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.

This will doubtless come as some surprise to those for whom Simenon means only the Maigret novels. In fact, of the 192 novels he published under his own name, 75 were romans policiers and the other 117 what he called ‘romans durs’ or, in more self-conscious literary fashion, ‘romans-romans’, a proportion more or less respected by the Pléiade selection – an editorial decision presumably motivated not merely by considerations of ‘balance’ but also by the wish to justify Simenon’s claim to canonical status. Yet it is unclear whether the distinction between the two categories matters that much. The durs were hard in the practical sense of demanding more time to write (discounting planning time ahead of writing and revision afterwards, a Maigret took a week, while the ‘roman-roman’ took all of ten days to a fortnight). The difference does not, however, seem to mark the difference between writing a potboiler and creating a minor masterpiece. More important, the durs were also ‘hard’ in the atmospheric sense of bleak, depicting hopeless lives. In a letter to Gallimard, Simenon wrote of his ambition to foster a literature of ‘petites gens’. This helps to place him in a (more or less standard) literary-historical context. At the beginning of the 1930s, French literature was dominated by three main currents: Surrealism, which occupied the outposts of the avant-garde; the NRF, which sought a compromise between Modernist values and a traditional humanism that would leave the idea of ‘high’ literature intact; and a form of populism, which challenged these elitist assumptions and institutions, backed by its own manifesto (Léon Lemonnier’s Manifeste du roman populaire), and whose best-known practitioner was Eugène Dabit.

At the time, populism was a force to be reckoned with, strengthened by the arrival of the Front populaire, which, among other things, encouraged the involvement of the cinema: several of the directors around René Clair, most notably Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir, made film adaptations of populist works, including Simenon’s. Renoir adapted La Nuit du carrefour in 1932, while the following year Duvivier directed a version of La Tête d’un homme and, much later (after the war), made the extraordinary movie Panique, an adaptation of one of the best durs, Les Fiançailles de Mr Hire. There were divisions within populism: the Communist left favoured a strictly ‘proletarian’ literature, expressly designed to exclude the ‘petit bourgeois’ component of ‘les petites gens’, while also preferring revolutionary optimism to expressions of pessimism. The disputes did not run that deep, however, and during the Front populaire both wings more or less blended.

Simenon’s world, however, belongs unmistakably to the pessimistic tendency. In the letter to Gallimard he was insistent that the modern epoch that concerned him was ‘non pas la période ouvrière . . . mais la période petites gens, ce qui est fort différent’. His ordinary characters are rarely proletarians (with the exception of the canal workers of the Marne and the Flemish peasants of La Maison du canal), and certainly not of the ‘heroic’ type. For the most part they lead humdrum, anonymous lives in some backwater or other (a provincial town, the suburbs, the forgotten quartiers of the capital). Even when they travel to distant places – the hero of Le Coup de lune goes to the Belgian Congo – the encountered reality is unrelievedly grim, the very antithesis of the exotic (‘L’Afrique, ça n’existe pas! L’Afrique . . .’ is the novel’s closing line). In most of the novels, it rains a lot, and the sky is a permanent ‘grisaille monotone’, index of an enveloping desolation. What breaks the monotony, and triggers narrative, is some turn of events which leads the rhythms of the everyday suddenly to snap, to yield another, altogether more desperate kind of bleakness. Simenon described this characteristic shift of gears by the formula ‘roman-crise’ (an expression he may have got from the preface of Drieu La Rochelle’s Gilles): often blamelessly, a life goes off the rails, spins out of control and heads fast for disaster.

In the more interesting of the ‘crisis’ novels, the détraqué becomes the traqué, the story of the man on the street as the man on the run. In Les Fiançailles de Mr Hire, the lonely, sexless Hire is pursued for a crime he hasn’t committed (the murder of a prostitute); betrayed by his neighbours, harassed by a cruel police bureaucracy, he ends by hanging himself. It is the manhunt from the point of view of the hunted rather than the hunter (in some ways reminiscent of the pursuit and death of Sykes in Oliver Twist). The death, however, is also a refusal: a life on these terms is simply not worth living. In L’Homme qui regardait passer les trains, Popinga Kees awakens from a sleepwalker’s life into the romance of departure. He leaves his small town and his family for Amsterdam, where everything goes wrong. An accidental homicide (of another prostitute) makes him a fugitive. He takes the train to Paris where, a wanted man, he prowls the streets in a state of increasing dereliction and alienation. But the novel is also the extraordinary tale of a life assumed and lived through to the end. Kees spends much of his time in bars writing to a newspaper, sardonically contesting his assumed guilt. He ends in a hospital for the insane, where he requests a notebook, in which the only entry he makes is ‘La Vérité sur le cas de Kees Popinga’; when asked by his doctor why he has not written more, his murmured reply – another closing line – is: ‘Il n’y a pas de vérité, n’est-ce pas?’ In this resistance to society’s ‘truth’ (Kees as murderer, Kees as mad), Simenon’s hero approximates the tragic lucidity of Camus’s Meursault in L’Etranger, while also going some way to justifying Simenon’s own view of himself as a precursor of Sartre’s La Nausée (both novels appeared not long after L’Homme qui regardait passer les trains, published in 1937).

In mood, style and even narrative content, the durs are not radically dissimilar from the Maigret novels, which themselves press on the boundaries of the genre. Maigret belongs of course in the family of great fictional detectives, but, unlike his predecessors, he is entirely without charisma. He is a middle-aged functionary, ‘large et confortable’, quietly unassuming, forever stuffing his pipe. The pipe may be the most memorable detail, a metonym of unflappable bourgeois placidity, an image reinforced by his contented domestic life with Mme Maigret. In Le Charretier de la ‘Providence’ he has a wash while his sidekick, Lucas, brings him up to date on the crime scene, and his fumbling for the towel is used to intrude on the convention of the forensic report. He also fumbles with his braces while dressing, and Lucas feels obliged to break off his summary to ask whether he needs a hand.

Maigret is different from the heroes of inferential reasoning that populate the genre. His method is not so much cerebral deduction as immersion in a social world and its atmosphere, looking for signs of where and how that world has started to unravel. In Le Charretier de la ‘Providence’ (one of several canal stories) the conventional clue and its decoding are of marginal importance; instead, we have Maigret on a rented bicycle pedalling in ungainly fashion along the towpath, in an attempt to catch up with a barge that is also an attempt to take in something of an unfamiliar way of life. At the end of L’Affaire Saint Fiacre, the suspects are gathered round a table for the standard dénouement, but assembled by one of the prime suspects rather than by the detective. Moreover, expectations are defeated: there is no dénouement, and Maigret is left with an unsolved mystery on his hands. He is endowed with a personal history (Saint-Fiacre is where he spent his childhood, and he returns with troubled memories that disturb his professional competence), a history more fully inscribed in the remarkable first-person novel, Les Mémoires de Maigret. Maigret here becomes his own narrator, giving us access to his private life (the childlessness of his marriage, for instance, is delicately broached). Maigret, in short, is fallible, and less a hunter of the villain than someone sympathetically bound to the victim, including the criminal as victim: the savage murder in Le Charretier de la ‘Providence’ is perpetrated by someone whose life has been ravaged by the woman he kills; in Maigret et les braves gens, Maigret dawdles in his inquiries because he knows that unmasking the culprit will do more harm than good.

Foucault linked the abstract reasoning powers of the modern detective to the late 19th-century translation of crime into the more abstract – and thus separable – categories of ‘delinquency’ and ‘deviance’. The rationality of the detective belonged to an apparatus of rationes, understood as a set of cultural instruments for taming the recalcitrant. Just as the penal system disciplines the transgressor, so the detective novel is part of a symbolic system for ‘disciplining’ reality itself. In the Maigret stories, crime is not a mere aberration, a deviance from the regime of the normal, where detection coincides with the restoration of that regime. Rather, crime is dissolved into the social, saturated with ambiguity, uncertainty and vulnerability. Maigret is a reassuring emissary from the bourgeoisie into the murky underworld, but he is not a master-figure. He is simply a decent man in a wild world, rather like, albeit in a very different register, the private eyes of Hammett and Chandler.

In The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci argued that the embryonic forms of the detective novel in the early 19th century (that is, prior to the specialisation described by Foucault) were ‘overtly ideologico-political in character and with democratic tendencies linked to the ideologies of 1848’ (he had Eugène Sue and Victor Hugo particularly in mind). Simenon’s Maigret novels can be seen as a recovery of that ‘democratic’ impulse, although in conditions that called for a new kind of realism and a corresponding despatch of the mythic hero of the novels of Hugo and Sue. This in turn may require some rethinking and recasting of what Bourdieu called the literary ‘field’. There are exceptions to Bourdieu’s model, whereby cultural ‘capital’ is acquired in inverse proportion to the accumulation of financial capital: Dickens and to some extent Balzac and Dostoevsky are obvious 19th-century ones. Simenon never had anything like their range of imaginative power. Perhaps the more apposite analogy for him is with a writer like Wilkie Collins, whose talents are now properly recognised.

Simenon made no bones about writing for money or aiming for popular success. This made for a high degree of repetition, a certain homogeneity of themes and writing methods. This may be deemed a real limitation. On the other hand, the relatively homogeneous character of his oeuvre is also a reflection of a distinctive worldview governed by what, in Les Inconnus de la maison, is termed ‘la stagnation des choses’, from which there is no escape other than to a self-destructive margin. Simenon’s style mirrors this dismal scene, often by way of a prose rhythm which brings to mind a writer to whom, to my knowledge, Simenon is never compared: Flaubert. In La Maison du canal, Simenon’s Flanders recalls nothing so much as Flaubert’s Normandy:

La rumeur des chants liturgiques et le clapotement des pas dans la boue moururent peu à peu et les femmes restèrent seules avec les enfants, n’ayant plus que la préoccupation du dîner. Un dîner de cinquante personnes! On mettait des rallonges aux tables. On avait emprunté des chaises à Neeroeteen. Mia sanglota deux fois parce que ses pommes ne prenaient pas, mais la pâte durcit comme par miracle au dernier moment.

A few well-managed sentences reminiscent of Flaubert won’t of themselves suffice to buy an entry ticket to the hall of fame. But they will at least dispel any lingering notion that Simenon was a hack rather than a writer. Probably the safest – though not necessarily the best – bet would be to see his work as an instance of what Sainte-Beuve called the ‘minor’ or ‘second order’ classic, although, given Sainte-Beuve’s hostility to the advent of modern ‘literary democracy’, it is inconceivable that he would have found himself able to accommodate a writer of detective novels. We, happily, are no longer constrained by that particular prejudice.