Fumbling for the Towel

Christopher Prendergast

  • Romans: Tome I by Georges Simenon
    Gallimard, 1493 pp, €60.00, May 2004, ISBN 2 07 011674 3
  • Romans: Tome II by Georges Simenon
    Gallimard, 1736 pp, €60.00, May 2004, ISBN 2 07 011675 1

I am old enough to remember the Maigret series on television, with Rupert Davies in the starring role. To the accompaniment of a mildly haunting theme tune, a portly figure would appear onscreen, drably but comfortably dressed in raincoat and hat, strolling through the damp, mist-laden streets of Paris, pausing on a bridge to light his pipe and look over his shoulder, the whole scene held in grainy black and white. Here a world of crime and mystery was about to unfold, but in a special inflection of the thriller genre that kept thrills to a minimum. Then along came Bond and Bondery, the fast-moving, sex-drenched and gadget-packed fantasy of the new Cold Warrior. I suppose Simenon continued to be read on train journeys, but Maigret, in his appropriately quiet way, slipped more or less definitively from public view.

Who would have predicted Maigret’s return – or rather that of his creator, Georges Simenon – in the grand Pléiade collection? To be sure, it is Simenon-lite, a two-volume selection of 21 novels. His total output was a prodigious 192 novels as well as 150 novellas and short stories, a figure that puts even Balzac’s demonic productivity in the shade, and which moreover excludes a substantial early oeuvre published anonymously. Simenon’s attitude to writing was very much that of an artisan in a factory. It was also thoroughly petit-bourgeois – perhaps a reflection of his background as the son of an ill-paid Liégeois accountant – not only in his obsession with making as much money as possible, but also in the conversion of his product into a fetish (copies of his books packed the shelves of his living-room, as if they were the material incarnation of invested capital). Nevertheless, here he now is, in the publishing equivalent of the Panthéon. There is a certain irony in this. The Pléiade series is part of the Gallimard imprint, and Gaston Gallimard published a number of Simenon’s novels in the 1930s and 1940s. But relations eventually broke down, mainly because Gallimard lost patience with Simenon’s relentless haggling over terms, but also because, however highly he thought of Simenon, he could not bring himself to include him in the ‘white cover’ series – the Gallimard sign of literary distinction.

Simenon resented this, and his accession to the Pléiade may be seen as the belated recognition he coveted. Is his inclusion the consecration of the idea of a ‘popular’ classic in the age of ‘mass’ literature? This is the answer we might instinctively reach for, but it’s not the one with which the editors, Jacques Dubois and Benoît Denis, make their principal case. The opening sentence of their introduction tells us that in 1961 Paris-Jour put out the rumour that Simenon was being seriously considered in some quarters as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, while a few pages later we learn that, while he was generally ignored by the literary establishment grouped around the Nouvelle revue française, he found an ardent supporter in André Gide. His cause was much championed: Maurice Nadeau compared him to Sartre (Simenon himself took the even more flattering view that Sartre had imitated his example); Claude Mauriac saw him as the worthy successor of Kafka and an equal contemporary of Leiris, Michaux and Bataille (an odd alignment, all things considered); Pierre de Boisdeffre placed him with Jean Giono, Céline and Queneau.

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