In 1927, Georges Simenon, the phenomenally prolific Belgian author of crime novels, helped engineer a publicity stunt that sounds like a forecast of reality TV: He sat in a glass booth and wrote a novel in a week, in full view of the public. Simenon was all but unknown then, a journeyman author of indifferent pulp novelettes under a variety of pseudonyms. The feat made him famous, became the first thing many people knew about him. It was certainly the first thing I ever knew about him—I heard the story from my father, who at the time of the performance was growing up a few miles from Simenon’s hometown of Liège. No one who witnessed the feat forgot it. Pierre Assouline, in his 1997 biography of Simenon, quotes from no fewer than four memoirs by acquaintances of the novelist, recalling the surging crowds, the writer’s concentration, how he did not once look up from his typewriter . . .
The trouble is that the stunt never actually took place. The newspaper that was to sponsor it went bankrupt, and Simenon couldn’t get another to take up the baton. It was just as well—the announcement provoked nothing but jeers: Simenon’s hometown paper lamented that their boy had committed professional suicide; one Parisian columnist went so far as to announce that he would be going armed and taking potshots at the booth. But the damage was done. Simenon was extraordinarily prolific anyway, and the chimerical stunt endowed his reputation for the rest of his life with a tawdry, sideshow aspect. This was not helpful to someone who possessed ferocious high-lit ambitions but worked in a popular genre and came from a lower-class background and a place so far beyond the pale it could not even be called provincial. For the rest of his career, literary arbiters would consider him a performing flea, would “study” him in an attempt to uncover his “secret.” It is only now, with Simenon dead for the better part of two decades, that his work can be separated from the carny barker’s spiel that for so long preceded and engulfed it.
Simenon, who died in 1989, has become current again. In 2003, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, he attained a distinction it is a shame he did not live to see: He was accorded a two-volume set in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, the embodiment of the French canon, from which snobbery had long excluded him. (Not that his position has thereby been rendered secure and uncontroversial.) Over here in the Anglo-Saxon realm, he is being rediscovered once more. He has been known, loved, and kept in print in English for his mysteries starring the implacable Inspector Maigret, and Penguin is reissuing a batch of the earliest Maigret titles in pocket-size volumes with stylish covers featuring Brassaï photographs.
Georges Simenon at the Swiss chateau where he lived from 1956 to 1963.
More pertinently, though, New York Review Books has begun reissuing his non-Maigret novels—eight so far. (Disclosure: I wrote the introduction to The Man Who Watched Trains Go By [1938; all titles in English translation].) These books, which Simenon called romans durs (hard novels) or roman-romans (novel-novels), are not mysteries, although they usually involve crime. They are hard, blunt, frequently punishing studies of human beings driven by circumstance and personality to the ends of their tethers, forcing them to extreme measures. Most of them were overlooked by English-language readers when they first came out; they often had only one printing, or were published in the UK but not in the US, or were never translated at all. Why this should have been is uncertain. Maybe American culture wasn’t ready for them. Today, they appear with the force of revelation, as if they had been unearthed decaying in a warehouse instead of lying in plain sight all these years. Weaned on moral ambiguity, their readers are ready for them. They are acute, compact, remarkably varied, and as lapidary as great pop songs, and there are 117 of them.
Simenon was an odd bird. Famously, two days before starting a novel, he would consult a map of the place where the book was to be set, search through his collection of telephone books for names of characters, and establish the cast— ages, backgrounds, family ties—on the back of a manila envelope. Then he was ready, as he told a Paris Review interviewer in 1955:
On the eve of the first day I know what will happen in the first
chapter. Then, day after day, chapter after chapter, I find what
comes later. After I have started a novel I write a chapter each
day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to
keep pace with the novel. . . . All the day I am one of my
characters. I feel what he feels. . . . And it’s almost unbearable
after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t—it’s impossible. I have to—it’s
physical. I am too tired.
Which is the material explanation, at least, for how he produced so many books. And that was in his relatively leisurely later career, when he issued an average of merely six or seven titles a year. In his apprentice years, before the artistic breakthrough he achieved in the early ’30s, he was impossibly fecund. In 1929 alone, he wrote thirty-four books under a variety of pseudonyms. However, a glance at two or three of them is sufficient to dispel the mystery. They are, unsurprisingly, pulp that might as well have been cranked out by a machine, although he never disavowed them.
Simenon was driven by demons as much as any of his characters are. While he didn’t kill anyone, he sublimated his frenzy into serial compulsions, of which his four-hundredodd books are one example. He also claimed to have bedded more than ten thousand women (mostly prostitutes: Wilt Chamberlain, he wasn’t) and to have used up half a million pencils and several thousand pipes. Part of these compulsions was socially rooted. In the early twentieth century, literature was still in the hands of the gentry, and Simenon was part of the wave of working- and lower-middle-class writers who made their impact through genre fiction, where the pay was so low that a prolific output was necessary for survival. But some of those writers, once they achieved status and a measure of financial stability, slowed down, sometimes drastically. (Witness Dashiell Hammett, who published his last book twenty-seven years before his death.) Simenon continued to write as if his life depended on it. Even after he quit fiction, when he turned seventy, he couldn’t stop. He dictated twenty-one volumes of memoirs and followed those with a volume, not dictated, titled Intimate Memoirs, in 1981. (He had already published at least three earlier written memoirs, and there’s a difference: The written ones try various angles on his story, while the dictées are rants.) He lived eight idle years after that, but by then he was very ill.
Simenon was born in Liège, a city on the Meuse in southeastern Belgium that at the time of his birth was at the height of its prosperity, which derived principally from the steel- and glassworks in the industrial suburbs of Seraing and Jemeppe-sur-Meuse. His family clung to the lower slopes of the middle class—his father was an accountant for a small insurance company but nursed no further ambitions; earlier generations had been artisans. Circumstances were sufficiently meager for his mother to take in lodgers, mostly foreign university students, many of them Russian Jews. The family lived in the old, cozy working-class neighborhood on the island of Outremeuse—Liège’s Brooklyn—although things got tight enough that they were eventually driven across the river to Amercoeur, its Bronx.
Simenon was noted as clever, therefore destined for the priesthood, therefore sent to be educated by the Jesuits. He soon tired of the routine, though, and instead gravitated to the prostitution markets and the seedier cafés. At fifteen, he was hired as a reporter by a conservative Catholic newspaper, the Gazette de Liége, where he learned to write and to write fast. It was also there that, in 1921, he wrote, on assignment, a seventeen-part series on “the Jewish peril.” Meanwhile, he contributed to more ephemeral publications, such as Nannesse, a humor paper that became a blackmail sheet. (It made its money, that is, by quashing embarrassing stories for a price.) The young Simenon hung out with the local bohemians, one of whom was found hanged in the doorway of a church after a night of drinking. In 1931, he turned the story into a novel, Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, that used the actual settings. Two of the editors of Nannesse later became murderers, and Simenon made this, too, into a book: The Three Crimes of My Friends (1938).
Liège, a reduced-scale metropolis (163,298 inhabitants in 1920), gave Simenon the appropriate education for his calling. His upbringing also infused him with the unlimited Walloon taste for scandal, especially morbid scandal, and for all manifestations of the sordid. (The tone of the local press remains to this day pitched somewhere between those of the New York Post and ¡Alarma!) Those Russian Jewish boarders—memory of whom was apparently insufficient to offset the impact of the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—managed to pump quite a bit of Gogol and Dostoyevsky into his bloodstream. Like most writers not born to the purple before fairly recent times, he was an autodidact; the rest of his literary training he picked up, as it were, in the street.
Late in 1922, he made his move, decamping for Paris in the company of his fiancée. He found a job as social secretary to the Marquis de Tracy, a landed aristocrat and minor right-wing ideologue. This both fulfilled a common fantasy of lower-middle-class provincial youths in Belgium—a monarchy with roots a quarter inch deep—and introduced him to a world of salons and theater parties and champagne suppers and countryhouse weekends. He made connections quickly and began writing for the sort of magazines that respectable bourgeois kept in their desk drawers and American tourists smuggled home in their trunks—Le Frou-frou, Paris Flirt, and the like—and soon for the daily Le Matin. Its literary editor was Colette, who famously advised him to excise the “literature” from his writing. By 1924, he was a full-time writer, turning out thin novels—190 of them by 1931—under more than a dozen pseudonyms. Before long, his income was such that he was able to live lavishly, travel extensively, socialize frenetically, and carry on a very public affair with Josephine Baker.
Those novels spanned the genres of the period, including variously risqué romances and variously exotic adventure tales. Crime stories were included but did not predominate. In the late ’20s, though, the art of lawlessness began a major upward trend all over the world. One of the first modern crime movies, Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld, premiered in 1927. The first important “hard-boiled” novel, Hammett’s Red Harvest, was published in 1929. In France, Georges and Joseph Kessel’s delirious weekly true-crime tabloid Détective began publication in 1928. This extraordinary rag (still going, but as the ashes of its former self) played to both ends of the market, with sophisticated Art Moderne layouts, posterlike photographic covers, and, in the early days, pictures of its constituency—flat-capped voyous with dangling cigarettes and matching molls— reading the paper at sidewalk tables. It seldom published fiction, although it ran three series of short stories by Simenon, starting in 1929, that marked his formal entry into crime writing. These stories (collected as The Thirteen Mysteries, The Thirteen Culprits, and The Thirteen Enigmas in 1932) are the only pseudonymous works he subsequently brought out under his own name.
He reserved his patronymic for his mature work, which began with a bang in 1931. While cruising the waterways of Europe aboard his houseboat in 1929, he wrote a story in which Inspector Maigret appeared for the first time, in a secondary role. This set off some kind of spark, and the following year he turned in six Maigret novels to his publisher. The appearance of the first batch (he published thirteen books in 1931, eleven of them Maigrets) he feted with an elaborate “Anthropometric Ball,” at which guests enjoyed the thrill of being treated like criminals—being fingerprinted at the door, for instance. The novels were a sensation, and he published six more the following year. Maigret, at once unflinching and forgiving, saturnine and direct, godlike and utterly ordinary, a representative of the law and an understanding connoisseur of human frailty, struck a chord with the French reading public, which had enjoyed many fictional master criminals but had few significant literary detectives to call its own. In 1933, he issued only one Maigret, however—the other seven books were romans durs. The following year, he again put out only one, ominously titled Maigret, in which he put his inspector out to pasture. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Simenon felt cramped by his celebrated invention. He was also hunting bigger game. He had up to this point enjoyed a mutually satisfactory relationship with his publisher, Fayard, whose imprint he had sported since the pseudonym days and which wrapped his books in jazzy photo covers. But he lusted for the prestige of Gallimard, then as now the most Olympian of French publishing houses, and there mere mysteries would not do. He was in every way undertaking to leap in class.
Simenon had significant champions, notably André Gide, who took copious notes on each of his books and periodically sat him down for lessons. (According to biographer Assouline, Gide considered Simenon a “phenomenon,” whose “secret” the elder writer tried obsessively to “penetrate.”) Another was Florent Fels, editor of the magazine Voilà, who got him into Gallimard, overcoming the resistance of the arbiter Jean Paulhan, who did not think Simenon was house material—he wrote books for the masses, he was Belgian, he was common and uneducated and an obvious climber. Indeed, Simenon was such a climber that after he got in he fretted and lobbied and harangued over the fact that his books were not included in the famous cream-colored série blanche. Eventually, they were, but a perceived lack of respect caused him finally to quit the house after the war.
Simenon’s class background can go only so far in excusing his extraordinary pettiness and grasping egotism, which were to have political ramifications. He was ignorant if not innocent of politics, and his sundry right-wing affiliations in the ’30s had more to do with social insecurity and the example of the Marquis de Tracy than with any actual convictions. When war broke out, he briefly extended himself to assist Belgian refugees; after the Germans invaded France, he was, ironically, suspected of being Jewish (on the grounds that his real last name would have been Simon) and subjected to a lengthy police investigation. Even before this occurred, however, he had quickly and smoothly become a collaborator, among other things signing up with the German-controlled film company Continental. His motives were simple: The Continental contract assured him a comfortable income, as well as a permit to travel between Paris and his country house in the south. He had no particular beliefs, except in the preservation and cosseting of his own skin.
After the Liberation, he was sentenced to house arrest, which was lifted at the request of the Belgian ambassador. A year later, he and his family relocated to Canada, and a year after that to the United States, first to Arizona and then to Lakeville, Connecticut, where he was to spend five years—a very long stretch of uninterrupted domicile for him. Eventually, he went back to Europe, briefly to the south of France and ultimately to the place where prominent artists once went to die: Lausanne, Switzerland. Along the way, he produced a herculean stream of novels and stories, lobbied shamelessly for the Nobel Prize, vetted film and television adaptations of his work, went through two marriages and diverse liaisons, fought and mostly lost libel suits arising from his autobiographical works, and in conjunction with his legal travails made one trip back to Liège, where he was lionized by the entire city as a rare native son made good. Whatever roisterous creature he had been in his younger days, by then he had become a walking statue, rarely photographed without his fedora, trench coat, and pipe, his face an unmoving collection of slits arrayed on an oval.
He was a writer, which is virtually to say that his life is of no interest except in the ways that he was also a crud. Some writers are fine people—some are heroes, lead popular struggles, or save lives at the risk of their own, or at least feed the hungry or shelter the homeless—while a great many are shells, whose finer qualities have been siphoned off into their books. On the basis of his work, you would think that Simenon possessed extraordinary insight into the human condition, with an endless capacity for understanding the fragility of the psyche. (His characters step into his trap from all walks of life, with a wide variety of temperaments; as on Judgment Day, they wind up in identical shrouds.) And he did have that prodigious capacity for entering the minds and souls of others, although he seems to have been able to access this gift only while in the self-induced trance state in which he did his writing. You could probably say much the same thing about Balzac—in both cases, the fiction, which when piled up could actually attain the volume and mass of a human body, walks alongside the author like a conjoined twin, endowed with all the qualities its creator lacks. The corollary is that you can hardly imagine there being room in the average human to hold the contents of that golem, not with the appetites and weaknesses and Saturday nights and Monday mornings that are already there. The compression would be explosive. The work may look like a body, but it contains entire populations.
Simenon wasn’t the first writer to feel impatient with and perhaps a bit jealous of his recurring lead character, but Maigret provides the key to his work. Jules Maigret—large, deliberate, slow moving, taciturn—is a cop, not a sleuth. He does not engage in fancy clue sifting or pyrotechnic displays of ratiocination, and he does not bed clients in low-cut dresses or administer justice with his sidearm. He does, rather often, take the law into his own hands, but when he does, it is usually to let obviously guilty parties go free—there are extenuating circumstances. What Maigret does best is understand human beings. Generally, a crime has been committed, in whatever setting—he is a quintessential Parisian but manages to spend a great deal of his career either following cases out of town or happening upon them while visiting far-flung police departments—and Maigret moves onto the scene, apparently doing little or nothing. He walks around, takes aperitifs and meals with this one and that one, and sends off the odd telegram, while invariably the local powers are frantic over his inertia. What Maigret is actually doing, though, is getting acquainted with all the personalities involved. His impassivity itself sometimes causes the guilty party to jump out of his skin with anxiety, precipitating some stupidity that gives him away, but most of the time he deduces the identity of the killer by thinking like a writer—by inhabiting each of the suspects in turn before deciding on the one who makes the most psychological sense.
The Memoirs of Maigret (1950), which is written in the first person, casts Simenon as a character, a pest tolerated by Maigret, who is secretly flattered by the attention but annoyed at the notoriety the books have brought him and annoyed, too, by Simenon’s constant and unsubtle prying. As a metajoke, it’s a good one—and fairly unusual for crime fiction, especially at the time—but it conceals the peculiar identity of method shared by author and subject. Simenon explained in various essays and interviews that his great discovery had been that most novels are studies of people in their clothing, and that therefore he had resolved to write about the naked human. What he meant was that most fiction belongs to the literature of manners—of status and social dictates and convergence with or deviation from norms—while he wrote about people in extremis, people who are pushed to the point of confronting death, a situation that strips them of all advantages and even of whatever identity they think they possess. Maigret and Simenon are therefore engaged in the same task, although from opposite directions. The policeman works backward, from the crime to the culprit, and Simenon forward, from the human who steps onto the moving sidewalk unavoidably onward to the crime.
It isn’t hard to figure out why the Maigret novels have been so much more successful and beloved and adapted and franchised than the romans durs. Maigret is, generally, an agent of harmony and reconciliation. He can’t bring back the dead, and often he must enforce punishment, but at the same time he clears the names of the unjustly accused, banishes the threats of extortionists, restores peace to shattered communities. The non- Maigret novels, through, proceed inexorably toward disintegration. They usually end with the protagonist headed for the guillotine, or gunned down by authorities, or committing suicide, or falling into the nirvana of insanity. I’ve read maybe forty of them; very few end happily. Two of those few are among those reprinted in the New York Review Books series: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (1946) and Red Lights (1953), both set in the United States, both written in the flush of his second marriage, before it, too, disintegrated. Between them, however, he wrote Dirty Snow (1948), the darkest of all his books, in which whatever was rattling around in his brain at the end of the war, when he was being threatened by the Resistance and the end of his little world appeared imminent, was cathected into a bleak tale of total breakdown, societal as well as personal. There isn’t a grain of comfort in the book; it’s a landscape without a horizon:
Losing his virginity, his actual virginity, hadn’t meant very
much to Frank. He had been in the right place. Others made
it a story they still talked about years later, adding flourishes
like Kromer did with the girl he strangled in the barn.
And for Frank, who was nineteen, to kill his first man was
another loss of virginity hardly any more disturbing than the
first. And, like the first, it wasn’t premeditated. It just happened.
Simenon has traditionally been classed with the serial manufacturers of mysteries, who assign their detectives one problem after another in an endlessly self-renewing process, a glorification not of crime but of drudgery: the novelist as omnipotent employer. He is closer, though, to Balzac’s encyclopedic ambitions, to the positivist notion that all of life can be pinned and mounted in a continuous series of fictional display cases. Simenon, in part on account of his background—the Belgian pessimism and fatalism and guilt and schadenfreude and morbid curiosity—became an encyclopedist of temptation and pain. Every one of his books is a lit window across the air shaft, through which a few people can be observed engaging in the business of everyday life, except that there’s something wrong. You the reader are pulled into the situation, maybe against your better judgment, by an irresistible wish to figure out what exactly is wrong with the picture. And then, helplessly, you witness spiraling chaos. The process is addictive, but it is neither banal nor complacent. Simenon’s genius—his native inheritance, refined into art—was for locating the criminal within every human being. At the very least, it is impossible to read him and remain convinced that you are incapable of violence. Every one of his books is a dark mirror.
Luc Sante’s collection of criticism and essays, Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990–2005, is forthcoming this year from Yeti Publications.