12 de novembre del 2013

In praise of Georges Simenon's French detective

[The Telegraph, 12 november 2013]

In his wildly popular Maigret novels the author broke all the rules of detective fiction. Jake Kerridge pays tribute

Jake Kerridge

Penguin Classics have been accused of devaluing their brand by publishing Morrissey’s memoirs, but in my eyes they could have brought out the autobiography of Miley Cyrus and their latest project would still redeem them. Starting this month the imprint is publishing every single one of Georges Simenons novels featuring the French detective Jules Maigret, in new translations by distinguished names such as David Bellos and Anthea Bell.
Those who want to collect the whole set will need deep pockets. The series, which is being reissued at the rate of one a month, comes to 75 titles; a figure that seems all the more astonishing when you realise that they make up barely a fifth of Simenon’s literary output. But for those of us who are Maigret addicts, 75 novels are scarcely enough.
Unlike his famous French creation, Simenon (1903-1989) was Belgian. He was born in Liège, and later claimed that his taste for criminality, duplicity and moral ambiguity was fostered by the German occupation of the city during the First World War. “We were taught to cheat and defraud and lie,” he wrote. “We were taught how to live in the shadows… the children [would] carry letters around which had come from the other side of the front line, and which a grown-up would have been shot for carrying.”
He was already a prolific journalist and pseudonymous author of pulp novels when, in 1930, the publisher Arthème Fayard read his first three Maigret manuscripts and decided to take a chance on publishing them, despite his concern that the stories had “no mathematical problems, no love story, no good and bad characters and no happy endings”. Readers certainly didn’t seem to mind: one estimate puts sales of the Maigret series at 853 million, nearly twice as much as total sales of the Harry Potter books.
Simenon’s reductive theory was that his books were popular because they were so short that readers didn’t have time to get fed up of him. The brevity of the novels is partly due to his working methods: he would wait until a suitable setting or character had formed in his mind and then retreat to his study and pour out the book as quickly as possible. Most of the Maigrets were written in less than a week.
His other appetites were hardly less voracious than his need to write. He once claimed to have had sex with 10,000 women: sleeping with prostitutes was necessary for his work, he maintained, as it was the best way to connect with the working-class women he wanted to write about, which is a good one to try on the taxman. He was also a prodigious drinker, a trait he shares with Maigret, who is never known to pass a bar; in fact, an Anglican bishop denounced the Sixties BBC television version of Maigret for the constant boozing.
My own view why he was so popular was that the books offered something more interesting than the conservative morality of most of the crime fiction of the period. “For 30 years I have tried to make it understood that there are no criminals,” Simenon wrote in 1970. Truth obsesses Maigret but he detests “justice” in all its official forms and hands the criminal over to the courts reluctantly, or sometimes not at all. He tends not to make Sherlockian deductions – “I have no methods” – but guesses at the culprit’s identity by empathising with what makes the criminal commit the crime – and this act of empathy makes him unable to pass judgment on the wrongdoer.
This doesn’t make Maigret sound much like a real policeman. Indeed, in the curious Maigret’s Memoirs (1950), the “real” Maigret has an argument with Simenon, ticking him off for being overfanciful. Simenon responds: “Truth never seems true… The whole problem is to make something more real than life. Well, I’ve done that! I’ve made you more real than life.”
And there is the key to his appeal. A hundred fictional policemen are more authentic than Maigret. But, thanks to the genius of his creator, not one is more real.

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