"an inquiry into the lives of nine masters of suspense..."
by Gavin Lambert
by Gavin Lambert
|INTERVIEWER:||...I often hear people ask about the violence in modern fiction. I'm all for it, but I'd like to ask why you write of it.|
|SIMENON:||We are accustomed to see people driven to their limit.|
|Interview with Georges Simenon, The Paris Review|
As a child he saw his country and his parents driven to their limit. The Germans occupied Belgium in 1914. An atmosphere of concealed violence occupied his family, creating the same kind of pressure as a strong wind that blows day after day and fills the air with brittle dust and haze. Simenon's father worked for an insurance company in the ugly industrial town of Liège. Since he had a weak heart the company refused to insure its own employee. He kept his condition a secret, and his wife found something mysterious and exasperating in his detachment and his refusal to behave like a man interested in success. It increased her terror of poverty, and the devout Catholic plunged into the role of family martyr-saviour, taking in lodgers (and cheating them), persuading a Jesuit school to educate her son at reduced fees because she wanted him to become a priest, ruining her own health in a desperate attempt to put away enough money to start a bakery business. Simenon was nineteen when his father died and the truth came out. His verdict on the situation appears in Pedigree (1948), a book conceived as autobiography and then recast as autobiographical fiction.
Accused of failure and weakness during so much of his life, the father has discovered the strength of tranquillity. The threat of death is even transformed into a kind of blessing that extends his capacity for happiness. The mother complains that he has 'no antennae' but lacks them herself, since a hunger for security never allows her to look beyond appearances. As misunderstanding drives each of them to the limits of patience and anxiety, the son feels a terrible atmosphere of non-communication and is unable to account for it. The mystery sends him into helpless rages and its solution leaves him with a desire to escape from a world suddenly revealed as false and cruel, judging without perceiving, equating respectability with material success.
In his notebooks that he kept during the early sixties, Simenon recalls the 'Religion and Morality with capitals' that afflicted his adolescence, and explains that he turned his back on them because they turned their backs on reality. 'The naked man' recurs as his favourite image of reality. Moral conventions, fantasies about God and the devil, are ways of clothing someone with artificial fears. Reality strips him bare, alone with his basic fear of himself.
He begins to explore this reality while writing pulp fantasies, serial novels and short stories for newspapers. It is 1923. A year after his father's death he has married a painter, Regina Renchon, and escaped to Paris. He is twenty. He agrees to give precedence to his wife's career, leaving her free to paint what she likes while he writes only for money, disguising himself under various pseudonyms, most often as Georges Sim. The sacrifice is also a convenience. Sim feels that all he knows of life comes from two cities, Liège and Paris, and it's not enough to make him Simenon. Discovering a facility for inventing plots, he mass-produces at a fantastic pace, writing a novel in a couple of days and a short story in a morning.
Behind this intensity he recognizes an inherited fear, his mother's dread of poverty. One part of himself remains attached to middle-class values, another encourages him to escape into different lives. Human curiosity is bound up with fascination for the opposite of middle-class existence, the world of rejects and outcasts.
At sixteen, as an apprentice reporter for the Gazette de Liège, he already felt its pull. Walking home at night, he often passed houses drably respectable from the outside, with curtains not fully drawn across their street-level windows. But instead of a glimpse of family life and an aspidistra in a brass urn, a dim light revealed a girl sitting in a chair. At the sound of approaching footsteps, she always looked up. The young reporter always moved on, since two women supplied him with regular sexual satisfaction at the time. Several weeks later, he stopped. A black prostitute waited in the chair that night and the sight of negro flesh aroused the desire for a new experience.
Another distraction from provincial life: getting drunk once a week with a group of young writers and painters who called themselves La Caque (The Keg). Believers in alcohol, anarchism and their own genius, they idealized the poet of criminals, François Villon. In a disreputable section of town, professional criminals hung out in cafes but only Simenon among the group felt impelled to move from the abstract to the real, sitting by himself and watching them at close quarters. When he followed them through the streets they became suspicious, yet somehow he escaped physical attack.
In Paris, since his wife needs models, it entertains Simenon to look for them in lowlife bars and dance halls where most of the girls have recently arrived from the country to take up prostitution. Again he risks danger, for the pimps are violently jealous and he's seen one of them slit a girl's throat. It also entertains him to make casual love in streets and alleys around Montmartre at night, and for a while to have an affair with a married woman. Sometimes this is carried on in her own house while the unsuspecting husband, busy in another room, makes small talk through the half-open door.
Exhausting this kind of anti-conformism after two years, he feels the need for wider discoveries. By 1925 he's made enough money to buy a small boat and sets out to explore France, particularly the countryside and seacoast, about which he knows nothing. He chooses to travel by canal and river because highways and railroads offer only the front door view, and he prefers to take places by surprise. Accompanied on the trip by his wife, a maid and a dog, he gets up early each morning to finish the daily quota of fifty pages before noon. Returning to Paris, he goes to Normandy and lives on a farm like a peasant for several months, then moves south to the little Mediterranean island of Porquerolles, where he lives like a fisherman. The pattern of exploration is repeated in his sexual adventures. He continues to prefer prostitutes, but no longer for reasons of novelty or danger. Lust, like farming or fishing or horseback riding, is a necessary and natural means of self-renewal that professionals can satisfy with a minimum of pretension. (This habit creates problems with his first wife, but the second will allow him complete freedom.) By 1929 he's written more than a thousand stories and novels and stored up a knowledge of everyday life in France that he feels ready to use. In the view from canal and river he has located the truly extraordinary. It lies in the so-called ordinary that never ceases to alarm and surprise him. Like the life of the sea that he discovered as a fisherman, it reveals a perpetual offensive and defensive motion: 'Innate, indispensable cruelty.'
Buying a second and larger boat, he sails to an estuary in Holland and becomes Simenon. He works on wine about three bottles a day and produces eight Maigret novels within a year, having previously arranged with his publisher to launch them as a series. Because he wants to reach the largest possible audience, he also convinces the publisher to bring them out at half the usual paperback price, functionally printed on cheap yellow paper. An instant success in France, they are praised by Janet Flanner in her 'Letter from Paris' to The New Yorker and translated into English within a year. By 1932 several have been filmed and Simenon is a celebrity another life into which he escapes with the same unrelenting energy and speed that he brings to his novels. He buys a spacious apartment in Paris and has it decorated in fashionable thirties moderne, rents a chateau near Orléans, joins the Yacht Club, employs a liveried chauffeur, gambles at Monte Carlo, wears the best English clothes and a pearl in his necktie. Three years later he's acquired a house on Porquerolles and built another near La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay. For publicity, he even agrees to start writing a Maigret in a glass cage.
Having researched France, there remains the world. Until the Second World War Simenon travels almost everywhere, throughout Europe and most of Africa, the United States, Russia, Lapland, Egypt, India, Tahiti, Australia. He moves back and forth across the equator below Panama, Singapore and the Ivory Coast. In the same period he produces another sixty novels. T. S. Eliot becomes a Maigret fan, Cocteau and Gide praise the 'other' Simenon that begins in 1933 with Les Gens d'en Face (The Window over the Way). None of the conventional problems of success seems to bother him. Later he will remember that he always knew where he was going, even if at first he didn't know how to get there. The technique he discovers is to become a client of experience, which he buys as it were wholesale. Using money as a passport and success as a visa, he penetrates the world of bankers, doctors, gangsters, society people, politicians, landowners, lawyers, police commissioners. 'I take everything from life,' he tells a journalist. Joining many groups while giving total allegiance to none, he breaks into an environment as easily as he breaks out of it. The more he explores his own freedom, the more he's struck by other people's lack of it. Most of them exist in a kind of prison, another image that recurs in varying forms throughout his work. Their lives confirm the rule that circumstance and background erode the individual, while Simenon's own life attempts to refute it. Submitting to a vast load of experience, he finds himself increasingly detached from conventional morality.
One of his most caustic and disturbing novels of the thirties, Chez Krull, takes place in a French town near the German frontier. A German family has settled there, become naturalized, but still provokes hostility from the French. A young visitor tells his cousins that they made the mistake of not being more 'frankly honest' or more 'frankly dishonest'. When you settle among strangers, don't copy their ways unless you can do it really well, or they'll despise you. Otherwise be calmly different and keep to yourself. Half-heartedness is the great betrayer. Here, of course, Simenon uses a racial issue to discuss the problem of existing as a minority of one and getting away with it. He gets away with it personally by copying people with the conviction acquired from inside knowledge. Writing novels is a process of moving closer to the bone each time, what he calls 'becoming' his central character. Like the mystic who prepares for concentration by fasting or going to the desert, Simenon needs his own order and discipline to set the mechanism in motion. His desert is the anonymous security of middle-class life. So he lives as a secret anarchist, operating within society and obeying its rules while inhabiting the psyches of outlaws and murderers.
At sixty, having 'become' so many of them, he's also become the complete family man, living with his second wife and their three children in Switzerland. He builds a house with twenty-six rooms on a large estate outside the quiet and firmly middle-class town of Lausanne. The household is run with a peculiarly Swiss precision, at once comfortable and isolated. The silhouette that Simenon presents to the public, on a book jacket or in a magazine feature the pipe, discreet conservative clothes, homburg hat and bow-tie in winter, panama and golf jacket in summer looks as anonymous and remote in its way as Conan Doyle's. But the eyes meet the camera eye with a veiled complicity. They suggest the dreamer of multiple lives and the man who describes his profession as 'a vocation of unhappiness', coloured by anxiety and the need to reach his limit. His characters pursue a similar vocation, reaching their limit by committing an act of violence instead of a novel. When something triggers the shipping clerk or doctor or student into killing, another kind of secret anarchist is revealed.
In his notebooks Simenon confesses that while he's freed himself of the twin superstitions of established religion and morality, he is still haunted by the fear of poverty and failure that surrounded him in childhood. Something of it lies behind the ravenous method of work and the construction of entirely different surroundings for himself. To this extent the novelist and his characters share the naked common ground of fear, and years of living together have exposed the impulses that link creation and destruction. One day in 1960 he reads a medical report on murderers that stresses their tendency to resemble the rest of us. 'I have tried to make it understood,' he adds as a footnote, 'that there are no criminals.' He might have added that getting away with murder is perhaps a less difficult problem than getting away with not murdering.For almost as long as I can remember, I have felt an anguish over spoiled lives, which made me invent and describe, when I was fourteen, maybe in 1917, the profession of 'restorer of destinies', a sort of Maigret as doctor, psychiatrist etc., a kind of consulting God-the-Father...Simenon's notebooks suggest a parallel with Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Things have to be set right. But Maigret and Holmes start from opposing positions, professional and amateur. The state-employed detective obeys orders to gather information that will condemn an individual to imprisonment or death. Wilkie Collins didn't overlook the inherent nastiness of this idea, only a few years after Scotland Yard came into existence, in his portrait of Sergeant Cuff. Unlike the later technocrats, Cuff feels guilty about his talent. The amateur obeys a personal code and accepts a case in response to a human appeal. Holmes is a licensed outsider, respected enough to flout or make use of authority as it suits him. An outsider without a licence, Marlowe sees authority as an enemy. Unlike the police, neither of them makes innocent people feel afraid.
In the Maigret novels, Simenon approaches the professional detective as a phenomenon. He holds no brief for or against, and refuses to judge, just as Maigret refuses to judge others until his later years, when he becomes occasionally fractious. The point of view is biological, a study of someone who decides to join the police force, who discovers powers of intuition that make him famous, then gradually feels the pressures of his chosen life. The novels hinge on the fact that Maigret finds himself up against a contradiction. Since he can only solve a case when he 'understands' the criminal, which means imagining how he feels, he has a natural sympathy for the man whom society pays him to capture. A deductive virtuoso like Holmes exercises his genius by analysing facts, but in the early Tête d'un Homme (1931, translated as A Battle of Nerves), Maigret declares his principle of 'moral proof'. The final evidence lies in character, revealed by a sudden act of empathy. Yet to understand is not to forgive but to arrest.
The murderer's identity may be disclosed halfway through a story without loss of suspense, because his psyche is more important. The real element of surprise is the human shock.
After the motive has been decoded or the moment of self-betrayal engineered, Maigret confronts Simenon's 'naked man'. Since he sees the world outside his novels as an artificial creation of politics, Simenon never 'dates' his fiction. Only a few scattered internal clues locate the action in the 1930s or later. Only a light handful of his 214 books acknowledges the Second World War. A private theatre of fear and greed and anger exists within its own time continuum, and history is what happens in people's minds every day. But Maigret himself can be dated specifically, since Simenon tells us when he was born (in 1877) and when he was promoted to his first case (in 1913). He must have reached the retirement age around 1942, although Simenon continues to write about him until the early seventies. As Simenon has admitted, Maigret could never have functioned in contemporary Paris. Born thirty years later, he would certainly have resigned in protest against corruption and the new methods. Towards the end of his career he already feels the climate changing, and doesn't like it.
Yet if Maigret himself belongs to the past, his criminal arena remains undated. A different kind of detective in Paris today would encounter many of the same murderers. Many of them could also be the protagonist of a non-Maigret novel, and sometimes you feel a direct emotional overlap. Les Scrupules de Maigret (1951) begins with a man telling the inspector that his wife is trying to poison him. It is immediately followed by Dimanche, a non-Maigret about a man who decides to poison his wife. Both tales share a climate of sexual duplicity and domestic hatred, at its most intensely concentrated in Dimanche. Simenon has pointed out that a Maigret often resembles a sketch for the painting to follow. The detective himself also seems like a first sketch for a self-portrait or, put another way, like a transitional device for Simenon the detective of life when he feels ready to move from potboilers to reality.
Like his creator, Maigret changes his life after his father dies unexpectedly, abandoning his medical studies to join the Paris police. He comes from a family that has to struggle against poverty his father managed several farms on a country estate and marries in his early twenties. He lives an outwardly conventional middle-class life in a suburban apartment. He rises from the ranks of street and vice squad duty as Simenon rose from the apprenticeship of pulp fiction. Even before he becomes famous his professional methods are unorthodox, and he seems driven by a private intensity. During his first case he develops an ability to escape into the lives of others, 'to put himself inside everybody's mind'. Like Simenon writing a novel he works against time, absorbing a new atmosphere and unfamiliar set of characters and yet reaching a solution as quickly as possible. Simenon begins a novel with a series of routines, card-indexing characters, making street maps and outlining events on the back of a manila envelope. Maigret begins a case by taking statements, consulting reports, making notes. Then he waits for the key moment, the start of an imaginative process by which the abstract turns into something human and complex. Like Simenon he is irritated by theorists. Examining magistrates oppress him with their middle-class attitudes and sermonizing, psychiatrists lack 'physical intimacy with the criminal world'. Alcohol and withdrawal into oneself are much more stimulating. Maigret constantly nips on the job, white wine at one café and calvados at another. And as Simenon becomes a total recluse during his ten days' stretch on a novel, ignoring the telephone and hanging a 'Do Not Disturb' sign outside his study door, Maigret takes to his bed to sweat out a problem alone.
Maigret also inherits Simenon's 'anguish over spoiled lives'. As an adolescent he felt that many people around him were at odds with themselves, playing a losing game and mutely asking for help. He dreamed the profession of 'mender of destinies' and later wonders whether he joined the police force by accident or fate. During his first case he asks, 'Aren't policemen sometimes actual menders of destinies?' Twenty years later, when they begin to seem more like mindless instruments of the state, he begins to doubt his early idealism. In Maigret et le Voleur Paresseux (1961, translated as Maigret and the Lazy Burglar), there are moments when he feels like a personal anachronism in an impersonal age:The world was changing, Paris was changing, everything was changing men and methods alike. At times retirement seemed a bugbear, but wouldn't it save him from starting to feel lost in a world he no longer understood?His private evolution is a vital part of the cycle. Between 1931 and 1934 Simenon wrote about twenty Maigrets. Their plots are notably complicated and Maigret himself seems a relatively simple character, a big slow man in a bowler hat who plays his hunches and a few unorthodox tricks. Between 1935 and 1949 only nine Maigrets appear, low-profile and rather perfunctory. Simenon is preoccupied with other work. Since 1949 he's produced another fifty, and the later Maigret reveals more of himself as he becomes more emotionally involved with his cases. His view of the world darkens. He feels the exhaustion of prolonged contact with criminal life. He is famous but suspects younger colleagues of secretly dismissing him as old hat. He looks back nostalgically to childhood and looks forward to the dreaded release of retirement.
The first Maigrets are the first Simenons, and they establish a personal technique of extreme compression, tersely loaded paragraphs ranging from two to ten lines, laconic and fragmented dialogue. Sim once submitted a few stories to Colette, then fiction editor of Le Matin. She found them promising but 'too literary'. The advice made a strong impression. From the moment Sim becomes Simenon he creates a very sparse kind of prose, matter-of-fact and yet immediately suggestive. (Only the good translations, which are rare, convey it in English.) The images are sometimes striking and sometimes conventional, but always exact. The physical world a street, a house, a path by a canal, the weather is implied with a functional precision. At the same time it is full of atmosphere and essence. The rain and the hour of the day and the quality of a face are never decorative. They carry a psychological charge. Simenon often describes Maigret as 'scratching' and 'ferreting' and 'sniffing' around. His own sense-reactions work in the same way, scenting the detail that makes the moment and clinches the impression.
In La Tête d'un Homme Maigret investigates the murder of a rich widow and her maid. Making routine inquiries at a restaurant, he sees the reflection of a redheaded man in a mirror:Two light eyes under heavy brows, a smile, such a faint smile, yet full of sarcasm.
As if the eyes told too much, the lids dropped immediately. But not quickly enough, and the inspector couldn't help feeling this sarcastic smile had been meant for him.
He files the image away, but remembers it later as the first secret gesture of a particular kind of murderer, compelled to boast and to seek attention. In M. Gallet Décédé (1931, translated as Maigret Stonewalled), the detective is unable to connect the face in a dead man's photograph with anything that he's learned about his life. He puzzles over a thin-lipped yet unusually wide mouth that seems 'almost to slice the face in two'. The instinct leads him to expose a physical duality. The body identified as M. Gallet, commercial traveller, is really the body of the Comte de St Hilaire. Years ago Gallet bought his title off a penniless young aristocrat, and escaped from middle-class life to become St Hilaire and eventually inherit a legacy. The real St Hilaire, deprived of his identity, fell into a series of dreary middle-class traps and finally escaped by committing suicide. The mystery ends as an ironic social fable. Technically innocent of any crime and officially dead, Gallet is left free to enjoy his St Hilaire fantasy. In L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre (1931, translated as Maigret Goes Home), the detective remembers the comtesse from his boyhood as 'a tall, slim, melancholy woman glimpsed from a distance in the park'. Returning to the village where he was born, he finds a grotesque emaciated corpse slumped across the aisle of a church. The image of collapse also signals the end of a great family. Uncovering its descent into vindictiveness and greed, Maigret confronts the ruins of his childhood world.
Each case is like a journey into a new country, with its own topography and habits: the brilliantly destructive egomaniac in Paris, the cunning little businessman in the suburban wasteland, the crumbling aristocracy in the country village. In La Danseuse du Gai-Moulin (1931, translated as Maigret at the Gai-Moulin), Maigret travels to Liège for his first encounter with alienated youth and the perverseness of the adolescent rich. In Le Fou de Bergerac (1932, translated as The Madman of Bergerac) he enters the world of a terrifying psychopathic murderer who sticks women through the heart with a huge needle. These five novels show Simenon at his most convincingly bizarre and Maigret reacting to different human experiences, saddened by his brush with the rich and privileged, amused by the cunning little businessman, shocked by the young. There remains the problem of the explanation scene. Adventurous in every other way, Simenon falls back on the artificial monologue, the criminal confessing or Maigret denouncing.
The exception, and the true masterpiece of the period, is La Nuit du Carrefour (1931, translated as Maigret at the Crossroads). Empty and isolated as a de Chirico landscape, the setting is a crossroads surrounded by flat countryside, with only three buildings nearby: a garage, an ugly suburban villa, an old country house screened by trees. The garage proprietor, the plump self-important insurance agent and his wife, the Danish brother and sister in the old house, seem to have little contact with one another. But Maigret sniffs and ferrets out the secret links between members of a diamond and cocaine smuggling gang. The most brilliant scenes are centred on the old house. The sound of a tango played on the phonograph drifts across parkland. Inside, brother and sister (who turn out to be man and wife) live in a mixture of luxury and filth. The man has a cool, elegant manner and a glass eye. The bored wilting girl wears a long low-cut velvet dress that slips occasionally to reveal a scarred breast. The climax moves into surrealism, with Maigret discovering the girl and the insurance agent fist-fighting at dusk at the bottom of a dry well. They are hauled up on pulleys, the girl still in her long dress and blotched with green moss. In spite of her frailty, she's blacked her opponent's eye and dislocated his jaw. Violent and absurd, the tone of the novel prefigures Polanski's movie Cul de Sac. So does the extraordinary adaptation made in 1932 by Jean Renoir, with Simenon collaborating on the script.
The point of departure for Maigret in his later years is a journey from Paris to the island of Porquerolles. In Mon Ami Maigret (1949, translated as My Friend Maigret), an old tramp who claimed to know him has been brutally murdered, and the detective moves from his usual setting of a city in the rain to the Mediterranean of garlic and mimosa. The islanders greet him like a movie star. He is accompanied by an inspector from Scotland Yard who wants to study his methods. Maigret's apparent lack of them provides some ironic commentaries on the gulf between intuition and textbook technique. For much of the story his mood is genial. He runs across a woman whose destiny he helped to mend in the past, and approves her new career as the madam of a brothel in Nice. Then, as he confronts the solution, the tone darkens.
The young criminals, an unsuccessful writer and a failed artist, have a touch of Leopold and Loeb*. Their racket, which the tramp discovers by chance, is forged paintings. As well as making money, they enjoy revenging themselves on society by swindling an art museum or a rich old woman, faking van Goghs as an act of protest. Obliged to murder, they deliberately choose to be vicious about it, then analyse their reactions. Faced with lives that he finds too strange and threatening to enter, Maigret becomes violent and abusive. In his earlier days he dismissed the perverse adolescent murderer of the Gai-Moulin as insane. But the combination of dissent and sadism is an experience he cannot absorb or classify, only rage against. This kind of crime is like a bomb thrown at the status quo. For all the experience he acquires and the illusions he loses, Maigret remains at heart the child of a conservative country upbringing. For the rest of his career Maigret will seldom be driven so close to his imaginative limits, but anxiety often pricks at the surface and shows in the dark pouches under his eyes. He complains of police work slowed down by bureaucrats while criminals become 'skilled technicians'. He drinks more heavily. He dreads having to testify in court, finding trials more and more like 'last rites', abstract and pompous. Central heating has been installed in his office, but he despises it and retains the old black stove for its human warmth. When it finally gives out and has to be taken away, the moment turns into a funeral for time past.
The later cases often suggest earlier ones more grimly replayed. In Maigret a Peur (1966, translated as Maigret Afraid), the situation echoes the Saint-Fiacre affair, but the landowning aristocracy survives now only as a cankered relic, resented by villagers and hated by its own servants. Maigret can no longer feel nostalgia for a dying life, only read the angry social handwriting on the wall. In Maigret et les Témoins Recalcitrants (1959, translated as Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses), the atmosphere is reminiscent of La Nuit du Carrefour, but more seedy and degraded. A member of a family that manufactures biscuits has been murdered. The biscuits, which Maigret remembers from his childhood as tasting like cardboard, no longer sell well. The family no longer feels or lives well, floundering in debt and dust and bitterness. Interrogations become like stripping the clothes off ugly people. In Maigret et la Vieille Dame (1951, translated as Maigret and the Old Lady), he flies into a rage again. The elegant and benign widow in her house by the sea seems to be living an ideal retired life. She charms Maigret so completely that he feels betrayed when he discovers the greed and cruelty that leads her to murder for money. Sometimes he pauses to wash his face and hands during these cases, as if afraid of contamination. In Les Témoins Recalcitrants he looks at his face in the bathroom mirror and almost sticks out his tongue:The glass distorted things slightly, of course. All the same, when he came back from the Quai de la Gare, the chief-inspector felt his face had become not unlike the faces of the people living in that weird house.
Other stories develop earlier themes of the psychopathic killer and the criminal like M. Gallet trying to break out of middle-class solitude. In Maigret Tend un Piège (1955, translated as Maigret Sets a Trap), the architect who stabs five women to death in the streets of Montmartre is really killing his possessive wife and mother each time. In Le Voleur Paresseux, the thief who breaks into other people's houses feels that he's breaking into their lives. He watches a man asleep with a kind of aching curiosity before making off with his jewellery on a bedside table. In all these novels the explanation scene is much more skilfully integrated than before and the backgrounds vibrate with detail. They give a continuous sense of other crimes going on at the same time a body fished out of the Seine or discovered in an empty room with the same regularity as train whistles pierce the air or church bells ring for mass. Reporters and informers haunt the corridors of the Quai des Orfèvres In a glass-panelled room near Maigret's office, people subpoenaed for testimony wait to be called, sitting under photographs of policemen killed on duty.
The whole cycle reaches its highest level with three novels based on sexually motivated crimes involving a husband, a wife and a lover. Here, as so often in his work, Simenon uses the situation to make one of his essential points: the victim is as guilty as his murderer, and, by extension, the murderer ends as his own victim. Maigret et le Corps sans Tête (1955, translated as Maigret and the Headless Corpse) begins with a man's arm being fished out of a Paris canal at dawn. A diver retrieves other fragments of the body, but the head remains missing. Maigret centres his interrogation on a nearby bar. The owner has recently disappeared, but Mme Calas insists that her husband often goes off without a word. He means nothing to her dead or alive, anyway. Maigret becomes fascinated by the woman's total lack of emotional response. A heavy secret drinker and sexually promiscuous, alcohol has no more effect on her than casually obliging a lover on the kitchen table. Nothing seems to get through to her except, as Maigret finally discovers, her husband's attempt to cheat her out of an inheritance. This drove her into partnership with a young lover, and after he killed Calas she helped to dismember his body as indifferently as she might have cut up a rabbit. Submitting to arrest as if she expected it, she asks Maigret to find someone to look after her cat.
In Maigret aux Assises (1960, translated as Maigret in Court) the detective has to testify at the trial of a picture-framer accused of murdering his aunt and her child. The magistrates, as usual not looking beyond facts, believe Meurant guilty. Maigret, as usual looking beyond them, believes him innocent. But to make his case, he has to reveal that Meurant's wife has been consistently unfaithful. Acquitted, Meurant goes back to his wife and apparently forgives her. In fact the potential murderer inside him has been released. Obsessed with jealousy, he tracks down his wife's current lover and shoots him, then submits to arrest with the same indifference as Mme Calas. Maigret returns to court to testify against the man he never thought capable of violence.
In Maigret et le Client du Samedi (1962, translated as Maigret and the Saturday Caller), a building contractor with a harelip tells Maigret that he wants to kill his wife. The detective persuades him to at least think it over. A few days later he calls at the house and finds only Planchon's wife living there, with a lover. She insists that her husband disappeared without a word. Stonewalled again, Maigret eventually unravels the truth. For months Planchon had accepted the most extreme humiliation, sleeping downstairs while his wife and her lover occupied his bed, drinking himself into a stupor, even signing away control of his business. The man who told Maigret that he wanted to kill really wanted to be killed.
Criminal and victim alike choose their own paths. Planchon preferred to lose his life rather than his wife. Mme Calas waited for Calas to cross her threshold of tolerance, then did what she had to do. Found innocent after his first trial, Meurant obeyed a secret guilt mechanism, went back to his wife and reached the same point as Mme Calas. Inevitably Maigret remembers his early impressions of people at odds with themselves and playing a losing game. And Mme Maigret, the discreet background figure who hardly ever questions her husband about his work, senses his new mood when he comes home at the end of a case:She had a confused feeling that he'd gone a long way away, that he needed the habit of everyday life again and the company of men who could restore his confidence.Maigret wonders if he joined the police force by accident, or if he subconsciously recognized a personal destiny. Many of Simenon's protagonists share the same feeling about the quotient of accident and destiny in their lives. They search the past for some important overlooked moment that might explain their curious dread of a hidden threat in the future. Une Vie Comme Neuve begins by pinpointing this secret unease in the life of an obscure accountant: 'He had expected a disaster for so long and a disaster that would happen at precisely such a moment that he felt no terror and so to speak no surprise.' L'Ours en Peluche begins with a successful doctor waking up from a dream. He tries but fails to remember it, and is disturbed because he knows it held the key to his present anxiety. In any case the expected and the unexpected have the same result. The only difference lies in the degree of shock. (Perhaps it's the only difference between accident and destiny.) For Kees Popinga in L'Homme qui regardait passer les trains there are no premonitions. He would have laughed at the idea of his photograph being featured in newspapers all over Europe, with captions about a dangerous murderer. Alain Poitaud in La Prison has no advance warning that it will take 'only a few hours, perhaps only a few minutes', for him to change from one man into another. Finally the same question recurs: which was the real Popinga, the real Poitaud, the real accountant, the real doctor, the man before or after the change?
The mystery of reversal is found in men of widely differing circumstances. They may live in Paris or the tropics, the small town or the remote countryside. When Simenon set out to explore France and then the world, he was looking for universal and not local colour, for a private theatre independent of place as well as time. Personal background and heredity exert a very limited influence in his novels. A general psychic environment is the deciding factor. Growing up in Liège among people who worshipped respectability, Simenon was later astonished to find that no more powerful collective attitude exists anywhere. It has replaced religion as the fantasy most difficult to escape. Like the displaced family in Chez Krull, the individual has the choice of losing himself in the respectable crowd or of staying aloof. Either decision may land him on the common ground of fear. If he compromises, his relationships and his profession are dictated by duty. Concealing his failures for fear of disappointing other people, he never comes to terms with them. His idea of success is society's, not his own. If he rebels, he risks another kind of pressure and another kind of unreality. The outsider provokes mistrust or envy, and begins to feel a lack of human connections. Both paths can lead to a point of no return, and the point that concerns Simenon is murder.
In a world where the dividing line between accident and destiny is unclear, murderer and victim become interchangeable roles. 'If you admit the murderer as a criminal type,' Emile reflects in Dimanche, 'you must also suppose there is a type of natural victim.' The corpse is as responsible as the killer. More than fifty of the non-Maigret novels create variations on this theme. They begin with what Simenon has described as an almost geometrical problem. 'I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limit?' When the limit involves death, murder or being murdered becomes the fine art of self-revelation.
Simenon's métier is the sustained close-up, and his most compelling novels centre on a single character and his reactions. Using a wider angle lens to frame a group, most often a family, he dilutes his effects. His most impressive group is the sum of his individuals. Some of these individuals are also avatars. They develop on parallel lines throughout his novels, and end at different points. One avatar reaches a final stage, then disappears. Others continue to evolve. Like figures in a mosaic, each is complete in himself, yet forms part of another section and eventually of a whole design.
In his first important non-Maigret, years before Camus, Simenon introduces the idea of the outsider. Les Gens d'en Face (1933, translated as The Window over the Way) contains his first portrait of the alienated man faced with a mysterious human barrier:... Every time he had tried to live, to do what he had always called living, he had come up against a brick wall.Adil Bey, Turkish consul in the Soviet port of Datum, only moves beyond emotional neutrality when he discovers that someone has been trying to poison him. Up to this point, like the hero of Hitchcock's Rear Window, his best hours have been spent watching the apartment across the street, which he can see from his office window. Three people inhabit this little communist cell: Adil Bey's secretary, her brother (a local OGPU official) and his wife. Although attracted to his secretary, Adil Bey finds her belief in the new Russia absurd. He tries to demolish it by insisting on the horrors of secret police, monolithic bureaucracy, endless food shortages. He boasts about the relative comfort of his own country. Then he starts to feel physically ill, and remembers that his predecessor died of poisoning.
It left him as inert, perhaps even more inert, than the people around him. He didn't necessarily want this. But it was so easy. You made no effort. You carried your solitude around with you...
An extraordinary confrontation with his secretary provides the turning point in both their lives. Accusing her of trying to poison him, Adil Bey admits that he taunted her because he was afraid of falling in love. Sonia admits that she put arsenic in his food, just as she poisoned the previous consul, because her need to believe in something was being cruelly undermined. They insult each other and weep. Then Sonia confesses that she loved Adil Bey even while she wanted to kill him. They plan to escape to Turkey together, but the OGPU arrests her and Adil Bey leaves Batum alone. Surprised by his absence of grief, he looks through his cabin porthole and is relieved to face an empty sea instead of a troubling window over the way. No longer menaced, he can return to his emotional vacuum.
For Adil Bey the world is a series of rooms with 'each person in his corner'. This compact and sinister episode from his life marks Simenon's own point of imaginative departure. Like Russia, his protagonists move obstinately towards isolation. A new political ideal is only another method of imprisoning people in fear. Never questioning a belief that drives her to murder, Sonia accepts a communal society no more liberating than Adil Bey's solitude. In the end both are equally victims, and the turning point turns back on itself.
In Chez Krull (1939) the outsider is still comered, but shows signs of aggression. He moves into somebody else's corner, commits an act of psychological murder, retires again. Hans is a young German who arrives to stay with relatives living in a French town near the frontier. A girl is raped and murdered. Suspicion falls on Joseph, his clumsy repressed cousin. The local dislike of foreigners intensifies dangerously. For the Krulls, the threat of mob violence is a terrifying reality, but for Hans it becomes an absurd spectacle that exposes their fears and failures. His face betrays 'a constant gleam of amusement, like the reflected morning light, the clean rinsed sky...'. He seduces Joseph's virgin sister and enjoys the knowledge that his cousin watches with appalled fascination through a keyhole. He pretends to doubt Joseph's innocence and hints to the Krulls that his cousin has the attributes of a potential murderer. When the family barricades itself in the house and the old deaf grandfather commits suicide, Hans moves on. At the moment of leaving he feels a curious twinge of panic and guilt, and wonders whether his role is to play 'the Stranger, the cause of all the evils in the world'.
Although the question remains unanswered, Simenon makes it clear that Hans is capable of playing many roles. He invents a fantasy background for himself as a political refugee. He has a trick of adapting to people's moods, and uses it to control them. He imagines himself as Joseph, comparing his own strength to his cousin's weakness. Joseph complains of feeling different from other people and unloved by his neighbours. Hans recognizes the same feeling in himself, but has no desire to join the crowd and be loved. He chooses to stay behind a brick wall, equating difference with superiority. Proud of having discovered the girl's body in the canal and delighted by the shock it causes, he's fascinated by murder but too intelligent to commit it. He disrupts and humiliates the living instead. People often call this kind of man 'a killer'.
La Veuve Couderc (1942, translated as Ticket of Leave) takes the outsider a stage further, across the threshold of violence. A powerful opening paragraph frames his isolation:A man walking. On a three-mile stretch of road with the shadow of a bare tree slanting across it every ten yards, a solitary man loping from one shadow to the next. As it was almost noon, and the sun neared its highest point, an absurdly foreshortened shadow his own glided ahead of him.
Jean is a rich man's son who remains a spoilt child. He falls for a stupid girl with expensive tastes and steals from his father to buy her presents. When his father cuts him off, he robs and murders a man. His lawyer manages to suppress the evidence of robbery and Jean gets only five years for manslaughter. On his release from jail, a middle-aged widow takes him in as handyman and lover. In her own way this simple blowsy peasant is as much of a child as Jean. She quarrels endlessly with her dead husband's family over a few cows and a plot of land. Her ancient father-in-law lives in a daze of satyriasis, and she takes him to bed from time to time as if giving an old dog a bone. For Jean her little farm becomes a kind of playground in which he can amuse himself and feel no ties or responsibilities. He likes Tati well enough, but she exists on the same level as her pigs and rabbits, part of a life without claims or shadows.
Days like this are always numbered, and Jean becomes obsessed with a girl living across the canal. Meeting her secretly and deceiving Tati, he moves back into adulthood, the profession for which he's never been suited. In Chez Krull, Hans wonders whether his destiny is to cause evil. Jean knows that his destiny is to betray. He begins to think about the past again, and the sentence of death cheated like Tati. The widow falls ill and he nurses her dutifully while remaining indifferent to her pain, slipping out at night to meet Felicie. When Tati grows suspicious, has a pathetic outburst of jealousy and begs him not to leave her, he cracks her skull with a hammer and then suffocates her.
The murder is Simenon at his purest. Tati is only a pretext. Jean directs his real anger against an adult world in which he finds it impossible to live. After the terrible act of violence he imagines himself walking along the empty road again, following his shadow, then falls asleep like a child. The police wake him, and he can only say, 'Don't hit me... I'm tired.' For the widow, Felice is equally a pretext. Her real jealousy comes from a fear that Jean's childhood is being stolen. If he loses it, she'll lose him. The rescuer is at heart a jailer who provokes her own murder. A newspaper report would reduce the anecdote to an ageing woman brutally slain by her young lover, an ex-convict. Simenon's report finds far more in the cliché than meets the eye. He sees the collision of two lives without exits, violence the only possible way of escape. At first there seems a kind of innocence in two lonely people coming together, then solitude reveals its other face, an absolute and ruthless despair. Simenon strips each layer off the situation without a single moral nudge or literary gesture. La Veuve Couderc is a masterpiece written in an anti-masterpiece style.
'He was alone. So much the better...' This is Frank's reaction to almost everything that happens to him in La Neige était Sale (1948, translated as The Stain on the Snow). Simenon's final and most overwhelming account of the totally estranged and aggressive man is set in an unnamed European country occupied by enemy forces. There is no specific reference to the Second World War. In the opening scene Frank stabs an enemy officer as he walks home through the snow at night. The murder has nothing to do with patriotism. It is a gratuitous destructive act that the nineteen-year-old boy describes to himself as 'losing his virginity'. Others follow. He seduces a sad and timid girl who's fallen in love with him, then arranges for a friend to rape her. He takes part in a robbery and kills an old woman. The second murder feels more important than the first, somehow inevitable, a sign that he's on the way to his 'ultimate limit'. Reaching a point of private horror that separates him from everyone his gangster friends, his mother who runs a brothel and whom he hates, the prostitutes he bullies and enjoys he doesn't try to resist arrest. The police take him to a prison that was formerly a school, an eerie no man's land of mazelike corridors, small windows, doors with mysterious inscriptions, uniformed bureaucrats. Every day he is interrogated by an official whom he thinks of as 'the old gentleman', mild and fumbling on the surface, tireless and cunning beneath it.
At first he seems trapped like Kafka's K. in mysterious and arbitrary procedures. Then he realizes that the authorities suspect him of belonging to the political underground. Personal nihilism is beyond the imagination of this grimly brutal regime, and the old gentleman believes that Frank will eventually break down and name names. Once Frank understands this, he has no desire to save himself. He knows that he's 'in for it' anyway, and his whole life seems to have led up to this moment. He drops false clues and promises evidence that never materializes. The sessions with the old gentleman become a game that he mustn't be allowed to win too quickly. The longer Frank holds out, the richer his preparation for death:It was strange. Frank had spent much of his life, much the greater part of it, in an almost personal hatred of destiny. He'd sought it out, wanting to challenge it, come to grips with it.
And now, suddenly, after he'd stopped thinking about it, destiny made him a gift.
The old gentleman is the bearer of this gift, providing Frank's life with a last act of unhoped for excitement. The last act is also one of Simenon's most daringly protracted climaxes, delaying violence instead of allowing it to explode. The cruelty that Frank has shown towards other people now turns on himself. It becomes not exactly noble, but pitilessly honest. Shuttling between pride and atonement, he takes the centre of a bleakly spotlit stage. He bears nobody a grudge and feels sorry for nobody, himself included. The ancient chain-smoking interrogator seems at times almost a father-figure, at times more cold-blooded than a fish. Most important of all, he is necessary. 'Everyone had his own old gentleman...' As the duel continues, Frank ceases to fear the prospect of torture. He's been too much of a torturer himself. He loses all sense of time because 'it didn't matter how long something lasted. It only mattered that it should exist.' He will know instinctively when to throw in his hand, to confess to the old gentleman that he's been using the situation to come to terms with his crime, which has nothing to do with politics and concerns only himself.
They beat him up a few times, then lead him across the snow to face a firing squad. Three other men wait there to be shot. He feels curious about them and peers at their faces in the early morning darkness, moving briefly outside himself at the last moment, not completely alone.
The occupied country of La Neige était Sale is a metaphor for the world as these haunted outsiders see it. Adil Bey's Batum and Frank's unnamed city are both in police states, but a police state can be imposed from below as well as from above. Hans in Chez Krull feels that he's living 'in a foreign country' and Jean in La Veuve Couderc that he's being 'swallowed up by another world'. Simenon implies that in the present stage of evolution the fear of displacement is common to all. Only its intensity separates his characters from 'ordinary' people. The exile's eye has the clearest vision of a closed aggressive structure in which vicious neighbours and greedy peasants occupy a lower point on the same human scale as commissars and autocrats.
In his notebooks Simenon writes that 'man has lost his purity, which, if I were pushed to the wall, I might finally call an animal one'. He adds that he prefers the cruelty of purity to the cruelty that succeeded it, conscious and studied. Here at least he agrees with Greene, even though his dislike for 'so-called problems of conscience' keeps them generally apart. In another note on the similarity of behaviour between novelists and their characters, he suggests that Dostoyevsky is the prototype of the people he describes, and that Greene creates a novel from what he considers his guilt and unworthiness. He says nothing about himself, but the man who makes his house in Switzerland a fortress against the world and a private independent country, seems closest to the fears of his outsiders.
Was there any serious reason behind his anxiety? No. Nothing extraordinary had happened. No threat was hanging over him... Anyway, the feeling was not strictly anxiety, and he could never have said exactly when it took possession of him, this anguish and unrest that seemed the result of an imperceptible loss of equilibrium. In Le Coup de Lune (1933, translated as Tropic Moon), Joseph Timar arrives on a boat from France at. Libreville, the capital of Gabon. In the 1930s this country on the west equatorial coast of Africa was still a French protectorate. Timar finds himself suddenly abandoned on an empty quay, surrounded by the total blackness of an African night. It is not the immediate situation that affects him, but the image of solitude it implies.
Another avatar, he has no idea where he really is. Nothing is quite real or clear. On the surface he may be satisfied with his place in society, or at least not seriously frustrated by it. He may be single or married, and his age can vary from twenty-three to fifty. For no apparent reason he has moments of emotional vertigo. Events will justify the warning.
The job that Timar has been promised by a French company fails to materialize, and he's stranded in a seedy tropic hotel. The drift of its life corresponds to his own. Subconsciously ready for disaster, he falls for the owner, a lenient and sensual Frenchwoman called Adèle. They get married, and she takes him on a long journey upriver through the jungle to a plantation that she intends to buy. He gradually discovers that Adele's casual good nature and easy sexuality disguise a life based on murder and fraud. But the African 'quality of darkness' overwhelms him. He starts to drink heavily, contracts fever, sinks into an indifferent passive role. When they return to Libreville, a young native is on trial for the murder Adèle committed. The judge is Adèle's lover, the proceedings a colonial parody of justice. Timar watches in a daze of fever and alcohol and recovers for an instant to denounce his wife. Then he retreats into stupor. On the boat back to France he has his first attack of 'moonstroke', talking to himself in an attempt to erase the journey upriver, Adèle's disintegration, France, Africa itself. Africa proves the hardest to forget, and he repeats for fifteen minutes, 'There is no Africa', until everything dissolves into a kind of non-existence.
The novel's texture is exceptionally dark and oppressive, black instead of Simenon's usual grey. Yet for all its power the colour is not strictly local. The primitive background exists for Adèle to stain with her ordinary universal greed, and the same drama of murderer-into-victim recurs. Equatorial heat and jungle contribute to Timar's collapse, but the collapse had begun before he arrived. After his job falls through, he feels homesick and thinks about returning to France. Then he looks at a boat in the harbour and has no desire to leave, even though he's bored. 'He had a need to feel listless and disgusted...' Passivity has its own will, and Simenon finds a subtly predestined quality in Timar's transition from a vaguely hopeful, vaguely uneasy young man on a dark and empty quay to the moonstruck figure telling himself that nothing ever happened.
The circumstances are entirely different but the state of unresolved drift remains the same for Lhomond in Les Témoins (1955, The Witnesses). A middle-aged judge in a French provincial town, he has allowed himself to be tyrannized for years by an invalid wife. An upcoming murder trial fills him with sudden anxiety. (A trial in Simenon's novels is always a social autopsy as well. It divides everyone into accusers and accused.) At first Lhomond tells himself he's caught the flu, but as the trial proceeds he feels a mysterious sympathy with the man accused of murdering his wife. The issue is not the prisoner's guilt or innocence, but the way his situation releases Lhomond's terrible hatred of his own wife. The judge recognizes his affinity with the accused, and the pattern extends to witnesses, lawyers, jurymen. The prisoner's background happens to be squalid, but as Simenon reveals a network of secretly crossed lives, several people with murder in their hearts are on the respectable side of the fence. As in Chez Krull the murder remains unsolved but its mystery lodges in a number of lives.
After the prisoner's acquittal, Lhomond murmurs to himself, 'I wonder... He looks at the man in the dock, and the sense of complicity becomes mutual:Lhomond was fascinated and couldn't take his eyes off him; he had the impression of something mocking, almost pitying, in the smile so obviously directed at him...Then he returns home to learn that his wife has just died, and with a guilty sense of relief congratulates himself on his innocence. Ironic and virtuoso, Les Témoins offers yet another twist. With no one to hate, Lhomond feels the panic of loneliness and resolves to marry again.
Both Dimanche (1959, Sunday) and La Chambre Bleue (1964, The Blue Room) are also constructed like perfect traps. But the plot mechanisms show more than ingenuity. They are bait for the unwary and a reminder that emotional drifters create their own pitfalls. Emile in Dimanche decides to poison his wife. He thinks it's because he's fallen deeply in love with a maid working at their hotel, but as he plans the murder he becomes infatuated with crime as a secret gesture of self-liberation. Too engrossed with the details of his skill to notice Berthe's suspicions, he's unable to prevent himself being tricked. His wife suddenly invites the girl to lunch in the hotel dining-room and hands her the plate of arsenic risotto. Simenon finishes the story in less than a page, but packs it with a series of appalling reversals. Naturally Emile's first reaction is panic. Then, as he realizes he must either give himself away or let the girl die in a couple of hours, he feels no emotion at all. 'She belonged to the past... His wife reminds him that he wanted to go to a football match that afternoon, and the casual remark is a signal that she's in charge of the whole situation:She would see to everything. It was better that way. When he came back, it would all be over.
Nothing would have changed very much, anyway, since they'd never stopped sleeping in the same bedroom.
Rather than admit that Emile wanted to kill her, Berthe will arrange for the crime to look like an accident. She has also eliminated a rival. Emile will continue to wish he didn't belong to her, and to wonder where he really belongs, while the memory and hope of a bloody Sunday gradually recedes.
In La Chambre Bleue, emotional indecision is even more cruelly baited. Tony and Andrée, both married, are having an affair. On his side there is only physical passion, but on hers a total devouring love. When he hesitates to get a divorce, Andrée executes a double murder by poison his wife, her husband. Their affair is revealed and Tony fails to convince the police or the court that he wasn't implicated. Both are sentenced to life imprisonment. Throughout the novel, which moves with intricate skill between past and present, Tony is haunted by a question that Andrée asked him: 'Wouldn't you like to spend the rest of your life with me?' To please her, he answered casually, 'Of course.' At the end of the trial, with a mesmerizing smile of 'love triumphant', she reminds him of it.
Andrée is the most spectacularly decisive woman to take charge of an undecided man, invading him with an orgiastic possessiveness. Berthe rules by frigid shrewdness, Lhomond's wife by the power of being bedridden, and Adèle by the power of sex. The captive nature seeks out the most suitable captor, but although the weak need the strong, the strong destroy their pride. The end for the strong is control, whatever the means. The end of the weak is rebellion, however long they hesitate. It is another no exit situation, like the outsider's solitary despair, that almost inevitably dissolves in violence. Lhornond only escapes because his wife dies from natural causes and removes a temptation. In one of his most extraordinary novels, L'Homme au Petit Chien (1964, The Man with the Little Dog), Simenon uses a completely subjective approach to this kind of struggle. He achieves the paradox of a Chekhovian story, as the title implies, about a murderer.
Felix Allard is an ageing recluse who lives in a poor quarter of Paris with his mongrel dog, and works in a second-hand bookstore. He has been contemplating suicide for some time. He begins keeping a notebook, a mixture of reminiscence and observation through which he hopes vaguely to save himself. The facts of his life emerge indirectly, not always in chronological order. He mentions that he committed a murder, and later that the victim was his wife's lover, but implies that the crime was not sexual. His character builds up in the same jigsaw-puzzle way, melancholy, ironic, self-deprecating. An intelligent parasite has improvised his life from failure to failure, never admitting the truth to himself. The girl he marries is deceptively modest and compliant. Since he needs her desperately, his instinct is to be possessive, but her own instinct for false respectability and material success proves much stronger. She finally pushes him to a business speculation that ends in collapse. He kills her lover after finding them together and the judge sentences him to a few years' imprisonment for crime passional. But Allard's real motive has nothing to do with jealousy. He overheard the lover call him a conceited failure:There behind the door, I knew that I'd just heard the truth. I had got it, as they say, straight between the eyes.Written down years after the event, the truth seems less unbearable. Allard flushes his barbiturates down the toilet and takes his dog out for a walk in the rain. He is run over by a bus and killed.
Only, he had no right to speak it. He had no right to rob me of my dignity and my self-respect. Nobody has the right to do that...
Simenon's best work, with its combination of suspense and inevitability, and its engraved bleakness, always makes a poetic effect. L'Homme au Petit Chien is rare in superimposing a kind of watercolour charm, tender as well as acid. It is keyed to an autumnal account of the loneliness and mystery of a failed life on the fringes of an indifferent city. Allard's encounters with other people create a community of the afflicted: a pair of hideously crippled lovers, the ancient bookstore proprietress as reclusive as himself, with her dyed hair, sharp intuitions and erotica sold under the counter. 'We all steal lives, or pieces of lives,' Allard reflects, 'to feed our own lives.' The man who drove him to violence stole his life, not his wife. When Allard comes out of prison, he can only centre his affections on a dog. Rescued from the pound, it is sent back there after Allard's death, a stray like its owner. La Prison (1968, The Prison) ends this cycle with a return to the baited plot and the device of a murder setting off guilt mechanisms in someone who didn't commit it. Alain Poitaud edits a slick illustrated weekly and is part of the fashion aristocracy of Paris. His wife shoots her sister, confesses, but obstinately refuses to discuss the motive. She also refuses to have anything more to do with her husband. Stunned as much by her rejection as by her crime, Poitaud begins to search for a clue. He ends with a total indictment of his own life. Simenon's portrait of the swinging pacesetting scene makes La Prison one of his rare 'contemporary' stories. As Poitaud loses his cool, Simenon's own cool becomes more incisive and deadly. The inner mystery is not why Jacqueline shot her sister but why her action is going to kill Poitaud as well, stripping him naked and exposing him as a man of imaginary feelings.
The hollow man, his freedom as false as respectability, is finally mirrored in his own glossy weekly with its 'in depth' pretensions. Choosing a particular sycamore tree into which to crash his expensive sports car, Poitaud remains an image-maker even at the moment of suicide. Like Allard, he has to admit that he's 'blank as an empty page'. The same moment of blankness confronts Emile in Dimanche when he can feel nothing about the girl he's accidentally poisoned, and Tony in La Chambre Bleue when he's unable to be honest with his wife or his lover. For criminal or victim, violence in these novels fills an empty space.
The psychotic, of course, is an outsider who doesn't realize it. As a serial or mass murderer he recurs in several Maigrets and in a gripping minor novel called Les Fantômes du Chapelier (1949, The Hatter's Ghosts). Simenon's recurring point is that a man displaced from reality, however wild and unconnected his actions may appear, follows a rigid interior logic. The hatter feels impelled to explain this by writing anonymous letters to a newspaper: 'No, sir, there is no madman. Don't talk about things you don't understand.' The inhabitants of La Rochelle are terrified by a series of murders that seem completely unrelated, the hatter performs a necessary task. After killing his hateful invalid wife and burying her body in the cellar, he behaves as if she's still alive and too depressed, as usual, to see anybody. Then he realizes he has to cover his tracks by murdering a few people who always visit her on Christmas Eve. The ending carries a curious echo of Jean in La Veuve Couderc. Having discharged what he calls his final responsibility, Labbe goes to sleep and wakes up to find the police in his room: 'Don't hit me. I'm coming...'
Simenon had written his central work on this subject more than ten years earlier. L'Homme qui regardait passer les Trains (1938, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By) is the first of those definitive, completely astonishing novels that mark certain peaks in his career, like La Neige était Sale, L'Homme au Petit Chien and a few others yet to be discussed. Kees Popinga, an apparently phlegmatic Dutchman, is forty years old, head clerk of a shipping company, husband and father, good amateur chess player. The company goes bankrupt overnight, and the Popinga who walks out of his house next morning is now only disguised as a respectable member of society. In Amsterdam he beats and strangles a woman who refuses to go to bed with him. Reaching Paris in a state of mild exhilaration, he finds himself frontpage news. This is gratifying as well, except that the newspapers refer to him as a madman. He spends his days writing anonymous corrective letters to editors, breaking off to eliminate another woman who offends him. After reading an interview with his wife, who claims that Popinga must have gone out of his mind, he composes his longest reproof.
This letter contains the heart of the novel. Popinga insists that he only began to be a 'normal' man after his first murder. The model employee and family man was a fraud, indifferent to wife, children and responsibilities. The 'real' Popinga is alive and well after discovering a little late in life that 'nobody obeys the law if he can help it.' As for the future, there may or may not be more crimes. Popinga considers himself essentially peaceful, but warns that if the world continues its conspiracy, he will stop at nothing to defend himself.
When the police finally catch up with him, Popinga is declared insane. Committed to a state asylum, he plans to write his memoirs but gets no further than a title: The Truth about the Kees Popinga Case. Then he comments to the psychiatrist, 'There really isn't any truth about it, is there?' The paranoid killer looks in the mirror and sees the image of a completely ordinary person victimized for deciding 'to live as he thinks fit, without bothering about conventions or laws'. Tired of making the same point over and over, he prefers now to spend most of his time asleep. Simenon implies that Popinga the murderous anarchist is certainly more 'real' than the man in a conventional mask who found a guilty release in watching express trains go by. Allowing Popinga to end up happier than he began, he prefigures a favourite idea of the sixties, that madness is the safest state in society as it exists. Popinga is only an extreme example of a familiar experience:'I have put up with forty years of boredom. For forty years I lived like the hungry urchin who flattens his nose against a teashop window and watches other people eat cake. Now I know that cakes are there for anyone with guts enough to go and get them.'Simenon describes the violence inside Popinga in his most chillingly neutral style, and yet arrives at a subtle distortion of reality. The effect is like watching a movie in which the camera remains slightly tilted throughout. An almost imperceptible shift in viewpoint changes the ordinary into the fiercely grotesque.
Routine according to Simenon is a set of habits that people create and accept in order to reassure themselves. To follow standard procedures, to embark on the 'right' career or marriage, is a way of feeling solidarity with the rest of the world. But when it fails to satisfy, it becomes a trap for the solidarity of prisoners instead of free agents. The premonitions begin, twinges of anxiety that are really a longing for surprise or even disaster, any form of rescue. Conscious unease distinguishes the ordinary man of habit from Popinga or the hatter of La Rochelle. Released by accident, the paranoiac tries to dominate the world that enslaved him and never notices the transition. The break from the past seems completely natural, the world his enemy for failing to understand it. But the 'normal' person maps his own struggle. A new choice is also a new danger, and he wonders if he can handle it.
In L'Homme de Londres (1934, translated as Newhaven-Dieppe), Maloin is the avatar of the ordinary prisoner, immediately recognizable by his cage. A night-shift signalman enclosed in a box above the railway lines along the Dieppe quayside, he spends hours of his life in a kind of working isolation ward. The night when the unexpected occurs finds him in a bad humour which he fails to diagnose as a premonition. From his box he watches passengers disembarking from a ship. Two men remain on deck. A struggle begins. One of them throws a small suitcase overboard. A moment later, the other kills him, then leaves the ship.
Instinctively, Maloin neither calls for help nor reports the incident. He retrieves the suitcase instead and finds it packed with English banknotes. Gripped by a criminal impulse that he can't sustain, he hides the case and tries to decide what to do next. He behaves strangely and guiltily enough to arouse the suspicions of the man from London, the murderer searching for the case, and ends by accidentally killing him. Exchanging the signal-box cell for the prison cell, he lies on his narrow bed and thinks about the dead Englishman. Once again, two lives seem interchangeable. Each has his wife and family, the same kind of house overlooking the English Channel from the cliffs of Dieppe and Newhaven. Each is a victim of the same mysterious force of circumstance, 'the kind that occurs every day: sometimes it's an accident, sometimes a shipwreck, sometimes a crime'. The man from London murdered for money and ended as a victim without money. Maloin tried and failed to become a thief and found himself an involuntary murderer. Both men had the opportunity to break out from an imprisoning routine, and fumbled it. Accident reveals the destiny of failure.
In Lettre à Mon Juge (1947, translated as Act of Passion), a middle-aged doctor writes a long letter to explain another kind of failure. Sentenced to death for strangling his mistress, Alavoine chooses the judge as his confessor. The son of a brutal alcoholic peasant tells how he escaped from his origins to become a small-town professional, then over the years fell unsuspectingly into all the middle-class traps, and had to escape again. A cold and arrogant wife kept him in a cage where he felt like a schoolboy afraid of his teacher. He rebels at last by leaving her for an archetypal opposite, promiscuous, coarse, good-natured and gold-toothed. But behind the compulsive liar and whore, Alavoine sees a child in need of a protector. This, of course, becomes his role. When it fails, he blames what he calls 'the Other', the Martine whose impulses overwhelm both of them. The only end to this fatally plausible obsession is to kill 'the Other', and free the Martine he loves, the innocent creature who loves him too. As he strangles her, he even deludes himself that Martine was 'encouraging' him, telling him 'that she willed it, that she had always foreseen this moment, that it was the only way out'.
The power of this novel is based on a favourite Simenon paradox. In spite of his extraordinary life, Alavoine remains an almost pathetically ordinary man. The frustrated romantic disowns convention, but never realizes the convention of his romanticism. When Martine torments him, he blames 'the Other', but 'the Other' is really any human experience that he cannot accept. To idealize is finally to kill. The world will never come up to Alavoine's touchingly simple expectations, and to underline the point he kills himself in prison after finishing the letter.
Elie, the murderer of Crime Impuni (1954, translated as Account Unsettled), inhabits the cage of the unloved. Plain, awkward, intelligent without humour, he makes himself unlovable by anticipating rejection. Most of the novel takes place at a rooming house in Liège in the late twenties, a setting drawn intact from personal memory. When another student takes a room there and quickly establishes himself as the star boarder, the situation becomes reminiscent of Hans and Joseph in Chez Krull. Both are foreigners, a circumstance that only adds to Elie's sense of exile but allows Michel to prove his adaptability. Michel's easy charm masks a cold nature, but the landlady's daughter falls for it, and Elie watches through a keyhole while they make love. Projecting all his disappointment and frustration on Michel, he finds something criminal in the other's happiness, and when the idea of 'crime' leads to the idea of 'punishment', everything becomes clear and simple. He shoots Michel in the face on a deserted bridge at night, and takes a train for Germany.
The scene switches abruptly to Arizona, about twenty-five years later. Elie is now a night porter at a hotel in a town grown up around a mine. The mine is about to change ownership, and a businessman from New York arrives with his entourage. Elie immediately recognizes Michel, but cannot be sure of Michel's reaction, since the face is almost motionless after plastic surgery and the voice sounds 'like water boiling'. The final scenes lead up to one of Simenon's most cruel and perfect surprises. Indifferent as ever to Elie, and too successful to care about revenge, Michel ignores him completely. Elie relives his old frustrations, with the difference this time that he doesn't want to punish Michel but to be punished by him. Rejected even as a victim, he can only shoot Michel again and make sure he kills him.
Jealous or humble, Elie remains the excluded failure. Thumbed down by Michel the popular student, successful lover, rich and powerful businessman, he is driven to violence to gain attention. In his mind it becomes 'a question of justice':If he didn't do something about it, Michel would go on being happy. The moment such a thing became possible, the world no longer had any meaning and a life like Elie's was a kind of monstrosity.A bid for attention also lies behind Professor Chabot's violence at the climax of L'Ours en Peluche (1960, Teddy Bear), even though from the outside his life looks like a prescription for success. A gynaecologist with an expensive private clinic, a wife and children, and a secretary with whom he's having an affair, he is still haunted by a sense of inner failure. Unable at first to define it, he thinks about suicide. To other people he reveals nothing more than the usual signs of overwork. He begins to take a sardonic pleasure in being misunderstood. It reinforces his feeling that an invisible transparent cover surrounds him wherever he goes, and no one can penetrate it. Rather like Emile in Dimanche falling in love with his crime, he is drawn to the idea of suicide in terms of theatre and imagines the effect it will create. In an electrifying last scene he surprises his mistress with a lover and suddenly realizes there's no need to kill himself:Chabot raised the gun, hesitated, not about firing it, but about which target to aim for. The barrel pointed first at one, then at the other. His mind was perfectly clear. It was a long time since he'd felt so lucid.
He could kill them both, but then no one would be left as a witness...
Preferring Viviane for this role, Chabot empties the barrel into her lover's body. The performance is complete. He has found a way to make a sacrificial protest and yet survive as his own star witness. Now people are bound to ask how he really feels, to give him the personal attention he craves instead of taking him for granted as a self-sufficient man. He feels almost eager for the police to arrive.
Short even for Simenon, and daringly understated, L'Ours en Peluche focuses on one man during one day, although it shifts between memory and speculation in Chabot's mind. A fable about the 'inexplicable' crime that turns out to be chillingly simple, it belongs on Simenon's upper range. Sometimes, it suggests, a man gets killed by pure accident even though the gun has been aimed at his body. For Chabot is not in the least jealous. He has no apparent 'reason' to kill himself or anyone else. But the only way to break his infallible success-image is to create a disaster. The final angle of the revolver is as coincidental as the winning number in roulette.
Three other exceptional novels connect with L'Ours en Peluche in their analysis of solitary lives trying to break out of a routine. In Une Vie Comme Neuve (1951, A New Lease of Life) and Le Chat (1967, The Cat), violence remains in the wings. The bachelor accountant of the earlier work is drowning in monotony. He comes up for a breath of air by embezzling petty cash and following his weekly visit to a prostitute with a visit to the confessional. His premonitions of disaster are confirmed when he's run over by a car, but a freak of circumstance turns accident into opportunity. A season in hospital becomes a transition from one world to another, and he emerges with a better job and an amiable affectionate wife. Then he begins to miss the habit of frustration. Again with no 'reason', he slips back into the old round of guilt the prostitute and the confessional and creates a climate of unresolved domestic hatred. This hatred is the starting point of Le Chat, in which two people have remarried in middle age out of loneliness, and find loneliness side by side even more desperate. They strike at each other through their pets. Believing that Marguerite has poisoned his cat, Emile mutilates her parrot. Refeathered and stuffed, it returns to its cage as a grisly silent comment on a silent marriage, for after this episode the two antagonists never speak to each other. Communication is reduced to an exchange of cryptically insulting notes. Then Marguerite dies and Emile has to endure the bereavement of a lost hate. Its anguish brings on a heart attack.
Chabot in L'Ours en Peluche substitutes murder for suicide. Dudon in Une Vie Comme Neuve substitutes guilt for pleasure. Emile substitutes hate for love. The appalling protagonist of La Cage de Verre (1971, The Glass Cage) combines all three substitutions. Like many of Simenon's later novels, beginning with L'Ours en Peluche, its stripped and microscopic style creates the impression of a continuous present. From this claustrophobic angle, the past is memory and regret, and the future a hope of emotional jailbreak. Emile of La Cage de Verre spends his working life as a printer's proof-reader in a glass-walled booth, and his life outside it equally segregated from the human race. Embedded in routine like Simenon's other middle-class solitaries, Emile is different because he doesn't resent it. What he resents is any interference with it. The world beyond his cage is peopled by Them, hostile or contemptible. He marries for the convenience of having someone to cook his meals. Finding a woman lonely enough to accept him, he discourages any attempt at intimacy. Forced to listen to his sister's domestic problems, he grows impatient and remote. When her husband commits suicide he cannot summon a trace of pity. Migraine headaches eventually compel him to see a doctor, who probes his refusal to feel. Emile admits with his usual dryness:'There are moments when I hate the whole world'Finally a new neighbour puts her head inside his cage, a silly compulsive flirt whose attraction Emile is reluctant to admit and unable to explain. She suggests a secret meeting, then tells him it was a joke. Emile returns home feeling oddly pleased that for once he has a piece of news to tell his wife: 'You know, I've killed her...'
He did not go on with his sentence.
He muttered almost inaudibly:
'What difference is there between you and other people?'
'I don't know.'
'Are you jealous?'
'Is your wife unfaithful to you?'
'I'd be surprised if she were. She'd have difficulty finding a lover.'
The doctor did not press him further.
Without the trigger of this petty deception, Emile would probably have killed his wife. He bore her no personal grudge, but sooner or later she would have disturbed his equilibrium. (She almost did so once by persuading him to take a holiday for the first time. He had terrible headaches.) Aware since childhood that he is the kind of person who arouses uneasy curiosity, but never love, Emile looks for a sanctuary against Them and finds his cage. So long as They keep their distance, he keeps his painful equilibrium, but when Lina foolishly disturbs it she embodies Them, the promise he avoids because he dreads the humiliation of seeing it broken.
Grey on grey, spare and unsparing in its portrait of a man who feels that he was born under a curse of misunderstanding and isolation, La Cage de Verre prefigures Simenon's decision to give up writing novels a year later. Soon after finishing it, the dizzy spells from which he's been suffering for some time grow longer and more severe. He enters a clinic for treatment. Emile's headaches suggest a parallel to the spells, just as his glass cage reflects the process of 'depersonalizing' himself, as Simenon has called it, in writing a novel. In the Paris Review interview in 1953 he was already describing the strain induced by his method of writing, of total entry into another person's skin. It became almost unbearable after a week 'one of the reasons my novels are so short'. Before starting each novel he would have a medical check-up, and sometimes the doctor would suggest that he rationed himself to only two more novels for the next six months. In the Maigrets written during the sixties, the detective thinks increasingly about retirement and his wife has an instinct that he needs the reassurance of 'everyday life'. During the same period, Simenon also begins keeping his notebooks, originally not intended for publication but appearing in 1970 as Quand j'éais vieux (When I Was Old). One note speaks for many: 'Novel finished. I reenter life.' A few years later, when the final decision has been made, he speaks of a deliverance, of 'returning to my own body, into my own life'.
Another recurring theme of the notebooks is family life as an essential sanctuary. Simenon even implies that the bachelor or bohemian artist is somehow 'incomplete. Yet his novels show people crippled by domestic hatreds. Chabot in L'Ours en Peluche feels totally estranged from his children. Novembre (1969, November), an ominous minor work of the period, contains a particularly dark view of the family unit: Laure only begins to feel close to her mother after discovering she's committed a murder. Simenon's personal affection for his family seems also an affection for the idea of it, for its quality of reassurance. In spite of his novels, the 'normal' can be desirable.
Yet by the time he abandons his profession, this private universe has fallen apart. Simenon writes that his second wife, who managed all his business affairs, was the only woman for whom he felt total love, unique closeness as well as physical attraction. During the sixties she had a series of nervous crises terminating in a crucial breakdown. The ex-novelist became a solitary man after all, selling the great house and estate newspaper advertisements stressed that it would make an excellent international corporation centre and moving to an apartment in Lausanne.
Perhaps Simenon was born with an affinity for exile, the father from Brittany, the mother from the Walloon French-speaking minority of Belgium, the Germans occupying Liège when he was eleven, the father's death, the severed maternal cord when he moved to Paris at twenty, the intense exploration of other countries and lives, and a second term of German occupation. In 1945 he broke out of his environment again to live in the United States for ten years, where he also broke the habit of heavy drinking and began to write on tea, then coffee. The decision to settle in Switzerland, with its established community of exiles, completes a pattern of what he's called 'reality making way for new reality'. In his notebooks he suggests that a man has more than one past, and his life is a series of them.
In spite of so many arrivals and departures, no break occurs in the continuum of the novels themselves. By the middle 1930s Simenon has fixed his sights on a kind of silent counter-culture. When he writes, 'There are no criminals', he proposes crime as the individual expression of a universal discontent, the act of violence that breaks the long period of quiet pressure. Until the gun is fired and the knife drawn, the counterculture passes as part of the ordinary culture, for Simenon's murderers and suicides are clerks, small businessmen, railway workers, doctors, struggling students, housewives, secretaries, hatters, building contractors. Very occasionally they rise as high as a sucessful magazine editor or surgeon. Whatever their situation, material gain is the least of their motives. On the contrary, they are trying to articulate their hostility to the present stage of material evolution. The human mechanism reacts most violently to a threat, and Simenon's counterculture reacts to the threat of a huge expanding society that overwhelms the individual. Yet being an individual is not a question of being different from other people. Most of these protagonists want to be 'ordinary', but find it impossible when the ordinary has been levelled down to its most negative aspects frustration, exclusion, insignificance. They need a sense of community, but not the community of disappointment.
Simenon has spoken of all his characters as 'brothers', which explains why in the long view they sometimes seem to blur into one another. This is really a symptom of their individuality, not its opposite. As members of a silent counterculture, their circumstances and reactions obviously overlap. At the moment of killing or being killed, each one becomes unique. Through Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle found a way to 'remove the roofs', as he expressed it, and reveal a criminal pattern of coincidence, design and cross-purposes. Simenon's novels create the same effect over a period of forty years in the twentieth century. It begins with Adil Bey leaving Batum after falling in love with a woman who tried to poison him, while Timar on board another ship hallucinates himself out of Africa and the memory of a criminal wife. Then Maloin hides the suitcase filled with stolen money and sets a course that will end in involuntary murder, Popinga finds himself as a paranoid killer, Hans discovers the girl's body in the canal, Jean cracks the skull of the widow Couderc. Paris in the sixties contains several people who could have passed each other in the street: Allard living alone with his dog and thinking about suicide, Poitaud the magazine editor moving unconsciously closer to it, Chabot at the last moment committing murder instead, Emile and Marguerite at their long silent war after the death of cat and parrot. In the provinces, Emile sleeps side by side with the wife he tried to poison and Andrée makes sure that Tony will never escape her by landing them both in prison. The flow of violence recalls that perpetual offensive and defensive motion that Simenon found in the life of the sea.
If every murderer is also a victim who feels cheated out of his place in life, his actual victim seems to personify the forces that cheat him. In Crime Impuni the existence of a happy man becomes unforgivable to an unhappy one, in La Veuve Couderc the emotional demands of Tati strike at Jean's lost capacity to feel, in Lettre à Mon Juge 'the Other' Martine destroys Alavoine's idea of love as total fulfilment, in L'Homme au Petit Chien his wife's lover forces Allard to recognize a lifetime of failure. In his notebooks Simenon writes that 'everyone struggles so hard to exist', and in his novels he shows the other side of the struggle, the need to destroy. His characters never seem more brotherly than when they break with the past and echo each other's idea of murder as 'the only way out'.
In a novel called Les Anneaux de Bicetre (1963, translated as The Patient), a man goes into hospital and begins to review his life. Ten years later, in a clinic in Lausanne, Simenon does the same thing. The fictional patient is a rather disappointing character. Unlike Simenon's more passionate creations, he gets no further than a hope of somehow patching his life together. But the novelist patient behaves like one of his fictional 'brothers' when they commit a murder and also murder the past. By the time he leaves the clinic, Simenon has found 'the only way out' for himself. He murders his past as a novelist by declaring that his novels mean nothing to him any more. With a further imaginative replay, he breaks into yet another new environment. 'The naked man' he now confronts, directly and in private, is himself.
- Carvel Collins, Interview (in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, The Viking Press, New York, 1958).
- John Raymond, Sirnenon in Court (Fernhill House, New York, 1968).
- Roger Stephane, Le Dossier Simenon (Robert Laffont, Paris, 1961).
* Leopold and Loeb, wealthy Chicago youths who murdered for thrills in the 20s. Defended by Clarence Darrow, they were the subject of Meyer Levin's (1956) bestselling novel, Compulsion, and Hal Higdon's (1976) Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century. <ST>