Nobody is sure how many books Georges Simenon wrote. All sources give different totals. He himself didn’t know, indeed he couldn’t remember all of them. He had many pseudonyms, dating back to the time when he was starting out as a hyper-prolific hack in his Belgian youth. To complicate things further, many of his books were published serially and are of a length somewhere between longish short story and shortish novella, so people of good faith can disagree about whether they count as books. In any case, we can agree that he wrote an almost inconceivable number of novels and stories: more than four hundred, according to his current English publisher, Penguin.
Simenon’s colossal output includes the 75 Maigret novels, dozens and dozens of shilling shockers in a variety of genres, a number of outright masterpieces in his ‘romans durs’, and many autobiographical books of an even-tempered but strangely sinister candour. His career divides with convenient clarity into fifths. The early part was the hackwork, including all the books he couldn’t remember in later life. His first novel, Au Pont des Arches, came out in 1921, when he was 18. It’s never been translated, but according to Simenon’s excellent biographer Patrick Marnham it’s a would-be humorous story about his home town, Liège, ‘partly set in a chemist’s shop which specialised in laxatives for pigeons’. Over the next few years, under a variety of pseudonyms, he wrote 150 or so pulp books, mainly of novella length, from titillating near porn to thrillers to Westerns. This early work was undertaken as a conscious project to learn his craft and make money in the process.
Having completed this apprenticeship, he set out on writing (in his own description) ‘semi-literary’ novels: books intelligent enough for literary-minded readers but thrillerish enough for a mass audience. Not an easy trick. The first Maigret novels were written in a burst of creative energy that began in 1930. Simenon thought he was done with Maigret by the end of this period: in the 1934 novel simply called Maigret the inspector has retired and moved back to his homeland in the Loire, but comes out of retirement to help a nephew out of a scrape in Paris.
Maigret was supposed to be the last of the detective novels. Simenon was bored of his inspector and of genre fiction generally, and he switched to writing his romans durs. These are some of his greatest books: they are ‘hard’ because they lack the comforting apparatus of genre, the cosy familiarity of the structure in which the good guy chases the bad guy and the bad guy gets his just deserts. They are hard in other ways too: Simenon had a comfortless view of life and of human psychology, and in the romans durs that perspective is exposed in bakingly clear light. The best of them – my choice would be The Snow Was Dirty – are among the best novels written in the 20th century. But they didn’t sell as well as the Maigrets, and Simenon’s life was expensive. It’s also possible, though he never admitted as much, that Simenon missed the company of his warmest and most famous character. In 1940 he went back to writing Maigret novels, and carried on with them through successive changes of habitat – moving to the United States in 1945, to France in 1955, to Switzerland in 1957 – until 1972.
The second bunch of Maigret novels have a more relaxed and expansive feel than the first cluster. At times the landscape itself is sunnier. (This is a powerful technique in fiction, more so than readers consciously notice. Christopher Sykes once asked his good friend Evelyn Waugh how it was that one of his earlier novels, apparently light and humorous, had an undertow of melancholy. Waugh said he had done it by keeping the weather in the book grey and rainy.) One of my favourites is My Friend Maigret, set on the island of Porquerolles, just off the south coast of France. It has that location’s charm and an engaging subplot about Maigret being forced to collaborate with a British policeman, Mr Pyke:
When he had joined the English inspector in the corridor of the Pullman, for example, it was clear that Mr Pyke, taken by surprise, had not had time to erase the look of wonder that transfigured him. Was it simply reserve, because a Scotland Yard officer should not concern himself with the sunrise over one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world? Or was the Englishman loath to display an admiration that he considered indecent in front of a foreign witness?
Maigret had no hesitation in silently scoring himself a point.
To be fair, in the restaurant car, Mr Pyke had marked one up in turn. A trivial matter. A faint pinch of the nostrils at the arrival of the bacon and eggs, incontestably inferior to those of his own country.
There is no passage like that in the first twenty Maigrets. But there was no softening of Simenon’s worldview. Indeed, that sense of increased psychic space, and the accommodation of some quirkiness in the plot set-ups, can make the psychological asperity even sharper. Failed relationships feature in every book: broken marriages, broken families, broken love stories. In all his novels, human relations involve failure and pain and do lasting damage.
In 1972, just before his seventieth birthday, after finishing Maigret and Monsieur Charles and without premeditation, Simenon stopped writing fiction. As with the other big decisions in his life, moving house or indeed moving country, he didn’t overthink it. He just knew that he was done. After that came the fifth phase, in which he dictated 22 autobiographical works, virtually none of them translated into English. I can’t think of another writer who did anything similar, and it’s such an odd way to end a writing career: twenty-plus books about yourself. But then, nothing about Simenon’s work is like anyone else’s work, so why not? Gide thought him ‘the greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature’; Faulkner said ‘he makes me think of Chekhov.’ The books have sold more than half a billion copies. I’d say that means Simenon achieved all his ambitions. Being a writer, he was completely miserable about that.
As you’d expect, there have been many translations of Maigret into English. The project is not straightforward, as we can see just from looking at the titles. These often betray a lack of confidence as they stretch for snazzy English renditions of Simenon’s enigmatically blunt French. Pietr-le-Letton from 1931 was first translated in 1933 – note that English publishers were onto Maigret pretty quickly – as Suite at the Majestic. That same translation became The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, then The Case of Peter the Lett. In 1963 it was newly translated as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. David Bellos’s recent translation is the first with the confidence to call the book in English what it is called in French: Pietr the Latvian. Similarly, the second Maigret, another of my favourites, Le Charretier de ‘la Providence’, also from 1931, has been The Crime at Lock 14, Lock 14 and Maigret Meets a Milord – a serious candidate for the worst translated title ever. Now, finally, we get to read it in English as Simenon’s deadpan original, The Carter of ‘La Providence’.
The bluntness of the titles is matched by the jerky, syncopated texture of the writing. This is the other thing that makes it tricky to turn Simenon into English. I’ve had a couple of goes at reading Maigret in French, but gave up each time because I felt I was getting something wrong, missing something: the language and thinking seemed to move so abruptly and jumpily. Actually, though, that’s just what the Maigret novels are like. The prose is clear and plain, deliberately so; Simenon kept his syntax simple and deliberately restricted his vocabulary to about two thousand words. The idiosyncrasy is in the rhythms of the thinking, ellipses and jumps and ultra-short paragraphs.
From The Madman of Bergerac (1932), in Ros Schwartz’s translation:
The air was warm and stuffy. There was a faint hissing sound, as if there was a leak in the radiator pipes. Maigret could hear the person in the top bunk tossing and turning and breathing heavily.
The inspector silently removed his shoes, jacket and waistcoat. He stretched out on the lower bunk and felt a slight draught coming from somewhere. He picked up his bowler hat and put it over his face for protection.
Did he fall asleep? He dozed off, in any case. Perhaps for an hour, perhaps two. Perhaps longer. But he remained half-conscious.
And, in that semi-conscious state, he was aware of a feeling of discomfort. Was it because of the heat battling with the draught?
Or was it because of the man in the top bunk, who couldn’t keep still for a second? He tossed and turned continually, just above Maigret’s head. Every movement made a rustling sound.
His breathing was irregular, as if he had a fever.
After a time, Maigret got up, exasperated, went into the corridor and paced up and down. But there it was too cold.
So it was back into the compartment, and another attempt to sleep, his thoughts and sensations befuddled by drowsiness.
Cut off from the rest of the world, the atmosphere was that of a nightmare.
Had the man above him just raised himself up on his elbows and leaned over to try and get a look at his companion?
Maigret, meanwhile, didn’t dare move. The half-bottle of Bordeaux and the two brandies he had drunk in the dining car lay heavy in his stomach.
Almost forty years later, the rhythms have the same feel. From Maigret and the Killer (1969), in Shaun Whiteside’s translation:
Half of his words were lost in the storm. The gutters were real torrents that you had to jump over, and a few cars sent dirty water spraying several metres.
The spectacle that awaited him in Rue Popincourt was unexpected. There were no pedestrians from one end of the street to the other, and only a few windows, apart from that of a small café, were still lit.
About fifty metres from that café, a stout woman stood motionlessly beneath an umbrella shaken by the wind, and the light from a street lamp revealed the shape of a body lying at her feet.
It brought back old memories for Maigret. Even before he had been at the head of the Crime Squad, while he had only been an inspector, he had sometimes been first on the scene of a brawl, a settling of scores, a knife attack.
The man was young. He looked barely twenty, he was wearing a suede jacket, and his hair was quite long at the back. He had fallen forwards, and the back of his jacket was stained with blood.
These passages are from the recently finished Penguin project to translate all 75 Maigret books. The project began with Pietr the Latvian in November 2013 and was completed in January this year with Maigret and Monsieur Charles. Penguin have used an A-team of translators – Bellos and Whiteside and Schwartz, Anthea Bell, Linda Coverdale, David Coward, Howard Curtis, William Hobson, Sian Reynolds, David Watson – but, or and, one of the remarkable features of the project is how consistent the tone is across the books. When you look at the range of tones and voices in the same publisher’s multi-translator edition of Proust, it’s striking how consistent this new edition is by comparison. No doubt Simenon is easier to translate than Proust. I imagine that the consistency must be the result of early choices made about not smoothing Simenon, retaining those twitchy rhythms.
Pietr the Latvian and The Carter of ‘La Providence’ were both published in 1931. That’s something they also have in common with The Late Monsieur Gallet, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, A Man’s Head, The Yellow Dog, Night at the Crossroads, A Crime in Holland, The Grand Banks Café (Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas – the only case where the new series’s policy of translating the titles faithfully breaks down) and The Dancer at the Gai Moulin. Ten novels in one year; the next year he published seven more. The books aren’t long – for the most part they clock in at a little over 30,000 words – but this was nonetheless an extraordinary burst of creative energy on the part of the 28-year-old Simenon.
The writing method was as extraordinary as the books. A Maigret novel came on Simenon like an illness: he would feel the pressure of an idea building to a point where he had no choice but to write it. At that stage he would go to his doctor for a check-up, then shut himself up in a room and write flat out until the novel was finished. This would take around seven days, plus two for revision. Each book is a delirium, a sweatbox, a spell trapped on a desert island. The bizarre thing is that for Simenon they may also have represented a welcome easing-off and slackening of the pace: during the hack period of his early twenties, he would work every day until he had written eighty typed pages. Then he’d throw up. That’s how you write 150 books in seven years.
The Maigret novels, by comparison, were less work. Or shorter hours, anyway. It is notable that the novels written in that first amazing burst of creativity often have a sequence in which Maigret is performing a feat of endurance, of obduracy in the face of physical hardship. He stands vigil all night outside the house of a suspect in Pietr the Latvian; he spends a large chunk of The Carter of ‘La Providence’ cycling long distances alongside a featureless canal. Many passages in these early books stress the fatigue and exertion and repetitiveness of the work Maigret is undertaking: he pushes on, exhausted, when completely knackered. He is unstoppable, remorseless. He never gives up. I think what’s happening in this phase is that some of Simenon’s own sense of effort and exertion leaks into the text: the character is forcing himself to extraordinary physical feats, just as his creator is forcing himself to the feat of writing a novel in less than a fortnight.
The manner in which the Maigret novels were written explains, I think, one of the peculiar truths about them. They are uncannily consistent in quality. Most prolific writers have oeuvres that look like mountain ranges: peaks and valleys. The masterpieces stand out as sunlit peaks, and shadowed abysses conceal the duds, where even the fans cough politely and move on to the next one. The Maigret books aren’t like that. When I tell people I’m a fan, I’m often asked which I think is best; although it’s a good and simple question, it stumps me. They are eerily alike in quality – no especial highs, no especial lows. How did Simenon achieve that? I suspect it’s because the process of writing Maigret involved Simenon going somewhere in his head, the place where Maigret lived. While Simenon was writing the books, he was in a room alone with his character; when he finished the book he stepped out of the room; when he had another idea he went back into the room, and there his reliable inspector was, waiting to go. The books are consistent because they all come from the same place.
All of which would be of little interest if the books were no good. Barbara Cartland wrote – or ‘wrote’, since she mainly dictated – up to 8000 words a day, and frequently finished two books a month; in 1976 she published 23 books; she wrote 723 books in total. Nobody cares, because they’re all shit. Simenon’s extraordinary fluency, and his equally extraordinary writing method, is only worth paying attention to because his books are so exceptional.
The quality of the Maigret novels begins with one of the simplest but most telling tests of any writer, the ability to convey basic physical reality: heat, cold, hunger, satiety, light and dark. This is a huge strength of Simenon’s. He is always precise and evocative about weather and seasons. It’s often the opening note of a book:
When they had left Paris at around three o’clock, the streets were still bustling in the chilly late autumn sunshine. Shortly afterwards, near Mantes, the lights had come on in the train compartment. Darkness had fallen outside by the time they reached Évreux, and now, through windows streaming with droplets, they saw a thick mist gleaming in soft haloes around the track lights.
The Misty Harbour (1932)
It all began with a holiday feeling. When Maigret stepped off the train, half of the railway station at Antibes was bathed in light so intense that the people coming and going were reduced to shadows. Shadows in straw hats and white trousers, carrying tennis rackets. The air was humming. There were palm trees and cactuses along the quayside, a strip of blue sea beyond the street lamps.
Someone was running to meet him.
Liberty Bar (1932)
Madame Maigret sat shelling peas in the warm shade, the blue of her apron and the green of the pea pods making rich splashes of colour. Her hands were never still, even though it was two o’clock in the afternoon on the hottest day of a sweltering August.
Maigret Gets Angry (1947)
It was only nine in the morning and it was already hot. Maigret, who had taken off his jacket, was lazily going through his mail and occasionally glancing through the window. There was no quiver from the foliage of the trees on Quai des Orfèvres, and the Seine was as flat and smooth as silk.
Maigret and the Loner (1971)
The sense of place is equally strong, and one of the great pleasures is the summoning of France’s many landscapes and accompanying social milieux. Simenon captures the eerie flatness of the industrial north-east, the bitter cold and huddled indoor life of Breton fishing villages, the suffocated propriety of Vichy, the bright louche life of Mediterranean France. There is also, and it’s a chief glory of the books, a whole range of different Parises, from the shiny rich to the hypocritical bourgeois middle to the struggling, furious world of the poor, desperate and professionally criminal. I can’t help regretting that Simenon never got to write about today’s Paris, so starkly divided between a glittering central city and banlieue hinterland. It’s fun to match the Paris of the novels with the Paris of today – in Maigret and the Headless Corpse (1955), a body is fished out of the Canal Saint-Martin, a scuzzy, violent, crime-ridden sump in the 10th arrondissement that today is one of the city’s most chichi, Bobo enclaves. There are other extra-textual resonances: the Maigrets live on boulevard Richard-Lenoir – around the corner from the Bataclan concert hall, which was to become world famous in the attacks of 2015. The desperate, vulnerable, weak, politically radicalised perpetrators of those recent crimes were well within Simenon’s imagination. The afternoon before he was born in February 1903, an anarchist’s bomb went off in a department store at the end of the street where his family lived in Liège. He would have made plenty of that coincidence.
The bourgeois home life and marriage of his main character are central to the books’ appeal. Madame Maigret is the source of that: she grounds the novels in diurnal reality. The Maigrets met at a party where he didn’t know anyone and in a moment of nervousness ate all the petits fours, causing general consternation and also causing Louise, the future Madame Maigret, to start falling in love with him. The novels are intensely domestic, balancing the psychological grimness of Maigret’s investigations, and the jet-black view of humanity embodied in his discoveries, with the comfort and routine of settled domesticity. A big part of this, perhaps the main part, is Madame Maigret’s amazingly good bourgeois cooking. (There’s no fictional character whose food I would rather eat.)
There is plenty of sex in the books, but it all has to do with the other characters, usually the relevant criminal perpetrators: Maigret is passionately uxorious, but the passion is expressed through culinary rather than sexual appetite. In this respect, the inspector was very unlike the man who created him. Simenon famously claimed to have had sex with 10,000 women, and was equally famously corrected by his estranged second wife, who claimed the real figure was 1200. She had good data. When they lived in the US, Denise and Georges would go to brothels together; she liked chatting to the girls in the lobby while he was upstairs having sex with one of them. When he’d finished he would come down, and if she was having a good time she would say: ‘Why not have another one, Jo?’ Which must rank as one of the strangest sentences ever spoken in the history of marriage.
Compared to this, Maigret’s marriage is straightforward, and the sublimation of sexuality into food has a psychological plausibility to it. (One detail shows you that Simenon himself wasn’t much of a cook: when Madame Maigret prepares him elaborate meals and he doesn’t make it home in time to eat them, she’s completely cool about it. As a cook, I don’t think so.) Food is a good source of comedy too. In Maigret in Vichy, the couple spend time in the spa town where Maigret has been sent by his doctor to take a three-week cure. No surprise there, given that Maigret is without question the most varied and interesting breakfast drinker in all literature: he’ll start the day with a Calvados, a Cognac or perhaps a simple glass of white wine, and will carry on with apéritifs, a litre or so of wine, a beer or two with colleagues and a couple of glasses of his sister’s sloe gin in the evening. ‘It’s hard to explain,’ he tells the spa doctor. ‘If I start one of these investigations on Vouvray, for example, because I find myself in a bar specialising in it, I tend to continue on Vouvray.’None of that in Vichy, of course, where he starts the day with a bowl of coffee and three croissants – the kind of spa regime we can all get behind.
The cosiness and comfort are needed to balance the harshness of Simenon’s worldview. The canvas is primed with domesticity; the picture painted on it is in dark shades. Maigret is often given credit as a person who understands, whose strength is patience, empathy, a reluctance to judge. And yet the things he understands are desperately bleak. In this, Simenon is true to the French literary code. The reader whose idea of the novel is formed by the English canon may at some stage start to read books in the French tradition. At that point, it may suddenly seem that everything one has previously read has essentially been children’s literature. Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, even Austen and Eliot, are all wonderful writers, but their work is founded in wish fulfilment, happy endings and love conquering all. The side notes and off notes and internal dissent are all there, of course, but they are subtextual, subtle, inexplicit. The main current of the English novel is in the direction of Happy Ever After, along the lines of Miss Prism’s deathless observation: ‘The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’ When you turn from that tradition to the work of Laclos, Flaubert, Balzac, Stendhal, Maupassant and Proust, it’s like getting a glass of ice water in the face. Everybody lies all the time; codes of honour are mainly a delusion and will get you into serious trouble; the same goes for love; if you think the world is how it is described in consoling fictions, you have many catastrophic surprises in store. Above all, the central lesson of the French tradition is that people’s motives are sex and money, and you can write about those things as sex and money, directly, no euphemisms required.
Simenon writes like that. Consider The Grand Banks Café, from the annus mirabilis of 1931. Captain Fallut comes back with his crew from a three-month fishing trip and is immediately murdered on the docks. It turns out he had smuggled a prostitute, Adèle, into his cabin, on an impulse, and kept her hidden there for the entire voyage. The crew realised what had happened and two of them had sex with her behind the captain’s back; when they return to Normandy, one of the men takes the first chance to kill him. The most vivid thing in the book is the atmosphere of the voyage, ‘the dark cabin around which three men had circled for days, for weeks on end, far away, in the middle of the ocean, while other crewmen in the engine room and in the foredeck dimly sensed that a tragedy was unfolding, kept watch on the sea, discussed changes of course, felt increasingly uneasy and talked of the evil eye and madness’. Madame Maigret smells something on her husband: ‘No doubt lingering traces of Adèle’s overpowering scent which had clung to him. A scent as common as cheap wine and cheap bistros which had, on board the trawler and for months on end, mingled with the rank smell of cod while men prowled around a cabin, as determined and pugnacious as dogs.’ In the same year, Agatha Christie published The Sittaford Mystery (Major Burnaby cheated at the séance!), Margery Allingham published Police at the Funeral (cluster of unexplained deaths in Socrates Close, Cambridge!) and Dorothy Sayers published The Five Red Herrings (Lord Peter Wimsey was the only one to spot the missing tube of white paint!). All three detectives are amateur sleuths. I love all those books, but part of the reason I love them is that they bring comfort. They have the same relationship to real life, and in particular to real crime, as Alice in Wonderland. They have no smell. The Grand Banks Café smells of diesel oil, cheap perfume, sex, sailors half-mad with randiness, and cod. It is comfortless, its policeman is a real policeman and its murder is a real murder.
That kind of fidelity was important to Simenon. He was gratified by the fact that policemen liked his books. He wanted to get as much of the real world as possible into the formula of a detective story. It was a question of gaps: the gap between what people say they are and who they really are, the gap between norms of behaviour and how people actually behave. He is fascinated by codes of behaviour and power relations; I find it hard to imagine Simenon reading Pierre Bourdieu, but if he did he would have found a lot to agree with. Another of Simenon’s unexpected intellectual affinities is with Raymond Queneau, who in the course of his studies spent a lot of time reflecting on the difference between spoken and written Greek, between the dialect of the street and the formal language. It occurred to Queneau that French, too, had just as big a gap between the spoken vernacular and the official language, and this thought prompted him to write his exuberant and untranslatable 1959 masterpiece of ‘neo-French’ (his term), Zazie dans le Métro. Simenon was just as interested in the question of linguistic gaps, but in his case the rupture was between the formal, inquisitorial, antiseptic language of bureaucracy and the realities of life and crime. Pietr the Latvian begins like this:
1. Apparent age 32, height 169
ICPC to PJ Parix Xvzust Krakow vimontra m ghks triv psot uv Pietr-le-Letton Bremen v stys btolem.
Detective Chief Inspector Maigret of the Flying Squad raised his eyes. It seemed to him that the cast-iron stove in the middle of his office with its chimney tube rising to the ceiling wasn’t roaring properly. He pushed the telegram away, rose ponderously to his feet, adjusted the flue and thrust three shovels of coal into the firebox.
All through the text, official language is fighting the human story:
He opened a drawer and glanced at a dispatch from the International Identification Bureau in Copenhagen.
Paris PJ Pietr-le-Letton 32 169 01512 0224 0224 02732 03116 03223 03243 03325 02415 04115 04114 04147 052221 …
This time he made an effort to speak the translation aloud and even went over it several times, like a schoolchild reading a lesson:
Description Pietr the Latvian: apparent age 32 years, height 169 cm, sinus top straight line, bottom flat, extension large max, special feature septum not visible, ear unmarked rim, lobe large, max cross and dimension small max, protruberant antitragus, vex edge lower fold, edge shape straight line edge feature separate lines, orthognathous upper, long face, biconcave, eyebrows thin fair light, lower lip jutting max thick lower droop, light.
This ‘word-picture’ of Pietr was as clear as a photograph to Inspector Maigret. The principal features were the first to emerge: the man was short, slim, young and fair-haired, with sparse blond eyebrows, greenish eyes and a long neck.
The narrative unfolds like a photograph slowly developing: it emerges from the official language and turns into a story of obsession, hate, dual identity, murder and suicide, and then switches back to the official language for the denouement:
The 6mm bullet traversed the palate and lodged in the brain. Death was instantaneous.
As a precaution the body has been taken to the morgue. Receipt of corpse has been acknowledged.
The language of bureaucracy is a factually accurate form of discourse which cannot tell the truth. This is a theme throughout all the Maigret novels, the crevasse between the official version and the human reality. The inspector himself is the incarnation of that division, a state functionary whose mission is to uncover the truth, even though that truth often contradicts the orderly, categorised, procedural norms of his role.
As a direct result, in the Maigret novels the criminal meets justice, but the judicial process is often circumvented – as in Pietr the Latvian, where the villain kills himself. Another frequent theme is that the perpetrators are punished through the consequences of their actions, or are their own punishment. In one sense, the Maigret books are the ultimate procedurals, since the entire narrative describes Maigret’s procedure in a particular case; at the same time, the procedures are a means to an end, since Maigret’s real interests are in character and justice. I don’t think there is a single Maigret novel in which he doesn’t work out the killer’s identity. In about half of them, though, the perpetrator goes unpunished by any legal process. The reader is in a similar position to the detective. In any given Maigret novel, we know whodunit from a fairly early point: that’s not where the interest of the stories is to be found. The denouement, in which the criminal is caught and the plot wrapped up, is hardly of any concern to Simenon; the kind of reader who reads detective stories for the buzz of working out who did the crime will find nothing in his books.
Simenon, like most writers, felt himself an outsider; his novels view the world from an outsider’s perspective. As Patrick Marnham points out,
Simenon, although this is the fact which it is easy for a foreign reader to overload, always saw France through the eyes of a foreigner … Maigret’s France is a pungent, colourful country where life was largely lived in public, in bars, markets and streets. It is less a land of private interiors, or family discussions in peasant kitchens, or private discussions in cabinet meetings or board rooms, or banal rites of passage such as weddings or first communion celebrations.
It is ‘very much the France visited by the man from out of town’.
As an outsider, Simenon pays immense attention to class. The setting for a Maigret novel is often a social milieu as much as a geographical one: the desperate world of Eastern European criminals in Maigret’s Dead Man, the suffocatingly haut-bourgeois affluence of Maigret Hesitates, the narrow provincial elite of Inspector Cadaver. Madame Blanc, the monstrous concierge in Maigret’s Childhood Friend, is a brilliant example of a character who combines a distinct class perspective – always attending to the needs of people who are richer than her but also dependent on her – with insight into a psychological type: ‘She looked at the world through her door and hated it, all of it.’ That obduracy is one of Simenon’s keynotes; he is fascinated by characters who won’t play along, who refuse to help, who turn a blank, obstinate face to the world and to Maigret’s investigation.
Part of what’s at work here is class resentment. That is a powerful force in the books, and so is class hypocrisy. In categorising Simenon’s plots, two main strands stand out: posh people who’ve done bad things and have guilty secrets; and identity puzzles in which people are hiding who they really are, and in particular who they used to be. Both these plot strands turn on questions of class. It is a sociological worldview, and Simenon is a sociological writer, perhaps more so than any other detective novelist. At the same time – and this is the core of his greatness as a writer – he had an extraordinary willingness to confront pain. His stories are driven by the need to seek out a character’s moment of maximum hurt. Maigret is a device for doing that: he looks for the wound, studies it and (frequently) presses on it. And then, usually, the story ends. The abruptness with which the plots are resolved is linked to this, because the plot isn’t the point. The plot is merely a route to the pain.
It’s a process that is at its clearest in the most open and personal of the Maigret books, Maigret’s Memoirs – though it is a mysterious and beautiful thing that the figure who is at his most open and personal in the book is not Simenon but Maigret. By this point – 1951 – Maigret had come to be so fully realised in his creator’s mind, and in the mind of his readers too, that a memoir from his perspective made sense: in the book, the ‘real’ Maigret considers the writer, Simenon, who has fictionalised him in so many bestselling novels. Maigret’s view of Simenon, instead of the other way around – sure, why not? The inspector is friendly with his creator, though alert to his opportunism and shamelessness, and the novel explains something which runs through all the Maigrets, the fact that the character is constantly being recognised, is, in fact, famous – because the books Simenon has written about him have made him so. This is a tiny, vertiginous touch of postmodernism in a sequence of books that is careful never to seem too literary.
This, though, isn’t the source of the power of Maigret’s Memoirs. That comes from a crucial passage which lies at the heart of both the Maigret novels and Simenon’s creative impulses more generally. The inspector tells the story of his youth in the Loire and how he was led to abandon his medical studies and become a policeman. The decisive episode came when his father, an estate manager who ran farms for the local landowner, took pity on a Dr Gadelle, who through his drunken negligence had killed his own wife during childbirth years before:
In the case of Gadelle, if there had been nobody to hold out his hand to him after the death of his wife and child, he would have been lost.
My father did that. And when my mother was pregnant, a feeling I find hard to explain, but which I can understand, made him persevere.
Nevertheless, he took precautions. Twice in the later stages of her pregnancy, he took my mother to Moulins to see a specialist.
The time came. A stable boy rode out to fetch the doctor some time in the middle of the night. I was not made to leave the house, but remained shut in my room, terribly upset, even though, like all country children, I had a certain knowledge of these things even when I was young.
My mother died at seven in the morning, as day was breaking, and when I went downstairs the first object that attracted my attention, in spite of my emotion, was the decanter on the dining-room table.
It’s devastating, all the more so for being so understated. Maigret never says what he feels about this – he doesn’t have to. But it’s clear that his vocation to be a ‘mender of destinies’ – his description of his father – has its origin in this moment. That vocation is ambiguous and complicated, given that his father’s ambition was catastrophic – literally fatal, to his wife and her unborn child. ‘Having tried to understand Gadelle,’ Maigret says, ‘then to understand my father’s behaviour towards him, I continued to look around me and ask myself the same questions.’ What was left to Maigret was the impulse to understand and empathise, and not to judge. Maigret stresses this point repeatedly in the books. When asked by an old school companion in Maigret’s Childhood Friend if he thinks him despicable, he says: ‘I don’t think anyone’s despicable.’ In his memoir When I Was Old, Simenon writes that he spent thirty years saying that there was no such thing as a criminal. ‘It only takes a few minutes, a few seconds, to make a murderer,’ Maigret tells his schoolfriend. ‘Before that you’re a man like any other.’ Simenon was unafraid of that fact, unafraid of the contingency of life, and unafraid of the pain it brings. ‘I was born in the dark and the rain, and I got away,’ he told the New Yorker in 1953, in a passage that Marnham chose as an epigraph to his biography. ‘The crimes I write about – sometimes I think they are the crimes I would have committed if I had not got away.’
I once met Simenon’s son John and was talking to him about the wave of gory, dark Scandinavian crime stories which at that point (it was 2013) were all over the airwaves. He said he liked them, and that his father would have liked them too. ‘But they are the opposite of my father’s work,’ he said. I was struck by the complete certainty with which he spoke and asked him why he thought that. Answer: ‘Because my father didn’t believe in evil.’
And that’s true, he didn’t. It means that Simenon’s books are and always will be an outlier to the dominant thread of crime and detective fiction, which is spun from ideas about the incomprehensible, almost supernatural power of human badness. That helps Simenon’s writing still seem fresh. For Simenon, people are not inherently bad – indeed, are not inherently anything, other than human. And yet we do bad things all the time, and when we do them it is usually to the people to whom we are closest. It’s a mystery.
Among the books discussed in this piece (all published by Penguin):
Maigret, translated by Ros Schwartz
My Friend Maigret, translated by Shaun Whiteside
Maigret and Monsieur Charles, translated by Ros Schwartz
The Carter of ‘La Providence’, translated by David Coward
The Madman of Bergerac, translated by Ros Schwartz
Maigret and the Killer, translated by Shaun Whiteside
The Misty Harbour, translated by Linda Coverdale
Liberty Bar, translated by David Watson
Maigret Gets Angry, translated by Ros Schwartz
Maigret and the Loner, translated by Howard Curtis
Maigret and the Headless Corpse, translated by Howard Curtis
Maigret in Vichy, translated by Ros Schwartz
The Grand Banks Café, translated by David Coward
Pietr the Latvian, translated by David Coward
Maigret’s Childhood Friend, translated by Shaun Whiteside
Maigret’s Memoirs, translated by Howard Curtis
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