The stark moral world of Georges Simenon

The author of about 500 books, most of them written in less than a fortnight, including nearly 80 Inspector Maigret volumes and over 100romans durs or “hard novels”, Georges Simenon began keeping notebooks in 1960, when he was nearing 60 and beginning to feel old. The three volumes that are published here run from June of that year up to February 1963. By December 1969, when he wrote the preface to the book, he was able to declare: “I have not felt old for a long time. I no longer feel the need to write in notebooks, and those that I did not use I’ve given to my children.”

Why Simenon wrote the notebooks when he did is not entirely clear. At first, they may have been intended principally as family reading. He writes that he wanted to show his children their father as he really was – an ordinary human being with normal human foibles. He also mentions that he was finding it increasingly difficult to achieve the concentration required to produce his novels: whereas he used to write them (the popular novels, at least) in three or four days, then 12 a year (at the time of the Maigrets), then six a year, “Now it is down to four.” Incredibly, Simenon may have been suffering from a form of writer’s block. Producing the notebooks may have served to distract him from this condition.

But the thoughts recorded here serve another purpose. These notebooks contain his most explicit account of his goals and methods of writing and of the view of human beings that his work expressed. As he puts it:
Like the great naturalists, I would like to focus on certain human mechanisms. Not on grand passions. Not on questions of ethics or morality. Only to study the minor machinery which may appear secondary. That is what I try to do in my books. For this reason I choose characters who are ordinary rather than exceptional . . . the naked man in contrast to the clothed man.
In Simenon’s stories, the appearances of everyday life are costumes that are quickly discarded. The catalyst may be an unexpected event, or an impulse that seems to come from nowhere. Either way, what emerges is the bare human animal.

In The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (1938), a quiet clerk for a respectable Dutch shipping company discovers that his boss has looted the firm in order to fund an affair. Having lost his life savings, the clerk boards a train to Paris, contacts his boss’s mistress, goes on a wild spree and (almost by accident) commits a murder. In Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945), the prosperous protagonist leaves his business, wife and family without warning, exchanges his expensive suit in a second-hand clothes shop for a shabby anonymous outfit, and disappears into the demi-monde. M Monde has no clear idea why he leaves his life behind:
He had not thought about it beforehand . . . He was following a preordained plan, for which he was not responsible. Nor had he taken any decision the day before. It all came from much further back, from the beginning of things.
Some of the best examples of what is commonly described as crime fiction – the novels of Patricia Highsmith, for instance – are studies in character which show why the protagonists act as they do by probing their states of mind. In Simenon, human beings are the sum of their impulses and behaviours; there is no enduring self behind the façade of habit. No one authors their own life; the belief that they are responsible for their actions is an illusion.

“My very first Maigrets,” Simenon writes, “were imbued with the sense, which has always been with me, of man’s irresponsibility. This is never stated openly in my writings. But Maigret’s attitude to the criminal makes it quite clear.” Simenon would have dismissed any suggestion that his romans durs were novels of ideas. He believed that ideas count for very little in human life. But the idea – or fact, as he would have called it – of human irresponsibility is at the centre of nearly everything he wrote.

That is one reason why Simenon’s work does not belong in the genre of crime fiction. In the romans durs, criminal acts are important only in signifying a final break with society. Even in the Maigrets, the question is not why a crime was committed, but how the person who committed the crime departed from a settled routine of living, and the detective resolves the conundrum by imaginatively entering into the life of the suspect. Identifying the criminal is rarely the principal focus of the story, though this fact has been obscured for English readers by the uneven quality of the versions of those Maigrets that have been available to date, in some of which the endings were altered in an effort to make the novels more closely resemble crime fiction. The new and freshly translated versions of Simenon’s novels that Penguin is publishing give us, for the first time, the opportunity to read them as he wanted them to be read.

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