What's new this season? Simenon, as usual. This has gone on since the 1930s. With him we have a contract of trust with no time limit. Why?
Nice, January 2003. A school of journalism. The students are all between the ages of 18 and 20. Most of them have read Simenon and come to him by way of television. Simenon, for you? "Profundity beneath simplicity." It would be hard to put it better. Simple, Simenon? The severe apprenticeship of the serial. After reading his very first pages, a bit too flowery, the great Colette gave him this recommendation: "Above all, don't do literature!" Since that day, if he wants to say that it's raining, he will write: "It's raining." A poor vocabulary? Deliberately reduced to 200 <sic> words. It creates a style: few adjectives; some precise "material words," concrete and round, like the objects, atmosphere, feelings, and impressions they describe; the rare adverb, always well-placed, like an arrow to the center of the target. In a Simenon, there is never a word that sends us to the dictionary. No erudite reams to impress the reader, no postmodern length, no stodgy Umberto Eco tendency for him. The university sneers. It always sneers when it can't get its spidery scrawl onto the textual body of its victims. That is fortunate: Simenon hated prefaces, critiques and analyses of his work.
Simenon and the critics? For three quarters of a century they have criticized him for writing like the man in the street. But his genius is precisely that he is the only one to do so. Gide, Faulkner, Camus, Graham Greene, Walter Benjamin and so many others saw it immediately. This writing, which supports translation so well, has gained him nearly as many readers as the Bible, Mao or Lenin, 1.4 billion volumes sold on the planet, including 853 million Maigrets. But is it merely this fluidity, this ease of reading that attaches us to him? Station-novels that last us the duration of a Paris-Marseille trip on the TGV, which fill the Relay Hachette kiosks? Our unconditional passion for Simenon derives from something else.
Chief comforter of bruised souls
On the structure of his novels? "Detective stories," affirms one of the students, who has only read some Maigrets. "Not always," retorts another. "That structure is present, but often vague." A third, mentioning the discontinuity of Betty, "The action doesn't advance in a linear way, but often by flashbacks... and feelings override events." Even with Maigret, who fills close to 80 novels with the smoke of his pipe, the rigor derives more from the characters than the story. An exception, the early The Yellow Dog, which finds Maigret confronted in Concarneau by a colleague keen on scientific methods, has long been considered a model detective story. But having adapted eight of his novels, including five Maigrets, I can testify that after reading one of his works, it's quite a job to mold a semblance of a main theme onto the narrative.
To captivate us with a clever plot, some infernal device, an amusing puzzle? Innumerable authors of detective novels and thrillers, from Agatha Christie to John Grisham, from Mary Higgins Clark to Jean-Christophe Grangé, fill this function admirably... period. Simenon is something else. With him we are rather in a "gray" novel, as one of his better specialists, Jean-Baptiste Baronian expresses it, than in a "black" one. So it is not for dramatic and dusky tension, nor for the mechanics of the plot, that we come back, male and female, all generations, to the author of The Cat.
For his characters, then? The class agrees: "Some men and women who could be us, but who are taken to their limits." Well put. Aunt Jeanne is our cousin. Big Bob, an elder brother. The Witnesses are like us, with the same impotence to transcend their poor, small, mediocre human condition. That is what Simenon is: the chief comforter of our bruised souls. And their translator. Rather than to be Georges Simenon, writer, he would have preferred to have been a fishmonger in La Rochelle, a lawyer on the Quai de Bourbon, a farmer in the Southwest, a typographer or physician in short, to live the life of all men. Very early, he gave himself the mission to write the novel of those who, lost in the universe and a hostile society, live but don't think, because they don't have the time nor means, financial or cultural. The intellectual, the artist, the acrobat are rare in his work; their destiny in it is no more favorable...
The duty of the novelist, as Simenon repeated often, is to put himself in our place, to express of each of us the admirable and the shameful, the altruistic and the mean, puffs of tenderness and impulses of hate. For us as for Bébé Donge, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing else. And especially this, not always good to say: "We are all potentially criminals." His master spelunker of souls in perdition: Dostoyevsky. One of his major Maigrets, A Battle of Nerves, is it not Crime and Punishment in Saint-Cloud? His ambition: to paint "the naked man." Broken down, ordinary, pathetic. In transit, from solitude to precariousness, from danger to despair. In Black Rain, The Disintegration of JPG, Banana Tourist or Teddy Bear, we don't meet dandies spending their time in the rest rooms of the Flora cafe straightening their Yamamoto shirts before the mirror. But those who follow the "trade of man," until they pass "to the other side of the turning," as in The Snow Was Black, have gone beyond their limits, in self-disgust, shame, hopelessness. For Simenon, the naked man fears for his skin, not for his image.
Man... and woman? Consider Apostrophes, the 1981 broadcast dedicated to Georges Simenon. Bernard Pivot: "You're quite the rogue with the women!" Replied Simenon, 'the man of 10,000 women,' "I was searching for man, and it was through women that I found him!"
The epic of the "little man," suddenly overtaken by events, daily life lived like a tragedy, is at the center. And our proximity to him. A person like any one of us, meets with a crisis. Sharp. Sudden. Unforeseeable. We go with him. The term of his adventure is near and inescapable. There is rarely a happy ending. It is in this manner that the writer imbues this individual destiny with such tension that, with few exceptions, Simenon feels obligated to write short, and quickly, in a state of emergency close to hypnosis: He finishes off most his novels in two weeks, or in five days, and 150 pages. "Beyond that I am physically unable."
Under pressure, the author is more precise: "My experience is cut up into periods of fifteen days. In every period a novel is entirely composed. The first day, I go for a walk, alone, randomly. ... I sniff the people that pass, make appointments with my characters, present them to each other. I watch. Later, when I go home, I have the starting point, the place and its atmosphere. ... I don't think about it any more. I lie down, go to sleep. I dream. My characters grow in me, without my help. Soon they don't belong to me anymore, they have their own life. The following day and the days after that, I have only to make myself their historian (1)." The historian of the ordinary people. Normal. But normal people don't exist, Simenon shows. His characters generate no sympathy? It doesn't matter they are unforgettable. The author's rule: "to understand, not to judge."
Balzac without the length
Writing accessible to everyone, speed, everyday heroes facing extraordinary situations, is all that enough to explain the influence, the life span of this "tree of books," as the author of Strangers in the House liked to define himself? Chorion, the British society of intellectual property that henceforth possesses the rights to his work, has just commenced a survey of his fame: What does Simenon represent in the 3rd Millenium? Who are his readers? First report: beyond the phenomenon of his nearly monstrous run of productivity 218 official novels, 300 under pseudonyms, short stories, articles, journeys and domiciles by the hundreds the novelist is viewed as an absolute reference of the French-speaking heritage. Our journalism students have once more found the exact formula: "He wrote the Human Comedy of the 20th century." "Balzac without the length," said Marcel Aymé.
One hypothesis to explain this everlastingness: far from his true or supposed modernity, doesn't Simenon embody in our collective unconscious the nostalgia of a France of yesteryear, cozy, fixed once and for all between marble fireplace and house slippers, bœuf miroton and a November drizzle, René Coty and the Belgian Congo, a JS 3 and a Renault Juvaquatre? A safe investment, sure because outmoded? Likely, but simplistic. Reassuring, uneventful, apolitical, dull, urban, postwar... Simenon? That succumbs a little quickly to clichés: The Blue Room opens up on a porno scene, Magnet of Doom (The First Born) ends in a barbarism worthy of a Peckinpah film, The Premier is inspired by Clemenceau. Timeless, his books? The Train evokes the Exodus, Blind Path, the October revolution and the Popular Front. Many of his novels are exotic, without dropping in the Pierre Loti adventurers: the Africa of Aboard the Aquitaine and Talatala, the Galapagos of Ceux de la soif, the Maine of Red Lights, the Ankara of Les Clients d'Avrenos. A curious detail: every time a theme touches Simenon's heart, fatherhood or alcoholism, passion or bogging down, old age or clochards, he tries it out in a Maigret before taking it, in major form, into one of his "hard" novels.
Another observation: not only faithful readers, but an increase everywhere in Europe a rejuvenated readership. In France, a strong sign: Chorion has just renewed a ten year contract with Presses de la Cité, one of the three historic publishers of Simenon, along with Fayard and Gallimard. Publications and reeditions in gusts, praise, all remarkable, various, loving, unexpected (see the bibliography below). The icing on the editorial cake: the entry of Simenon, in May , into the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. A consecration, for this creator who always knew how to make popular rhyme with literary. How many have there been since Dumas?
Responsible for this persistence of Simenon in our memory and our hearts: television. Thanks to that. For the small screen, a Simenon in prime time is a guarantee. The writer's rhythm, his famous 'atmosphere,' pass marvelously to television; for the characters of the man who wrote The Confessional, television is ideal. Does a week go by without a channel airing The Lodger, Mr. Hire's Engagement, In Case of Emergency or The Watchmaker of Everton? At the end of 2002, Arte ran Maigret Sets a Trap, a black and white Jean Delannoy film from 1957 starring Jean Gabin. The audience rating smashed records. Close to 3 million viewers, one of the best audiences for the channel since its creation. Arte is preparing a Simenon Special for the spring... an Audimat ratings explosion in the making. Before that Public TV will offer, on February 21, on France 2, an evening dedicated to the great man of Liège. Preceded by a documentary, The man who wasn't Maigret, an unpublished Maigret, Maigret and the Princess, directed by Laurent Heynemann. (The title of the original novel is Maigret chez les vieillards, but we were quickly led to understand, Pierre Granier-Deferre and I, in making the adaptation, that vieillards 'old men' at 8:50 in the evening, perhaps didn't "glitter"...) Three days later, on the 24th, again on France 2, a jewel, The House by the Canal, by Alain Berliner (La vie en rose). Pure Simenon, rustic, biting, no concessions, nothing picturesque.
Quick, a Simenon!
Television, cinema and Simenon (don't these last two words rhyme?) have a beautiful future again together. John Simenon, one of the writer's sons, who stands guard over the cool temple of his father's work, confides: "Every hour from the four corners of the earth arrives a demand for rights of adaptation. For a novel or a story." Every hour, that makes you dream...
This February 13th, Simenon would have been 100 years old. He has surpassed that. He is eternal. As soon as we tire of perishable bestsellers, of the obligatory discoveries, of the sterile chattering of the Parisian autofiction or philosophers for Club Med... Quick, a Simenon! It's not expensive, it's well furnished and it looks out over the genius, Three Beds in Manhattan.
(1) Simenon, par Pierre Assouline. Folio/Gallimard, 1992.
Translation: Stephen Trussel
Honolulu, June 6, 2005
The 'true' Maigret
With his massive body and black look, Commissioner Guillaume (seated on the right in this unpublished photo) was the principal model for Georges Simenon's hero. The writer met this policeman, head of the criminal brigade, at the very beginning of the 1930s. At his side, the father of Maigret impregnated himself with the atmosphere of 36 quai des Orfèvres, attending cross-examinations, meetings with brigade chiefs and psychiatric evaluations at the Dépôt.
What they've said about him
Surrounded by his wife, Tigy, and Joséphine Baker, in 1927.
Original French of English titles in articleAboard the Aquitaine [45° à l'ombre]
Aunt Jeanne [Tante Jeanne]
Banana Tourist [Touristes de bananes]
Battle of Nerves, A [La Tête d'un homme]
Big Bob [Le Grand Bob]
Black Rain [Il pleut bergère]
Blind Path [Chemin sans issue]
Blue Room, The [La Chambre bleue]
Cat, The [Le Chat]
Ceux de la soif
Clients d'Avrenos, Les
Confessional, The [Le Confessionnal]
Disintegration of JPG, The [L'Évadé]
House by the Canal, The [La Maison du canal]
In Case of Emergency [En cas de malheur]
Lodger, The [L'Étoile du Nord]
Magnet of Doom (The First Born) [L'Aîné des Ferchaux]
Maigret chez les vieillards
Maigret Sets a Trap [Maigret tend un piège]
Mr. Hire's Engagement [Monsieur Hire]
Premier, The [Le Président]
Red Lights [Feux rouges]
Snow Was Black, The [La neige était sale]
Strangers in the House [Les Inconnus dans la maison]
Talatala [Blanc à lunettes]
Teddy Bear [L'Ours en peluche]
Three Beds in Manhattan [Trois Chambres à Manhattan]
Train, The [Le Train]
Trial of Bebe Donge, The [La vérité sur Bébé Donge]
Watchmaker of Everton, The [L'Horloger de Saint-Paul]
Witnesses, The [Les Témoins]
Yellow Dog, The [Le Chien Jaune]
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