Saturday, July 2, 2011

July in Paris: Georges Simenon and Maigret

If Agatha Christie is the Queen of Crime, Simenon is surely the King. His Inspector Maigret (and his pipe) is one of the most famous detectives in literature. Simenon wrote hundreds of books (often three or four a year), from which over fifty films and television series have been made.

Simenon wrote his first Maigret 'official' novel in 1931 (there were a many anonymous works but he considered them outside the main sequence). His early commercial work was proof read by Collette, who did much to create his style. She urged him to cut adjectives in favor of a sparse, lean prose. Not a word is wasted. ('I have always tried to write in a simple way, using down-to-earth and not abstract words.') Simenon famously wrote his novels in about ten intense days, leaving him physically exhausted. He'd start with a theme, chose a location and then his characters, all before devising a story.

Simenon's focus is human nature. His characters, however fleetingly glimpsed, live and breathe. He looks at them straight on, in all their squalidness, but with pity. As important as his characters is atmosphere of place. Place is so important to Simenon that you can get maps and tours of the locations of his novels. Though born in Belgium, France - and particularly Paris - was his true home.

I've never been a huge fan of his work. I go in expecting a classic mystery and get something else. It's perhaps inevitable that I would compare his work to that of the British authors of the Golden Age. There is no similarity at all! The Golden Age was typified by the problem puzzle. In Simenon's work, mystery isn't the focus. You're not presented with clues and invited to solve whodunit. British mysteries of the same period are genteel affairs, in an upper or middle class milieu. Simenon takes you straight to the gutter. His characters are long time criminals, gangs and prostitutes.

His themes are bigger too - escape, honest communication between individuals ('The fact that we are I don't know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world.'), the 'essential humanity of even the most isolated individual' and the sadness of being human. Not quite Ngaio Marsh!

To kick off Paris in July I'll be starting with two works, Maigret at the crossroads and Maigret and the enigmatic Lett. So far, it's a real treat. It's perhaps a cliche to talk about atmosphere with Simenon but this is fabulous stuff. He does so much with so little. The crime aspect is slightly over the top but I don't mind. We're not here for a mystery. We're here to dive into the criminal world of France. I'm just learning about Maigret, commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle. With his trademark pipe, he is not a brilliant detective, but patient, methodical and unrelenting- and not adverse to punching an opponent. He does seem to drink a lot, but is not a drunk. As his character develops through the series he apparently becomes more psychological in his approach - he relies on his knowledge of the human character to solve the crime. He appears to be a weary, solid figure - aware of the sadness of the world and compassionate and unjudgemental of the criminals he encounters.

Loving them so far - and best of all - there are about 70 more to go!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Audrey said...

I love to read mysteries (I always seem to have one going) so I picked up two Maigrets at random from the library. As it turned out, one was from 1939 (Murder at the Hotel Majestic) and the other from 1969 (Maigret goes home) so it will be interesting to compare them. Your comments on him are so interesting! (I've read him before but not recently.) And I love the covers on your editions - very stylish Looking forward to hearing more.

Caroline said...

I reviewed two Maigrets and must say I love Simenon's romans durs or non-Maigret books but the Maigrets are not totally to my liking.

Anonymous said...

I have just finished a 1948 Ngaio Marsh and loved it Death and the Dancing Footman- then proceeded to a 1934 one which I discoverd had an almost similar plot! I suppose she thought she could recycle after 10 years.
Here's to le Tour!!!!!

Curvy Kitty said...

The covers are Dutch editions designed by Dick Bruna. His graphic work was fabulous. I'm enjoying my Simenon at the moment. Read a few more today: Maigret and the madwoman and Maigret's revolver. I'd be interested to read his lengthier non-Maigrets. Has anyone seen any of the films?

I love Ngaio Mrsh too but yes, there is some repetition, especially with her stage door mysteries.

Rikki said...

Can you believe that I have never read a Maigret book? I have seen plenty of TV shows, but have no idea about Simenon's writing style. After what you said I will have to give him a try.