21 de febrer de 2015

The Case of Georges Simenon

[The New York Times, 20 february 2015]

Scott Bradfield

Georges Simenon (1903-89) had, at the very least, two identities. One was the Belgian altar boy who quickly made the transition from failed pastry chef to legendary cub reporter for the Gazette de Liège when he was only 16 and went on to write nearly 200 pulp novels between 1924 and 1931 (he referred to them as his “novels for secretaries”). Then, when he decided to write “good” books, he took the advice of his mentor, Colette — “Get rid of all the literature, and you’ve got it” — and spent the next five decades producing more than 200 serious novels, keeping meticulous accounts of his multitudinous foreign translations and film adaptations, and moving his family from the French countryside to Arizona, New England, Quebec and back to Europe again, even while finding time to enjoy three very French family meals each day, and to walk with his adored children in the local parks.
On the other hand, there was the more notorious author of “Intimate Memoirs” (1981), who happily and widely confirmed that meals were not the only thing he enjoyed three times a day. At one point, he was living with his wife and two mistresses, and still went adventuring off with prostitutes and casual women he met in bars. “I would even say that sex is the only possible form of communication with women,” Simenon once told a friend. It is hard to imagine any author who was more successful in the scope and variety of his “communicating.”

It may well be an unwinnable challenge to read every one of Simenon’s lifelong outpouring of 75 Maigret novels (currently arriving chronologically in excellent new translations from Penguin Books) — much like locking yourself in a bunker for several years with your favorite relatives, or listening to every “lost” track and “alternate take” on a mega-disc compilation of your most-admired jazz saxophonist. Too much of a good thing, after all, isn’t always a good thing. Especially when the earliest Maigrets (the crude initial effort, “Pietr the Latvian,” for instance, or the rather gimmicky Agatha Christie-style whodunits, including “The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien” and “The Late Monsieur Gallet”) are far from the best. And even more especially when the entire Maigret series is generally and accurately regarded as the less accomplished (if better known) half brother of Simenon’s huger 120-plus output of “serious” novels, like “Pedigree,” “Donadieu’s Will,” “The Bottom of the Bottle” or “Three Bedrooms in Manhattan.”
In many ways, the Maigrets were a sort of comfort food — the books that Simenon wrote to recover from the physical and psychological stress of writing his better, and far less comforting, novels. In these non-Maigret “thrillers,” often referred to as the romans durs (but to most aficionados known simply as the “Simenons”), the central, usually male character is lured from the stultifying cocoon of himself — and his suburban, oppressively Francophile (and often mother-dominated) life — into a wider, vertiginous world of sexual and philosophical peril, where violence, whether it occurs or only threatens to occur, feels like too much freedom coming at a guy far more quickly than he can handle.

Even though Simenon was widely published, and translated, in his lifetime, there still seem to be some very good “serious” books — like “The Mahé Circle,” which recently received its first English translation — falling loose from forgotten cupboards and laundry hampers. That novel’s Dr. Mahé is the quintessential Simenon protagonist: Raised in a provincial village, overshadowed by a local-legend father who died showing how far he could lift and carry a horse, and hemmed in by the always disapproving eyes of his family and neighbors, he discovers his first taste of existential freedom on holiday in the Porquerolles, where he falls in love (or in fascination) with a bohemian teenage girl in a red dress. The problem with freedom, Simenon’s protagonists often realize, is learning to distinguish the just-enough from the too-much. Released from his encircling sense of propriety, Mahé soon makes a gratuitous pass at his family maid, and begins swimming too deep with exotic fishes. But dissolution is not the only fate awaiting Simenon’s repressed middle-class men and women — as demonstrated in “Three Bedrooms in Manhattan,” or even the late great novel about a Marc Chagall-like artist, “The Little Saint”: For when people are released from the confines of their humdrum jobs, homes and families, they often find regions of passion and fulfillment they never suspected were out there. When is too much not enough? And when is enough too much? These are the inextricable riddles that drive Simenon’s people — to pleasure, and to despair.
If the successful Simenon protagonists (and there aren’t many) sound a bit like Charles Strickland in Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence,” Simenon’s most famous creation, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire, sounds representative of the world his thriller protagonists vainly try to escape. Maigret is middle-aged, married, somewhat overweight, childless, lives a comfortable life in his flat on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir in Paris, and loves his job — trailing and interrogating criminals and their accomplices, keeping the dodgy radiator warm in his office on the Quai des Orfèvres, and returning home as often as possible for meals with Mme. Maigret, one of the most frighteningly efficient and patient homemakers in contemporary fiction. One can’t even imagine Inspector Maigret — or his wife — swimming too deep in exotic waters.

For traditional readers of mystery novels, whether it’s the armchair-sleuthing of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe or the cigarette-ash-inspecting and footprint-sniffing Sherlock Holmes, Maigret doesn’t push any of the right buttons. In “Night at the Crossroads,” he proves less interested in examining the actual scene of the crime than in exploring where local people go to buy gasoline, or to sit gossiping over their evening aperitifs. And like some of Simenon’s less savory characters, such as Mr. Hire (who enjoys nothing more than peeping at a young shopgirl undressing in the flat across his courtyard), Maigret doesn’t divulge clues or examine ballistic reports or propound theories so much as roam like a licensed voyeur through the lives of everybody in the vicinity, checking out who’s sleeping with whom, who likes their job or drinks too much, who has money in their pocket and who doesn’t. Maigret, more than any other detective with a ream of adventures under his belt, rarely solves crimes; instead, he solves people.
As Maigret tells a junior officer in “The Yellow Dog,” “I’ll give you some good advice: If you’re interested in getting ahead, don’t take me for a model, or invent any theories from what you see me doing.” As Maigret goes on to explain, for him a criminal investigation is much like a Simenon novel: “a question of atmosphere, a question of faces. . . . When I first got here, I came across one face that appealed to me, and I never let go of it.”
While traditional detectives examine timetables, fingerprints, ciphers, chalk outlines and corpses, Maigret observes faces, and any other outward manifestations that catch his fancy. In “A Crime in Holland,” his solution to a crime is initiated by his fast appreciation of an 18-year-old girl’s “generous curves” and “flirtatious” smile. And in “The Grand Banks Café,” the dance of lusty sailors around the death of their captain is linked to a defaced photo of a woman’s torso; when Maigret goes searching for a solution, the solution suddenly sits down next to him and his wife in a restaurant — a loud, sensual, demanding woman with “the same slightly fleshy line of the neck, the same full but firm breasts.” Maigret rarely has to search hard for clues; they are constantly occurring all around him, like the casual altercations of people in crowds. In fact, Maigret’s chief talent doesn’t seem to be genius, or method, or physical strength, or even hard work — rather, he’s simply interested in people, and why they behave the way they do.
While the early Maigrets start off somewhat unambitiously, they always feature at least several scenes of human and emotional clarity, even when they might eventually veer off into thriller territory. (In one otherwise strong novel, the culprits even turn out to be international spies.) But as they get going, and develop over several decades, Simenon slowly abandons all the traditional, manipulative nonsense of mystery and crime fiction, and allows his middle-class, relatively conventional hero to roam freely above and beyond the dull, self-constrained lives of murderers (and their victims) that inevitably become, for him, all too human, all too believable and no more “guilty” of anything than just about everybody else.

1 comentaris:

  1. Thanks for this excellent, thorough portrait of Maigret. I offer one small correction: the Maigrets did have a daughter who died at birth. This fact enhances the positive feelings for children the two display throughout the series.

    ResponElimina

 
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