Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Simenon through the eyes of others


I've written before about film adaptations of Georges Simenon's books, the Belgian author's photographs and the Paris of his most famous character, Maigret. Simenon's oeuvre was hugely admired by André Gide and François Mauriac among others, and for this post I thought I'd round up the thoughts of some other writers from different generations and backgrounds on his prolific talent.

Julian Barnes's essay on Simenon, The Pouncer, included in the British novelist's Francophile collection Something to Declare, starts predictably enough, with a numerical rundown: 'The 400-plus books he wrote; the 55 cinema and 279 television films made from them; the 500 million copies sold in 55 languages...' - intriguing Barnes contemplates the adaptations ahead of sales and the translations - and, of course, Simenon's 'famous estimate of having bedded 10,000 women.'

This is a critique of Patrick Marnham's biography of Simenon for the Literary Review and only in passing do we get a sense of what Barnes admires in the subject: 'One of the distinctions of the fiction, especially of the romans durs, is to show sympathetic understanding for driven, obsessed, morally affectless characters who inflict and sustain often terrible damage. The refusal to moralize makes them less distant, less safely other.'

For sheer enthusiasm, we turn to Simenon's contemporary, Anais Nin, who writes in the summer of 1955: 'I study the style of Simenon because he is a master in the physical world... Simenon has always selected the characters who submitted to destiny, a destiny formed by their character...' She is great at summing up his work in The Journals of Anais Nin, Volume Five 1947-1955: 'The tone is always fatalistic, joyless, and the characters are victims of their own suicidal destructiveness. He has described all possible variations on destruction and self-destruction.'

In the winter of 1948, Nin writes: 'Simenon. The pattern is the same in every book. It is the fall of man. Simenon is aware that this fall is caused by the fatality of an impulse of self-destruction more often than by external fatality.'

If this all sounds depressing, a few months later she states: 'He is my favourite storyteller. He has a good story to tell, and he works subtly at charaterisation. His characters are beautifully wrought, his details significant... People do not appreciate his novels as they should because he made his reputation writing detective novels.'

Writer John Raymond tackles this last point in his critical biography from 1968, Simenon in Court: 'If [the study] helps to serve public notice of an achievement far greater than Simenon's average readers have realised or perhaps supposed even, it will have achieved its purpose...' Its clunky title notwithstanding, the book falters on Raymond's judgement of the works. (I'm thinking particularly of his contradictory dismissal of Inquest on Bouvet, towards which I've always been partial.)

Raymond is at his most poetic on the criminal protagonist of 1941's Justice (Cours d'Assises), Petit-Louis: 'Of all Simenon's unfortunates, he is perhaps the most human because he is the weakest and most alone.' I'll leave the final tribute to Nin, however: 'He is perhaps our best psychologist in the novel.'

Georges Simenon is the subject of the inaugural exhibition at Brussels' new Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, until 24 February 2012.

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