of evil. Simenon's characters murder without thought, instinctively, as they breathe. Their lack of lucidity, their subservience to blind forces, is perhaps the twentieth century "mal du siècle," more fatal than the nineteenth century despair over the divorce between ideals and reality. The type of man portrayed in Simenon's work lacks distinctive characteristics and positive values, which explains why there are no great thoughts, ambitions, or passions in Simenon's work.

Simenon's evolution as a writer has been marked by a desire to serve, "to better man's life, no matter what man, no matter what human embryo, no matter what offal." He does this by demonstrating to his readers that others are prey to the same weaknesses and vices as they. What he espouses, in effect, is an acceptance of limitations, not a desire to go beyond and overcome them. His compassion for all of mankind and his understanding of the difficulty of existence, coupled with his narrative genius, account for the unprecedented popularity of his work. In reading Simenon's novels, the reader is struck by his love of life and the joys it affords…. His goal, he remarks, is to give people a taste for life and for the small joys of life, for the rain as well as for a glass of beer savored on the terrace of a café. (pp. 137-39)

Lucille Frackman Becker, in her Georges Simenon (copyright © 1977 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1977, 171 p.

Erica M. Eisinger

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Simenon's hero, Maigret, is a man's man. He is literally the champion of men, to the exclusion of women. Women play two parts in Simenon's world: la maman or la putain, the mother or the whore. Simenon's men are engaged in a fearsome struggle to assert themselves; the adversary is nearly always a woman. The typical Simenon novel recounts a man's attempt to escape the bad mother, the whore, who invades the masculine sanctuary and incites him invariably to crime, and to find the good mother, the perfect wife, who alone renders heroic action possible. (p. 52)

The one female character of note, who appears in several tales, and occasionally does help her husband in a minimal way is Mme Maigret. Mme Maigret, however, never extends her efforts beyond the strictly female sphere: she does go into hat shops in pursuit of clues (Madame Maigret's Friend), or attempts to question a colleague's wife (Maigret et le fantome). But she never takes up detective work as an occupation or avocation, as other literary detectives' spouses do. She always bows out of the investigation as soon as Maigret steps in. What could Mme Maigret do that her husband does not do?

Maigret incarnates at once the stereotypical male qualities of force and power, and the female ones of patience and understanding. There is a gentle side to Maigret which may be viewed as his participation in the female. Maigret shares the stereotypical female traits of passivity, instinctiveness, vulnerability and sympathy. Maigret is the antithesis of the super-sleuth. In his very thickness and sluggishness Maigret seems to hug the earth. He is not a man of action but a man of torpor. (pp. 53-4)

Maigret's methods are neither scientific nor rational. He quits the masculine world of facts and observations to embrace the female world of intuitive sensation. He is content to wait, to fuse his identity with that of the criminal, to let the criminal come to him in a feminine act of self-effacement. Maigret solves crimes through the passive acceptance of sensory impressions. Keenly aware of atmosphere, Maigret relies on instincts, on an almost animal-like scent for the truth. He is intuitive rather than rational, domestic rather than scientific, sympathetic rather than judgmental.

Can we claim then, as Rex Stout has argued so outrageously for Watson, that Maigret is a woman? Can we see in Maigret a prototype of an androgynous ideal, the incarnation of every strength: the combination of manly force and female restraint, of power and compassion? The answer is, of course, no. Maigret is a man. Physically, he has nothing of the female: especially in the early novels, he is described as huge, massive, an altogether masculine presence. Maigret is capable of relationships of sympathy with men only. Maigret's reluctance to apply power is selective: to women he is not hesitant to appear as a punishing authority. Maigret's refusal of the conventional macho, toughguy role is no reason to see him as a gentle man or even a kind one. In fact, he is hostile to women, contemptuous of them, as his creator, Simenon, is openly misogynist. (pp. 54-5)

Maigret can excuse the man who has killed because confession is possible man to man. The murderer can talk because he feels that Maigret, too, has committed the crime. Maigret the saint can comprehend the sinner, for he, too, is a man, a man close to his animal nature, not fully comfortable in the world of social restraints, imposed by women….

Such communion between detective and criminal implies a monstrous indifference to the victim, often female…. [Anticipating] Camus' stranger, Maigret is strangely indifferent to women's suffering. (p. 55)

Men in Simenon's world must struggle to escape female tyranny, must strive to attain the supreme good of heroic, male camaraderie, even if it means murder. The highest love for Simenon is paternal love, an unsentimental, virile love which saves the criminal man. It goes without saying that paternity extends only to sons. The quest for the absent father leads necessarily to crime; in La Neige était sale, a boy reaches his adopted father through the defilement of that father's natural daughter! In the absence of the natural father, Maigret serves as the forgiving, benevolent figure. This man without children is free to bring peace to a myriad of sons: his junior colleagues, La Pointe, Janvier, Lucas (called petits, little ones), and to the criminals who seek his approval.

The father-confessor, benevolent patriarch, turns into an avenging God with women, who are despised as whores, and held responsible for all crimes, unless they are revered as mothers, or reformed whores. The whores—bad mothers and bad wives—force their husbands to commit crimes. Some men, the saints, like Maigret and Pardon, are rewarded in his life: they are blessed with a good wife. The less fortunate, like Inspector Lorgnon, the malgracieux, and countless others, are unlucky enough to be married to sickly wives….

Other men who are happy in marriage have rescued their wives from the gutter. The whore raised to housewife diligently atones for her early lapse from virtue and is a perfect, devoted wife. The wife of the bookbinder in Mme Maigret's Friend is a mirror of Mme Maigret herself; her extraordinary efforts to transport home-cooked meals to her husband in prison, and her amazing reticence in never questioning her husband are worthy of the Commissioner's wife. If her husband turns to crime, it is not through her failure, but the fault of his mother, who was also a whore.

Women are either all good or all evil in Simenon's world. Professional, intellectual women do not exist, just as their male counterparts are few. This is an animal world of basic passions, which calls upon the services of two (male) professionals: the doctor and the policeman. Mme Maigret does not sleuth because being a perfect wife is a full-time occupation.

What does Mme Maigret do? She cooks. Whether Maigret comes home to meals or not, there is always some hearty bourgeois dish on the stove. (p. 56)

She cleans. If Maigret comes home unexpectedly, he is likely to find Mme Maigret, embarrassed, with a scarf on her head, waxing, polishing, engaged in the unending battle with filth. Mme Maigret was said to have worried, when Maigret was on the vice squad in the early days of his career, not so much about his virtue as about the dirt he brought home. Again, these attentions are simultaneously awesome and oppressive, and the male occasionally escapes from the female prison of order and cleanliness to regain the infant right to soil, often through his involvement in the criminal milieu. (p. 57)

Mme Maigret has no need to extend her goodness outside the domestic sphere; she neither does charitable work, nor does she assist her husband with his investigations, except most rarely. Mme Maigret is necessary to her husband's work in a mystical way; she creates the ambiance which permits his sympathetic understanding of the criminal's sensibility…. But she is not Maigret's Watson. Her extreme reticence and total lack of curiosity do not win her husband's confidence; she is, moreover, far too modest to put her words on paper; she limits her adoration to keeping mute scrapbooks of his adventures.

Mme Maigret is a male fantasy, created by a man for a man. (p. 58)

It is easy to spot the misogyny of a James Bond. Maigret is more complex. The champion of the little man, as his name implies, he is, more truly, as Simone de Beauvoir has said of Camus, a just man without justice. Maigret is a simple functionary, a man of both a métier and a foyer, work and home life; he is represented as a patient, forgiving man. In this sympathetic light we are likely to overlook the force of Simenon's hatred and fear of women which Maigret projects. His ordinariness says: even a plain civil servant, barely one generation removed from the land, can mistreat women. This everyman can be a master: at home, he can possess a domestic slave; at work he can humiliate women, not by directly harming them as the criminal men do, but by remaining indifferent to them and by protecting their oppressors with his sympathy. (pp. 58-9)

Erica M. Eisinger, "Maigret and Women: La maman and la putain," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1978 by Ray B. Browne), Vol. XII, No. 1, Summer, 1978, pp. 52-60.

Julian Symons

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One cannot understand Simenon's work without considering his personality. In one sense it is true to say that what we are is what we do, but in another sense what we are is what we desire, and often Simenon's desires seem the opposite of what he has done. His life is full of self-imposed restrictions but what he wants … is the total liberty of a man without possessions, typically a tramp sleeping under a bridge in Paris. Such a tramp would be a truly superior man…. Simenon's life in practical terms shows a passion for acquisition … but his unique quality as a writer springs from the intensity with which he is able to imagine quite different existences. (p. 34)

His hard novels—that is, those that do not concern Maigret—fall into two main groups. In the first a few characters are pressed into close contact with each other like people in a crowded train. The claustrophobic contact breeds conflict, and the conflict ends in violence. In the second group of stories there is a central figure who tries to fulfill that desire of Simenon's to start out all over again, something expressed in his own life only by gestures like getting rid of all his furniture every time he moves. "To start one's life over each time from scratch!"—that illusion of the tramp's freedom is used in these fictions to generate stories of remarkable power. (p. 35)

Simenon gives us the appearance and atmosphere of places better than most other living novelists. It is, very often, first of all through the places that we know his people.

To say this is not to endorse his admirer's view that Simenon is a great novelist, let alone one with the amplitude of Balzac. His stories look inward, not outward. Where Balzac and Zola stretch out to comprehend their society, Simenon compresses society into the shapes of his obsessions. His stories gain something through the speed and intensity of their production, but there are losses too. The central character seems often not to be fully visualized, but to be a figure invented for the expression of problems occupying his creator….

His almost total lack of interest in history and politics limits the subject matter of the stories, and there are other limitations. "Suppress all the literature and it will work," Colette told the young Simenon, and he took the advice very literally, trying "to simplify, to suppress, to make my style as neutral as possible." Purple passages have been eliminated, but the result is not a prose that has the Orwellian clarity of a window pane. Simenon's neutrality gives us a prose that has no vices, but few virtues. At times he offers us information with the blankness of a computer. The writer of the hard novels is the most extraordinary literary phenomenon of the century, but that is not the same thing as being a great novelist.

And so to Maigret. Not before time, it may be thought, but this relegation of the Maigret stories to a secondary position among his works would meet the author's approval. Maigret is a kind of Old Man of the Sea that Simenon cannot shake off, as Conan Doyle was unable to get rid of Sherlock Holmes….

The Maigrets recently published are certainly not very good. Simenon does not shine as a short-story writer, and Maigret's Pipe is a distinctly inferior collection. The length at which the books are written is perfect for his gift of compressing into a novella material that most writers would put into a work of double the length. His short stories, by contrast, read rather like film outlines awaiting expansion. Maigret and the Hotel Majestic (Les Caves du Majestic of 1942) is a good deal better, particularly where it deals with the workings of the hotel, but if the Maigrets are minor Simenon, this is minor Maigret.

These books, however, are not typical of the Maigret canon. The Maigret tales have changed a good deal more than the hard novels over the years. Simenon is not in the ordinary sense of the words a detective story writer at all. He has no interest in the apparatus of clues, deductions, scientific examination of tire marks, or bloodstained hammers. Maigret, as he often says, has no method but operates by instinct. In the half-dozen Maigrets that launched the chief inspector, as he then was, on the world in 1931, Simenon accepted the need to make some concessions to convention…. Several of the early Maigrets have sensational plots in the tradition of Gaboriau, du Boisgobey, and Gaston Leroux, and Maigret himself sometimes plays an active role for which he is really not suited.

After this flood of early books, Maigret was put into cold storage for several years. He emerged again 1942 in more relaxed and coherent works, as the pipe-smoking philosopher…. Maigret reached his peak during the late Forties and early Fifties. The later stories tend to find him drinking in bars, considering Madame Maigret's cassoulet, or philosophizing at the expense of the story.

If we say that the Maigret tales are second-class Simenon compared to the best of the hard novels, a qualification must be made: Maigret himself is the most fully realized character in the whole oeuvre. He has developed greatly, from the casually conceived figure equipped with appropriate detectival properties like his pipes and heavy overcoat to a man fully and lovingly known. (p. 36)

Maigret is in many ways the ideal French bourgeois, although his father was bailiff at a château in the Auvergne, and even though he is called in one story a proletarian through and through. His love of food, drink, and comfort, the cushioned life provided for him at home by Madame Maigret, his lack of interest in politics, his commonsensible reactions to sex, poverty, crime—in all of these things Maigret is the average sensual man, gifted with an intuitive understanding of criminals' feelings and attitudes that makes him an uncommon detective. It is an irony Simenon would appreciate that a writer so little interested in detective stories should have created the archetypal fictional detective of the twentieth century. (p. 37)

Julian Symons, "Compulsion," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXV, No. 15, October 12, 1978, pp. 34-7.∗

Lis Harris

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

[Simenon has an] extraordinary gift for making one yearn to be in whatever place he is writing about … No one observes the tics and mores of modern France with greater meticulousness or can more adroitly transform even the palest landscape into a place of lyrical beauty. Clouds, wet pavements, and oppressive temperatures, both hot and cold, are practically characters in their own right in his stories. But the relish with which he describes the atmosphere of the little worlds he writes about distinguishes him most from his European contemporaries, and will make him remembered, I think, long after writers of far greater ambition have been forgotten….

Most writers of mysteries assume that they must elicit at least a passing interest in the deceased for form's sake. Not Simenon. The passions and plots of the living are his subject. One rarely is permitted to see or sympathize with his victims before they attain literary immortality; they are erased before the story begins. In "Maigret in Exile," the murder even brings about a kind of holiday spirit. The strongest emotion Maigret feels when he hears about the case is gratitude, since it provides a bit of excitement in the dull provincial life to which he has been banished for somehow offending the higher-ups at the Quai des Orfèvres. (p. 122)

There is rarely any sense of urgency about finding the murderer in these stories. Eventually, we will see the dagger glinting in the sun beneath the currant bushes. Eventually, someone will blab and give himself or someone else away. Meanwhile, diversions are everywhere; in the present volume there is the sea air to enjoy, the lives of half a dozen diversely odd suspects to poke into, the fishermen's brightly painted shacks to admire, the sun-dappled town-council chambers overlooking a lime tree to conduct the more official phases of the investigation in, and the locals' gruff accents and tureens of mussel stew to savor at the hotel café.

It may sound like heresy, but I have rarely liked Simenon's so-called psychological novels … as much as the Maigrets. A few of the psychological novels, such as "The Blue Room" and "The Snow Is Black," are, of course, small masterpieces of pathological fantasy. But the run-of-the-mill ones, such as ["The Family Lie"],… suffer from descriptive overkill and an almost total lack of narrative drive. The intensity and inwardness of the characters' neuroses seem to suck all the air and light out of their surroundings. (p. 123)

[In the seventeen lively stories of "Maigret Pipe"], Maigret is characteristically irritable with the wrongdoers (their misdeeds are forever detaching him from a good glass of beer or a sandwich at the local brasserie) and rapturously appreciative of the everyday. In even the most insubstantial stories, there are small, painterly scenes that linger in the mind long after crime and criminal have been forgotten—a cavernous small-town dance hall, a family of pampered bourgeois country girls sitting around an extravagantly appointed dining-room table, the Tartarean gloom of an anchorage where bargemen keep their boats overnight on the Seine….

Many, if not most, of the places that Simenon loves to describe, especially in [the] books from the forties, will be gone in the not too distant future…. No cultural anthropologist could have better preserved such scenes for posterity. (p. 124)

Lis Harris, "Books: 'Maigret le flâneur'," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 7, April 2, 1979, pp. 122-24.

Paul Theroux

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

[The three novellas in "African Trio"] were written in the 30's and 40's, at a time when colonials were villains and Africans practically unknown. In these tales, Africans are rather decorative, but little more than shadows. Very few even have names. And yet one gets the message: "Colonialism in Africa has no future"—the motto is repeated throughout Mr. Simenon's tumbling narrative. (p. 10)

It is helpful to be reminded of the crimes of colonialism, principally its ignorant racketeering. And it is interesting that an observant man like Mr. Simenon can visit Africa and emerge knowing next to nothing about Africans. They drum, they dance, they cook yams; in the last story—a rambling sea voyage from Matadi to Bordeaux—they scarcely appear at all except in several passengers' nightmares. But Mr. Simenon visited Africa in another age, when it was still possible to believe that the European was in general an obstacle to progress, and that liberation—and prosperity—would come when he folded his tent and stole away. The idea is so quaint and so profoundly vitalized by Mr. Simenon's deadpan description that it imbues "African Trio" with the sad, steamy period detail of that other age. It is a timely reminder that Africa knew another kind of brutality. Mr. Simenon did not know that it would be supplanted by an equal viciousness and that the Congo he wrote about would know more pitiless regimes.

These stories are attractive for their single-minded dissection of the threadbare and arrogant colonial world. Mr. Simenon deals with Africans by excluding them or attributing to them a watchfulness and silence that implies a stolid heroism. It is perhaps why he remained optimistic, because if he had made the logical—and one might say, more Simenon-like—deduction, and seen that the machinery of government and agricultural enterprise were unworkable and antique, then he might have been less cheerful about the chances of the inheritors. (p. 19)

Paul Theroux, "Colonial Crimes," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 1, 1979, pp. 10, 19.

Peter Wolfe

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228

Georges Simenon is one of France's busiest and most important living writers. His portraits of stony-broke loners on the run from themselves generate a psychological force that has riveted readers everywhere.

Yet you find yourself opening Maigret and the Toy Village with skeptical fingers. If this 1944 work were one of the better Maigret adventures, why did his publisher wait 35 years to translate it into English? Alas, you needn't read far into Toy Village to have your skepticism confirmed. The motivation is smudged and the scene-shifting clumsy. If you read through to the end, you'll find the resolution scamped; no contending force, the culprit comes in in the last chapter to provide a finale.

Still, some of the old Simenon magic shines through. For one thing, the novel starts crisply. The first chapter introduces a death, a murderous motive, a reluctant witness and a mysterious disappearance by the most likely suspect. This action takes place in a vividly realized atmostphere. Simenon writes about things you can touch, feel and smell, the tactile quality of his prose expressing itself in the smell of frying sausage, the odors drifting out of tobacconists' shops and the textures and skins of the fruits and vegetables displayed in outdoor markets. (p. 62)

Peter Wolfe, "Current Reviews: 'Maigret and the Toy Village'," in The Armchair Detective (copyright © 1980 by The Armchair Detective), Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 62-3.

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Simenon, Georges (Vol. 1)


Simenon, Georges (Vol. 2)