Contribution

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Georges Simenon’s extremely prolific writing career provided fans of the roman policier with a number of unrelated crime novels marked by extreme fidelity to detail and with the series featuring Inspector Maigret. The novels featuring Maigret represent a fusion of the American detective story tradition with French realism. The stories are somewhat reminiscent of the American hard-boiled school, particularly the works of Ross Macdonald, in the lack of sentimental justice and in the often-fatalistic plots in which “old sins cast long shadows” and bring about current tragedies. The psychological realism of the more tightly drawn Maigret characters, however, is more reminiscent of François Mauriac or Julien Green. Moreover, the conclusions are usually less devastating than those of the hard-boiled mysteries, and there is often an element of muted optimism in the Maigret novel.

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Critical circles have long argued whether Simenon’s detective stories are more than genre pieces and approach literature. His many other novels use the same devices and express the same themes as his Maigret stories: the desire for home and the impossibility of finding it, the destructive potency of the past, the futility of flight, and the fatal seductiveness of illusion. His major contribution consists of the vividly drawn, almost symbiotic relationship between criminal and inspector—and the portrait of Maigret himself as he enters into the scene of each event pertaining to the crime, his vision informed by the French maxim tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner (to understand all is to forgive all).

Other literary forms

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Georges Simenon (see-muh-NOHN) is known primarily for his fiction. Throughout his career as a novelist, however, he frequently displayed mastery of shorter forms as well, both with and without the presence of his famous character Inspector Maigret. Originally published for the most part in periodicals, his short stories and novellas have been collected in such volumes as Les Dossiers de l’Agence O (1943), Nouvelles exotiques (1944), and in English translation as well. In his late thirties, erroneously informed by his doctors that he had but a short time to live, Simenon began writing his autobiography as a memoir for his infant son. At the urging of the eminent novelist André Gide (1869-1951), he soon abandoned the project, incorporating its best portions into the novel Pedigree, published in 1948. After publicly renouncing the practice of fiction shortly before his seventieth birthday, Simenon published his recollections in Mémoires intimes (1981; Intimate Memoirs, 1984).

Achievements

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Georges Simenon is among the most prolific fiction writers of his generation. During fifty years of sustained creative activity, he published upward of three hundred novels under his own name, exclusive of lesser efforts for which he employed a variety of pseudonyms. Although best known for his novels featuring Inspector Maigret of the Paris police, Simenon in fact published more titles outside the detective genre and was justly acclaimed both in France and abroad for his keen analysis of human character in mainstream fiction.

Simenon was a gifted student of human nature and a born raconteur whose keen powers of observation, linked to a highly retentive memory, have furnished the world with a vast array of memorable characters both within and outside the mystery genre. Incredibly, the sheer quantity of Simenon’s work had little, if any, negative effect on its quality; throughout most of his career, Simenon was taken seriously, as a “serious” novelist, by general readers and critics alike.

Heir apparent to the tradition of French naturalism that flourished a quarter of a century before his birth through the works of Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Simenon brought the best features of naturalism into the twentieth century. Unlike some other novelists and playwrights of his own generation, who pretended to “psychological realism” by parroting forth, as if undigested, the latest insights of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Simenon evolved throughout his career a mode of psychological observation and recording that is all the more credible, and convincing, for its lack of cant or visible erudition. In most of his novels, Simenon appears to be suggesting that it is unnecessary to read Freud or Jung to gain an understanding of the criminal or psychotic mind, that all one need do is observe others closely, with understanding and compassion.

Maigret, among the most convincing and memorable of modern fictional detectives, is an “instinctive” psychologist who solves many initially baffling murders by focusing his attention on the victims, attempting to figure out what they might have done to invite violent death. In the non-Maigret novels, it is Simenon himself, as unseen and frequently omniscient narrator, who portrays apparently “normal” characters driven to sudden crime and violence by inevitable forces that they themselves can barely comprehend. Seldom, in either type of novel, does the action appear forced or the characters’ behaviors unconvincing—a fault that hampers, if only infrequently, even the finestnarratives of Zola and Maupassant.

It can be argued that Simenon’s Maigret has contributed as much to the development of the mystery novel as did Sherlock Holmes himself, implicitly awarding to psychology the role in detection that Arthur Conan Doyle, writing a half century earlier, had attributed to the then-innovative scientific method. To Simenon and Maigret, as to their contemporary readers, it is usually more important (as well as entertaining) to understand why a crime was committed than precisely how it was done.

Of perhaps equal importance is Simenon’s role in helping to create, through his Maigret novels, the subgenre of detective fiction known as the police procedural, now widely read and written the world over. Departing from the frequently romantic private detective whose dazzling insights make law officers look like buffoons, Simenon and his many followers in the subgenre focus instead on the grueling routines of police work itself, featuring career detectives whose profiles often fall far short of the heroic. Maigret is a case in point—a portly, balding, dedicated civil servant in late middle age with a durable, affectionate, but unfortunately childless marriage. Assisted in his many investigations by a recurring cast of subordinates and his voluble physician friend, Pardon, Maigret puts in long and frequently fruitless hours in his efforts to look at and through the crime to the mind of the criminal. Among the least judgmental of fictional detectives, Maigret on occasion comes to “understand” the crime so well that he either lets the perpetrator go free or agrees to testify in the person’s defense.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it is perhaps appropriate to observe that the main difference between Simenon’s Maigret novels and his “mainstream” works (by far the larger part of his production) is that in the latter, Maigret does not appear. Without Maigret’s avuncular presence to tie up the loose ends of the characters’ lives, the loose ends remain untied—frequently with disastrous results. As Lucille Frackman Becker has observed, the reassuring presence of Maigretconvinces 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.

Indeed, the usual and highly credible atmosphere is one of utter solitude, alienation, and estrangement in which the characters, fully comprehensible to the author and hence to the reader, are just as fully incomprehensible to one another.

Among twentieth century French novelists, perhaps only the Nobelist François Mauriac—a possible source for some of Simenon’s novelistic predicaments—has rendered as convincingly as Simenon the heart-wrenching predicaments of cross-purposes and unheard cries for help that often reverberate through life and love. In Mauriac’s fictional universe, however, there is always the promise, secured only by the author’s personal religious faith, of a better life to come in the next world. In those of Simenon’s novels without Maigret, by contrast, hell on earth is most often simply hell. In his own defense, Simenon argued with some justice that in the twentieth century the novel came to fulfill much the same function that tragedy did for the ancient Greeks. People’s destinies are played out in repeated dialogue between author and audience, the one compelled to exorcise inner demons and the other to see its best hopes and worst fears replicated in the characters’ behavior. After readers are thus reassured—presumably by a catharsis similar to that emerging, in Aristotle’s view, from the viewing of a classical tragedy—they are able to address themselves to life with renewed vigor, aware of their limitations but better suited to savor the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life.

Literary critics have most often reproached Simenon, like Zola before him, for his lack of literary style. Advised early in his career by the novelist Colette, then serving as one of his editors, to pare his work down to the barest essentials, Simenon soon perceived that his most effective style was one that favored the literal over the figurative, the concrete over the abstract. Over the years, that decision served him well, especially in the creation of plausible atmospheres in which to place his often hapless characters.

Discussion Topics

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How does Frank’s self-imposed exile in Three Bedrooms in Manhattan compare to Georges Simenon’s own self-imposed exile in the United States?

How might Simenon’s relationship with his mother have influenced his behavior with other women?

Does Simenon’s writing style, fast and brief, prevent him from receiving more serious consideration as a writer of literature?

In The Snow Was Black, what does Frank Friedmaier’s experience with foreign occupation say about Simenon’s opinions of having endured life in both occupied Belgium and France?

What does Simenon’s aim in writing fiction—to understand and not to judge—suggest about Simenon’s own life?

In Red Lights, how does Steve and Nancy’s inability to communicate with each other contribute to the crisis they experience?

Bibliography

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Assouline, Pierre. Simenon: A Biography. Translated by Jon Rothschild. New York: Knopf, 1997. A good reference for biographical information on Simenon.

Becker, Lucille Frackman. Georges Simenon. Boston: Twayne, 1977. An informative introductory study, with chapters on Simenon’s family background, the creation of Maigret, his handling of such basic themes as solitude and alienation, and his understanding of the art of the novel. Includes a chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography.

Becker, Lucille Frackman. Georges Simenon Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999. Further reflections on Simenon, focusing more closely on the novels than did Becker’s earlier work.

Bresler, Fenton. The Mystery of Georges Simenon. Toronto: General, 1983. A well-written biography that gives a strong sense of Simenon’s roots and the development of his career. Includes conversations between Bresler and Simenon.

Carter, David. The Pocket Essential Georges Simenon. Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England: Pocket Essentials, 2003. Short book containing a critical analysis of Simenon’s work, as well as a bibliography of works by and about him.

Collins, Carvel. “The Art of Fiction IX: Georges Simenon.” The Paris Review 9 (Summer, 1993): 71-90. A comprehensive interview with the author about his career and his fictional methods.

Eskin, Stanley. Simenon: A Critical Biography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. Eskin provides a meticulous narrative and analysis of Simenon’s work. His notes and bibliography are very detailed and helpful.

Franck, Frederick. Simenon’s Paris. New York: Dial, 1970. While this is basically a book of illustrations of Paris, a good deal is revealed about the way Simenon chose locations for his fiction.

Freeling, Nicolas. Criminal Convictions: Errant Essays on Perpetrators of Literary License. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1994.

Gill, Brendan. “Profiles: Out of the Dark.” The New Yorker, January 24, 1953, 35-45. A succinct biographical and critical profile by an astute essayist.

Marnham, Patrick. The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon. London: Bloomsbury, 1992. An excellent study of Simenon’s life and times. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Raymond, John. Simenon in Court. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1968. An excellent overview of Simenon’s fiction, as valuable as Becker’s introductory study.

Simenon, Georges. “The Art of Fiction IX: Georges Simenon.” Interview by Carvel Collins. The Paris Review 9 (Summer, 1993): 71-90. A comprehensive interview with the author about his career and his fictional methods.

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