Georges Simenon Simenon, Georges (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Erica M. Eisinger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lis Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Paul Theroux

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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