Quite a Show

Tim Parks

In 1974, aged 71, having announced the end of a writing career that had produced nearly two hundred novels, and having retreated from a mansion with 11 servants to a small house in Lausanne where he lived with his second wife’s ex-maid, Georges Simenon dictated his Letter to My Mother, Henriette Simenon née Brüll, who had died four years earlier. He wants, he says, to understand her at last. To accomplish this he returns to the week he spent with her in hospital before her death. Mother and son watch each other intently day by day, barely speaking, as he reconstructs her life from the beginning: the poverty of her childhood; the opportunist marriage to the middle-class Désiré Simenon; her bitterness over her husband’s failure to earn a decent living; her introduction of lodgers into the family against his wishes, including, during the 1914-18 occupation of Liège, German soldiers; her hysterical fury whenever she didn’t get her way; her suspicion of Georges, her eldest son, and her proud refusal to accept any money from him; her preference for her second son, Christian; and finally her second marriage to a railway worker with a house and a safe pension. The whole life is considered as a dogged struggle to achieve the single goal of economic security that she set herself ‘at five years old’. ‘You outwitted them all,’ Simenon concludes.

The two marriages were battles (‘you were both afraid the other would poison you,’ he says of Henriette and her second husband), and so is the relationship between mother and son; the long week in the hospital room was the final showdown. ‘Why have you come, Georges?’ the mother asks, getting in the first blow. She is dominant. ‘You know everything now,’ her son admits. ‘That’s why you’re superior.’ But over the week Georges will catch up, piecing together all he knows about her and deducing what he doesn’t. And his is to be a different kind of victory. Simenon had long gone beyond his mother financially (the Letter has frequent allusions to his wealth). Now, understanding her, finally recognising that she did no more than ‘follow her destiny’, he arrives at a point where he can say: ‘Don’t imagine, Mother, that I bear you any grudge, or that I judge you. I don’t judge anyone. If men have always fought each other since time began, it is out of their failure to understand their neighbours.’ Whether this overcoming of conflict is real, or just a more complete expression of victory over an antagonist who can no longer answer back, is something readers must decide for themselves.

Letter to My Mother suggests three kinds of winner, three kinds of loser: the mother who begins life with nothing, achieves the security she longed for, but was always tormented and hysterical, ‘always suffered life, never lived it’; the middle-class father who seemed such a failure to his wife but was always happy within himself (‘my father lacked nothing, my mother lacked everything,’ Simenon wrote elsewhere); and Georges himself, the most widely read and financially successful writer of his time and a man who had lived life to the full – ‘I have had sex with ten thousand women,’ he declared in an interview – but who had not won the Nobel as he had predicted and hoped. His own two marriages had both collapsed. His beloved daughter Marie-Jo was in and out of mental hospitals; in 1978 she committed suicide. Afterwards, Simenon dictated a memoir in which he blamed the girl’s mother, his second wife, Denyse. She fought back in the courts, and the battle went on.

The vision of life as conflict and the consequent dream of overcoming conflict through understanding is also at the heart of one of Simenon’s finest romans durs (meaning a literary rather than a genre novel), Dirty Snow. The book was written in the US in 1948: Simenon had left France after being accused of collaborating with the German occupation. He had allowed a Nazi-run film company to adapt his novels, and one had been turned into anti-Semitic propaganda. His younger brother, Christian, had been condemned to death for collaboration in Belgium. Simenon helped him to escape to Vietnam with the French Foreign Legion, where he was killed in 1947. There was plenty of conflict around.

As with Letter to My Mother, in Dirty Snow the protagonist constantly puts himself in the presence of his antagonist without either of them making their quarrel explicit. In an unnamed town in an occupied country, 19-year-old Frank Friedmaier seeks initiation into adult life through murder. Illegitimate, never having known his father’s name, son of a prostitute who turned her flat into a brothel, Frank grows up spying on prostitutes and their clients through a hole in the wall. But although money, power and self-gratification seem the only values that matter in the world around him, he’s nevertheless fascinated by the wholesome ménage in the flat underneath his own, where a widower, Holst, lives with his 16-year-old daughter, Sissy. When Frank lies in wait to commit his first, entirely gratuitous murder he deliberately allows Holst to see him: indeed being seen by the respectable older man becomes the only point of the murder. And when Sissy falls in love with him he decides to court her only in order to attract Holst’s attention. Then, having lured her to his flat to make love, he slips out from the dark bedroom to allow his crony, the loathsome Kromer, to replace him and have the girl.

It’s a disgraceful trick that almost costs Sissy her life. But Frank, again, is really only interested in Holst’s response: he hangs around the man’s place of work as if demanding a reaction. Eventually, Frank is arrested by the occupying forces and interrogated for weeks without knowing why. Once more we have two people engaged in a battle to understand each other, as Frank and his interrogator sit together hour after hour, often in silence, Frank desperately seeking to delay his inevitable execution by pretending to know things he doesn’t. The reader is drawn into the interrogation process too: we are constantly in Frank’s company, constantly trying to understand the mystery of his self-destructive behaviour. Finally, Frank achieves the victory we realise he always wanted: Holst and Sissy come to visit him. Holst explains he had a son who committed suicide after being caught stealing. He understands Frank, he forgives him. Overwhelmed, Frank wishes he was Holst’s son. ‘It would have relieved him of such a burden – to say “Father!”’ The logic behind his provocation of Holst is at last clear. Convinced he has now won all the battles he can, Frank makes no further attempt to delay his execution.

Almost all of Simenon’s serious novels transformed elements of his biography into nightmare scenarios of the most disturbing kind. Sometimes the protagonists manage to step back from the brink of disaster. Such is the case in Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which dramatises Simenon’s 1945 meeting with Denyse and his violent jealousy of her sexual past. The couple eventually find a way forward when she forgives him an infidelity and he gives her the power to make the major decisions in their relationship. But when the same story is rerun in Letter to My Judge, Simenon’s alter ego strangles the woman who has drawn him to leave his ‘cold’ first wife. Spared the death sentence for what’s considered a crime of passion, he kills himself in prison. It’s worth noting that both these novels were written within a year of Simenon’s meeting Denyse on arrival in the US and while the two were still living with his first wife and child in a ménage à trois. Simenon was mapping out futures, more or less tormented, for the three of them. As Patrick Marnham remarks in his excellent 1994 biography, ‘the account of the experience became part of the experience.’ Neither woman headed for the door. Simenon by this time was a multimillionaire.

How does Inspector Maigret fit into all this? For if Simenon is being drawn to our attention again 25 years after his death, it’s not for the 44 novels he thought should win him the Nobel, most of which are out of print, but for the 75 ‘Maigrets’ that Penguin is reissuing at the rate of one a month with the expensive luxury of new translations by some of the profession’s best-known practitioners. Simenon published the first ten Maigrets in 1930 and 1931. He was 28. Like most of his writing up to that point the books were part of a project of self-affirmation as dogged as his mother’s search for financial security. Having left school in Liège at the age of 15 he soon became a prolific journalist, correcting a reckless, dissolute private life by marrying, at twenty, an artist three years older than himself, though this never prevented him visiting prostitutes and having sex with anyone who attracted him, however momentarily. A typical sentence from Marnham’s biography reads: ‘In the Hotel Bertha he quickly discovered that one of the chambermaids was the niece of a novelist who had won the Prix Goncourt, and, hoping to launch his literary career, he had her in the hotel corridor one morning while she was kneeling down cleaning the shoes.’

After moving to Paris in 1922, Simenon supported his wife’s painting by writing scores of short popular novels under the pseudonym Georges Sim. Meanwhile a young maid had been acquired who would remain Simenon’s lover for more than thirty years, something his wife would only discover, or admit to having discovered, in 1944. Amid these precarious domestic relationships, Simenon flaunted his financial success in endless parties and extravagant drinking bouts, until in 1929 he once again sought to protect himself from his own appetites, this time taking his wife and maid to live for a year on a boat travelling the waterways of France and Northern Europe. From then on the oscillation between indulgence and withdrawal would be a constant.

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It was during these travels that Simenon began to plan the Maigret books. You could say that the burly, imperturbable detective was the kind of providential figure who might pick up the pieces when the tensions in lives like Simenon’s finally blew apart. Each Maigret novel is presented as a battle, or a number of battles. There is the battle between characters that has led to the mysterious death with which each story opens; the battle between Maigret and other detectives, magistrates or politicians involved in the case (all obtuse, obstructive or incompetent); and the battle of wits between Maigret and the murderer. While all this is going on the inspector frequently has to struggle against appalling weather conditions, cycling tens of miles along muddy canal paths in pouring rain, fighting wind or snow, or labouring under suffocating heat. He is endlessly tempted by drink. Women seek to seduce him. Men try to buy him off. Even geese attack him. He is deprived of sleep, punched and shot at. He moves through crowds as though ‘fighting against a strong current’. Often it looks as though everything is ‘joining forces to unsettle him’, but he hangs on, his bull-like physique sustained by beer, sandwiches, pipe tobacco, the warm stove at police headquarters and the knowledge that at home his chaste wife is patiently preparing the kind of dish that won’t spoil however long it’s kept waiting. Then there is his genius.

It doesn’t show. On the contrary, Maigret’s greatest stroke of genius is never to reveal his genius. There is no brilliant conversation. For the most part he appears boorish, uninterested, disgruntled, absolutely resistant to theory, suspicious of advanced forensics, ‘devoid of subtlety’. When asked what he’s thinking he invariably replies that he doesn’t think. Asked about ideas, he tell us he has no ideas. Presenting himself as impenetrable – a ‘lifeless bulk’, with eyes ‘dull as a cow’, ‘burly as a market porter’, ‘a pachyderm plodding inexorably toward its goal’ – he becomes more of a mystery than the mystery itself. The only intelligence that’s occasionally allowed to cross his face is a mocking irony. It’s this quality that will be fatal to the murderer, who is drawn into a battle of wills he can only lose.

Like Simenon himself in Letter to My Mother, Maigret proceeds by enforced proximity. He goes to the scene of the crime, which usually takes place in a small, well-defined community, at the centre of which there is very likely a seedy hotel where Maigret will book a room. He hangs around bars with the suspects, visits their homes alone and uninvited, eats with them, walks and talks with them. He establishes who’s an insider and who’s an outsider, who’s sexually satisfied and who isn’t, which women are attractive and which plain or plain ugly, whose ambitions are thwarted, who has delusions of grandeur and power. If there’s a pretty maid he may ask her bluntly whose mistress she is. When he thinks he has his man he sticks to him like a limpet, waiting for him to break down.

In A Man’s Head, certain that a young Czech immigrant is the guilty party but without any evidence to nail him, Maigret follows him everywhere, drinking in the same bars, catching taxis to follow his taxi, climbing on the same trains, encouraging an atmosphere of mute challenge. The real nature of police investigation hardly comes into it, and for all the claims made for these books, Simenon shows no special insight into ‘the criminal mind’, whatever that may be. Essentially, the dynamic that surrounded his own private life is projected onto group after group of characters in seemingly endless and always fascinating permutations. The one character who has no parallel in Simenon’s real life is Maigret himself, a fantasy fusion of extreme wilfulness and benevolent understanding, a man who drinks enormously without ever getting drunk, who has an eye for the ladies and never falls for them, who always wins and never does any harm. Who wouldn’t love him?

A Crime in Holland, the eighth book in the series, is typical. Improbably, Maigret is sent to the small port of Delfzijl in northern Holland, a place Simenon knew from his earlier boat travels, where a French expert in criminology is suspected of shooting Conrad Popinga, an ex-sea captain turned teacher at a naval college. On arrival Maigret – who has been given a list of other suspects by the criminologist – ignores the Dutch police and heads off alone to find the one young woman in the group, an 18-year-old farmer’s daughter called Beetje. The two are soon delivering a calf together. Afterwards, having tea in her bedroom, he understands from the quality of her French, the ‘silk dress [that] moulded her generous curves’ and the books on her shelves that Beetje has higher ambitions than farming. As she generously gives him a detailed account of the evening preceding the crime – the French professor’s lecture and the party after it at Popinga’s house – Maigret quickly gathers that she had a relationship with the victim and perhaps wouldn’t mind having one with him. His intuitions in this regard are never wrong. Despite the murders, every Maigret is also a comedy.

When he meets the French criminologist, conveniently staying with the victim’s family, a ‘tussle’ at once begins, Maigret deliberately playing dumb as the other expounds his theories. The Dutch police, when they turn up, are equally eager to impress their Parisian colleague. Maigret isn’t impressed – he’s never impressed – and as always complications abound. The tricky geography of canals and quays and intermittent lighthouse beams, together with the awkward logistics of connecting bedrooms and bullet trajectories shot from this or that window, are a challenge to even the most attentive reader. At one point Maigret crosses a canal by stepping on floating logs to prove that one character could have moved from A to B more quickly than would seem possible. Suspects include Beetje, her severe father, her panicky would-be fiancé, the victim’s puritan wife, her sour, flat-chested, academic sister, and, for colour, a local wheeler-dealer whose cap just happens to have turned up at the scene of the crime.

Fearing that Maigret is homing in on a truth that would cause a local scandal, the Dutch police, in league with the criminologist, treat him to an extremely heavy lunch, washed down with bottle after bottle of wine, during which they claim to have evidence that the murder was committed by a sailor passing through town who had a score to settle. Our inspector out-eats and out-drinks them, but doesn’t take the bait. Though we have no more idea than anyone else what he may be thinking, we are always invited to feel that we are on the winning side, that we can trust him to sort things out.

Eventually, a familiar play of forces emerges. Popinga, the victim, loved life, loved music, loved dancing and above all loved women, ‘all women’, but was surrounded by people who believed in respectability and preferred academic theories to living. He drank heavily, spent time with local black marketeers, made passes at his maid under his wife’s nose and was even conducting an affair with the wife’s crabby sister. But the latter’s love turned to hatred when she became aware of competition from Beetje with ‘her two splendid … 18-year-old breasts’. Passion spurned, there remained ‘only the desire to conquer’.

At the end the real conqueror is Maigret: he has the Dutch police, the French professor and the local low life all slavishly obeying his orders to perform a reconstruction of the crime during which the inspector shows his sympathy for the dead man’s appetite for life and his weariness with the representatives of respectability, officialdom and academe. But intuition and understanding don’t bring happiness. Hearing much later that the sister-in-law killed herself on the day of her trial, Maigret ‘contrived excuses to shout at all his inspectors’. The victory of comprehending the world comes at the cost of realising how awful it is.

One figure who turns up constantly in these Maigrets is the suspect who panics, has attacks of hysteria, can’t face the truth. In A Crime in Holland it’s the young man Cornelius, who has courted Beetje, was jealous of Popinga and breaks down in tears every time he is questioned. Faced with this behaviour, Maigret is sometimes understanding, sometimes contemptuous, always impatient. He knows an attempt is being made to distract him. On reading biographies of Simenon one discovers that such hysterics were as much a trait of his as the womanising and the will to win. Simenon would have panic attacks at crucial moments: when his first wife was giving birth, when his daughter was taken to hospital. The effect was to draw all the attention to himself when others were in danger. In 1940 he came back from a medical examination convinced he’d been told he had a fatal heart condition and didn’t have long to live. Soon enough his wife discovered from the doctor that her husband had nothing wrong with him at all. One can imagine the pleasure, for Simenon, of conjuring up a figure like Maigret, utterly immune to panic of any kind, and of describing those bold criminals who oppose him so ingeniously, then acknowledge defeat with dignity, aware that they have been outdone by a real master. ‘You’ve won,’ the beautiful Else says towards the end of Night at the Crossroads, ‘but admit it: I put on quite a show.’ The difference between Simenon and the criminals, his second wife remarked, is that he ‘lacked the courage to be a criminal’.

To read the breadth of Simenon’s work is to be made aware of the unbridgeable gulf between genre fiction and serious fiction. The Maigret novels are immensely attractive. Simenon always creates a fine sense of place, simultaneously real and quaint; the characters are rapidly and effectively drawn, reassuringly recognisable, neatly arranged in relation to one another. Maigret’s habits, his pipe, his beers, his brusque ways, his refusal to kowtow to authority and his generosity with the humbler classes are always comforting. But after reading five, six, seven Maigrets, one grows weary. Nothing new can happen in these books, however intriguingly the old pack is reshuffled. It doesn’t matter what country we’re in, what town: the same pattern will prevail. Characters of the same kind interact in the same way. Maigret sits patiently beside them and understands. Yet despite our flagging interest we pick up the next one anyway, and the next. It’s an addiction. The carefully circumscribed melodrama and Maigret’s triumphant wisdom, carrying with it all the charm of a France gone by, made more charming still by the faint atmosphere of incongruity that hangs over translated dialogue, is as irresistible as sugar. Here is Maigret in The Yellow Dog, interviewing a barmaid. As usual the people he talks to are generous with biographical details:

‘How old are you?’

‘Twenty-four.’

There was an exaggerated humility about her. Her cowed eyes, her way of gliding noiselessly about without bumping into things, of quivering nervously at the slightest word, were the very image of a scullery maid accustomed to hardship. And yet he sensed, beneath that image, glints of pride held firmly in check.

She was anaemic. Her flat chest was not formed to rouse desire. Nevertheless she was strangely appealing, perhaps because she seemed troubled, despondent, sickly.

‘What did you do before you came to work here?’

‘I’m an orphan. My father and brother were lost at sea, on the ketch Three Kings. My mother’d died long before … I used to be a salesgirl at the stationery shop near the post office … ’

What was she watching for, with her restless glance?

‘Do you have a lover?’

She turned away without answering. Maigret watched her face steadily, puffed on his pipe slowly and took a swallow of beer. ‘There must be customers who make a play for you! … those men who were here earlier – they’re regulars, they come every evening, and they like good-looking girls … Come! Which one?’

Her pale face twisted wearily as she said, ‘The doctor, mainly …’

No doubt Simenon was chuckling as he wrote, and it’s all so easy to swallow. But when you do manage to break away to read Dirty Snow or The Man Who Watched Trains Go By you see at once that each of these novels alone is worth a dozen Maigrets. Without the reassuring inspector, there’s a real danger in Simenon’s writing: anything can happen and much appears to be at stake for the author himself. With their genuine exploration of how people push relationships to extremes, these books offer a far more arduous and exciting level of engagement. One can understand why the French call them romans durs.

Why, then, did Simenon write so many Maigrets? Why did he go on writing them when he was already fabulously rich? In the final page of Letter to My Mother, he has a revelation: along with her implacable struggle for security his mother had always felt the need to be good, or to believe herself good. There was no point in winning and believing oneself bad. This was why she always had time for the humblest passer-by, while largely ignoring her own children. Maigret, one might say, was the nearest Simenon came to being good, or rather to giving us a figure who is as good as one can be in the face of conflict everywhere. ‘The artist,’ Simenon said, ‘is above all else a sick person, in any case an unstable one – why see in that some form of superiority? I would do better to ask for people’s forgiveness.’ Unlike his creator, Maigret is triumphantly healthy, genuinely superior and always ready to forgive those who love life.