I hadn't read the Inspector Maigret books - I've never been a fan of crime fiction - and I hadn't really watched the TV adaptations either - but he was somehow part of my consciousness as I
grew up: that pipe and bowler hat and, in the film adaptations, the homburg; the sense of a solid and impassive character at the still centre of a social maelstrom of crime and people pushed to the edge. And my curiosity was piqued when I had an invitation to a reception hosted by the agents managing his estate, Peters Fraser and Dunlop, to celebrate a resurgence in interest in the author. This includes a stunning new project by Penguin, English publishers of Maigret since the early fifties, to publish, over a 7-year period and beginning last autumn, new translations of all of his novels, unbelievably just less than 400 in all, 75 of them Maigrets. Such a prodigious output is of course interesting in itself to a writer (how on earth did he do it?), but, without further investigation, it would be easy to dismiss Simenon consequently as inevitably a writer of pure pulp. Yet I began reading, and digging deeper, only to discover that he was greatly admired by none other than T S Eliot, Gide, Cocteau, Henry Miller, Colette, Muriel Spark, and a host of other literary writers, and to find there was indeed something in his insistently plain prose that is fascinatingly, almost magically evocative, and that at the centre of the books is a deeply humane and psychological interest in people.
The Belgian Georges Simenon (1906-1989) did start out writing pulp novels as a 19-year-old in Paris, typing 80 pages a day and publishing, between 1923 and 1933, more than 200 books under 18 pseudonyms. At the reception Simenon's son, John, told us that his father regarded that period as his practice in novel-writing. In 1931 he wrote his first Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian - he produced 11 of them that year (at the same time as the short stories he had always also written) - and began also to write what he called his romans durs, his psychological 'hard novels', considered by many to be superior. It is however for the Maigret novels that he has been best known, and so it was to a Maigret novel, The Yellow Dog, one of those first 11, that I first turned, the story of a small provincial coastal town in which the prominent bourgeois citizens are being mysteriously murdered or attacked. As Maigret sets about solving the mystery, a strange yellow dogs lurks at the scenes of crime, a signature kind of touch in Simenon: something baffling, often seemingly inconsequential as far as the plot goes, but with unsettling reverberations that seem to me to symbolise the psychological dimensions of crime overlooked in institutional police procedure but which Maigret always purposefully waits and watches to uncover. Julian Barnes asserts in his TSL review that a Maigret novel has no subtext, but I would say that this does indeed thus amount to a pretty clever subtext - one that serves a double role as a subplot which, as Barnes puts it, 'ends up being part of the main plot.' Famously averse to the literary - rigorously excising all rhetorical devices such as metaphors, consciously using a restricted vocabulary and avoiding taxing the reader with anything more than novella length - Simenon yet manages to create resonance and atmosphere and a deep psychological dimension, and it's actually quite hard to work out how he does it. It's no wonder he has been so revered by literary writers: he's like the magician with the sleight-of-hand secret we all want. He does describe the weather - weather plays a huge role in the Maigret books; Maigret is always pulling on his coat against a deep frost or looking out through the window at rain and a grey, grey Paris - but he never employs metaphor to convey it or any of the surroundings, an alcohol-soaked world of seedy bars and backstreets, simply stating what they're like in plain terms. I have written before about the magical effect for me in childhood of the plain writing of Enid Blyton, a plainness that amounts almost to an absence of detail or dimension, which very absence released me as a reader to complete and enrich the story for myself, and, I must say, got me addicted to her books. Barnes sees something similar happening here. Similarly, he notices, Maigret is not fully characterised, and as a result '[Simenon] invites us to fill in the blanks, which we happily and sympathetically do.' Yet, unlike Blyton, Simenon somehow conveys a complex moral and social world - the world of pre- and postwar France with its social divisions and, over the years, the fate of the bourgeoisie and the bureaucratisation of the police force. Perhaps the clue is in the very 'absence' of Maigret's character. Maigret is characterised by reticence and silence, by his mode of watchfulness and waiting and psychological observation, and, aided by a simplicity of language and style with which we can all identify, we watch his world through his eyes, becoming active participants in the story ourselves. Most attractive to me about the books is Maigret's interest in and often sympathy with the criminal as a human being in extremis. The unravelling of the mystery is never the real issue: the real issue is the puzzle of the criminal's mind, often, as in The Friend of Madame Maigret, pondered over and unpicked long after his identity has been proved. Maigrets are never really whodunnits but whydunnits. John talked about his father's view that all people are essentially biologically irresponsible - in extremis the biological imperative overrides social responsibility - and the books I have read bear this out.
Much has been written about Simenon's excesses as a drinker and a womaniser (Maigret doesn't womanise but he drinks all day on the job!), and one can't help feeling that someone who could produce such volume so quickly with such little revision must have been possessed of a manic energy, but in talking about him as a father, John movingly showed us a different side. He was always there for him and his siblings, he said, and had a Socratean mode of helping them with their problems, posing questions to help them to work out solutions for themselves - a method which does indeed, of course, transfer to the Maigret books, where patient questioning and waiting for people to reveal themselves are what win out in the end.
It seems strange that, as the most translated French-speaking author of the 20th century, and the third most translated author of all time in the US and UK, with over 500 hours of TV drama adaptations and more than 90 feature films, Simenon's books should have fallen out of favour, as seems to be the case, but this looks to change. The Penguin project gathers apace, with the Maigret series well on its way and the rest of the oeuvre begun, with some of the books translated into English for the first time. And it was announced that ITV is to produce two stand-alone films with Rowan Atkinson to play the leading role.
Thank you to PFD for opening my eyes to Simenon's work (and for a really lovely reception), and to John for the insights he gave into his ideas and working methods.