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Matthew McAlister: Criminally Underappreciated

April 10, 2013

Georges Simenon might be the best French-language novelist you've never heard of.

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Image from Flickr via Geoff LMV

By Matthew McAlister

Georges Simenon, author of over four hundred novels and inventor of probably the second-most-famous detective in literature, Jules Maigret, is now, despite the fame of his creation, largely and unjustly forgotten. You might find a couple of dusty reprints in a big-box bookstore with a beefy mystery section, but only if you’re really looking. He was widely read in his lifetime, though he was, and still is, recognized more for his persona (the obsessions, lies, and hatefully competitive disposition) than for his prose.

That persona was one of excess, which is why it so overshadowed his work. Excess in his writing, in his social life, and particularly in his romantic relationships. One of his greatest lies, if it was in fact a lie, was that he’d slept with more than ten thousand women. (Coincidentally or not, the same number claimed by Wilt Chamberlain.) Still, his writing had admirers, and reputable ones. In an interview with The Paris Review, when asked if he read mystery stories, William Faulkner replied: “I read Simenon because he reminds me something of Chekhov.” It is not surprising that Ernest Hemingway also was a fan—few writers more fully embodied his iceberg theory than Simenon.

He published, regardless of what it cost him, as often as he could. He once ended a romance because he felt he wasn’t working hard enough. In the six months before the breakup, he’d published four books.

***

In 1942, two very similar novels were released. One, The Widow, by Simenon, concerns an aimless and conscienceless man, a drifter, who commits a terrible murder. The other was The Stranger, the novel that would contribute to Albert Camus’ winning the 1957 Nobel Prize. (Upon hearing that Camus had won, Simenon said to his wife, “Can you believe that asshole got it and not me?”)

He craved fame, craved the celebrity that came with prizes. But whatever Faulkner and Hemingway thought of his work, it was spurned by prize committees and critics, who felt that he wrote for the “common people.” Simenon was not only fine with that characterization, he was proud of it.

He was also amazingly prodigious, as though trying to establish himself through sheer volume. He often wrote whole novels in a matter of days. He could pump out a Maigret book in as few as four, and rarely took more than eleven. He worked best under deadlines. It was a product of his early years as a reporter for a local newspaper, and he stringently imposed them on himself for the rest of his career.

His novels, which range from the formulaic Maigret mysteries to richly nuanced psychological portraiture and which span the globe in their settings, have little in common. The one thing they do share, however, is a fixation on clocks and time, which can be found on nearly every page.

He seemed to be at constant war with time, and so also with himself. He published, regardless of what it cost him, as often as he could. He once ended a romance because he felt he wasn’t working hard enough. In the six months before the breakup, he’d published four books.

***

Simenon’s Monsieur Monde Vanishes begins like any good mystery novel: Madame Monde’s husband has been missing for three days, and she calls the police. The clerk tells the Superintendent that “a kind of widow” has come to see him, a description could not be more astute. It seems Monsieur Monde vanished on his forty-eighth birthday, having demonstrated no alarming behavior, and with no history of affairs or impulsivity; a man who leads a quiet life and runs a successful company with his son. She offers no explanation for his disappearance and is ostensibly concerned for his safety, but her motivation is revealed when she explains that, because she cannot prove her husband is deceased, she cannot draw money from the bank. The Superintendent promises an investigation, and Madame Monde exits the station.

A more typical mystery novel, given this setup, would likely proceed in one of two ways. We would follow either the Superintendent as he begins compiling clues or Madame Monde as she drives to a seedy motel to meet her lover, discovering along the way that the body of her late husband is concealed in the trunk of the car. Instead, we meet Monsieur Monde, whose disappearance is explained in a masterfully controlled third-person monologue: “When he had finished shaving he would look at himself a little longer, complacently yet with a certain pang of regret because he was no longer the chubby, somewhat ingenuous young man he had once been, and could not get used to the idea of being already embarked on the downward slope of life.”

Maybe it’s his unambiguous ambiguity, one foot on either side of the genre/literary divide, that’s put him out in the cold. Maybe neither camp can get fully behind him, seeing in his writing only the hallmarks of the other.

Monsieur Monde Vanishes functions as an existential detective novel. The common man at its center, who has lost the will to continue in his menial life, suddenly, and without realizing exactly what he’s doing, makes an abrupt and drastic change. This is a hallmark of Simenon. Short chapters, brisk dialogue, and clipped sentences speed the reader along so quickly that emotional, psychological, and philosophical depths are concealed. The Superintendent and Madame Monde do not appear again until the end of the novel, when Monsieur Monde’s final decision, whether to abandon or embrace his new life, has already been made.

This ability to frame an exploration of humanity’s complexities within the bounds of conventional detective stories is what makes Simenon so good. The reader gets what they expect from the genre: a quick pace, almost style-less, unassuming prose (“I want my novels to read as if they have no author,” he once said), a healthy dose of sex, a protagonist that any man can recognize in himself. But he also draws deep and nuanced characters through clever dialogue and builds complex, dynamic worlds through minor but carefully chosen details.

Simenon’s outrage over Camus’ Nobel (when he was finished complaining to his wife, he kicked the TV over, too) was, in part, the product of eccentricity. But it also reflected the fact that he was, and continues to be, criminally underappreciated as an artist. The New York Review of Books and The Neversink Library have reissued some of his novels, including Monsieur Monde Vanishes, and The Window, but it’s a shame they were out of print in the first place. We’re swimming in writers like James Patterson and Harlan Coben—nearly as prolific as Simenon, but not half as talented—while Simenon himself is languishing, unread. Maybe it’s his unambiguous ambiguity, one foot on either side of the genre/literary divide, that’s put him out in the cold. Maybe neither camp can get fully behind him, seeing in his writing only the hallmarks of the other. But that, to me, seems like a very good reason to let him back in.

Matthew McAlister is from Lexington, Kentucky. He lives in Brooklyn.

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6 comments for Matthew McAlister: Criminally Underappreciated

  1. Comment by Paul Johnston on April 11, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    This is spot on. I’ve been aware of Simenon for years but have only recently got into him big time. I can take or leave Maigret, but the best of the romans durs are remarkable. The only crime writer who runs him close is Patricia Highsmith, but her output was much smaller. Some French critics regard him as the author of the 20th century. As regards prose, they may be right. Plus he was massively popular and many of his novels (novellas really) were filmed, increasing his grip on the public imagination. Tho not, I suspect, much outside the francophone world. Good for the NYRB for republishing some of the durs. And good for you. Keep up the good work! Best,
    Paul.
    http://www.paul-johnston.co.uk

  2. Comment by Tom C. on April 11, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Beg many pardons, but isn’t Georges Simenon, despite many of his books being out of print (if they kept them all in print the ‘S’ section of most bookshops would be ruined) well-known, and being steadily reprinted? Not often read now, perhaps, but I don’t think he goes unknown.

  3. Comment by Mickey B on April 15, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Matthew, are you insane? Or twelve years old? Simenon is hardly forgotten. Readers continue to enjoy his Maigret mysteries (some still in print) and watch the television versions.The NYRB editions introduced a whole new generation of readers to his genius. There are two excellent biographies of Simenon. I would venture to say there isn’t a mystery reader out there who isn’t aware of his contribution to the genre. And there are no shortage of mystery fans. I’m thrilled you’re calling attention to the guy, but your belated discovery of his work doesn’t qualify as a rediscovery of a forgotten writer.

  4. Comment by Michael Walsh on April 16, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    How good are the translations?

  5. Comment by John T. Cullen on April 16, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    I totally agree. I have belatedly discovered Simenon, and cannot find any of his novels in print. At least one movie of his noir literary oeuvres has been made in recent years. I strongly believe he is one of those writers who is ‘forgotten’ for a time after his death, then rediscovered, and finally survives for many generations because of the unique and brilliant quality of his voice.

  6. Comment by Bill Peschel on April 17, 2013 at 7:43 am

    “Second most famous detective” seems contradictory if Simenon’s largely out of print. And if Sherlock Holmes is No. 1, where do you put Hercule Poirot? Miss Marple? Nero Wolfe?

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