Georges Simenon Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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.

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

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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,...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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?


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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.