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original French

PREFACE to Simenon's Le Chien Jaune

Of all the novelists of his time, Simenon is surely the most prolific. In less than forty years, he wrote and published some hundred twenty volumes, about one novel every four months. While I admire such great and regular production, never harmful to the quality of the work, that is not what impresses me most about Simenon. After all, there are precedents, such as Balzac, who wrote his Human Comedy in twenty years. No, what I find most surprising is that Simenon's novels are at least as popular in other languages as they are in French — there are even countries in which they reach a wider audience than in our own. Like Americans or Japanese, Russians and Abyssinians feel no disorientation in this novelistic world where beings and places seem, however, very characterized, very particularized. Actors in some trivial event that takes place in a district of Paris or on a street of Antwerp or La Rochelle, have unique appearances and life styles, reactions and ways of thinking, that you would expect to make them difficult for Mexicans or Pacific Islanders to understand. That is exactly the miracle — that the frontiers and distances between the characters and readers of whatever nationality are abolished. Neither profession nor social level, customs nor laws of the country obscure the human being that emerges from the pages of the novel. The author furthermore refrains from explaining his characters and from dismantling before his reader the cogs of their psychological mechanisms. He is content to give information, indications, reference points — and that with economy.

In truth, it seems like it is the reader who creates Simenon's characters and differentiates them. There is, on the part of the author, a remarkable discretion. Absolute master of his novelistic creation and its creatures, he strives not to abuse his omnipotence, knowing well that such excesses will only result in going against the truth. While bringing them to life, he endows his characters with an inner music, but with a keyboard making of each of them a sort of aeolian harp that is moved slowly according to the winds, tides and detours of the investigation. In reading his books, I often have the horrible suspicion that internally we all look very much alike, and that it is minute, microscopic and petty details that create the diversity of character. In any case, a number of his heroes, if not most, appear to us as fuzzy, uncertain individuals, who make us think, when they become somewhat clearer, that they could just as well have developed in an opposite direction, as a result of some minor incident or maybe just simple luck.

The famous commissioner Maigret is the best-known representative of this Simenonian universe, and probably the most typical. Always in flux and uncertainty, he escapes description and even more, definition. The best chance one has is probably to approach him from the negative aspects of his personality — his mistrust of brilliant deductions, technique, too-methodical minds and even psychology. In his eyes, criminal investigation is above all one of human truth, and can be best understood through feelings. It suits him, during an investigation, to discard everything that might hamper palpable experience, particularly overly-well constructed reasoning. Maigret possesses this kind of sensitivity, enhanced by a sort of malleability, that permits him to feel people, to enter exactly into a character's skin, and to live a little, if fleetingly, the life of the suspect — enough to see a truth that the most scholarly deductions would not have been able to extricate from its hiding place. Thus, during those long silences in which he plunges himself, the commissioner, while pulling on his pipe, is not so much in meditation, as in a very subtle game more like the art of the novelist or the actor.

In Le Chien Jaune [The Yellow Dog], Maigret is certainly not a novice, but a young commissioner of thirty-five and rather different from what he will become thirty years later. The bearing is already there and the pipe also, of course. And on the professional level, he distinguishes himself from his colleagues by the little consideration that he grants to police procedure. Attached to the Mobile Brigade of Rennes, he is called to Concarneau to solve the enigma of a set of crimes committed under very mysterious circumstances. The inspector who comes with him collects precious and useless evidence, gleaned throughout the city, and doesn't dare to let show the uneasiness that his boss's inertia causes him. Sheltered behind the windows of a cafe, Maigret watches the wind on Concarneau harbor and, while smoking many pipes, integrates himself slyly into the secret life of a group of regulars of the establishment. When he succeeds in getting into the skin of a certain yellow dog that provides the title of the novel, the problem is resolved. It is by way of osmosis that the actors of the drama deliver him their secrets.

Marcel Aymé
translation ST