Book and Magazine Collector
No. 228, pp 18-28
David Howard considers
|Note: Footnotes have been added at the end of a some paragraphs, which link to Peter Foord's comments on the content, which he wrote in a letter to the editor in 2003. The footnotes are not consecutively numbered, but rather indicate the paragraph number.]|
The life of Georges Simenon is surrounded by myth and blurred facts. Much of this was due to Simenon himself, who was a shameless master of self-publicity In interviews, autobiographies, memoirs and diaries, he constantly contradicted himself, to such an extent that even his date of birth is open to question. Depending on who you believe, it was either 12th or 13th of February, but what is certain is that this year is the centenary of the birth of one of the most astonishing literary figures the world has ever known.
In a lifetime of 86 years, he wrote 193 novels under his own name and almost 200 under 24 pseudonyms. World sales of his books are said to be well over 500 million, with translations in 55 languages. His work has been admired by Colette, Cocteau and T.S. Eliot, and compared to Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Dickens, yet the majority of his novels were completed in less than a fortnight.2
Unusually for an author, he also had a firm grasp of publisher's contracts, and once he'd become well-known he struck hard bargains with publishers around the world. He was also renowned for his conviviality. Famously, he once declared he'd made love to 10,000 women, yet in the final fifteen years of his life he became something of a recluse, living with one companion in a Swiss cottage and rarely seeing friends or undertaking interviews.
Inexplicably, he also became very dismissive of his work. Previously proud of what he had achieved he even once declared he would win the Nobel prize by 1947 by the mid-1970s he had grown to be "almost ashamed" of them and even changed his job description in his passport from 'novelist' to 'no profession'.
In short, his life story is more extraordinary than most novels, and the mystique that has grown up around Simenon has certainly added to his appeal to book collectors. Although not all of his books have been published in the U.K., a complete collection of his British first editions would run to almost 200 volumes. In Britain, the majority of interest, though by no means all, is with the 65 'Maigret' titles. Beguiling, mesmerising, and totally engrossing, the adventures of the Commissaire de Police are some of the best crime adventures ever written. Don't take my word for it. No less an authority than crime novelist H.R.F. Keating selected two 'Maigret' novels in his 1987 book of the best 100 crime and mystery stories of all time. These were My Friend Maigret and Maigret in Court. In Keating's book, the novels are listed chronologically, but Keating has let it be known that were they listed in order of merit, Simenon would take first place.
Previously in BMC we've only featured the 'Maigret' novels (see BMC 8 & 98). This time we've included all Simenon's British first editions in our price guide, although our focus of attention will still be with the much-loved Parisian Inspector.
Unsurprisingly, since we last featured Georges Simenon in May 1992, his prices have moved on somewhat. This is especially true of his first three 'Maigret' volumes, which were published by Hurst & Blackett and are now extremely difficult to find. Previously valued at £100-£150, copies now fetch in excess of £750 if you can find one, that is. At the time of writing I could find none offered for sale, which just underlines how scarce they've become.
Georges was born in Liège, a Belgian town close to the French border. His father was an accountant with a local insurance company. The relationship between father and son was particularly strong, but the same cannot be said of Georges' relationship with his mother, Henriette. Her favourite son was Georges' younger brother, Christian, and this led to Simenon feeling rejected at an early age. In time, this caused bitter rivalry between Simenon and Christian. Indeed, in Simenon's autobiographical works, if he refers to Christian at all it is usually in derogatory terms. An example of this occurred in 1932 when Georges visited Christian and his wife in the Belgian Congo where they were working. In the resulting magazine article, he referred to them as selfish and absurd colonials.8
Early in his life, Simenon seemed set to join the priesthood. His mother's family were particularly keen on the idea and Georges appears to have had several mystical experiences during his childhood. The brutal German occupation during the First World War put paid to that idea and turned the star pupil of twelve into a disaffected youth of thirteen. Neglecting his studies, he turned his attention to bootlegging liquor and visiting prostitutes. His descent into a life of crime was probably halted by the sudden illness of his father which led to him having to leave school to help support the family.9
A number of failed jobs followed, but by the time of the Armistice Simenon had joined the Gazette de Liège as their crime reporter. Having already declared his intention to become a novelist, it didn't take him long to fulfil his ambition. In 1920, at the age of seventeen, his first book appeared. Titled Au Pont des Arches, it was a humorous work which was published in an edition of just 300 copies. Unsurprisingly, no U.K. edition was published and the same is true of nearly 200 other pulp novels which Simenon wrote during the 1920s for six different publishers under 24 different pseudonyms.10
Now living in Paris with his first wife, Tigy, Simenon was immensely prolific in 1928, he wrote 44 pulp novels, which earned him a considerable income. His speed of composition also brought notoriety, and this combined with his gift for milking publicity he once wrote a novel in seven days living inside a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge caused his fame to grow.11
At this time, Simenon's literary idol was Balzac, who had also begun his writing career as a writer of pulp fiction under various aliases. Similar to Simenon, Balzac used this as an apprenticeship until he thought he was good enough to write a 'literary' novel, whereupon he undertook his famous 'Comedie humaine' sequence.
Simenon took the same route with Maigret, though at first the Paris publishers failed to bite. They considered Maigret to be a most unlikely policeman. He didn't follow clues or any process of deduction; instead he seemed to have more of an empathy with the criminals than his fellow policemen. To his publishers, Simenon was a reliable source of money through his pulp novels, and they weren't keen on him straying far from that successful formula.
For Simenon, the turning point came in 1929 when, tired of the Paris life which had included an affair with singer, Josephine Baker he decided to live on his boat, 'Ostrogoth'.
It was while he was exploring the canals of Begium and Holland that he finally sat down to write his first 'Maigret' novel. Not that he ignored the hand that fed him. Although his output of his pulp novels which he referred to as his "roman populaires" slowed a little, he still managed to produce 34 books in 1929.
Despite his publisher's resistance, Simenon persisted and, in February 1931, the first two 'Maigret' novels appeared from the Paris publisher, Fayard, under the titles M. Gallet, Décédé and Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien. They proved to be such a success that soon the 'Maigret' books were appearing at the rate of one a month.
The first ever English-language 'Maigret' was an American edition of M. Gallet, Décédé, published as The Death of Monsieur Gallet by Covici Friede in 1931. A copy in a slightly frayed, price-clipped dustjacket sold for $2,151 (approximately £1,300) at the first Lackritz sale at Christie's New York last September.17
Simenon's impressive sales in France alerted British publishers, Hurst & Blackett, who agreed to publish six 'Maigret' mysteries in three volumes two stories in each. The first of these, the astutely titled Introducing Inspector Maigret, featured The Crime of Inspector Maigret and The Death of Monsieur Gallet, and appeared as a 320-page volume in January 1933. Today, this book is the most elusive of Simenon's British first editions. Copies in red cloth with their pictorial jackets sell for in excess of £1,000 in Very Good condition.
This was followed by Inspector Maigret Investigates, which appeared in September of the same year and features The Crossroad Murders and The Case of Peter the Lett, the latter being the first 'Maigret' that Simenon ever wrote. As before, the book was issued in dark red boards with black lettering and a pictorial jacket. The final Hurst & Blackett book, The Triumph of Inspector Maigret, appeared in July 1934 and contained The Crime at Lock 14 and The Shadow in the Courtyard. Both volumes are nearly as scarce as Maigret's debut, and sell for upwards of £750 in Very Good condition with the jacket.
In France, Simenon's reviews were generally good, with most critics realising that the author was trying to raise the standard of the detective novel. However, some thought that he was playing too fast and loose with reality. For a commissaire in the Paris police, Maigret spent an astonishing amount of time outside the city. None of the first eighteen novels are set entirely in the French capital, and nine of them are set completely outside it. Not only that, in many of these adventures Maigret spends time investigating abroad as well.
In part, this had much to do with Simenon's obsession with travelling. Having lived in the part of Paris where Maigret worked and lived, he then set about exploring France with the keen eye of a foreigner in a new land. Indeed, Simenon's eye for setting and detail is one of the most notable elements of both his 'Maigret' and non-series novels.
If the French critics had some reservations about the reality of Simenon's Maigret, the French public had no such qualms. They loved the books. Moreover, it's even been reported that the head of the French CID quickly became addicted.
In Britain, they were a little slower to get off the ground. Simenon changed publisher to Routledge, but it wasn't until 1939 by which time almost twenty adventures had appeared in France that the next 'Maigret' book appeared. This was The Patience of Maigret, which contained the mysteries, A Battle of Nerves and A Face for a Clue. Published in green cloth with gold lettering and a pictorial dustjacket by E. McKnight-Kauffer, copies are not easy to find and currently fetch £400+ in Very Good condition with the jacket.
These were quickly followed by Maigret Travels South, which contains Liberty Bar and The Madman of Bergerac; Maigret Abroad, comprising A Crime in Holland and At the Gai-Mouli; and Maigret to the Rescue (all 1940), which brings together The Flemish Shop and The Guinguette by the Seine. All these titles had first appeared in France in the early 1930s. Today, the British editions are not particularly easy to find, and they sell for upwards of £300 in Very Good condition with the jackets.
By this time, Georges Simenon had also begun producing the non-'Maigret' novels that he believed would secure his literary reputation and with it the Nobel prize. In Britain, these began with The Disintegration of J.P.G. (1937), which in strict chronology was the fifteenth non-'Maigret' novel which Simenon had published in France under his own name.
This was followed by In Two Latitudes, Affairs of Destiny and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, all of which appeared in 1942 in blue, green and brown cloth respectively. The first of these now sells for £150+ (Very Good, in jacket), while the other two fetch £50-£75.
The early war years also marked Simenon's return to the 'Maigret' series, which he'd tried to abandoned in 1934 when, in the book simply titled Maigret, he officially retired the Inspector. Of course, nothing but death can deter a series character from returning, and the early war years saw the publication of Maigret Keeps a Rendezvous (1940), followed by Maigret Sits It Out and Maigret and M. Labbe (both 1941).27
Georges Simenon's activities during the war years were to become a source of controversy. As a Belgian living in France, he was in an interesting situation. In 1939, Belgium was neutral. When the call for reservists to report for duty came, a sequence of events caused Simenon to become Commissioner for Belgian Refugees in La Rochelle, which was where Georges and Tigy were then living.
More controversially, when France was occupied, Simenon worked for the German film company, Continental, whose owner kept a bust of Hitler on his desk. In addition, to make sure he received his royalties, he signed a declaration that he was Aryan. After the war, the new French government found insufficient evidence to have him deported or executed, but the cloud of suspicion made him a voluntary exile from France for most of his remaining life.29
The immediate post-war years found Simenon living in the United States where his reputation was burgeoning. Living consecutively in Arizona, Carmel, and New England, he kept up a steady flow of books. In Britain, however, the disappointing sales of Maigret on Holiday (1950) caused Simenon to sack his publishers and replace them with Hamish Hamilton, who would publish all his subsequent U.K. first editions.30
Their collaboration began with Maigret Right and Wrong (1954), and continued with Maigret and the Young Girl, Maigret and the Burglar's Wife (both 1955), Maigret's Revolver, My Friend Maigret (1956), Maigret Goes to School, Maigret's Little Joke (both 1957), Maigret and the Old Lady and Maigret's First Case (both 1958). All of these titles can be found for between £20 and £40 (see price guide).
Meanwhile, Simenon kept on writing the non-series books which were gaining increasingly glowing reviews worldwide. Indeed, by now Simenon's work was falling into three distinct categories. Primarily, of course, there were the phenomenally successful 'Maigrets'. Then there were what Simenon thought of as his 'hard' books. These could be divided into two groups. First there were the crime thrillers with a cold psychological edge, then there were the more general domestic stories of sexual intrigue.
In these categories, between 1943 and 1953, Simenon added a further nineteen titles. These were: Havoc by Accident, Escape in Vain (both 1943), On the Danger Line (1944), The Shadow Falls (1945), Lost Moorings (1946), Magnet of Doom (1948), Black Rain, Chit of a Girl, A Wife at Sea (all 1949), Strange Inheritance, Poisoned Relations (both 1950), The Strangers in the House, The Window Over the Way (both 1951), The House By the Canal, The Burgomaster of Furnes, The Trial of Bebe Donge (all 1952), The Stain on the Snow, Aunt Jeanne and Act of Passion (all 1953).
Of these, The Strangers in the House and The Stain on the Snow are particularly memorable novels. In fact, for those readers who have not yet discovered the joys of Simenon, either would make the perfect starting point, along with, say, Maigret in Court.
Like many of the facts in Georges Simenon 's life, the genesis for the character of Maigret is itself uncertain. It seems likely that he gradually appeared through the mists of Simenon's imagination, and the facts seem to confirm that. Simenon himself was unsure of the inspector's gestation and gave numerous conflicting accounts of how he came into being.
As it happens, the first official 'Maigret', The Case of Peter the Lett (Pietr-le-Letton), wasn't the Inspector's true debut. A bulky detective with a pipe appears in L'amant Sans Nom (1929) by 'Christian Brulls' (a Simenon pseudonym). The following year, a book called Train de Nuit was published in which a 'Commissaire Maigret' attached to the brigade mobile of Marseilles makes an appearance. There are few differences between this Maigret and the finished article both are calm and show an unusual understanding of criminals.
As for the origins of the name, Jules Amedée Maigret, again there is some confusion. Biographers have discovered that there was actually a policeman called 'Inspector Maigret' working in Liège during Georges's childhood. But Simenon's first wife gave a different explanation. She said that the name came from one of their fellow lodgers when they were living in Paris's Place des Vosges.37
By 1950, Simenon was living at Shadow Rock Farm in New England with his second wife, French-Canadian Denyse Ouimet, who had originally been his secretary. At the time, Simenon told The New Yorker: "At last I have settled down ... I am taking root."
The roots didn't go very deep. By 1955, he was back in France with Denyse, living near Cannes, with Tigy a near neighbour. Some months later, they were packing their bags again, this time bound for Lausanne, Switzerland, his final country of residence but not his final home.
Much has been made over the years of Simenon's psychological need to constantly change scenery he moved home continuously up until the final years of his life. One result of this is that the setting for his novels are among the most disparate of any writer, with Holland, Belgium and the United States among his favoured foreign settings. Curiously, though, none of his books was set in Switzerland, the country where he lived the longest.40
By the time Hamish Hamilton took over the role of Simenon's British publisher in 1954, a considerable backlog of novels had built up. This included 25 'Maigret' novels, which initially Hamish Hamilton considered publishing in two-book volumes, as both Simenon's previous U.K. publishers had done. One volume did slip out under this format the previously-mentioned Maigret Right and Wrong, which contained Maigret in Montmartre and Maigret's Mistake but all subsequent 'Maigret' stories appeared in separate volumes.
Owing to the time-lag, it should be noted that the order in which the books were published in the U.K. bears little relation to the time that they were written or published in France. For example, the last published U.K title, Maigret and the Coroner (1980), actually appeared in French bookshops in 1949.
For collectors, the 'Maigret' novels from the late Fifties and throughout the Sixties represent some of the biggest bargains on the crime market. Whereas copies of Maigret has Scruples, Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses (both 1959), Madame Maigret's Friend and Maigret Takes a Room (both 1960) can fetch up to £15, by the time of Maigret Has Doubts (1968), Maigret Takes the Waters and Maigret and the Minister (both 1969), first edition prices have dropped into single figures.
This is due in part to the enormously successful British TV series starring Rupert Davies that captivated BBC TV audiences between 1960 and 1963. This gained Georges Simenon a new legion of fans and a consequent increase in print-runs. The BBC reprised the series in the early 1990s, this time with Michael Gambon in the role, and this fared particularly well in the U.S.
As with the 'Maigret' novels, Simenon's non-series books also become more affordable as his fame spread. Novels such as Inquest on Bouvet (1958), The Negro and Striptease (both 1959) fetch up to £15, but The Neighbours (1968), The Prison and Big Bob (both 1969) can be picked up for a fiver.
Indeed, all Simenon's subsequent books can be found for around that price, including the three short story collections that have been published in the U.K. Two of these were 'Maigret' collections Maigret's Christmas: Complete Short Stories Volume 1 (1976) and Maigret's Pipe: Complete Short Stories Volume 2 (1977). In addition, a nonseries collection appeared in 1978 called The Little Doctor. All can be found for around £10.
In 1973, much to the surprise of everyone, Georges Simenon announced his retirement from fiction. Instead, he poured his relentless energy into producing 21 volumes of outrageously unreliable memoirs, which wasn't what the reading public wanted.
Sadly, the last years of Simenon's life were tragic. His second marriage crumbled, and shortly afterwards his beloved daughter, Marie-Jo, shot herself. In a bizarre twist, he later learnt that she got the name of a reputable Parisian gunsmith from one of his 'Maigret' stories.
Georges Simenon's death on 4th September 1989 made headlines throughout the world. In Moscow, TASS issued a special release, and in both France and Belgium the story made the front pages of the newspapers. The obituaries were, of course, riddled with inaccuracies, which would have made Simenon smile.
Whatever version of his life you choose to believe, there is little doubt that Georges Simenon's literary journey was one of the most fascinating and productive of all time.