FOREWORD

Georges Simenon created a furore worthy of the most bed-hopping of politicians with his declaration that he had had sex with over 10,000 women. He made the claim in January 1977 in a conversation with Fellini in the magazine L’Express to launch Fellini’s film Casanova in France, but the jaw-dropping statement was met with scepticism. How had he written so many novels if his entire time seems to have been spent in carnal abandon? Simenon admirers were alienated by what seemed like boastfulness – but, fortunately, it’s not necessary to approve of all a writer’s statements to admire his work. Leaving such things aside, by the time of his death in 1989, Simenon was the most successful writer of crime fiction in a language other than English in the entire field, and his most iconic creation, the pipe-smoking police inspector Jules Maigret, had become an institution. At the same time, his non-Maigret standalone novels are among the most commanding in the genre (notably The Snow Was Dirty, an unsparing analysis of the mind of a youthful criminal). Simenon created a writing legacy quite as substantial as many more ‘serious’ French literary figures; André Gide’s assessment of him as ‘the greatest French novelist of our times’ may have been hyperbolic, but as a trenchant picture of French society, Simenon’s books collectively forge a fascinating analysis.

But at this point, let’s establish what this book isn’t. It’s not designed as a straightforward biography – I felt that a sort of ‘collage’ approach might fruitfully present a picture from various angles (the author’s life and character, his remarkable literary achievements, and the many adaptations of his work in other media). To that end, apart from my own essays, I have interviewed a variety of people who either worked with him or worked on his books: publishers, editors, translators, and other specialist writers, some of whom I commissioned to write pieces on Simenon in the past for various books and magazines (notably Crime Time, which I have edited in both print and online formats). My hope is that all of this will create a prism through which to appreciate one of the most distinctive achievements in the whole of crime fiction.

Musical Chairs and Titles

At the heart of this study is a bibliography created by the late David Carter, which remains a very well-researched piece of work. Inevitably, of course, some of David’s information reflected the time when it was written (2003), so I have customised a great many things – not least adding newly translated titles for books that have appeared previously under different monikers. A good example might be the first Maigret, originally published in 1931 as Pietr-le-Letton but subsequently appearing as both Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett and The Case of Peter the Lett, and which is now available under the more suitable title of Pietr the Latvian (in a translation by David Bellos). My yardstick in terms of titles has been the impressive Penguin initiative of new translations, which are unlikely to be bettered. I have kept some of David’s plot synopses along with some of his value judgements, although, here again, I have added and subtracted extensively. Finally, though, as a starting point for this book, David’s work has been extremely useful.

Simenon: The Man

A One-Man Trojan Horse

Crime in translation may have achieved massive breakthroughs in the twenty-first century, but long before this trend, Simenon was a one-man Trojan horse in the field. Georges Joseph Christian Simenon was born in Liège on 13 February 1903; his father worked for an insurance company as a clerk, and his health was not good. Simenon found – like Charles Dickens in England before him – that he was obliged to work off his father’s debts. The young man had to give up the studies he was enjoying, and he toiled in a variety of dispiriting jobs (including, briefly, working in a bakery). A spell in a bookshop was more congenial, as Simenon was already attracted to books, and his first experience of writing was as a local journalist for the Gazette de Liège. It was here that Simenon perfected the economical use of language that was to be a mainstay of his writing style; he never forgot the lessons he acquired in concision. Even before he was out of his teenage years, Simenon had published an apprentice novel and had become a leading figure in an enthusiastic organisation styling itself ‘The Cask’ (La Caque). This motley group of vaguely artistic types included aspiring artists and writers along with assorted hangers-on. A certain nihilistic approach to life was the philosophy of the group, and the transgressive pleasures of alcohol, drugs and sex were actively encouraged, with much discussion of these issues – and, of course, the arts were hotly debated. All of this offered a new excitement for the young writer after his sober teenage years. Simenon had always been attracted to women (and he continued to be enthusiastically so throughout his life) and in the early 1920s he married Régine Renchon, an aspiring young artist from his home town. The marriage, however, was troubled, although it lasted nearly 30 years.

From the City of Lights to the USA

Despite the bohemian delights of the Cask group, it was of course inevitable that Simenon would travel to Paris, which he did in 1922, making a career as a journeyman writer. In these early years, he published many novels and stories under a great variety of noms de plume.

Simenon took to the artistic life of Paris like the proverbial duck to water, submerging himself in all the many artistic delights at a time when the city was at a cultural peak, attracting émigré writers and artists from all over the world. He showed a particular predilection for the popular arts, starting a relationship with the celebrated American dancer Josephine Baker after seeing her many times in her well-known showcase La Revue Nègre. Baker was particularly famous for dancing topless, and this chimed with the note of sensuality that was to run through the writer’s life. As well as sampling the fleshpots, along with more cerebral pursuits, Simenon became an inveterate traveller, and in the late 1920s he made many journeys on the canals of France and Europe. There was an element of real-life adventure in Simenon’s life at this time, when he became an object of attention for the police while in Odessa (where he had made a study of the poor). His notes from this time produced one of his most striking novels, The People Opposite/Les Gens d’en Face (1933), which was bitterly critical of the Soviet regime, which the author saw as corrupt. As the 1930s progressed, Simenon temporarily abandoned the police procedural novels featuring doughty Inspector Maigret (his principal legacy to the literary world), but he did not neglect his world travels, considering that the more experience of other countries he accrued, the better a writer he would be.

Like many people in France, Simenon’s life was to change as the war years approached. In the late 1930s, he became Commissioner for Belgian Refugees at La Rochelle, and when France fell to the Germans, the writer travelled to Fontenay in the Vendée. His wartime experiences have always been a subject of controversy. Under the occupation, he added a new string to his bow when a group of films was produced under the Nazis based on his writing. It was, perhaps, inevitable that he would later be branded a collaborator, and this stain was to stay with him for the rest of his career. In the 1940s, while in Fontenay, Simenon became convinced that he was going to die when a doctor made an incorrect diagnosis based on an X-ray. Pierre Assouline’s biography argues that this mistake was cleared up very quickly, but this erroneous sentence of death affected Simenon deeply and led to the writing of the autobiographical Pedigree about the writer’s youth in Liège. The novel – Simenon’s longest by far – was written between 1941 and 1943 but not published until 1948.

After the war, Simenon decided to relocate to Canada, with a subsequent move to Arizona. The USA had become his home when he began a relationship with Denyse Ouimet, and his affair with this vivacious French Canadian was to be highly significant for him, inspiring the novel Three Bedrooms in Manhattan/Trois Chambres à Manhattan (1946). The couple married, and Simenon moved yet again, this time to Connecticut. This was a particularly productive period for him as a writer, and he created several works set in the USA, notably the powerful Red Lights in 1955, which, in its scabrous picture of the destructive relationship between a husband and wife, echoed the tough pulp fiction of James M. Cain. He also tackled organised crime in The Brothers Rico/Les Frères Rico in 1952 (subsequently filmed). However, always attracted by the prospect of a new relationship, Simenon began to neglect his wife and started an affair with a servant, Teresa Sburelin, with whom he set up house. (His wife Denyse spent some time in psychiatric clinics but outlived her husband by six years. She was a published author, and even practised as a psychiatrist for a time.)

In the 1950s, Simenon and his family returned to Europe, finally settling in a villa in Lausanne. Here, behind closed doors, he would enter an almost trancelike state, would write compulsively, usually completing an entire book in a week or two.

Simenon and Maigret

It quickly became clear that Simenon was the most successful writer of crime fiction (in a language other than English) in the entire genre, and his character Maigret had become as much of an institution as the author. The Simenon novels that can be described as standalones (i.e. books with no recurring detective figure) are among the most powerful in the genre, but there is absolutely no debate as to which of his creations is most fondly remembered: the pipe-smoking French Inspector of Police, Jules Maigret. The detective first appeared in the novel Pietr the Latvian/Pietr-le-Letton in 1931, and the author stated that he utilised characteristics that he had observed in his own great-grandfather. Almost immediately, all the elements that made the character so beloved were polished by the author: Commissaire in the Paris police headquarters at the Quai des Orfèvres, Maigret is a much more human figure than such great analytical detectives as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and his approach to solving crimes is usually more dogged and painstaking than the inspired theatrics of other literary detectives. What Simenon introduced that was new in the field of detective fiction was to make his protagonist a quietly spoken observer of human nature, in which the techniques of psychology are focused on the various individuals he encounters – both the guilty and the innocent. Simenon gave his protagonist an almost therapeutic function, in which his job was to make people’s lives better – although that usually involved the tracking down and (sometimes) the punishment of a criminal. Along with this concept of doing some good in society, Simenon decided that Maigret had initially wished to become a doctor but could not afford the necessary fees to achieve this goal. He also had Maigret working early in his career in the vice squad, but with little of the moral disapproval that was the establishment view of prostitution at the time (Madame de Gaulle famously sought – in vain – to have all the brothels in Paris closed down). Maigret, with his eternal sympathy for the victim, saw these women in that light and remained sympathetic, even in the face of dislike and distrust from the girls themselves. In The Cellars of the Majestic/Les Caves du Majestic, the detective has to deal with a prostitute who meets his attempts at understanding with scorn and insults. Whereas modern coppers such as Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus are rebellious mavericks, eternally at odds with their superiors and battling such indulgences as alcoholism, Maigret is a classic example of the French bourgeoisie, ensconced in a contented relationship with his wife and less ostentatiously rebellious with authority – although he maintains a maverick sensibility. There is no alcoholism, but rather an appreciation of fine wines – and, of course, a cancer-defying relationship with a pipe (the sizeable pipe collection on his desk rivals Holmes’s violin as a well-known detective accoutrement).

André Gide’s famous encomium mentioned earlier (‘the greatest French novelist of our times’) may overstate the case, but the Maigret books provide us with a detailed picture of French society. There’s social criticism here too – Maigret is always searching for the reasons behind crime, and sympathy is as much one of his qualities as his determination to see justice done.

Guilt and Innocence

Simenon inspired many writers of psychological crime, such as Patricia Highsmith; she once told me at a publisher’s launch party in London that Simenon’s name brightened her mood, whereas my mention of Hitchcock’s film of her first book, Strangers on a Train, definitely did not. Simenon’s early thrillers featured psychological portrayals of loneliness, guilt and innocence that were at once acute and unsettling. The Strangers in the House/Les Inconnus dans la Maison (1940) depicts a recluse whose isolation is shattered by the discovery one night of a dead man in his house. The subsequent investigation draws this former lawyer back into humanity, to take on the case of the murderer himself. The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By/L’Homme qui Regardait Passer les Trains (1938) shows a normal family man, who, when the firm where he works collapses, becomes paranoid and capable of murder. He rushes towards his own extinction, determined for the world to appreciate his criminal genius.

Notions of guilt and innocence are central to the writer’s world view, but rarely in a simple binary sense. Simenon sees the vagaries of human behaviour as complex: he is always ready to condemn egregious examples of malign behaviour, but he is equally ready to demonstrate flexibility when culpable actions can be viewed through a variety of prisms.

Simenon and the Leopard Woman

I was particularly pleased to speak to the much respected publisher and editor Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, who was something of a triple threat where Simenon was concerned: he had published him, translated him, and visited him in France (as well as hosting his visits to the UK). Christopher was – characteristically – frank regarding his memories of the author.

‘When I was at Hamish Hamilton,’ he told me, ‘the decision was made to republish Georges Simenon. It was, in fact, the writer Piers Paul Read’s father who had made the suggestion. There had been some translations in the UK, but they had not been published with any enthusiasm or care. I was pleased to take up the cudgels, and I was largely left to my own devices – in fact, I was given no instructions at all! I’d read modern languages at Cambridge, and that was clearly qualification enough to publish this prolific Belgian author.

‘Editing and publishing the books should not, theoretically, have been a major task – except that there were so damned many of them. Simenon kept up that amazing flow of work right until the end of his life, but the sheer volume was only part of my problem. There was a certain requirement that was put in place which became known as the “Simenon Rules”. These were not generated by Simenon himself, but by his formidable wife Denyse. She Who Must Be Obeyed made it clear to us – in no uncertain terms – that the translations had to be rendered in English that was exactly the equivalent of the French originals. If I suggested that such a thing was not possible – as any translator will tell you, so much of the job is simply a judgement call as to what is the best approximation in another language – it was met with a frosty response, and this became a major challenge of rendering Simenon into English. We quickly learned that there was no profit in arguing with her, and she was known in our offices as the Leopard Woman, principally because she cultivated these long scarlet nails. Of course, it’s not unusual for an author to hand the difficult jobs of dealing with a publisher to their spouse, who will then make all the draconian complaints, but I’m not sure whether it was him or her that generated these strict edicts.’

I asked Christopher if his impressions of the author were favourable when meeting him. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘I can’t say that I was greatly enamoured of him in our various encounters. An immensely talented man, of course, but not what I’d call a nice man. My colleague Richard Cobb and I always referred to him as “Le Maître”. But we knew we had to tread carefully regarding such issues as translations, as I mentioned earlier. Retrospectively, I suppose it was surprising that I opted to translate Simenon myself – specifically his novel The Neighbours (Le Déménagement), which was a very bleak piece. But I always admired his non-Maigret novels such as The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (which was, of course, very successfully filmed). I suppose I got to know him personally best when I visited him in Switzerland. There was a ritual dinner which one had to undergo – largely enjoyable, but with its negative side. There were things I would have to put up with… whether I wanted to or not…’

Christopher hesitated, but I insisted that – after this tempting morsel – he had to expand. He laughed and continued. ‘All right, it was the women. I had to listen at length to the latest in the continuing series of conquests. My job? Simple… listen and nod admiringly at intervals. As the evening wore on and the Calvados flowed freely, he became even franker and I also had to hear the various prejudices that exercised him – everything you would expect, including homophobia. Happily, though, I didn’t have to listen to the usual author complaints about how he was being published in Britain; he was happy with that side of things – happier than his wife, it seemed. Although, interestingly enough, the sales were never strong, although they bubbled over. I think the problem was that he was so damned prolific – I know there were people who assiduously collected every book, but casual readers were never quite sure whether they’d bought a particular Maigret or not. The sales, however, spiked with the television adaptations, which raised the profile of the books.

‘I do have one strange memory of what I think was my final visit to the house in Lausanne. We drank, we talked, and all was companionable – but I was particularly aware that the house seemed ever more like a clinic rather than a comfortable residence. And that, in fact, was what it was. His wife Denyse had begun to show – shall we say – peculiarities? And the house was being prepared for when more medically oriented facilities would be required. It was all very strange – in fact, it was more like a subject for a Simenon novel… A house turning into a sinister clinic. It would have to be sinister in a novel, wouldn’t it?’

MAIGRET’S PARIS

Simenon places Maigret’s office at 36 Quai des Orfèvres, the headquarters of the Parisian judicial police at the Grande Maison, on the banks of the Seine on the Île de la Cité – a place of pilgrimage for the Simenon enthusiast. Venturing inside the building, it is still possible to see the famous 148 steps that Maigret ascended to his office. The cast iron stove and worn linoleum that Simenon described are not to be found, but looking through the windows one can see the boats that Maigret gazed upon, still moving slowly down the Seine.

Rue de Douai to Les Gobelins

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By/L’Homme qui Regardait Passer les Trains (1938) is virtually a travelogue of Paris, as the protagonist wanders aimlessly around from district to district, sleeping with (but not having sex with) a variety of prostitutes. The novel contains an evocative – and very Parisian – image of an elderly woman selling flowers in the Rue de Douai (an image not impossible to conjure up in modern-day Paris), but it also features a vividly rendered trip to a neighbourhood at the opposite end of town – Les Gobelins – which Maigret finds one of the ‘saddest sections of Paris’, with wide avenues of depressing flats laid out like army barracks and cafés crowded with ‘mediocre people’ who are neither rich nor poor.

Pigalle’s Prostitutes and the Gare de l’Est

Maigret, in 1934, was originally planned as the last Maigret novel; by this point Simenon had written six novels in a more ‘literary’ style. In many books, the Pigalle district is where Maigret encounters denizens of the underworld, drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes; and, as described by Simenon, this is a sleazy but curiously attractive area – in fact, it might be said to have been a better class of sleaze in that era, as more downmarket and more sordid distractions have replaced those that Simenon wrote about. Prostitutes still haunt the red light bars, but they seem very unlike those described in the Maigret novels. Similarly, Rue Saint-Denis is much more a tourist hotspot in the twenty-first century than the exotic and atmospheric locale described by Simenon.

Simenon was not above being playful with the conventions of the detective novel – and the identity of the author. In Maigret’s Memoirs/Les Mémoires de Maigret (1950), Maigret talks about meeting a strange young man called ‘Georges Sim’ – not hard to guess who this is – who arrives to study him and his working methods, reproducing them Watson-like, with embellishments, in a series of books. Like Holmes, Maigret ruefully remarks on these embellishments and laments their inaccuracy.

The book features the Gare de l’Est, a location familiar to many visitors and one that always evokes scenes of mobilisation for war for the detective. In contrast, Maigret notes, the Gare de Lyon and the Gare Montparnasse always make him think of people going away on holiday – while the Gare du Nord, the gateway to the industrial and mining regions, prompts thoughts of the harsh struggle people once had for their daily bread.

Maigret in Montmartre and the Bois de Boulogne

Maigret at Picratt’s/Maigret au Picratt’s featured the detective reminiscing about a striptease in Picratt’s nightspot in Montmartre. He remembers the stripper wriggling out of her dress with nothing underneath and standing there ‘as naked as a worm’ – and, as in the American burlesque, ‘the moment she has nothing left on all the lights go out’. The sort of discreet strip act that Simenon described here seems quaintly historical now. One has to travel to Montmartre at very specific times of the day to avoid its tourist trap atmosphere today, but it is not impossible to mentally recapture the world Simenon evokes.

Simenon aficionados should be particularly pleased with Maigret and the Lazy Burglar/Maigret et le Voleur Paresseux (1961), in which Maigret must disobey orders in order to investigate the murder of an unlikely gang member, whose battered corpse is found in the Bois de Boulogne. The novel is a classic example of Simenon’s skill at devising ingenious plots and situations. It features the Palais de Justice (the law court), which is next to the Conciergerie on Île de la Cité at the south corner of Pont au Change. The Conciergerie, which is now a museum, was used as a prison during the French Revolution and was much feared. Prisoners here included Thomas Paine and Mary Antoinette.

From the Bastille to Place des Vosges

The Boulevard Richard-Lenoir figures in Maigret’s Dead Man/Maigret et Son Mort (1948), in which the detective speculates on the reason for the area’s bad reputation. He talks about its unfortunate proximity to the Bastille (hardly a disincentive for the Parisian visitor these days, of course) and, he continues, the area is surrounded by ‘miserable slummy little streets’. Again, this is not quite as true of the district in the twenty-first century. Maigret notes, however, the friendly atmosphere and the fact that those who live here grow to love it.

Much of Simenon’s Paris has changed since his day, but the beautiful Place des Vosges, however, where Simenon lived, is still very much the area that Simenon evoked, in terms of both its elegant atmosphere and its beauty. At one time, Simenon located his detective’s own home here, although Maigret is more often described as living in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. The upmarket art galleries and haute cuisine restaurants still nestle under the historic arches, and – more than in many Parisian locations – it is possible to imagine oneself retracing the footsteps of the author’s pipe-smoking copper. In addition to Maigret and his prolific creator, famous inhabitants of the square have included Victor Hugo and Théophile Gautier.

One striking memory of Simenon may be found at a watering hole close to the Quai des Orfèvres, the Taverne Henri IV (13 Place du Pont Neuf); the owner was, in fact, a friend of the author, and various photographs on the wall show Simenon enjoying himself at this very location.

Throughout the Maigret novels, the visual aspects of the scene are conveyed impeccably, especially the locations. Simenon’s sharp eye for detail is also clearly apparent in his photographic work – as is evidenced by the recent publication of his photographs in The Years with a Leica (with a perceptive introduction by the author William Boyd).

More Maigret’s Paris

I’m not the only traveller who has savoured the City of Lights with Maigret in mind. The writer Andrew Martin, creator of the evocative Jim Stringer Railway Detective novels (and much else), is a fellow flâneur.

‘Paris was always my favourite city,’ Andrew says. ‘But I couldn’t put my finger on why. Then I started to read the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon, and found encapsulated the dreamy, wintry not-trying-too-hard Paris that I loved: zinc-topped bars, blue-jawed toughs drinking from dainty wine glasses, Pont Neuf in the rain, that pre-dinner hour when the lights come on, when everyone is mellow yet galvanised.

‘Simenon hated the word “literature”, but his psychological understanding and sense of place ensured he was rated by many highbrows. The English traveller aiming to “do” Maigret in a day can begin their appreciation by arriving at the Gare du Nord, described in Maigret’s Memoirs/Les Mémoires de Maigret as “the coldest, draftiest and busiest” of Paris’s stations. “In the morning, the first night trains from Belgium and Germany generally contain a few smugglers, a few traffickers, their faces as hard as the daylight seen through the windows.”

‘Taking a metro to the heart of Maigret country, you find the police headquarters at 36 Quai des Orfèvres on the Île de la Cité. This is alongside the now-damaged Notre Dame cathedral, but the true Maigret aficionado would be more interested in the nearby restaurants. In Maigret and the Informer/Maigret et l’Indicateur (among others), Maigret lunches at the Brasserie Dauphine, supposedly on the Rue de Harlay, where he favoured the corner table commanding a view of the river.

‘The Brasserie Dauphine is thought to have been based on a real-life restaurant in the same spot called the Trois Marches, but in a rare lapse by the planners of central Paris, it has been knocked down and replaced by a bank resembling a Barratt home.

‘I visited a restaurant at 13 Place du Pont Neuf, the Taverne Henri IV, where the proprietor, a M. Cointepas, told me that he had been to visit his old customer Simenon in Switzerland shortly before he died in 1989. “He was in a wheelchair, and he couldn’t speak… But he was drinking a beer and smoking a pipe,” he added. M. Cointepas told me that he often retraces the steps taken by Maigret in his investigations, and at home prepares the dishes described in the books as being favoured by the detective, especially blanquette de veau – approximately veal stew. At the time I visited, many senior law enforcers still came into the Taverne at lunchtime – they stood at the bar while the judges sat at the tables. But French detectives no longer drink alcohol during the working day.

‘Walking from the Taverne, I arrived at the Place des Vosges in the Fourth Arrondissement. It is surrounded on all four sides by the seventeenth-century buildings that once formed the palace. Incredibly, these fairy-tale premises served – in the 1930s and 1940s – as apartments for the not very well off, including the young Simenon, who set The Shadow Puppet/L’Ombre Chinoise here, invoking a world of pinched, disappointed people inhabiting gaslit labyrinths. The building now houses apartments for the wealthy, or baronial antique shops, and Ma Bourgogne at 19 Place des Vosges, depicted in Madame Maigret’s Friend/L’Amie de Madame Maigret as a dowdy tabac, had become a sumptuous café/restaurant where steak frites were particularly pricey.

‘As dusk fell on my Maigret odyssey, I headed for Montmartre, especially the compellingly sleazy vicinity of Boulevard de Clichy. In Maigret’s Memoirs/Les Mémoires de Maigret, Simenon wrote “the prostitute on Boulevard de Clichy and the inspector watching her both have bad shoes and aching feet after walking up and down kilometres of pavement”. In The Shadow Puppet/L’Ombre Chinoise, a girl works as a nude dancer at the Moulin Bleu, which is of course based on the Moulin Rouge, the world’s most famous strip joint, on Boulevard de Clichy. Simenon once described its wide, dark entrance patrolled by tough-looking men in overcoats, as like “the open maw of a monster”.

‘There is much red light activity in the Maigret novels, and to sample (or perhaps, we should say, observe) the real-life equivalent, one could walk down the Rue Fontaine and peak at the half-clothed women in the small cave-like bars. This street is the haunt of the murdered pimp, Maurice Marcia, in Maigret and the Informer/Maigret et l’Indicateur.

‘And to complete my expedition, there was only one option: La Coupole at 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse – not so much because of Maigret, but because of his creator Simenon, who frequented the place in his earlier years, when he was starting work at four in the morning and conducting an affair in the evenings with that exotic temptress and cabaret star Josephine Baker, whom he described as having “the most famous bottom in the world”.’

WRITERS ON SIMENON

A Critic’s View

One of my happiest associations as a freelance writer for hire was with the then literary editor of the Independent newspaper, Boyd Tonkin. It was an association I particularly enjoyed, as Boyd appeared to trust me and very rarely tweaked my reviews before they appeared in the paper. And as – without trying – I had become something of a specialist in crime in translation, I’d put myself in the firing line where Boyd was concerned, as that was very much his area – and remains so. He reminded me recently that he had written about Simenon for The Times, and told me, ‘Simenon’s also in my 100 Best Novels in Translation book – after much deliberation, I chose The Snow Was Dirty, though several others would have done as well.’

‘Inspector Maigret’s last case, Maigret and Monsieur Charles/Maigret et Monsieur Charles (recently translated by Ros Schwartz), ends not with guilt and remorse but with a murderer who “appeared to be very much at ease”. And why not? For the woman who slew a philandering high-society lawyer has finally had the privilege of encountering the clumsy provincial detective who looks into the souls of the wrongdoers he hunts and grants them a kind of absolution. Maigret and Monsieur Charles, which Georges Simenon finished in February 1972, bookends the series of 75 Maigret novels that began, in 1931, with Pietr the Latvian/Pietr-le-Letton. Simenon, though, had no deep-laid plans to do away with his fictional chief of the Paris crime squad. On 18 September 1972, he sat down to plan a new non-Maigret novel – Victor – with his usual ritual of sketching outlines on a manila envelope. Nothing came. He abandoned the idea, and then his phenomenal career in fiction. “I no longer needed to put myself in the skin of everyone I met,” his memoirs record. “I was free at last.”

‘The Liège-born Simenon never went in for half-measures. The 75 Maigret mysteries (although Simenon’s hawk-eyed biographer Patrick Marnham tallies them at 76) stand alongside 117 “serious” novels, mostly psychological thrillers in the deepest shades of noir, and the 200-odd pulp potboilers of his torrentially productive youth. Then, of course, there are the 10,000 women he once claimed (in an interview with his chum Federico Fellini) to have slept with [as mentioned earlier]; his second wife later revised the estimate down to 1,200. Beyond dispute, his books had sold over 500 million copies by his death in 1989.

‘Maigret was born in 1929, in the Dutch port of Delfzijl, on Simenon’s boat the Ostrogoth. The Belgian author began to imagine a burly detective, “a big man who ate a lot, drank a lot, followed the suspects patiently and eventually uncovered the truth”. Over the next four decades, as he moved from Paris to western France, Canada, New York, Florida, Arizona, the Côte d’Azur and Switzerland, his bondage to Maigret yielded not just the world’s bestselling detective series but an imperishable literary legend. Slow, placid, bulky, pipe-chomping, hatted, overcoated (even on the sun-kissed Riviera), the inspector does not so much chase clues as decipher tormented minds. An anti-Sherlock Holmes, he exposes secrets, lies and crimes not by forensic wizardry but through the melded powers of therapist, philosopher – and confessor. Maigret mooches from bar to bar, workshop to workshop, flat to flat, as if absorbing evidence from the very stones, tastes and smells of Paris.

‘Jules Maigret first wanted to study medicine. But a flashback novel, Maigret’s First Case/La Première Enquête de Maigret (1949), returns to his early police career. Young Jules longs to be “a cross between a doctor and a priest” – “a sort of mender of destinies”. Which he duly becomes. The truth, via its thickset, smoke-wreathed emissary, will set his anguished quarries free. This Belgian immigrant’s ideal of French reason and insight never judges. He observes, connects and understands.

‘Although 1930s Maigrets range widely, around provincial France and into the Low Countries, later volumes tend to stick to central Paris. From the Police Judiciare HQ on the Quai des Orfèvres to the modest flat on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir the inspector shares with his ever attentive wife, by way of village-like Montmartre, gritty Canal Saint-Martin and the swanky streets around the Champs-Élysées, Simenon turns Paris into a landscape of myth. He hardly lived in the city after 1932. So Maigret’s beloved quartiers become – for all their seedy, whiffy plausibility – imaginary heartlands, like Narnia or The Shire. The hearty bistro plats, the sticky old liqueurs, the flash southern mobsters: all speak of a vanished Paris. When, in late Maigrets, we come across miniskirts and discos, it’s as if Poirot had whipped out an iPhone.

‘Together, the Maigrets add up to a huge, utterly coherent inventory of lust, fear, greed, ambition, jealousy and long-hidden pain, brought to light by an implacably curious mind. Simenon’s slimmed-down vocabulary (2,000 words or so) adds to their taut intensity. He called them “semi-literary” works and wished to be judged for his darkly brilliant romans durs (“tough novels”). But André Gide – one of Simenon’s countless literary devotees – meant Maigret too when he lauded the Belgian as “the greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had”. Penguin’s now complete shelf of gem-hard soul-probes should allow a new generation to understand why.’

The Art of Simenon

A favourite writer of mine – the French crime novelist Thomas Narcejac – provided some valuable insights into a writer who had inspired him in The Art of Simenon. And Narcejac himself was an interesting figure – although most people only knew his surname as part of the portmanteau Boileau–Narcejac. The prolific and ingenious French writing duo produced the original novel on which Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film Les Diaboliques was based; they wrote another ingeniously plotted book, D’Entre les Morts/From Among the Dead/The Living and the Dead (1954), which provided the basis for one of Hitchcock’s supreme masterpieces, Vertigo (1958). Their influence on crime fiction – principally through the films made of their work – continues to this day, but this immensely professional duo of Gallic scribes also wrote intelligent critical essays on the genre, such as Narcejac’s Simenon study.

According to Narcejac, ‘Simenon never tries to fox his readers or lay traps for them like the writers of the classic detective stories. He despises the enigma of the locked room; he dislikes alibis and logical impediments. The complex mechanisms of the detective story leave him cold. He is not interested in the “how” but the “why”. He does not even pay particular attention to the logical sequence of episodes, to the preparation of the little detail, the tiny cog in the wheel which is always the turning point of the true detective story. For instance, in Night at the Crossroads/La Nuit du Carrefour, we find Maigret looking everywhere for the revolver which he had previously put in his pocket. In A Crime in Holland/Un Crime en Hollande, the detective gets himself arrested by the Dutch police, and is put in prison. A little later, after having been searched in the routine manner, he pretends to shoot himself in the middle of an interrogation in order to put journalists off the scent. It seems highly improbable that any journalist would take such an astonishing development quite seriously. Incidentally, in Simenon’s first books, it is obvious that Simenon is at a loss when he has to formulate a real problem in detection. He finds the logic of events tedious, since they are opposed to the logic of feeling. Simenon is, admittedly, not incapable of inventing an exciting mystery, provided that it springs from character, and this seems to me a vital point. For according to Simenon, the mystery is never the result of a voluntary deception on the part of the criminal, and the policeman has never to compete in ingenuity with him. On the contrary, the criminal is naive: he kills because he cannot do otherwise, and he never dreams of making his crime ridiculous by careful staging. The policeman, whether he be Maigret, the Little Doctor or Inspector Torrence, does not need to be a genius. All he has to do is to understand or, better still, feel the psychological significance of his clues, and not their material significance.

‘This is a far cry from the detective story. Even the choice of clues is peculiar. Simenon never loads his narrative with hairs, specks of mud or dust or bloodstains. He never tries to find out whether the murderer came in here and went out there. He never questions witnesses to find out the exact time and the smallest details of the crime. A clue, to him, is something much vaguer and more rewarding: a gesture, a word, a glance. There is only one question the reader need ask: “If I had committed this crime, would I have made that gesture, spoken that word, cast that glance?” This approach takes it for granted that the crime might have been committed by the reader – that is to say, by any normal man, victim of a universal passion, one of those from which we have all, on occasion, suffered. Thus, to resolve the mystery is not, for Simenon, to discover the criminal’s method, but purely and simply to experience, as it were, to relive the psychological crisis which provoked the drama. The reader should sympathise with the murderer, who is never a monster, but just a poor, unhappy bastard.

‘Thus Simenon can easily dispense with the dramatic surprises, the sensational discoveries and unexpected revelations which must necessarily characterise the classic detective story. Instead of pursuing a phantom murderer through 250 pages, he reveals the criminal little by little, gently bringing us to admit the psychological necessity of his act. As we discover the truth, we excuse the man who has killed, or more precisely, we take pity on him. One might perhaps even say that we understand in so far as we take pity. For Simenon knows two forms of truth. The one is as dry, formal and purely objective as a police court or a legal deposition. It ignores motives and is solely related to facts. It is icily inhuman, scientific and false, as radically false as any explanation which purports to explain the whole of life. The other truth is lived, it is inward and incommunicable, the truth of secrecy and the confessional. It despises logic, intelligence and the sense of geometry. It is a truth of the soul, which is alien to proof or demonstration. It is the truth of feeling. But you must be very much alive and young of heart to perceive it. The successful, those who have silenced their secret longing for integrity and authenticity, either through ambition, avarice or pride, these only know a fabricated truth. They are on the side of the judges and the hangman. Madame Monde is talking to the police about her husband’s disappearance: “All that she had told the inspector had been true, but it sometimes happens that there is no bigger falsehood than the truth.” And speaking of Monsieur Monde, Simenon adds, later, “He was certainly not disincarnate. He was still M. Monde, or Desire, certainly Desire… It did not matter. He was a man who had borne with his human condition for a long time without being aware of it, just like those who do not know that they are ill. He had been a man amongst men… And now, suddenly, he saw life differently, as if under an ultra-powerful X-ray. All that had previously been important, the outer envelope, the flesh and sinew, existed no more, nor false appearances, nor practically anything, and in their place… but there you were, it was not worth mentioning. Besides, it wasn’t possible. It was not communicable.”

‘The secret of being. The mystery of our actions, of our thoughts, of our destiny, all rooted in that subterranean region of the self into which reflection does not penetrate.

‘Simenon created Maigret primarily in order to try to reach the inner nature of his characters through this privileged personage. Maigret a detective? Not a bit. Maigret is above all a man. Simenon has given him a very special quality of solidity, consistency and density. You need to be of strong bone and muscle to experience all the impulses that trouble our weak flesh and our unhappy human consciences. Maigret is, first of all, capable of feeling everything. Simenon has given him a finesse which is almost an instinct, which makes him able to perceive and interpret the faint emanations which arise imperceptibly from places and persons, for places have also their hidden significance, their dim awareness, their primitive mentalities, just like human beings. Man is plunged into his environment (town, suburb, village, isolated house) like a fish into water, and there is an uninterrupted interaction between the person and his habitat. Simenon’s criminals are often men who have not found their proper climate, hence the disequilibrium, the crisis, the explosion of violence. It is Maigret’s task, not to explain the criminal, but as it were to take charge of him, and in a mysterious way, assume his burden. Since crime is usually the result of a lack of vitality, Maigret acts rather like a blood donor. He infuses the warmth and life that is lacking to a sick environment. His very presence modifies the quality of the other characters. They are tranquillised and relax, become once more normal individuals, and as they are transformed, their crime becomes detached from them and loses its heaviness and bestiality. Without saying a word, Maigret is able to absorb the negative emanations and neutralise them. Finally the murderer can talk about his crime. He feels that Maigret has also committed it, has lived it, mimed it and blotted it out. Between man and man there may be a confession. Thanks to Maigret the murderer is not cut off from the human communion. His fault remains sin, but calls for pardon. Maigret is much less a detective than a “weigher of souls”. The investigations, the questionings, the shadowings are of no importance, as is shown by the fact that the novels without Maigret are constructed on exactly the same lines as the novels with Maigret. There is no essential difference between The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien/Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien and The Strangers in the House/Les Inconnus dans la Maison. The first is only a faint sketch of the second. The lawyer Loursat is to deputise for Maigret. But Simenon’s technique is identical in both. His way of attacking the story and of slowly revealing his characters has not undergone any significant modification. “Ascent towards the novel,” as Sigaux says? Surely the pure novel has been there from the very beginning. The most one might concede is that one day Simenon was to perceive that Maigret was not necessary. Why should not the principal character be his own witness? Why should not Maigret’s tenacious investigations be undertaken by the man who is one day driven to distraction by the pressure of circumstance, and tries to discover the secret of his own life, of his own heart? Donge, Monde, the hero of Act of Passion/Lettre à Mon Juge, Malétras, Loursat, Bergelon and many another are Maigret all over again, in so far as their self-respect compels them to observe and judge with lucidity the evil that obsesses them.’

The Authentic Simenon

For the academic publisher Intellect, I edited a book in their ‘Crime Uncovered’ series called Detective, which was designed as a celebration of a variety of iconic sleuths. I was in the enviable position of being able to choose those I wished to cover myself before assigning essays to other writers, but as I was planning to tackle Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, I decided to place Jules Maigret in the capable hands of Jonathan Wilkins, author of the Utrecht trilogy. His excellent piece – while notably more dyspeptic than other entries in the volume – was full of keen and original insights, particularly concerning the contrast between Simenon’s Maigret novels and his romans durs.

‘I believe that we can see the true, authentic Georges Simenon in Jules Maigret,’ Wilkins noted. ‘The chief inspector is the man his creator wished to be. Simenon may have believed his non-Maigret novels were to be his principal life’s work, but after failing to win the Nobel Prize, he retreated into the world of his policeman, who personifies that which Simenon himself could never be. The author lived in the world of his romans durs (or “hard novels”), and while we see his dark and calculating side, in Maigret we see the man… It is not often that we gaze into the soul of Maigret, and when we are permitted to do so it is both intriguing and enlightening. He is a rare sort of man, a hero who does not recognise himself as such. A quotidian figure at one with the victim, but also with the perpetrator. He sympathises with both. We believe in Maigret, as he is one of us. He believes in us; he is on our side. In the comforting, tobacco-scented presence of Inspector Maigret, we are comforted. Who would not want to believe in a man like that, serene and reassuring?

‘Critics have discerned two key aspects of Simenon’s work: tragedy and wisdom. The wisdom shines forth in the Maigret stories, where the stark motifs of tragedy, subjected to the uncompromising glare of Simenon’s artistry, come under the softening influence of the detective’s humanity.

‘Hilary Mantel talks of writing with ‘“maximum ambiguity”, and we can see this in the two shades of Simenon. It is apparent in The Snow Was Dirty, another of his self-proclaimed romans durs. Often thought to be based in an unnamed city of France or in Brussels, Simenon insisted the book was set in an Eastern European state. The ambiguity is typical of the author in the avoidance of any political reference to France, his adopted nation, though we can extrapolate. The novel was written in 1948, and is another of the books Simenon hoped might win him the Nobel Prize for Literature. The story is set in a town under occupation, though Simenon was insistent that the setting was not occupied France. Why did he want to disguise the setting? The author – by not identifying the country – is perhaps attempting to universalise the narrative, which centres on the amoral and cynical 19-year-old Frank Friedmaier in a winter of endless snow that serves a symbolic function throughout the novel. In the opening scene Frank stabs an enemy soldier as he walks home through the snow at night. The murder is nothing to do with any act of rebellion against the occupier or of patriotism. It is a pointlessly evil act that Frank describes as “losing his virginity”… The novel is revealing concerning Simenon and his perhaps nihilistic world view, radically different here from his Maigret novels, suggesting the work of two different writers: the self-styled “typewriter” who rushes out his detective stories with such speed and the aspiring Nobel Prize winner. His attitude to literary acclaim and popular success was complex: Simenon proclaimed that he would write a novel in a glass box as a publicity stunt, and was ridiculed by the elitist writers of the day. He never felt that he was given his due, and perhaps he was right. But he was partly responsible for such attitudes.’

PUBLISHING SIMENON

IN THE MODERN AGE

Sitting in Soho with Simenon’s Son

There are definite perks to being a writer of books on crime fiction, such as an invitation in 2013 to a meal at discreet Soho House (situated, coincidentally, in Soho) with Georges Simenon’s son, who bears the Anglo-Saxon first name ‘John’ rather than the expected ‘Jean’. The occasion was the inaugural dinner for the newly convened Simenon society – which was also, in fact, the launch of Penguin’s ambitious programme of reissuing all 75 Maigret novels in spanking new translations (the first being Pietr the Latvian, translated by David Bellos). The appearance of this inaugural book – and the meal itself – was very timely, as I had just written the Simenon chapter of Euro Noir and I had just described that first novel as The Case of Peter the Lett – which was how it was previously translated in the UK. The editor of the new series (and host for the evening), Josephine Greywoode, said that Penguin were attempting to get closer to Maigret’s originals than in previous translations – which was certainly the case with the book’s title. And translation was very much a theme of the evening, as one of the finest practitioners of that art in the UK, Siân Reynolds, was present (she has rendered into English several later books in the series). She told us about the challenges of working in French with such heirs of Simenon as Fred Vargas – although, apparently, the latter does not consider herself as such.

Guests included The Sunday Times’ Andrew Holgate and über-agent Caroline Michel, but the star of the evening was John Simenon, who turned out to be urbane, knowledgeable and highly agreeable company. What’s more, over the moules and boeuf au vin rouge, Simenon fils was more than happy to talk at length about his famous father – even though his own career as a film distributor is equally interesting (he mentioned how he had had some difficulty selling in Europe two then little-known films, Rocky and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). We heard about Georges Simenon’s thoroughly practical view of his craft; his admiration for the great Russian writers such as Dostoevsky (and his immersion in the philosophy of Nietzsche); and his views of actors who had played his pipe-smoking detective, such as Rupert Davies – who Simenon described as his ‘perfect Maigret’ – and those who had actually spoken the correct language, such as Jean Gabin.

We all tiptoed around the subject of the claim Simenon made about the number of women he had slept with, but his son brought it up himself, hinting that we should not take Simenon père at his word. ‘One of the things my father was particularly good at – avant la lettre – was publicity and promotion. Such as making provocative remarks about his prodigious number of sexual experiences. Well, it worked, didn’t it? Here we are still talking about it around a dinner table in 2013!’

But we were really there to celebrate the astonishing achievement of Georges Simenon, the favourite crime writer of so many crime writers. I told his son that I planned to read every one of the novels sequentially, something I had never done before – if, that is, I live long enough. I still haven’t finished them all…

Penguin and Simenon

As mentioned above, in 2013 Penguin Classics UK began an ambitious programme under the stewardship of editor Josephine Greywoode to issue all 75 Maigret novels in new translations. In 2022, the programme was completed. Speaking to Josephine, I asked her how the project came to her – did she decide that it was time for new versions of all the Maigret novels?

‘No, in fact it happened because of the Maigret estate,’ she replied. ‘They were the instigators. They came to Penguin and said, “We have managed to get all the rights more or less into the same place – do you have a proposal as to what you could do with them?” For Penguin Classics, this was a really exciting invitation. I knew that in the past these books had been published as genre fiction, but they had never been given the classic treatment – so when we thought about what we could do, the notion of new modern translations came to the fore. How could we do this differently? All the books had appeared in English before, but what could we do that would be a bit more ambitious – a move that would make it worthwhile? Penguin had published several tranches before – say, ten books here, ten books there, but we considered that a really ambitious notion would be to make it into a full-scale translation project that would tackle the reader’s experience in English versions – something that had previously been patchy. Some translations had been good, some less so, and some departed markedly from the originals – as Simenon found out himself in his lifetime. We knew that Adelphi had done something like this in Milan; over a longer period of time, they had created a space for this author in the cultural sphere in Italy that we could see as possible in other markets. That was the inspiration: a serious literary publisher who elevated an author’s work. The idea was to make everyone treat Simenon as the great writer he was rather than just as an entertaining genre specialist.’

Nowadays, I suggested, Simenon was taken much more seriously; did they consider the success of their project to be part of that trend?

Josephine chuckled. ‘I wish we could take credit for that,’ she said, ‘but, to be frank, I wasn’t greatly familiar with him when we started – although language is a speciality of mine (French, Italian), which made me a good fit to spearhead this project, particularly the translation aspect of it. The depth and the richness of his output was something of a discovery for me. It was very daunting for me at the start, I must admit – this huge, huge project, 30,000 to 40,000 words in each of the books. My God! I remember that Simenon was asked at some point when he was going to write his “big novel”, and he replied that he was doing so – his big novel was the sum of all his books. Reading all the books, you get this complex web – the nuances, the way he builds particular themes, the way he tackles different social issues, his world view, his curiosity.’

I mentioned to Josephine the problems that Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson had described to me about the Simenon translation process in his day. I imagined now that the only real interventions would come from her?

‘Well,’ she replied, ‘you’d have to ask the translators how interventionist they considered me to be! There was one way that we circumvented a lot of problems. The translator Ros Schwartz had a brilliant idea – she suggested that we get all the translators together. David Bellos had translated the first book in our series, and we were able to put together something of a style sheet, so that we could really try to create a consistency for the reader. This might have been something of a straitjacket for translators who wanted to come up with their own creative solutions, but we did want readers to think they were returning to the same world. We tried to avoid a jolt between books; Simenon’s voice was what counted. And Ros’s suggestion – that we all get together – took place, I’m glad to say. We all went, fittingly enough, to a château in Belgium – and we thrashed out many problems. It was a highly unusual initiative for some of the translators, who were much more used to working on their own. The guiding principle, of course, remained to keep the new books as faithful as possible to the originals. And, as I’m sure you know, Barry, there are inconsistencies of plot in Simenon – something that came up again and again. I would always say to the translators: “Let’s keep it in – after all, if you were a French reader you’d notice it. So let’s not iron out those imperfections.” He didn’t – as part of his process – go through rigorously straightening these things out, did he?’

I mentioned Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson’s remarks to me about Simenon’s insistence that the translations be as close to the originals as possible. Did Josephine consider that feasible, given the individual voices the translators would have?

‘You’re right,’ she replied, ‘if you’re suggesting that it’s not really feasible – and you wouldn’t want to alter the individual voice of a translator, even though, of course, they must be at the service of the original text. And it’s crucial that a translation remains close to the rhythm of Simenon’s prose, which is quite unusual. The syntax and sentence structure of the original is, of course, un-English, but it would be a mistake to smooth it out too much. For instance, we had a long conversation at that meeting in Belgium about all the ellipses. Several of the translators said, “Oh, there are so many ellipses – can we get rid of some?” So there is a judgement call there. We tried to keep as many as we could, but inevitably you had to render the text into the best possible English.’

I mentioned the response I had had from somebody who had read only one book, which didn’t really register with them – and my reply that you need to have read a whole tranche to get the true Simenon flavour. Did she agree?

‘Absolutely! In fact, a colleague of mine in publishing said exactly that to me recently. They tried one or two but only when they read a whole batch of them did they become totally attuned – and they now consider themselves addicted! But we’ve been utterly relentless in positioning him as a great writer. And as for the snobbery that is sometimes directed at the crime genre – well, I hope we have proved how ridiculous that is with our project.’

I suggested to Josephine that many readers nowadays – in the twenty-first century – look at fiction of the past through a prism of what is now acceptable, and Simenon admirers are well aware that there are aspects of his books that are not consonant with increasingly rigid views.

‘Oh, there were certainly discussions on this issue,’ Josephine replied. ‘After all, these books were written in the 1930s and often reflect attitudes that were prevalent then. That’s the case even with some of the subsequent ones. And what was part of the culture back then – well, it doesn’t go down so well these days, does it?’

In such cases, did Josephine say to her translators, ‘Let’s go with it,’ or would she attempt – without censoring the text – to soften the blow?

‘The latter! Because the whole ethos of the project was to be as faithful as possible to Simenon, there was no way we could simply erase these difficult views. Without censoring, we would try to avoid something that would, well, shall we say, disorient the modern reader. When you’re confronted with what might be perhaps outdated views about certain ethnic groups, that would have had a different effect on the modern reader than at the time, well, that’s just the water you are swimming in. That was the balance – not to bowdlerise or censor the books, but – as you said – to slightly soften it. After all, we don’t read them as one would read Zola or Flaubert; Simenon still seems very modern, which is why these tricky sections really leap out as incongruous. So a description, for instance, that a character has a “Semitic appearance” might be somehow changed into something about their Jewish ancestry – the word “Semitic” is not racist, but the context might be uncomfortable.’

So, at the time of writing, is the Simenon project at an end for Josephine and Penguin Classics?

‘No – there are still some standalones to come, and I think you’ve written somewhere, Barry, that some of his best work is in the standalones, so we are keen to publish those. I have reinforcements to help me make selections of those. As you know, we have translated some of the short stories, but we plan to publish more – some of them are really terrific, and quite as good as the novels. As for the future – well, I’m still doing some translation-related projects, but I think I deserve a breather after something like the massive Simenon project, don’t you? I loved the creative challenge, but it was damned hard work keeping it on track, even though I relished doing so.’

So, perhaps it’s time to talk to some of the translators Josephine employed…

TRANSLATING SIMENON

The translation issues relating to Denyse Simenon’s strictures, as mentioned earlier, might have raised the pulse rates of translators in the past, but the recent versions have utilised the cream of the profession, including David Bellos, the late Anthea Bell, Linda Coverdale, David Coward, Howard Curtis, Will Hobson, Siân Reynolds, Ros Schwartz, David Watson and Shaun Whiteside. I decided to ask several of them about the challenges they faced, and translators – always highly sensitive to their art being undervalued – didn’t take a great deal of persuasion to talk about their work on Simenon.

No Glossing Over: Ros Schwartz

Ros Schwartz has translated some 100 works of fiction and non-fiction. In addition to some 20 Simenon titles, she has translated crime fiction by Dominique Manotti and Sébastien Japrisot, a range of writers from the African continent, and fiction for young adults. In 2009, Ros was made a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; she frequently takes part in literary events and festivals, at several of which I have run into her.

I began by asking her if she found any particular challenges when translating Georges Simenon as opposed to other authors she’s worked on.

‘Most of the authors I translate are still living,’ Ros replied, ‘so I’m able to enter into a dialogue with them and ask them for clarifications. Simenon is no longer with us, so that isn’t possible. There is a lot of period detail in his descriptions, so part of the job is doing detective work myself to find images of items he refers to – but that’s also part of the fun. In one description of a woman sleeping with épingles in her hair at night, I eventually found the exact bobby pins… advertised on eBay! My ancient Harrap’s, which I bought with the money from my paper round when I was 15 and has been languishing on a shelf for the past 35 years, has really come into its own. I found the specific word for the room in a railway station where the oil lamps are stored – lampisterie/lamp-room – in there.

‘One challenge for me as a middle-aged woman is dealing with Simenon’s often sexist comments. An older woman is “good-looking even though she’s over 50”, and a maid, who we are told is fat and spotty, is always referred to as “the fat, spotty maid”. And as for poor Madame Maigret, at Maigret’s beck and call at all hours of day and night, and who doesn’t need entertaining because she keeps herself busy with her laundry and her cooking… We have strict editorial instructions to translate everything as Simenon wrote it, so no glossing over some of his more offensive descriptions. But he was of his time, and it would be inappropriate to airbrush out that aspect.

‘Another challenge is Simenon’s punctuation. In some of his books, almost every sentence ends with an exclamation mark or an ellipsis. This requires some consultation with the editors because it looks very odd in English. I declared war on the ellipsis in some of the titles.’

Similarly, I asked, did Ros find any particular rewards in the task?

‘It’s rare to have the privilege of translating numerous books by the same author. Having “lived” with Simenon for the past eight years (I feel more married to Maigret than poor Madame Maigret!), I have gained insights into what drives his writing. Simenon is intrigued by what motivates an ordinary person to commit a crime – what their tipping point is. It’s not about “whodunnit” but “why they dunnit” that fascinates him.

‘He is endlessly curious about human nature. Maigret’s role is more that of a father confessor than a cop. Very often, he knows who the murderer is – so does the reader – and the murderer knows he knows. The dénouement is the confession. Often, the killer goes free – Maigret’s satisfaction is in resolving the mystery rather than seeing the perpetrator behind bars. Simenon is clearly on the side of the little people against the corrupt elites. Maigret will leave no stone unturned to find the murderer of a working-class girl or to expose the skeletons in the cupboards of the wealthy. He is keenly attuned to resentments that build up over a lifetime – deriving from sexual humiliation, abuse in childhood, professional failure – which suddenly surface and drive a person to murder.

‘I particularly love Simenon’s “killer grannies”, the sweet little old lady who turns out to be a ruthless murderer. In fact, many of his women are interesting: sexual predators, women with agency, in an era when women didn’t have many options. And when a woman turns to crime, it is often because she has limited life choices: find a wealthy husband or become a prostitute. Simenon is not judgemental – he shows human life in all its infinite variety.’

And, I asked, how many Simenon books has Ros translated? And did she attempt to reflect the ethos and feeling of the book as it would have been received by the first readers, or is the language she used completely contemporary?

‘To date, I have translated 16 Maigret titles, two romans durs Betty and The Venice Train – and a number of short stories. The romans durs are dark and deeply disturbing. There are existing translations that were made when the books were first written, and so the point of a new translation is that it needs to be different. Simenon is extraordinarily economical with language, which is surprisingly challenging to replicate. He can paint an entire town in a few simple brushstrokes. If I were to try to describe what I am doing in the translation, I would say I want my reader to see, hear, smell and taste what the French reader sees, hears, smells and tastes. I aim to replicate the atmosphere of the period and am careful not to use anachronisms, while seeking to ensure that the translation is, first and foremost, a good read in English.

‘As to Simenon’s appeal for a modern readership, I’m not sure that’s for me to say! Personally, I find his plots utterly compelling. The books are all short, around 35,000 words, which fits in well with today’s lifestyle. The novels vividly evoke Paris and the provincial life of the 1930s to the 1950s, and so have nostalgia appeal. And Simenon deals with human passions – in the same way that Greek tragedy still speaks to us. If I were to advise a new reader of Simenon, I’d say tackle several titles to get a full taste of his work and a sense of the themes running through his novels. And don’t read him through the lens of twenty-first-century political correctness – he was of his time. I believe he was fundamentally sympathetic to the difficulties facing women and the disadvantaged classes.’

Time-Specific and Yet Timeless: Howard Curtis

I have known Howard Curtis for decades, and have watched with interest the growth of his reputation as a translator. Howard has translated more than a hundred books from French, Italian and Spanish. Apart from over 20 books by Simenon, the French authors he has translated include Balzac, Flaubert, André Malraux, Georges Bernanos, Jean-Claude Izzo, Yasmina Khadra and Carole Martinez. From Italian, he has translated Pirandello, Leonardo Sciascia, Gianrico Carofiglio, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Marco Malvaldi and many more. From Spanish he has translated, among others, Luis Sepúlveda and Santiago Gamboa. He was the first person I spoke to about translating Simenon, and his comments were pertinent.

‘The first thing you need to do, as a translator,’ he told me, ‘is divest yourself of the idea that Simenon is an easy author to translate. True, he writes in quite a simple style: he deliberately restricted his vocabulary to make it comprehensible to as wide a readership as possible. But along with that simplicity goes an extraordinary concision, an extraordinary precision. Time and again, you come across beautifully turned phrases that sum up a character, a setting, a mood in the minimum of words, and it’s often a struggle, for a translator, to find equivalents in English. Translating a writer with a more florid style can, in a way, be easier: you can cheat a little, paraphrase, blur over the finer points, and something will still be there. None of that with Simenon: leave anything out and the whole thing collapses. The challenge, as well as the joy, for a Simenon translator, is to match his concision and precision with a concision and precision of your own.

‘Personally, my other great joy is that I’m translating a writer who’s been a favourite of mine ever since I first read him, at the age of 13 or so. If I’m going to enter someone else’s mind for a few months, which is what a translator has to do, then I’m happy it’s Simenon.

‘To give an example of what a delicate task translation can be: a few years ago, I translated one of Simenon’s finest (if darkest) novels, The Snow Was Dirty, a bleak story of a petty criminal in a city under foreign occupation in wartime. Wanting to convey the directness of the style, I used contractions almost throughout: “he’s” rather than “he is”, “can’t” rather than “cannot” (the book is mostly in the present tense). The editors disagreed with me: they thought the important thing to emphasise was the coldness and remoteness of the novel’s mood, which meant the contractions had to go. Both approaches were equally valid, I think. In the end, as in all good relationships, we reached a compromise: lots of contractions, but not throughout!

‘One of the remarkable things about Simenon is how time-specific and yet how timeless he is. His books offer an incredibly detailed portrait of life in France from the 1930s to the 1970s. (True, he did write about other parts of the world, but most of his novels are set in France.) The streets of Paris, the little provincial towns, the canals, the cafés, the seedy hotels, the gossipy concierges: they are all vividly there. We can almost taste the Calvados that Maigret downs in some Parisian bistro. At the same time, his themes are universal, which is why he’s still enjoyable to read today: the reader can simultaneously revel in a kind of nostalgia for a world gone by and identify with characters whose dilemmas are so human and so believable. It’s important for the translator to convey both the period flavour and the continuing relevance of the work, treading a fine line between bringing the language up to date and yet not being anachronistic.

‘As for where to start with Simenon: among the Maigret novels I’d recommend one that has been a favourite of mine since I first read it in my teens (and had the great luck to translate decades later): Maigret’s Mistake. This claustrophobic story, with its small number of characters and its typically atmospheric rendering of milieu, perfectly illustrates the mixture of intuition and compassion that has made Maigret such a beloved figure. Among the non-Maigrets, I’d recommend The Krull House, a story of xenophobia and mob hysteria, set in a vividly depicted provincial French town in the 1930s: a novel both firmly rooted in its time and place and frighteningly relevant in its theme.’

Undercurrents: Siân Reynolds

I was keen to talk to a key Simenon translator, Siân Reynolds. Siân was born in Cardiff, read languages at Oxford, has a doctorate in history from Paris, and is Emerita Professor of French at the University of Stirling. Alongside her academic career, she has translated the historical works of Fernand Braudel and the fiction of Fred Vargas and Virginie Despentes.

I began by asking her about the challenges and problems she faced.

‘When Penguin first approached me about the project of a new translation of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, two things immediately came to mind. First, I was doubtful about re-translating books that had already been well translated – especially by living translators. This question was eventually resolved by Penguin in various ways, but right away, Josephine Greywoode as commissioning editor was sympathetic and suggested I take a novel either not translated at all, or long out of print. So I began with A Crime in Holland/Un Crime en Hollande (1931), a very early title translated by the late Geoffrey Sainsbury, about whom I knew nothing. This turned out to be instructive.

‘After I’d sent my own translation in, I apprehensively ordered the Sainsbury version from the library – then wondered if I had been working from the wrong text. His translation was very readable in its way, but departed quite radically from the original, embellishing or cutting it. For instance, he completely changed the last scene – where Maigret gathers the suspects and explains the murder, making it – as he considered – clearer for the reader. John Simenon later told us that Sainsbury had indeed chosen to produce his own versions of “Simenon”, as the novelist later discovered. There are many ways to translate a book. At Penguin, the idea behind the whole new series is to try to get as close as we can to the way Simenon wrote.

‘This experience was not unrelated to the second thing that occurred to me. I naively assumed that the Maigret novels would not be too hard to translate, because I remembered them as written rather simply and straightforwardly. How wrong I was. They are hard to translate because they are written simply. As most people know, Simenon uses a fairly restricted vocabulary. That does not mean that he repeats himself. He doesn’t, unless deliberately. He exploits the French language in subtle ways that set the translator problems if they are not going to repeat words a great deal. Thanks to my excellent copyeditor, Claire Peligry, I quickly became aware, for example, how often in English we use many-sided words such as “look” and “back” (it looked like rain, he looked angry, she looked across the room, the look on her face; to come back in, turn your back on, fold back the sheets, etc., etc). That is an example at the superficial level of lexis.

‘More seriously – and I know my fellow translators are well aware of this – Simenon’s simplicity conceals complexity and undercurrents. He doesn’t spell things out. Sainsbury’s approach – which did spell things out – made him grate his teeth. By comparison, and strangely enough, when a book is written in a more wide-ranging and detailed way, both in terms of vocabulary and subject matter, it may make it easier to translate. There is some wriggle room, and the translator does not have to squeeze into a confined space. That, at least, is my experience of translating other writers – for example, the enjoyably quirky detective novels of Fred Vargas, which allow you to be quirky in response. Simenon requires discipline, not expansion.

‘There are other peculiarities of a Simenon novel that we had to resolve at series level. For example, it might look superficial, but he makes much use of the three dots… – a feature found in other French authors. In Simenon, it is taken to great lengths: it may indicate an unfinished sentence of dialogue, or it may figure in the narrative suggesting that there is more there than meets the eye. It’s not common in English, and I remember that when the Penguin translators met up for a fruitful, and enjoyable, weekend near Liège, Simenon’s birthplace, we spent a lot of time discussing how to handle it.

‘There is also the tricky question of the period and style of language, especially dialogue. Practically all the Maigret novels were written between the 1930s and the 1960s. Some of the social markers and attitudes expressed are inevitably of their time: that includes turns of phrase (usually, but not always, in dialogue – i.e. not the author’s voice) which would not be acceptable now. There are examples of what one might characterise as casual anti-Semitism or misogyny or otherwise non-inclusive language, which, to be fair, are found in most other novels of the period. Even the title of one book I translated, Maigret’s Madwoman (a literal translation of La Folle de Maigret), would perhaps not be chosen today. But the series does try, as far as possible, to replicate the original titles. A translator normally has, as a first principle, to be faithful to the text, but I think there are times when all of us have compromised a bit.

‘Linguistically, and this is rather surprising, Simenon’s dialogue, whoever is speaking, is usually in rather formal – or at any rate correct – French, rather than spoken French of the time, which was, and still is, full of abbreviations, shortcuts, inverted word orders, omissions of grammatical links, and so on. Other French crime writers among his contemporaries – for example, the Série Noire – employed slang and informal language much more. In Maigret’s Madwoman/La Folle de Maigret, for example, a petty crook, whom Maigret disturbs having his breakfast, says to the police: “Ne vous attendez pas, quant à vous, à ce que je vous offre quoi que ce soit.” This is an extremely correct way of speaking, containing a subjunctive. In a way, this helps the translator, who can simply render it as “Don’t expect me to offer you anything to eat”, which is quite speakable without being marked as either over-formal or informal. Today, the character might say something like “No way are you getting any of this” – but that is too modern and US-influenced to be used for Simenon. The Maigret books do reflect one everyday aspect of police dialogue with suspects, which is to tutoyer them – i.e. call them the familiar “tu”, not the polite “vous” – an indicator of treating them with, if not exactly contempt, at least condescension. In the series, which has a carefully worked out style sheet, we are discouraged from explaining tutoiement, although occasionally it is unavoidable. I did allow Maigret to call one criminal “Sunshine” when he finally managed to lay hands on him.

‘Generally, I hope to keep the dialogue speakable and convincing, as coming from the character, but I also try quite hard not to allow idioms from today or even from the last 30 years to slip in. The English use of contractions (don’t, won’t, shouldn’t, etc.) can be very helpful this way. I think all of us work like this – we don’t introduce jarring modernisms.

‘What is the appeal of a Maigret novel today? To start with, it is short – about 40,000 words maximum. And it usually opens with a very engaging, low-key scene (as do some of Hitchcock’s films). Quite often, Maigret is simply sitting in his office on the Quai des Orfèvres in central Paris looking out at the Seine, perhaps on a bright June day (Maigret’s Revolver/Le Revolver de Maigret), a hot afternoon in August (Maigret Sets a Trap/Maigret Tend un Piège) or a damp foggy evening (Maigret and the Saturday Caller/Maigret et le Client du Samedi). Readers become familiar with the furniture, the other inspectors, the view over the city. In Maigret’s Pickpocket/Le Voleur de Maigret, Maigret is jostled by a woman’s shopping bag in the bus on the way home for lunch. And although there are period features (that bus has a platform, which – alas! – has disappeared from Paris buses today), Simenon is quite careful not to overdo them. One can easily imagine the action taking place any time in the mid- to late twentieth century. (In fact, more has probably changed for crime writers in the last 20 years or so, with mobile phones and the internet, than it did in mid-century when Simenon was writing.)

‘The appeal is also – this has been said many times – Maigret’s own attitude: characterised by patience (well, sometimes impatience!) and tolerance. He has his own share of human weaknesses – fewer than his creator, though, who once said Maigret was the opposite of himself. Drink and copious meals, for instance, feature regularly. In Maigret’s Revolver, there is a pretty funny episode where he sits fuming for hours in the foyer of the Savoy Hotel in London waiting for a suspect to appear, trying to get a drink and falling foul of the incomprehensible English licensing laws.

‘Nevertheless – or perhaps because of his own flaws (both Simenon’s and Maigret’s) – Maigret seeks to understand both criminal and victim. In Maigret’s Madwoman, for example, he both regrets not taking seriously the worries of the old lady his colleagues think is mad, and at the same time is remarkably sympathetic to the unlikeable person who has, if not committed the crime, in a way provoked it. He may feel more hostility to certain perpetrators, but he always tries to discover how they reached the point of acting. He is interested in crime but not in punishment – reluctantly testifying in court and sometimes regretting the penalty (often death, during this period in France).

‘Regarding the Maigret series, then, all 75 novels, I don’t think it’s hard to describe their appeal. But I must also put in a word for the so-called romans durs – standalone “hard” novels. Penguin has now translated several of these, and although I knew one or two of them before, translating them has been a revelation. In these books, there is not a detective story as such, although there is usually a violent incident or a death, and always a dark undertow. They often concern a man in midlife, reaching a crisis of some kind – all rather different. The darkness may come from inside, or from the surrounding society. The most recent one I translated, The Little Man from Archangel/Le Petit Homme d’Arkhangelsk, is about a Jewish bookseller in a provincial French town in the 1950s and several people have got in touch to say how struck they are by the creation, with very few brushstrokes, of the atmosphere of small-town France.

‘So, if I were suggesting what to read to a new reader, I would recommend that they choose a couple of mid-period Maigret novels straight off (check the copyright page for the original date of publication) to get a feeling for the series. But also pick one of the romans durs – among the most famous is the hallucinatory The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By/L’Homme qui Regardait Passer les Trains. Less well known are The Little Man from Archangel or The Mahé Circle/Le Cercle des Mahé, set in a seaside town in the south of France. And quite extraordinary in its evocation of the port of Batumi in Georgia in early Soviet times, viewed through the eyes of the baffled Turkish consul, is The People Opposite/Les Gens d’en Face, of which the proofs are currently on my desk. It reminded me of Graham Greene.’

ADAPTING MAIGRET

I’ve known the talented crime writer Alison Joseph (of the entertaining Sister Agnes series) for some considerable time – and I have fond memories of meals with her by the River Isis at St Hilda’s College in Oxford. These were judging lunches for the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger (I was a judge, she was an invigilator). Alison is also an accomplished adapter for radio who has appeared at Crime Scene at the National Film Theatre to talk about dramatising Maigret. I asked her to tell me about her assignment with Simenon for BBC Radio.

‘It’s a funny business, adaptation,’ she told me. ‘You take a story that has already been told, and tell it all over again. You remain fiercely loyal to the intentions of the author and yet at the same time you make ruthless changes where the new version requires them. It’s a kind of mental contortion, a yoga of the mind. I was asked by BBC Radio Drama if I’d be interested in adapting some of the Maigret novels for radio. The plan was to do four, shared with fellow writer David Cregan, for broadcast late in 2002 to mark Simenon’s centenary. Of course, I was delighted. Ned Chaillet was the producer, and he chose four stories that had never been done before, which, given the popularity of dramatisations of Maigret over the years, was a bit of a challenge. David did A Man’s Head/La Tête d’un Homme and My Friend Maigret/Mon Ami Maigret, and I did The Two-Penny Bar/La Guinguette à Deux Sous and Madame Maigret’s Friend/L’Amie de Madame Maigret.

‘There were various dilemmas that we had to discuss. One was that these four novels span many years within Simenon’s career, which posed problems to do with time and place. We settled for a 1950s kind of feel, even though some were written earlier. We also had to decide on accents; we knew from the outset that Maigret shouldn’t have a “faux” French accent, which meant that we were searching for equivalent English voices for Maigret, his wife, all the policemen he works with, and a cast of various villains and respectable folk. So Maigret, who was born in the country and finds himself in Paris early in his career, was given a rural burr; and the coppers in the police department were mostly urban London. The other immediate challenge was turning a novel into a 45-minute play. It meant the story had to be pared down, and there was very little breathing space. Simenon tells these stories with admirable economy, and I found that if I tried to cut part of the plot, it was like dropping a stitch: everything unravelled. I would have ended up with only half a story. It was Ned’s idea to have Maigret in conversation with Simenon himself, debating each case. This gave us the chance to start the story further in, having set the scene in the prologue with Simenon, and also to return to Maigret and Simenon to “catch up” the narrative at various points where necessary. The reader who experiences a crime story in written form has the advantage of being able to revisit parts of the plot where it’s not clear to them what’s happened; the radio listener has no such privilege.

‘If I may be allowed to use the word “postmodern” at this point, the dialogues between Maigret and his creator also opened up a possible seam for jokes, always important when you’re dealing with villainy. Simenon wrote a book called Maigret’s Memoirs/Les Mémoires de Maigret, in which Maigret at times takes issue with Simenon for his accounts of the various cases he covered. Maigret’s main concern is that his life is, in fact, quite ordinary. He is, after all, only a policeman. He maintains that his cases mostly involve boring, repetitive footwork and observation – walking round Paris, keeping your eyes open. He claims that it’s really nothing special, and that Simenon, by leaving out a lot of the everyday groundwork, makes it seem more glamorous than it really is. Simenon’s view is that his embellishments of the story are only because he doesn’t wish to bore the reader, which of course causes further offence to Maigret. In the radio plays, it allowed for moments of Maigret grumbling about how he was portrayed – the characteristic leather collar on a particular coat that had become his trademark, but which, as far as he knew, he’d only worn once, or all these pipes he was supposed to smoke… In the original Memoirs, we hear how Maigret met Louise, his wife, always referred to as Madame Maigret. In the Memoirs, Simenon gives a glowing account of Madame Maigret, to which Maigret, loyal husband that he is, takes no exception at all, apart from an instance where he points out that Simenon describes a bottle on their sideboard as sloe gin, when of course it’s raspberry brandy, as anyone from Alsace would know. (Madame Maigret is very proud of her roots in Alsace.)

‘Radio can only tell a story by what people say to each other, and so my first approach in dramatisation is to separate out whatever dialogue there is in the original. As soon as I started dissecting the Maigret stories, I realised that my task was going to be much harder than I thought. There is a deceptive simplicity to Simenon’s style of storytelling, central to which is the way in which Maigret is the still silent heart of the story, rather than the agent of the action. Instead of the British rationality of Sherlock Holmes, Maigret seems to offer us a truth that is totally obscured, and yet which slowly, inexorably, emerges from the fog. Once I had pulled out the existing dialogue, to see how much of the story could be told by what Simenon allows his characters to say to each other, I realised that, mostly, what Maigret does is listen. And, even when someone does say something, so much is about what is not being said. So, at the beginning of working on the two radio plays, I was faced with the fact that an important part of the narrative was about silence. This was not a good start. The first novel I adapted was The Two-Penny Bar. The French word for bar in this case is “guinguette”, which, it turns out, has no English equivalent. It means a lean-to or shack where people drink. We settled for “bar”. In this story, Maigret is on his own in Paris during the summer; his wife has already gone to Alsace for les vacances and is awaiting his arrival. He is endlessly delayed by the case, and she is endlessly forgiving. The case brings him into contact with a character called James, an urbane Englishman whose marriage is a sham. James is often to be found drinking Pernod on his own, and he and Maigret settle into a sort of amiable companionship through the weeks of the case. James expresses a great envy for Maigret, being able to live a free, bachelor life for the summer, in the absence of his wife. Maigret is unable to say so – another example of silence on the radio – but in fact the absence of his wife makes Paris seem empty and depressing. It is one of the many clever things about Simenon’s writing: that the absence of Madame Maigret is a powerful presence in the story.

‘In adapting Madame Maigret’s Friend I was able to bring the marriage centre stage, and to look at how, out of the silences, Simenon paints a picture of a very close relationship. In this story, which concerns a Belgian bookbinder living in Paris who is accused of murder, one of the clues involves a particular hat that a woman was wearing. Madame Maigret decides that she had better help her husband, because hats are “women’s work” and he’ll never track it down by himself. Without telling him, she scours the milliners of Paris for an identical hat, with eventual success. Maigret comes home one evening to find that there is no dinner on the table; the first thing she says is to assert that he must be cross, while, of course, defying him to say anything of the sort. The rest of the dialogue in my version, in which she describes her quest, was very much faithful to the original, but what is allowed for in Simenon’s prose is Maigret’s silent gratitude and admiration for his wife. Radio doesn’t do silent gratitude and admiration too well, so my work in this scene was all about conveying his feelings in words while allowing him still to be silent. I kept to the original, until the end. At the end of Simenon’s version, they simply sit down to supper, with Maigret being silently grateful: which, of course, was no use to me.

‘In my experience, people who share the intimacy of a long relationship always say one thing and mean something entirely different, and the Maigret marriage epitomises this.

‘We had a lovely cast. Maigret was played by Nicholas Le Prevost, and Madame Maigret by Julie Legrand. Lucas, Maigret’s inspector and right-hand man, was played by Ron Cook. Georges Simenon was played by the novelist Julian Barnes.’

I asked Alison about a vexed subject: Simenon and women.

‘I think you’re right, Barry, in what you’ve said about some of the female characters Maigret encounters,’ she replied. ‘They are often women who have resorted to sex work, or who have rescued themselves from it. I think it’s difficult for modern readers truly to realise how quietly revolutionary it is, to see Maigret simply encountering them as people – and also very interesting when one knows a bit about Georges Simenon’s own particular behaviour where such women were concerned.

‘There’s a key moment in, I think, Night at the Crossroads/La Nuit du Carrefour when a rather high-status woman starts to get changed in front of him. And he sees, by the way she rather carelessly takes off a few clothes, that she’s so used to doing this in front of a man that she must have been a sex worker once. And what to me is so interesting is that Simenon, who writes so well about obsessive male behaviour, allows us to perceive that Maigret doesn’t see this woman as an object of desire, but that he simply notices her behaviour and learns something from it. And yet we know from Simenon’s own life that he was the opposite of this. It’s a strangely Roman Catholic thing, I think, to create a character and to allow it to be his best self. It’s a kind of paradox, a tinderbox spark that lights the whole oeuvre.

‘I recently re-read Maigret’s Doubts/Les Scrupules de Maigret, which seems to epitomise a lot of this very well. The novel has a compelling mood, of a damp, quiet January at police HQ, with the heating up too high and nothing happening at all. And then an odd, nervy chap arrives and tells Maigret that he is sure that his wife will, at some point soon, try to poison him. And so begins a classically Simenon tale, weaving a meditation on marriage with a palpable atmosphere of doubt and grumpiness, without even a murder to be investigated (yet). It shows how Simenon likes to play with ideas of evidence and rationality. In the sequences where Maigret, wondering whether his visitor is mad, tries to consult a learned text on psychiatric conditions. Simenon juxtaposes various academic definitions of mental illness with Maigret’s heartland belief that none of this is as helpful as just sitting with the man and asking him a few questions.

‘It goes back to the Catholicism of Simenon’s storytelling, that he positions Maigret at the centre of a mystery that can only be solved by being still, in a mood of deep and troubled doubt, and waiting. It also has that quiet warmth, humour, and strong moral core that is typical of the Maigret tales.’

COLLECTING CRIME:

DESPERATELY SEEKING SIMENON

A writer to whom I have given a variety of commissions (mostly for Crime Time) is the prolific – and talented – Mike Ashley. I know I’m damned lucky to have got him to say yes so often! Mike has written and/or compiled many books covering a wide range of subjects, from science fiction and fantasy through mystery and horror to ancient history. He has a keen interest in the history and development of genre fiction, particularly in magazines, and has a collection of over 15,000 books and magazines. Among his mystery anthologies are The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives, Shakespearean Detectives and Classical Whodunnits.

To my surprise, Mike groaned when I mentioned Simenon.

‘Let’s forget about Maigret, Barry,’ he said. ‘Well, as much as we can. I returned with much trepidation to Georges Simenon. I say “returned” because, many years ago, when I was innocent enough to think all things were possible – at times I still think that, which says a lot for progress – I tried to work out a list of the most prolific writers of all time, complete with accurate statistics on the number of novels, short stories, essays, etc., etc., and even – yes – even wordage! I told you I was innocent. I found it near impossible to work out totals in detail for any prolific writer: from great pulpsters like Frederick Faust and H. Bedford-Jones to dime novelists like Prentiss Ingraham (who wrote an estimated 600 novels, all in longhand), to some of the more obvious candidates like Edgar Wallace, John Creasey, Robert Silverberg and, of course, Georges Simenon. Trudee Young in her bibliography Georges Simenon (Scarecrow Press, 1976) starts her introduction by saying, “Georges Simenon may well be the most prolific writer of the twentieth century.” Notice that “may well be”. It’s a handy phrase tacked on to most of these prolific writers. But where are the facts? Young goes on to say – and remember, her bibliography was compiled 13 years before Simenon died – that he has written “over 200 novels and short stories, plus an additional 208 books written early in his career under pseudonyms”. Combining novels and short stories isn’t very helpful, but that possibly gives us something like 408 books, a figure deceptive in its apparent accuracy.

‘Let’s turn to Patrick Marnham, whose biography The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret (Harvest, 1994) at least has the advantage of being written after Simenon’s death. He says: “He had written 193 novels under his own name and over 200 under 18 pseudonyms.” Over 200 what? Novels, stories? Is that the same as Young’s “additional 208 books”, I wonder. If so, then maybe we have some precision here: 193 under his own name, 208 under pseudonyms, so 401 altogether. Uhm, hang on. Martin Breese, in his indispensable Breese’s Guide to Modern First Editions, breaks the figures down a little. He tells us that between 1924 and 1930 Simenon produced “190 novels and well over a thousand short stories all published under some 30 pseudonyms”. Ah, it’s 30 pseudonyms now. Clearly a whole barrel load of previously lost short stories had been broken open. Then he adds that, from 1930 to 1971, “he wrote 117 straight novels and two volumes of autobiography” plus 75 Maigret novels. In addition there were 143 non-Maigret short stories, including some pre-1930 but all under his own name, and 28 Maigret stories. So, let’s see, that’s 382 novels (190 + 117 + 75), plus 171 short stories under his own name and “over a thousand” under pseudonymous.

‘Well, nothing ties in there. Those under his own name (117 + 75) total 192, not the 193 claimed earlier. Okay, one out – but come on, if you’re seriously collecting Simenon that elusive “one” is the difference between madness and sanity. And Breese’s computations start from 1924 and Simenon published his first novel and his earliest short stories in 1920. And how many feature Maigret? 75 novels and 28 stories? In The Complete Maigret (Boxtree, 1994), Peter Haining says 84 novels and 18 stories. Sometimes a book contains one Maigret novel and one non-Maigret. Back to 18 pseudonyms again: David Howard, in his article on Simenon in Book and Magazine Collector #228 (March 2003), quotes “193 novels under his own name and almost 200 under 24 pseudonyms”.

‘So, now we’ve had 18, 24 or 30 pseudonyms. Has anyone seen a definitive list? I haven’t. The intrepid Pat Hawk in Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms for Book Collectors lists 22. Ready? Aramis, Bobette, Christian Brulls, Georges Caraman, La Deshabilleuse, Germain d’Antibes, George d’Isly, Jacques Dersonnes, Luc Dorsan, Jean Dorsange, Jean du Perry, Georges Martin Georges, Gom Gut, Kim, Victor Kosta, Monsieur Le Coq, Plick et Plock, Poum et Zette, Jean Sandor, Georges Sim, G. Vialio and Gaston Vialis. Some of those were by-lines he used as a newspaper columnist, so they don’t all relate to his fiction. But don’t worry, I’m not about to try to add his reportage to this total output. But that may account for some of the confusion if not all of those names were used for fiction. But it’s still only 22, not 24 or 30. I know of at least one missing from that list, J. K. Charles. No matter how we tabulate the figures, though, we still end up with around 400 novels, and countless (but over 1,000) short stories. It’s a respectable total, but not in the super-league of mega-prolific writers. I mention all this not simply to confuse you with numbers – though I hope I have – but to show why I approach anything to do with Simenon with much caution. It’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s fabrication. After all, we don’t even know for sure on which day he was born. Family tradition suggests it was just after midnight on Friday, 13 February 1903, but his mother being so superstitious insisted that his birth be registered as just before midnight on the 12th. Is that true? Also, we can’t be absolutely sure which was the first Maigret story to be written. They weren’t published in the order he wrote them, not even in France, and he used the name of Maigret in earlier stories.

‘Simenon often contradicted accounts of his activities over the years, and the more you read about him the less you feel you know, other than that he was a damned good self-publicist, regardless of the truth. The sex claims were headline grabbers that sound great – if not exhausting – and leave one wondering how he had any time left for writing. But then he was an exceedingly fast writer, and we have to believe that he was – even if, once again, I’m cautious over the statistics. In 1925, in another adroit piece of self-promotion, he secured a newspaper article that described his writing methods. Apparently he wrote 60 stories of 1,000 words each month, plus three stories of 20,000 words during the same month. That’s 120,000 words a month or just over 1.4 million words a year. That certainly puts Simenon up among the top wordsmiths of the 1920s – he slowed down in later years to about a book a month. But hang on, if he was really producing 63 stories a month, that’s 756 a year, and if he maintained that for even just five years in the 1920s, that’s 3,780 stories and doesn’t allow for all his novels. Hmm, once again I’m suspicious. Apparently, when he was at his most prolific he would scribble a story down and then, by way of revision, and to make it readable, he would read it back to a typist who produced the finished copy. But later, once he was travelling the seas, rivers and canals on his boat, he typed everything himself, which also slowed him down. Those early stories were very short, though, and he churned them out for various newspapers and magazines, including the pioneering French mystery magazine Détective, which began in 1929. You can get a feel for some of these in the translation by Peter Schulman of Les Treize Coupables (Fayard, 1932) as The 13 Culprits (Crippen & Landru, 2003). They feature the imposing examining magistrate Monsieur Froget, who, in each story, confronts the villain and, through his deft questioning, soon gets the criminal to make a mistake and then pounces on him (or her). There’s no investigation – the whole case and evidence is presented skilfully in little more than 2,000 words, and, if you’re quick, you’ll spot the accidental slip of the tongue before Froget reveals it. There were two companion books, Les Treize Enigmes (1932) and Les Treize Mystères (1932), which have not been published in English so far as I know, although Anthony Boucher did translate some of the stories for issues of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the 1940s. Les Treize Enigmes features Simenon’s equally enigmatic detective, Inspector B. of the Sûreté, whose work is of such national security that he can only be referred to under the alias G7. Les Treize Mystères features the genuine armchair detective Joseph Leborgne, who has such a preternatural grasp of a case that he seems to solve it without having to think about it.

‘Boucher’s translations were the first appearances of any of Simenon’s short stories in English, ever. The first of them, for the record, was ‘The Case of Arnold Schuttringer’ in the November 1942 EQMM. All too few of Simenon’s short stories have made their way into English, aside from the Maigret ones. The collection The Little Doctor (first published in English by Hamish Hamilton in 1978) had appeared in France as Le Petit Docteur as far back as 1943. Two of them were translated for The Strand in 1947. These stories are longer and more complex, although, like the Maigret stories, they are solved by straightforward questioning and understanding. As with these stories, the Maigret novels have too easily pushed aside Simenon’s other work, much of which was years ahead of his time. One has only to read The Snow Was Dirty/La Neige Était Sale, first published in 1948, to show how expert Simenon was at portraying a psychotic murderer. Or Act of Passion/Lettre à Mon Juge (1947), a deep psychological study of a murderer. Or The Strangers in the House/Les Inconnus dans la Maison (1940), a quite remarkable novel of family relationships and responsibility.

‘Even if we don’t know the exact numbers, Simenon wrote far more straight crime novels than the Maigret ones, and he should be better known for them and for his short fiction. But once you start collecting Simenon, be warned. You’ll never know when it’s complete.’

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