Thomas Jones: Hello, and welcome to the London Review of Books podcast. My name is Thomas Jones, and today I’m talking to John Lanchester, who’s written a piece in the current issue of the LRB about Georges Simenon and his 75 Maigret novels, which Penguin have just finished reissuing in new translations. Hello, John.
John Lanchester: Hi Tom. Thanks for having me.
TJ: Thank you for joining me. And I thought we could begin where you begin your piece with Simenon’s ‘colossal output’, as you put it, and that nobody knows how many books he actually wrote, though it was probably more than four hundred, which is fewer than Barbara Cartland, but still puts the rest of us to shame.
JL: He didn’t half crack on, that’s true. Yes, he started as a young man in Liège, his home town in Belgium. And he got a job as a reporter on the local paper. I think he was not quite 16, which is properly strange. It’s like something out of a high concept kid’s TV show, you know, Georges Simenon – Boy Reporter, and very early on latched onto the idea of making money through writing.He began writing when he was 18, his first book came out when he was 19. He started writing every sort of potboiler, thrillers, romances, sort of semi-porn westerns, things like that, at an absolutely astounding rate of productivity. And his target was eighty pages a day, typewritten, and even on the assumption that the pages ... I mean, a short page would be 150 words and it could well have been more, but it was 10,000 words a day, and he did that every single day. And then he’d write eighty pages, and then he’d go and be sick. Just from the physical and mental exertion and the strain. That was in the morning. And then he’d recover and do a bit of light reading and pottering about. And then the next day he did the same again, over and over and over for about seven years. And in that period, as you’ve mentioned, we don’t know exactly how many, because he forgot, and he had multiple pseudonyms. The main one being Georges Sim, which was how he was known when he began writing the Simenon novels. People thought that Simenon was a pseudonym because George Sim was so well known, but he seems to have written about 150 or more books in this seven-year burst. It makes you feel peculiar even to think about what that must have been like.
TJ: And that was in Belgium in the 1920s.
JL: Well, mainly Belgium. And then he moved to Paris, I think basically as soon as he could afford to, I’ve forgotten the exact date, and cut quite a figure in Paris – Georges Sim was famous – and then in …. let me remind myself of the date…
TJ: It was 1930, the first Maigret novel.
JL: That’s right. I think he set out on the project when he was about 25, in ‘28. He decided he’d learnt enough because the hack writing also seemed to have a conscious element of learning how to do it, learning his craft. And he’d set out to write what he called semi-literary novels, in other words books that were pitched at the intelligent general reader, but had quite a strong genre element. And Maigret pops up first in a short story, I think from ‘28, that might be wrong. And he realised that Maigret was the way to do it, the character who would let him write these books that he’d always been wanting to write. And interestingly, for someone who was quite reclusive in later life, he thought it was a big party. They published, I can’t remember how many, but they published a whole bunch of them in one go and had a huge fancy party to launch it. And as I say, part of it was getting across the point that Georges Simenon was actually a person, not the pseudonym. And he was living quite a big life at that point. He had an affair with Josephine Baker, slightly unlikely, who was arguably the most famous woman in Paris at that point, a famous exotic dancer who would appear in this costume completely naked apart from a dress made of bananas. And he said, ‘she has the most famous bottom in the world, and it’s the most famous because it is the only bottom that laughs.’ I think we may never know what that means! And so he was really quite an expansive, colourful, lively figure in Paris in the late twenties, and then he launched the Maigret novels, I think four or five of them in one go brought out from Fayard, I think it was, with this huge party. And then kept up. I think he always wrote as quickly, but he didn’t write quite as long hours, if you see what I mean.
TJ: And it wasn’t every day by that point, was it, because the way you describe it that he would… this very brilliant analogy of yours, as if he went into a room and went into a different place where Maigret was, and that’s why he wrote the novels very intensively over the period of a week. So he wasn’t writing every single day as he had been in his apprentice period.
JL: He’d write them in these extraordinary bursts. I was trying to imagine how it must have been for Simenon, and this room thing is I suspect what it must have been like, that Maigret was in a place in his head. He would feel a Maigret coming on almost like an illness, and would literally go to his doctor for a checkup to see if he was physically well enough to write a book and he would take notes. He would often know the characters’ backstories in tremendous detail, and then the actual process of writing was like a sort of siege. He would just disappear into the room, be brought his meals. I think he’d basically come out to go to the loo and to sleep, and that was it. And they were all written within about 12 days, a fortnight, seven to ten days of writing, and then two, three days revision. And bingo, there it was, a book of usually between 30-35,000 words. And in the first year they came out, which is 1931, I think he published ten, and then seven more in the next year. I think he’d written some of them in ‘29, he had a sort of run up. But still, I think for books that the most disparaging thing you could say about them is that they aren’t terrible, and if you really like them as I do, you’d say they’re really good, I think it’s a pretty unmatched rate of productivity. Seventeen of them in two years.
TJ: So consistent, as you say, as well.
JL: They are very consistent, and I do think that on some level that is linked to the way he wrote them. But that’s where the idea of this room image came to me, that it’s as if he was re-encountering Maigret. So there aren’t ones that are outright howlers that you just can’t get through. I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan, but there are quite a few absolutely rank Christie novels, quite often ones where she’s preoccupied by international plots and conspiracies, that even as a proper fan, it’s a real struggle. And Simenon was not like that. Not in the Maigret books, anyway.
TJ: Your comparing his writing to a fever seems to me a much better analogy than perhaps a more obvious and quite commonly made one, which is that it was about the urge to write and his sex drive being similar. But he showed a lot more control in his writing than he did in his sex life, didn’t he.
JL: Yeah. I mean, there was a sort of madness to his sex drive. We should say, we don’t know how much of it’s true. There was this famous thing where he claimed to have slept with – ‘slept with’ is a euphemism – 10,000 women, and his estranged second wife Denise said it was complete rubbish, it was 1,500 at most.
TJ: Only 1200!
JL: Only 1200. So even on her numbers, it was pretty compulsive. But yeah, he claimed that he needed sex two or three times a day, and there was obviously in him a kind of need, a hunger, an unfillable lack connected with sex or affection. As you say, it’s sometimes described as appetite, but I’m not sure it is, I think there’s something more hysterical about it. It’s not like hunger. I don’t know. It’s like an unscratchable itch, that was completely how his sexuality worked. One of the odd things about Josephine Baker, that seems to be one of the only times he actually had an affair. And he fled. He actually went away. He went travelling to get away from her. Because he had this compulsive sex drive, but he didn’t actually like having affairs. His preferred thing was having quickie sex with a chambermaid, or going to a brothel. So it’s one of the many respects in which he was a properly odd person, Simenon. He really was driven, compulsive. The late Michael Neve, who was a great friend of the LRB for many years, I don’t think he ever wrote about it, but I remember he used to talk very funnily about studies in male hysteria, about male hysteria being a neglected topic. And I think Simenon was one of the great male hysterics.
TJ: And of course when he was in one of his writing periods, in that week, ten days that he was writing, he wasn’t having sex two or three times a day, he was writing instead and he’d gone into the Maigret world. And Maigret is very different, isn’t he? He’s a heavy drinker and he likes eating.
JL: Yeah, Maigret’s immensely uxorious, that’s one of the things through all the books, that Madame Maigret is a very important character and she very much grounds the books in a kind of domestic daily reality. She’s always cooking these very Franco French classic bourgeois meals. And they’re always particularised and characterised. It’s never ‘Maigret had supper’, it’s always Vichyssoise followed by Sole à la Meunière followed by a cherry sorbet. And the drinks are always… it’s one of the things I like about them is that they’re incredibly particular. His drinking is really funny, because he often does that engaging thing of starting at breakfast having a cognac or a Calvados or something and just keeps going all day. Which Simenon again wasn’t like, but there is in the books clearly a whole set of drives and appetites being sublimated. Because the sex is often getting the characters in trouble, but there’s no sex in Maigret’s life. Instead what there is is good, solid bourgeois cooking.
TJ: At the beginning of Maigret at the Grand Banks, as the new translation’s called, he gets a letter from a friend in Brittany saying, can you come and help this sailor who’s been accused of murder? And he says to Madame Maigret, is it all right if we don’t go to Alsace for our summer holidays this year, but go to Brittany instead? And she’s a bit disappointed because she likes going home to Alsace and making jam and everything, but she grudgingly agrees, and takes her crocheting with her to pass the time in Brittany.
JL: And the other thing about Alsace is the sloe gin. Her sister makes sloe gin and Maigret’s a big fan of it. And there’s a thing in one of those strange books, Maigret’s Memoirs, which is the book that pretends to be by Maigret talking about his own life in which he talks about meeting Simenon and tells the story of his marriage. He actually specifically mentions the sloe gin there, that in one of the novels Simenon had changed it to something else, and he welcomes the opportunity to put the record straight. It’s really interesting how charged that domestic and culinary side of the books is. And I think it’s because of that thing of it’s a physical reality, it’s a psychological reality, it’s a sort of ordinariness that grounds the books and makes them – I was going to say real, but that’s wrong, because the psychology in the crimes is often very real too – but it gives a sort of base note of ordinariness that is very important to the books.
TJ: And that presumably most of the readers would identify with more than with the canals and the tenth arrondissement and all the rest of it. To the bourgeois reader it’s a way of connecting us, as it were, to the world that we leave when we go to the crime scene.
JL: I think that’s probably right. It’s often a thing you get in fiction, that has a sort of a journey towards a kind of otherness in the Maigret novels. It’s the criminal world, but it’s often a thing in, say someone like Tolkien, there’s this balance between the scary, adventurous fighty bits and the bits that are comfort and consoling. Jenny Turner wrote that in a very good piece about Tolkien in the LRB many years ago, that he was very good at kind of comfort and coziness, balancing it with the extreme fantasy elements. And maybe that’s the thing in Maigret, as you say, that there’s a sort of rhythm between the identifiable familiar and the slightly more strange. And Simenon was equally interested in both. He had a genuine fascination with the things that drove people to commit crime. He found criminals completely relatable. He identified with them. And that’s the other kind of reality in his books. The crooks and the baddies and the perpetrators, they’re not othered, they’re not mysterious and alien and incomprehensible. They’re very similar to Maigret, and by extension to Simenon and by extension to the reader.
TJ: You mentioned Agatha Christie earlier, and it’s an interesting difference between them. You quote Maigret’s son saying that his father didn’t believe in evil. And one of the things that you said in your piece about Agatha Christie a couple of years ago was that she did believe in evil, but she isn’t interested in why people do the bad things they do, but she is unflinchingly willing to look directly at the truth that they do them. But it’s interesting that Christie believed in evil and wasn’t so interested in motive, and Simenon doesn’t believe in evil but is interested in motive.
JL: Absolutely. I do think of them as interesting counterparts to each other in that sense. Christie had an almost religious feeling about evil, I think, that it just is, it’s a fact. It’s a thing in the world. She would go into the why in terms of plot mechanics. She’s quite good at that, but she wasn’t that bothered about the psychological forces that drove people to do terrible things. She just took it for granted that they did. Whereas his whole thing was about that. She’s much closer to the dominant strand. Most detective and thriller fiction basically assumes the existence of a force more or less like evil, incomprehensible badness. And Simenon is not the only writer who does that. The wonderful Swedish double act Sjöwall and Wahlöö, who in a strange way are the kind of ur-figures behind the current Scandinavian – I would say moment, but it’s more than a decade long – the upsurge in interest in Scandi crime writing, and they’re very unlike all the things they gave birth to because their thing is pragmatic and realistic and has a sort of sociological underpinning, and they don’t believe in evil. And they wrote ten novels about this detective Martin Beck, and they are close to Simenon. So I met John Simenon, I think in 2013, and we were talking about ... I think one of the many Wallander series was on at that point, and maybe even…
TJ: On TV, you mean, there’s a Kenneth Branagh one and there’s also a Swedish one.
JL: On the telly, maybe Kenneth Branagh, there were Swedish ones as well. And what’s her name with the jumper? Remind me – was that The Bridge?
TJ: No, it’s not, it’s The Killing.
JL: That’s right. The Bridge is the autistic Swede and the warm-hearted Dane. That’s right. The Killing. And so we were talking about them and he said, and I was just very struck by the way, this complete certainty, that he said ‘they’re the opposite of my father’s work.’ It really landed with me. I thought it was such an interesting observation, as I said, and he then went on to say, because he didn’t believe in evil. And I have been thinking about that sense, and it is quite a striking thing, about what people want from these kinds of stories. It’s an interesting corollary, they do like that thing we’ve just been talking about, the kind of rootedness in the real relatable and daily life, but they also do like this sort of jolt of incomprehensible badness. And they didn’t get it from Simenon.
TJ: No. And the other thing that you say about Christie and Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers and the other golden age writers of English detective fiction, whose books, as you say, bring comfort, but they have no smell, and you say they have as much relation to real crime as Alice in Wonderland does! Whereas Simenon is unconsoling.
JL: Yeah, I think you can read them for comfort in the way that you can read any series for comfort. One of the – not exactly an irony, but one of the things that’s happened is that these very particular realistic books set in a carefully described, precise, real-world milieu are now like a fantasy parallel world. Paris in the thirties, long gone, the Grand Banks cafe that you mentioned and unrecognisable other worlds. So there is a kind of coziness to that I think that they wouldn’t necessarily have had when they were written. But policemen really liked his books, and he was very proud of it. I don’t know if he was a commissary of police, but a senior Paris detective actually had him in when the first couple of them came out. He was invited in to look around the Bureau, and he got the descriptions of the corridor and things where Maigret works and where suspects are waiting outside before being interrogated. That particular space is very important in the books. His character spend a lot of time there waiting before going in to be interrogated, and that was taken from real life. And as I said, it was because some senior French cop said, well, look, if you’re going to describe this in your books you might as well get it right. And he was very proud of the fact that he took trouble on that. And when he refers to it, it happened in passing and with quite a light touch, but he refers to forensic textbooks and to forensic principles that the police did use. So I think a lot of the investigations are largely fantastic, when he waits outside doors for hours and hours and catches a glimpse of the suspect and works out what happened. There’s obviously a wish fulfilment element to that, but at the same time there was a generous sprinkling of real police procedure in it. I love all those books, by the way. And I do read them for comfort. I multiply reread them. And there’s something wonderful about the whole idea of the amateur sleuth. I’m a complete sucker for all that. But Maigret isn’t an amateur sleuth. He’s a working policeman.
TJ: I suppose another point of comparison is Sherlock Holmes. Another thing that Holmes and Maigret have in common is that the writers thought they’d finished with them. Arthur Conan Doyle went so far as to kill off Holmes and then had to bring him back, and Simenon brought Maigret out of retirement. And the other person your piece made me think of is Tintin and Hergé, partly being the same sort of age and being Belgian, and the accusations of collaboration during the war. But also when you talked about Simenon – Boy Reporter, it’s quite Tintin-like. And Hergé came to hate Tintin, and he used to draw sketches of him being hanged, and things like that. But did Simenon come to hate Maigret?
JL: No, I don’t think he did. It’s funny you should mention Tintin, because I do think there’s an analogy. And as you said, they did both get in trouble in the war for similar reasons, for collaborating, which I think was mainly based on who they wrote for, and not having resisted, or more cynically not having sent the correct signals about resistance. And Patrick Marnham, one of Simenon’s biographers, wrote I think quite convincingly on that. Simenon was a friend by correspondence of André Gide, and Gide largely sat out the war. He wasn’t exactly quietistic, but didn’t say much, and Simenon thought that was an OK role model. But actually one of the things that happened to Gide is he was massively attacked, I can’t remember why, I think one of his books was attacked by collaborationists, pro-Nazi press, and that really helped him actually at the end of the war, he was able to produce this as a credential. But Simenon kept on working, kept on publishing, and that was catastrophic for his reputation. So he basically left France because of it, and lived in America for almost a decade, just to get away from the trail of that, which Hergé didn’t do, he was stuck in Belgium with this sort of label hung around his neck. And oddly enough, it had a bigger effect on Hergé’s books. The postwar Tintin is much more socially conscious and political in a progressive and thoughtful way. Because the politics in Hergé’s earlier books, which are kind of terrible, but they’re largely…there’s an astonishingly pure, clear racism in things like Tintin in the Congo. And the journey that Hergé made – Hergé’s a whole other subject – but there’s the most extraordinary arc of growth, both in his art and his writing and also in his politics. He travelled one of the biggest journeys of any 20th-century writer and artist, I think. And Simenon didn’t really do that. He sat the war out, fled to America where he left this bad rep behind him. And then when he restarted writing Maigrets, which was actually still during the war, I think there’s no evidence at all to suggest that he hated him. And I don’t think he ever said this, but I think he sort of missed him, it’s almost as if he missed his companionship. And the books that he was writing, the romans durs as they’re called, the hard novels, are so hard and so comfortless and they have this sort of cold, bleak, abandoned, unconcerning, desolate worldview that is there implicitly in the Maigrets, but it’s softened by Maigret, softened by his impulse to understand and his empathy, and also maybe by some of the domestic stuff I was talking about. And take that away, and they really are staring into the abyss, those romans durs. It’s almost as if, as I say, Simenon missed his companion. And the other thing I should also say is that he did live life on a fairly big scale. He always lived in colossal houses, and he had lots of domestic staff and so on, and he liked to spend freely. And I think he needed the money because the romans durs are great, but he’s not the first writer to discover that their most popular and profitable character, from the publishing point of view, that’s the one to go with, the one everybody absolutely loves and wants to buy in massive numbers.
TJ: So it was partly his readers or the market that brought him back to Maigret.
JL: Yeah, wanting to make dosh! It’s a hypothesis about missing him, but the books are warm when he comes back to Maigret. If you read a couple of the romans durs written from that period and then switch back to Maigret, the worldview is still cold, but there’s this sort of emotional warmth and connection in them that is to do with Maigret, I think.
TJ: And then he stopped writing really quite suddenly, didn’t he, in the early seventies, about a year after his mother died, which you don’t mention. Maybe it’s too easy to make too much of that somehow, his mother died and then he no longer felt the need to write.
JL: Yeah. He was very preoccupied with his relationship with his mother and his mother’s coldness and and ungivingness. It was one of those classic things where the main thing she could do to have control over him was to withhold approval and praise and all that. So she did. And he deeply and passionately minded, and never got over it. And he talks about it at great length in his autobiographical writing. The wound he describes is all about his mother. So yeah, it does look as if there’s a connection. It’s an odd thing to say for someone who, in the last phase of his life, dictated 22 books about himself, and he’d written a few autobiographies before that, so he wrote something like 25 autobiographical books, but it’s a strange thing to say that actually in a funny way he didn’t particularly live the examined life, Simenon. He was such a slave to his drives and his impulses. And he moved from one place to another, he moved from Belgium to Paris, moved to the countryside during the war, and then went to America, went back to France, went to Switzerland, stopped writing novels. He would just know he was done with something, he just came to the end of it. And the last book was Maigret and Monsieur Charles. And then that’s it, he just stopped writing fiction.
TJ: Did he start writing the memoirs before? Because his only daughter – he had several children and he had several sons and one daughter – committed suicide in 1978, didn’t she. Did he start writing his memoirs after that?
JL: No, he’d already begun, because the writing was so compulsive that he stopped writing fiction and switched to these memoirs. And I’m not going to pretend to have read them because I haven’t, they’re mostly untranslated. The great tragedy of his life in those years was his daughter’s suicide. I borrowed a thing Jeremy Harding said to me in the piece, he talked about the autobiographical writings being sinister. I thought a lot about that. There is something odd about them. They’re so flat and so level, and it’s the other side, perhaps, of his empathy and his sympathy for people who do these terrible things. There’s something slightly sinister about being able to empathise with all motives, if you think about that. Actually, ought we be able to empathise with every single person who does every single terrible thing? There’s an absolute total absence of judgment, there’s almost something dark about it.
TJ: Some people it’s OK to judge.
JL: He doesn’t feel any otherness about anything anyone does, however horrific. That doesn’t hit you in the fiction, but in a funny way, when he turns a spotlight on himself… I don’t know, I suppose it’s that thing Graham Greene said, that all writers need a chip of ice in the heart. And Simenon definitely had that.
TJ: The memoirs that were translated into English, the LRB sent to Patricia Highsmith to review.
JL: I didn’t know that. And what did she say?
TJ: Not as much as you might hope, actually! It’s a slightly disappointing piece.
JL: Well, she’s very good at not saying much, actually. That’s one of her great strengths.
TJ: Everyone should go and read it, obviously, but it’s a fairly straight review of the memoirs, some of which were published with some things that his daughter had written as well.
JL: I didn’t know that, was it When I was Old?
TJ: Well, I’m not sure how it came about. It’s called Intimate Memoirs, including Mary Jo’s Book.
JL: OK, yeah, I do know that one. No, When I was Old is a thing he wrote – it’s a rather wonderful title about a particular year in his life when he suddenly started feeling much older, and he wrote it after he came out of that. He felt younger at 60 than he had at 58, which I thought was quite interesting. It’s like that Bob Dylan line, ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’
TJ: The other thing I’d been going to ask about earlier is his sense of himself as an outsider. He went to Paris as a Belgian, and so he was in a literal way an outsider for much of his life.
JL: And I think whatever the wound was that he had from his mum contributed to that. They weren’t affluent. The father died when he was young and I’ve forgotten what he did, but the war years were extremely hard. He was involved in the black market and involved in this semi-criminal hinterland underworld as a teenager. He was 11 when the war started, and so he saw terrible, desperate things. And really that stayed with him. And I think the dual thing of that sense of outsideness from his Belgianness, from his sense of not being properly loved by his mother, which is a thing he does go on about, and not coming from security and prosperity and the fact that everything could slip away, I think those things were all very important to him. And the first bunch of Maigrets, for a lot of them he was an outsider in a very basic sense. He was travelling around on a barge. He had a series of canal boats, and they would change berth every night and he’d write in the morning, he had servants traveling with him. And he would sleep in a tent, he’d pitch a tent next to the boat, and they’d have lunch, and then they’d move on to the next mooring. And so he really did like that sense of not-rootedness. And Patrick Marnham’s biography talks about very astutely, I think, that often the view through a window, the world you sit and watch pass by when you’re in a café, the kind of people around you in a restaurant, public spaces like squares, that’s very much the world he describes. It is the view of a traveller, someone who doesn’t live in a place. He doesn’t really describe intimate domestic scenes. As Marnham says, he doesn’t describe first communions and family celebrations and weddings and things like that. It’s like the thing Henry James said, that a good writer could walk past the Brigade of Guards barracks and look through the window, and get enough material to write a novel about it. And that’s Simenon’s view, it’s that view through the window that he then goes off and writes a novel about.
TJ: Or the view from a train as well. He’s very good on train journeys. One of the things I noticed in your descriptions of the beginnings, when you talk about how good he is on the weather, and so many of them seem to be on train journeys.
JL: Yes, he absolutely loves what Larkin called the poetry of departures. And he loved that thing of departures and arrivals, and the kind of structured chaos of things like train stations. That’s a very sort of Simenonish landscape. Funnily enough the writer who’s a bit like that who I’ve written about elsewhere is Lee Child, and his view of travelling around America. He travels around everywhere, mainly on Greyhound buses, and he’s in diners and cafes and things like that. And there’s a weird similarity Child has with Simenon in terms of the travelling man’s perspective.
TJ: And going back to the question of the empathy and the ability to empathise with the people who do the most terrible things, in some of the books there are other people who he seems to spend less time thinking about. I mean, for example, in The Grand Banks there’s Adele the prostitute, who’s been locked in the captain’s cabin on this fishing voyage, and two other members of the crew have been going and having sex with her. And, if I remember rightly, you don’t really get any of her point of view in that book, but there is a horrifying tale of this Bluebeard’s prisoner, as it were, trapped in this cabin.
JL: No, you quite often don’t get the people’s point of view, but you get to empathise with their circumstances. You don’t hear much from her, but it’s incredibly vivid, I think, the account of the horror of it. I remember the thing of this three-month voyage trapped in a cabin, I thought that was very vivid. I suppose it’s the predicament that’s vivid rather than the account of the character, but I suppose the character being real for me is the same thing as empathy. If you can apprehend their human reality through a depiction, that’s what empathy is.
TJ: And I suppose if you can get that response in the reader that economically, then that’s enough.
JL: Yes, his accounts of those characters are often quite economical. They’re people caught up in the circumstances. It’s often the circumstances that make you empathise.
TJ: There’s the bit about Maigret’s remembering his mother’s death.
JL: I think it’s at the heart of it, the thing that his father does, tries to help out. The ruined old drunk of a doctor who’d been disgraced and his father, who’s an estate manager in the Loire, gets him to deliver his second child when his wife’s pregnant as an act of … I don’t know if it’s atonement or forgiveness or acceptance or something. And it’s implied that the doctor messes it up, and his wife and the new baby die. And that’s one of the things that makes Maigret very preoccupied with always wanting to empathise and understand, this mysterious action that his father had done, this impulse of his father’s to empathise, and Maigret’s career as a policeman basically begins there.It’s very effectively described, all the more so for there being no elaboration. He basically just tells you what happened and lets you work it out.
TJ: To understand and empathise and not to judge, Simenon explicitly said that was his motto, didn’t he, at some point he said that was his motto as well as Maigret’s.
JL: Yeah. And Maigret is the vehicle for that. And I think it’s one of the things that people keep coming back to the books for, that’s rather distinctive about them. As you say, it’s not like, as it were, Christie bad, Simenon good. But as you pointed out, it is fascinating that it’s so the opposite of a lot of the ways things work, because actually the plot and the denouement are quite perfunctory. It might partly be because of the writing method we were talking about earlier, that he just was burnt out and knackered and the last couple of chapters are a bit sketchy and perfunctory quite often, when he wraps everything up. But I think it was mainly that he just didn’t really care. Once he’d figured out to his own satisfaction why the character had done what they’d done and to have led the reader through that, the bit where the mechanics of the crime get sorted out and explained, he just wasn’t particularly interested.
TJ: John Lanchester, thank you very much.
JL: Thank you very much, Tom.
TJ: You can read John Lanchester’s piece on Maigret in the current issue of the LRB along with the American virus by Eliot Weinberger, Susan Pederson on Sheila Delaney and Nicholas Spice’s account of being hospitalised with Covid-19, and you can read John’s piece on Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith’s review of Simenon’s memoirs in the LRB archive, and there are links to those on the episode page for this podcast.