The great French writers of the last century tend to evoke, in recollection, a single hue, a color tone that resonates from their work into our imaginations. Proust is all violet, the twilight mood of symbolism matched with the early-evening skies under which Swann pursues Odette. Camus is the whitened sand and unclouded blue sky of his native Algeria. Colette’s writing seems golden, filled with the afternoon light of the Palais Royale. (The movie “Gigi” is not really that far off, in its M-G-M Technicolor scheme, from the palette of her writing.)
Georges Simenon, the matchless French crime novelist and the author of the Inspector Maigret series—which has been completely retranslated and issued in a paperback edition from Penguin—takes gray as his distinct and constant color. No one has ever made more of a grisaille of ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty, or positioned it more tenderly against a Paris rendered not in the (very misleading) light of Impressionist dapple but in the actuality of its dull winter days: “The neighborhood had put on its unsettling night-time face, with shadowy figures hugging the buildings, women motionless at the kerb and murky lighting in the bars that made them look like fish tanks.” Everywhere Simenon takes us is a gray-toned world. His early novel “The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien,” from 1931, begins in a Dutch train station: “It was five in the afternoon, and night was falling. The lamps had been lighted, but through the windows one could still see both German and Dutch railway and customs officials pacing along the platform, stamping their feet for warmth in the grey dusk.” Later:
Simenon was conscious of his grayness as a moral mood, something created inside modern minds, present even in an all-night Greenwich Village luncheonette, as in his “Three Bedrooms in Manhattan” (1946), a non-Maigret novel: “Why, despite the blinding brightness, did everything look gray? It was as if the painfully sharp lights were helpless to dispel all the darkness the people had brought in from the night outside.” Fluent in English, and resident for some years in Connecticut, he must have been well aware of the bilingual pun deposited in his hero’s name: Inspector May Gray.
His Maigret books, especially, make an art of half-lit evocation within a tightly circumscribed world set on the Right Bank of Paris. In fact, when I first read him, as a kid learning French—and Simenon’s novels are perfect for that purpose, being simple enough to be more or less fully grasped, and good enough to be worth the effort—I assumed that Simenon himself was, like his hero, living an enclosed existence somewhere in the Marais. I pictured him looking down, beetle-browed, from his typewriter at the Parisian scene below as he passed from black coffee to a single glass of Armagnac in the evening.
Not a bit of it. Writers often live at right angles to their fictional worlds, and no more colorful life is imaginable than Simenon’s. His place in French culture is closer to P. G. Wodehouse’s in English culture than it is to Agatha Christie’s; like Wodehouse, he was a superior stylist who happened to favor a repetitive genre format, rotating the same set of characters again and again. And just as Wodehouse, the most ecstatic of sentence-makers, was by reputation the dullest fellow alive, so Simenon, bard of the French middle-class bureaucratic virtues—stolidity, reliability, with a sharp edge of insight running through—was the least bourgeois man you’d ever meet. Where Maigret is stodgily and permanently lodged with Madame Maigret within “a network of narrow, busy streets bounded by Boulevard Voltaire on one side and Boulevard Richard-Lenoir on the other,” his creator was a vagabond who lived in more than thirty houses during his life. A voluble and indiscreet memoirist, he boasted of having had ten thousand lovers, starting at the age of twelve: some professionals, many volunteers. “I was . . . hungry for all the women I crossed paths with,” he confessed, “whose undulating derrières were enough to give me almost painful erections. How many times have I satiated that hunger with young girls older than me on the threshold of a house, on some dark street?” Married twice, he was a lover of Josephine Baker’s, and was darkly rumored to have had an incestuous liaison with his daughter.
Ten thousand lovers—and five hundred books! Set against Simenon’s rate of production, Graham Greene seems lazy, Dickens a tortured aesthete, Walter Scott sadly blocked. Simenon was unafraid to expound on his writing, but his self-accounting is, his biographers tell us, to be picked up with tongs. Then again, everything authors say about their work is a lie, or, at best, a misdirection. Simenon explained his fecundity as arising from ruthless minimalism, a stripping away of the effects of prose that left him with a supple and always applicable instrument. In a famous Paris Review interview, from 1955, he insisted that he excised anything “literary” from his work, including adjectives and adverbs. Yet descriptive modifiers are everywhere in his work. Pick up one of his books at random and you get sentences like “The lethargic blonde cashier stared at Maigret with mounting curiosity.” What is absent is the kind of breezy, genial belletristic running commentary on the events being narrated. He sits very much on the far side of the great break in prose that began with Flaubert and eventually transformed all modernist styles in French and English writing after the First World War, turning the mannered simplification of fin-de-siècle prose into something tough and tensile. Before the nineteen-twenties, that sentence would have read, “The lethargic blonde cashier, of a kind you find in every bar of this sort, usually a former dancer, stared at Maigret with the mounting curiosity that his bulk and position as a police inspector always attracted.” As with Simenon’s contemporary James M. Cain, in America, the events and their depiction become the same thing, and the commentary happens only in the reader’s mind, or in the inspector’s remarks. Maigret sometimes comments on the action, but we rarely go inside his head to find out what he thinks. We hear him as the world does.
In one of Simenon’s masterpieces, “Maigret and the Headless Corpse”—it’s from 1955, and he’s particularly good in the nineteen-fifties—the first forty pages are spent in a Frederick Wiseman-like documentary study of Maigret’s day. There’s no differentiation between the melodramatic and the mundane: the discovery of an arm and then a torso in the Canal Saint-Martin is interspersed with Maigret weaving in and out of bistros and brasseries as he makes guesses at the meaning of the discovered corpse, leading to a cold, blunt, and near-monosyllabic exchange with the owner of a bistro, in which she impassively volunteers that she has had many lovers in the back room. Simenon’s subject is how people who are pushed to the edge push themselves over it; the force of the sleuthing is that of psychoanalysis, not police interrogation. Maigret knows that people want to tell their stories, and, if prompted, will. Listening, not inquiring, is the detective’s gift; inner life, in these mysteries, manifests only as fragmented speech. Given that premise, the novel’s pages could be filmed without a single elision, so blankly empirical is the whole. Although the tautly minimal surface breaks from time to time into a narrator’s interjections—understandable given the speed with which he wrote—the prose is, for the most part, purely photographic: “A young girl lay on a Louis XVI bed. She was in an almost seated position, because she had lifted herself on one elbow, and in the movement she had made to look towards the door, a swollen, heavy breast had escaped from her nightdress.”
More than fifty feature films were made of his novels when he was alive (including Julien Duvivier’s celebrated 1946 noir “Panique”); Gérard Depardieu plays the inspector in a film from this year. Simenon was a prophet of and a participant in the style of French New Wave cinema, but his writing also presaged aspects of the nouveau roman, of Robbe-Grillet’s faith in describing only the surface of events. (It’s a practice still visible in the work of the fine French writer Annie Ernaux.)
Simenon’s early experience with the surface-haunted, what-where-when habits of the yeoman newspaper reporter must have influenced him. Simenon was born in 1903 in the French-speaking Belgian city of Liège, where his father, an accountant, worked in an insurer’s office, and where, at fifteen, Georges quit school and started working for a local newspaper, covering “fait divers.” Soon, he was writing about crime, and growing acquainted with the more sordid side of city life. Yet, later in his career, when Simenon spoke of his style, he generally avoided crediting newspaper work or the shaping practice of motion pictures. Instead, he loftily gave credit to Gogol and Cézanne—Gogol for the surreal edge of dark fable and Cézanne for the weighty individual stroke, the repetitive rhythm. (Hemingway, another newspaperman reluctant to seem so, credited Cézanne with the birth of his own style.) Declaring himself not at all arty, Simenon then piled on arty antecedents as much as any avant-gardist. He was, in this way, a trickster: when it came to the trappings of art, he feigned innocence or guilt, just as he wished.
Writing about Simenon is tricky, too, simply because the extent of his work—and the relatively small variations in tone within it—makes any one novel at once representative of the whole and too small a slice to offer as truly exemplary. The next book of the five hundred might be a halftone different. Still, he divided his own enormous œuvre into two broad kinds: the swiftly dispatched works of entertainment—a Maigret novel was typically written in two weeks—and the romans durs, the “hard books,” often set outside Paris and meant as works of more self-conscious art.
The Maigret books, seventy-five in all, seem the likeliest to live. The Penguin edition of the complete Maigret valiantly aims to update previously uneven translations through the skillful efforts of such worthies as David Bellos, Linda Coverdale, and Howard Curtis. Translating Simenon is thorny: as simple as his style is in certain ways, it is also delicate in tone, and can, rendered too literally, mislead as to its purpose. In Shaun Whiteside’s retranslated version of “Maigret and the Killer” (originally published in 1969), the inspector’s interview with a witness, the proprietor of a shop his wife frequents, concludes:
In truth, the original is more off-hand in tone and in spirit, something more like: “Nothing else?” “No, that’s it.” “Thanks, Gino.” “How’s Mrs. Maigret?” Spoken bourgeois French usually being more precise and formal than American English, it demands that the translator reproduce the dignities without giving an incorrect impression of formality, as happened when Hemingway insisted on rendering the familiar second person in Spanish as “thou.” Offering the more formal tone of French small talk without making it sound too mannered is an art, mostly well executed in these new translations.
The Maigret we first meet, in a 1931 novel titled “Pietr the Latvian,” remains essentially unchanged over the next forty years. There are some gradations. Early on, he is a more modern detective, ostentatiously using the new technologies of teletype and identification. But even in this first Maigret novel it’s clear that he views the apparatus of scientific detection as trivial: