Georges Simenon's 76 Maigret novels are studies in the art of watching the world go by—and a homage to carefully nurtured intuitionby Lesley Chamberlain / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
This year happens to mark 75 years since publication of the first two Maigret romans policiers out of the 76 Georges Simenon would write.
I picked up a few second hand a couple of years ago, and was dazzled by the tight form, the suspense, the minimal vocabulary. Dazzled too by the fact that in the last three quarters of a century, everyone from Elizabeth Bowen to Muriel Spark, from Thornton Wilder to Joyce Carol Oates, seems to have been a fan, and here was I, coming along so late in the day to a great writer. Immune to modesty, Simenon saw himself as the Balzac of his place and time. Certainly he shared some of Balzac’s genius. As Wilder put it: “The gift of narration is the rarest of all gifts in the 20th century. Simenon has that.”
Born in Liège, Belgium, into a French-speaking family, from the start Georges Simenon could write six short novels a year and match quantity with quality. According to his most recent English biographer, Patrick Marnham, by the time Simenon retired from fiction in 1973, there were 76 Maigrets and 127 “tough novels.” On the surface these romans durs were rather like old black and white B-movies, steeped in underworld atmosphere, but with a rich understanding of human nature beneath.
Simenon never did any research and never got stuck. The plot apparently sprang to mind complete and the story was tied up in a couple of weeks, so he could spend most of the year not writing. His fiction received so much praise in his lifetime that he never bothered with an agent. Great publishers beat a path to his door and he dictated his own terms. In 1951 alone he sold over 3m books worldwide. André Gide was an early champion in France. Another celebrated literary novelist, François Mauriac, told Simenon simply: “You have the gift of creating living people in a living atmosphere.”
The British began to muster the same enthusiasm around 1940, when the first Maigret novels appeared in translation in the famous green and white Penguin “mystery and crime” series. “One is struck by the subtle but amazingly successful evocation of town and countryside, by the economy of words and descriptions, and by the psychological accuracy of the character-drawing,” wrote one critic. John Banville, 2005 Booker prize winner, recently called Simenon one of the “greatest writers of the…