Thursday, 19 July 2012

BOOK REVIEW

The search for Georges Simenon

“Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.”
— Georges Simenon in an interview to The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No.9, Summer 1955


Patti Abbott has thrown a mean challenge for this week’s edition of Friday’s Forgotten Books — Georges Simenon and his work — over at her blog Pattinase. So pardon me if this post reads like an author review.

© Erling Mandelmann/Wikimedia Commons
Weeks after the announcement, I have drawn a complete blank on the renowned Belgian author of 220 novels that include 86 featuring his most famous character, Parisian police detective Jules Maigret, who has been described as the Sherlock Holmes of France, and about 200 novellas under all kinds of pseudonyms.

Simenon smoked a pipe, so did Maigret, whom he described thus, "His build was plebeian. He was enormous and bony. Hard muscles stood out beneath his jacket… Above all, he had his very own way of planting himself in a spot... He was a solid block and everything had to break against it." For the uninitiated like this blogger, that is a vivid description of Maigret.

Simenon was a prolific writer
 who authored some half-a-dozen novels a year though, it is said, he was capable of producing much more. He wrote his first novel at the age of 18. 

This FFB seemed like a good opportunity to acquaint myself with Jules Maigret or at least with some of the non-Maigret novels which, I read somewhere online, have been reprinted. I don’t know how far that is true.

Now Simenon is not the kind of author whose novels you’ll find easily in India unless you borrow them from a friend, a discerning reader, or from a library. So, in a frantic effort to locate at least one of his 200-odd novels before Friday the 20th, I contacted the two secondhand bookstores I frequent but neither of the booksellers had even heard of him — “Georg who?” I don’t blame them: while I have heard and read about Simenon, I have never read anything by him. I then got in touch with two reliable new bookstores and their response was identical — “Georges Simenon? Sorry, out of stock. Would you like us to order any of his books?”

Simenon’s novels are still under copyright and, I suspect, they are going to be tied up in legal knots for a long time. Giving him good company will be Margaret Millar whose books are as elusive as the God Particle. No, they found that one at least, didn’t they?

When you have no choice, you do the predictable thing: you read what others have written about Simenon and his work or what the author himself has said over the years, which isn’t much.

Strand Magazine profiled Georges Simenon’s hero in a lengthy article titled ‘The Great Detectives: Maigret’ by Peter Haining. You can read it here. It is one of the better articles on Inspector Maigret.

Likewise, The New York Times paid a fine tribute to the author following his death in September 1989. You can read that piece titled ‘Georges Simenon Dies at 86; Creator of Inspector Maigret’ right here.

The two articles provide an excellent insight into the master storyteller’s life and his fiction.
 

Georges Simenon unveiled Jules Maigret’s statue
in Delfzijl, The Netherlands, in September 1966.
© Wikimedia Commons

Simenon’s fiction has received heaps of praise. As American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder observed, “The gift of narration is the rarest of all gifts in the 20th century. Georges Simenon has that to the tips of his fingers.”

Wilder’s remark must be seen in the context of Simenon’s own views on writing fiction and on the way he likes to write fiction, which is keeping it simple. “I have always tried to write in a simple way, using down-to-earth and not abstract words,” he says. I don’t know when he said this but in 1955 he told The Paris Review, “Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence — cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.”

It is possible Simenon may have been influenced by Hemingway’s plain and uncomplicated narrative style.

© University of Liege, Belgium
 
Can you write without the use of adjectives and adverbs? I knocked off a few over the course of a fourth revision of this post and I am quite satisfied with the result. Now if only I had read just one of Georges Simenon’s novels, I could have added substance to this piece as well.

14 comments:

  1. You have my sympathy. As with Millar, I thought I had more Simenon easily at hand than I do, and have found out that it's shut away too late to dig any out. So, another non-compliance for me this week. But his work, in translation, is very good stuff...the sliver of his enormous body of work I've read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Todd, I'm going to keep looking for Millar's and Simenon's novels. I'm pretty confident I'll find them soon in some book nook. And when I do, I'll write about it along with the review.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Simenon's used to be so ubiquitous at one time that its hard imagine it being hard to track down - fascinating post Prashant. Apparently Simenon only budgeted a week for the writing of the Maigret novels - if it wasn't finished by then he would give up and start a new one! The books are quite slim so if you can get hold of an omnibus that might very well be worth your while. He is well worth effort and I think time has been quite kind to them. I personally think Hemingway probably got more from Hammett than from Simenon and published a lot of his best work before Simenon reached any kind of prominence in the early 30s ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Sergio. Being a new entrant to FFB and Overlooked Films I try not to miss out on either, though I have in the recent past. Simenon the author seemed like a good subject to write about, even if fleetingly. An omnibus would be a good idea and I'm already looking for one. I felt Simenon might have been influenced by Hemingway because the later preceded Simenon by a good number of years. I need to read some of Hammett's books too.

      Delete
  4. Sorry, I should've noted what Sergio does...Hemingway and Hammett initially wrote for some of the same markets, and Hammett was among the leaner writers who presumably did help enlighten the young Hemingway as to how to sharpen that early prose of his...Simenon would've been much less available to the younger EH...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Todd, thanks for the additional insight into early writings of Hemingway, Hammett and Simenon. I have read the initial two authors but it would be terrific to read all three of them simultaneously and find out the similarities in their writings.

      Delete
  5. It's a darned shame you can't find any of his books in India. To remedy that sinful inconvenience I'd be willing to ship you a few, Prashant. Go to my blog and click on the "View my Profile" link under that box titled THE CULPRIT on the right and then click on the Email link to send me a mailing address.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. John, it's awfully nice of you to offer to send me a few of Simenon's books. I truly appreciate the gesture. I have a feeling Simenon may not be as elusive as I have made him out to be. Perhaps, I'm not looking in the right places. I'm pretty sure I'm going to find something soon and when I do I'm going to let everyone know.

      Delete
  6. Yes, Prashant, let me know too. Happy to send you anything you really covet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Patti, thanks very much for your generous offer. Indeed, books, even elusive books, know no boundaries. As I mentioned to John (over at his blog), an online retail site called Flipkart, which is equivalent of Amazon, has a few of his books and I'm hoping to buy a couple of them. Thanks, too, for reintroducing me to Georges Simenon.

      Delete
  7. Never heard of him before today, but he's everywhere on my blog posts of this day.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Charles, I guess a popular meme will do that. I do plan to get to know Simenon a little better than I do by reading some of his books. I like to pour over different styles of writing.

      Delete
  8. A lovely essay nonetheless, Prashant. I enjoyed reading it and enjoyed the lines you quoted describing Maigret. That is certainly terrific writing. I also like that you made an effort to keep in tune with the Friday theme. More than I did.

    I've read a few Maigrets and liked them very much. How much would it cost to send you a couple of paperbacks in the mail?? Prohibitive?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yvette, I'm glad you enjoyed the post in spite of its limitations. Quoting Georges Simenon was all I could do under the circumstances. I'd hate to impose on you, John and Patti though it's terribly nice of all of you to want to send me his books. I think, I'll take up Simenon as a personal challenge and see what I can come up with. You never know...

      Delete