The Seamy World of Simenon

 

 

 

Georges Simenon, creator of the somber, pipe-smoking Paris detective Jules Maigret, pursued sex, fame and money relentlessly. By the time he died in 1989 he had written nearly 200 novels, over 150 novellas, several memoirs and countless short stories. His demonic productivity and the vast sales and fortune it brought him were matched by a vaunted sexual athleticism. Simenon claimed to have slept with 10,000 women. (“The goal of my endless quest”, he explained, “was not a woman, but the woman” – which is French for wanting lots of it, very often). It was not love-making, but a desire for brute copulation that drove Simenon to demand sex at least once daily of his wives, secretary and housemaid-mistresses. How he found the time to write the Maigret books is a matter for psychoanalysis. (Simenon described himself, without irony, as a “psychopath”.)

 

On the thirtieth anniversary of his death this 4 September, Simenon continues to be read and enjoyed. Although he dismissed his 75 romans Maigret as “semi-potboilers”, they are unquestionably literature. “In 100 years from now”, Ian Fleming told Simenon in 1963, “you’ll be one of the great classical French authors.”

 

 

Like the 007 extravaganzas, the books were written fast, without outline and hardly corrected at all. Simenon demanded silence as he set out to write one Maigret adventure a week. When Alfred Hitchcock telephoned one day, he was told, “Sorry, he’s just started a novel”. “That’s all right, I’ll wait”, came the reply. A one-man fiction factory, Simenon despised the Paris literary establishment and what he called literature with a “capital L”.

 

 

Over a period of six years, at the rate of one a month, Penguin have been issuing new translations of all the Maigret novels. The project is now almost complete, and not before time. The uneven quality of earlier translations, where endings were sometimes altered and the register was at times jarringly American (“Maigret had gotten into the habit”), was unfortunate. The 11-strong team of Penguin translators, among them the late Anthea Bell, have restored a stylistic brilliance to the romans Maigret. With rare narrative verve the books conjure the workaday rhythms and guilty secrets of Paris and small-town France. Simenon’s is a world of second-class hotels and third-class railway carriages, of drifters, bargemen, tarts and luckless creditors. His interest was not in intellectuals or master criminals but in his beloved ordinary people – les petits gens. Ordinary people are driven to ordinary acts of violence and social outrage. Criminals look like us, Simenon seems to be saying. His motto, “comprendre et ne pas juger” (understand and judge not), is also Maigret’s.

 

Maigret’s is, triumphantly, a search for understanding. The earthily dependable flic in his trademark velvet-collared overcoat and bowler hat is presented as a neutral observer, who looks on crime with an unbiased curiosity. The sense of complicity between criminal and policeman is omnipresent in the books. Strikingly, Maigret compares his role to that of a priest or “mender of destinies”. In The Saint-Fiacre Affair, translated by Shaun Whiteside, Maigret’s almost sacerdotal knowledge of the human soul is evident as he draws on childhood memories of communion wafers and “the secret of the confessional”. An elderly woman is murdered at Mass; Maigret seeks to understand why.

 

 

Born in the Belgian city of Liège in 1903, Simenon said he had a “middle class soul”. Maigret is a bourgeois adrift in a murky underworld but, unlike his creator, he is dutifully uxorious. Madame Maigret pampers him like the needy man he is. (“Men, they’re all the same!”) Alsatian-born, she serves him  cassoulet and is aware of his many dislikes (whisky, champagne, calves’ liver, central heating). He is an only child. Madame Maigret calls him “Monsieur Maigret” when she wants to tease; he can be extraordinarily overbearing. (“Now, please will you fill a pipe for me and plump up my pillows?”) His devotion to his wife is something that his creator clearly envies. The Maigrets have a holiday home in the Loire; in Paris they enjoy quiche suppers at an Alsatian restaurant near their flat on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. (“What’s the point of being Alsatian if you don’t know how to make quiches?” Madam Maigret demands.) Perhaps it is fortunate that they have no children; Simenon’s much-loved daughter, Marie-Jo, committed suicide in 1978.

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