Georges Simenon's detective is one of literature’s most exceptional characters. Or, rather, one of literature’s most unexceptional characters: the most exceptional unexceptional.
Pietr the Latvian
Translated by David Bellos
Penguin Classics, 176pp, £6.99
Born in Saint-Fiacre par Matignon, deep in the Auvergne, the heart of France, he is around 45, lives in Paris, is married but childless, a pipe smoker, gruff, uncomplicated, the sort of man who likes to relax with a glass of beer and his own thoughts for company. He wears a well-cut suit, a bowler hat and an overcoat with a velvet collar. Greying dark-brown hair, a poorly knotted tie and a taste for good, plain food. Big, broad-shouldered, proletarian, he stands with a boxer’s stance, feet wide apart, forever dependable, immovable and there. He looks like Jean Gabin. Or Rupert Davies. Michael Gambon. Michel Simon. Handsome-strange. Beautiful-ugly.
He is, of course, Jules Amédée François Maigret, the creation of Georges Simenon and one of literature’s most exceptional characters. Or, rather, one of literature’s most unexceptional characters: the most exceptional unexceptional. Most of the great characters in literature are like great “characters” in life – florid, flamboyant, attention-seeking – and many of them clearly suffer from some kind of neurosis, or terrible anxiety, or fatal flaw, kink, twist, weird problem, or secret thwarted ambition or desire, or, indeed, some more severe form of psychiatric disorder. Take, for example, Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, Holden Caulfield, Emma Bovary, Macbeth, Ibsen’s Nora, even little Bertie Wooster. There are few great characters in literature who are undeniably and delightfully dull and yet who also possess true negative capability, who are entirely possessed of themselves. Maigret is the first among very few equals.
He is also one of the few detectives in literature who seem to be possessed of characteristics not shared by their creators. In a sense, G K Chesterton was Father Brown and Agatha Christie was Miss Marple. Dashiell Hammett was a quarter Sam Spade and three-quarters the Continental Op. Yet Simenon was not Maigret; instead, he was almost the exact opposite. Where Simenon was promiscuous, Maigret is uxorious. Where Simenon was self-promoting, Maigret is self-effacing. Where Simenon was swift, Maigret is slow.
If Simenon were the analysand, then Maigret would undoubtedly be the therapist. He is the detective as patient listener and quiet observer, the Carl Rogers commissaire. The outcome of his investigations often seems irrelevant: Simenon rarely planned or outlined his novels and he hated to revise. The books are about their process, not about their conclusions. Maigret is not so much an instrument of the law as a redresseur de destins, a silent fixer, a rectifier, a mender of destinies. He works both by intuition and by logic – with mercy and with a sense of justice. He is the perfect father. An apophatic god.
According to Simenon’s account, Maigret came to him one morning in 1929, while he was sitting in a café by a Dutch canal. “Had I drunk one, two or even three little glasses of schnapps and bitters? In any case, after an hour, feeling rather sleepy, I began to see the powerful and imposing bulk of a gentleman emerging, who it seemed to me would make an acceptable detective-inspector.”
Simenon had perhaps enjoyed more than a couple glasses of schnapps and bitters that morning, for his memory is certainly at fault. There was no sudden puff of smoke by the side of a Dutch canal. Rather, Maigret seems to have emerged from the mists of Simenon’s imagination slowly, pensively, ploddingly and over time.
In 1929, Simenon was already a successful author. He had started work at the age of 15 as a junior reporter on his local newspaper, the Gazette de Liège, and in his twenties he had published more than 100 of what he called his romans alimentaires, pulp romantic and adventure novels, which he wrote under various pseudonyms and at incredible speed. (At his peak of pulp productivity, in 1928, he produced no fewer than 44 novels, many of them written in a matter of days.)
In the 1930s, he started writing what he called his romans durs, his literary novels, the most distinguished of which – L’Assassin (1937), L’Homme qui regardait passer les trains (1938), La Veuve Couderc (1942) – were masterpieces of psychological intrigue. The Maigret books bridge the two extremes of his career but have eclipsed all else in reputation and renown. When he died in 1989, France Soir announced on its front page, “Le père de Maigret est mort”.
A Maigret-type figure first looms out of the fog in one of Simenon’s pulp novels, written under the pseudonym Christian Brulls, L’Amant sans nom (1929), which features an “agent No 49”, a detective possessed of “calm, cold patience” and a pipe. In Une Ombre dans la nuit (1929), there is a character called Maigret who is a doctor. Commissaire Maigret first appears in Train de nuit (1930) and then again in La Maison de l’inquiétude, published in serial form in 1930. All of the elements slowly came together, like an actor haphazardly assembling a character, from prop to prop and tic to tic to the final full performance: first the pipe, then the coat, the hat, the beers, the heavy hands, the calm.
Simenon was clearly aware that with Maigret he had created something special – or at least something that he could make into something special. He was willing for the first time to attach his own name to his productions; this was his chance to break out of the pulp fiction ghetto. And he broke out in style. To launch Maigret upon the world, he organised what he called a bal anthropométrique, an “anthropometric ball”. On 20 February 1931, at a nightclub at 33 Rue Vavin, near the Luxembourg Gardens, 1,000 guests gathered to celebrate Simenon’s new creation. On arrival, they were met by a film crew from Fox Movietone – paid for and arranged by Simenon. Inside, the nightclub had been decorated with lurid images of handcuffs and bloody corpses and Simenon apparently spent most of the evening prominently seated, signing copies of his books: this was publishing as spectacle. (He had only just failed to pull off a previous, even more spectacular publicity stunt: in 1927, he had agreed to be locked in a glass cage, to spend seven days writing a novel for serialisation in a new newspaper, Paris-Matinal. The paper folded before Simenon made it inside the cage but the word of mouth was priceless.)
In financial terms, Simenon’s move to Maigret was a great success. In 1925, his earnings were 42,671 francs. In 1929, they were 135,460 francs. By 1931, they were 310,561 francs. By the mid-1930s, he was earning about a million francs a year. The figures matter: Simenon is one of the few serious writers whose achievements can be counted in numbers, a writer with a quantitative career, as well as qualitative achievements.
There were 193 novels written under his own name; 200 others written under 20 or so pseudonyms; 75 Maigret novels; four autobiographies; 21 volumes of memoirs. An average of four to five books a year; 80 pages a day; two weeks to write a book. At his death, world sales stood at more than 500 million copies in 55 languages, written in a vocabulary of no more than 2,000 words. And he claimed to have made love to 10,000 women.
“Excess was his watchword,” writes Pierre Assouline, the author of Simenon: a Biography (1997). Patrick Marnham, in The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret (1992), puts it plainly: “Most people work every day and enjoy sex periodically. Simenon had sex every day and every few months indulged in a frenzied orgy of work.”
This orgiastic exuberance, this extraordinary dedication, characterised both Simenon’s personal and his professional lives. “I would like to dedicate what follows,” he announced, in a programme about Balzac, “to all those who write novels for pleasure or out of vanity or in the hopes of an easy living, to those who invite us to share their ideas and their little adventures and also to [those] who imagine that the novelist’s trade is a trade like any other . . . I would like to show them that it is, on the contrary, a vocation, a renunciation, if not a sickness and a curse.”
Penguin is now honouring Simenon’s spirit of excess with what seems like a lunatic project. It is publishing all 75 of the Maigret novels, one a month, in order and newly translated, over the next few years. It is the kind of project of which Simenon would heartily have approved.
The venture begins with Pietr the Latvian (Pietr-le-Letton), first published in May 1931: the book that Simenon claimed was the first true Maigret. Though the plot lumbers and lurches, all of the essential elements are there: the familiar, warming iron stove in Maigret’s office at the headquarters of the police judiciaire; Mme Maigret at home doing the cooking; a long, slow chase, with the emphasis on the why rather than the whodunnit; and much drinking of beer.
Like Simenon, Penguin has not stinted. This is not a gimmick but a serious enterprise. Pietr the Latvian is translated by David Bellos,one of the world’s greatest translators. The next book to be published in the series is a translation of The Late Monsieur Gallet (M Gallet décédé) by Anthea Bell, another of the world’s greatest translators. After that is The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien), translated by Linda Coverdale.And so on.
This sort of quality and commitment is a long way from Simenon’s treatment at the hands of his previous English translators, notably Geoffrey Sainsbury. As Pierre Assouline notes, “From the very beginning Sainsbury freely altered names, psychological profiles, details and even plot elements when he considered them inappropriate, implausible or contradictory. The results of his ‘re-creation’ were duly submitted for the author’s approval, which was always forthcoming. And for good reason: Simenon did not understand a word of English.”
The good news is that Simenon is now available to be read by anyone who does not understand a word of French.
Ian Sansom’s books include “The Norfolk Mystery” (Fourth Estate, £14.99)