For my part, I know of no better way to pass the time on a plane from Nice to Athens or, say, from Rangoon to Singapore, than to read one of Simenon’s novels.
Somerset Maugham, commenting on the work of the Belgian writer George Simenon (1903-1989). Simenon was an outstanding writer and during his extensive literary career he wrote close to 200 novels, 150 novellas, hundreds of short stories and is credited in over 150 film and television adaptations of his work. He is most famous for his literary creation Inspector Jules Maigret but he is also one of the most prolific writers of all time, with over 500 million copies of his work having been printed. In 2005 he was placed tenth in the television programme Le plus grand Belge (The Greatest Belgian). Today I’d like to make the case for a higher ranking.
At the age of 15, Simenon was already working as a reporter and, following a move to Paris in the early 1920s he wrote under a number of pseudonyms, whilst also finding the time for a staggeringly rich, vibrant and borderline-reckless social life. It wasn’t until the early 1930s, and Jules Maigret, that he wrote under his own name. Over a forty-year period from 1931 to 1972 Maigret appears in 75 novels and nearly 30 short stories. That is output of the highest order and at his peak, Simenon could produce around 70 pages a day. Maigret is one of our best-loved fictional detectives and he has been portrayed by many fine actors across film, television and radio.
When I think of Somerset Maugham’s quote I think of Jules Maigret and the extraordinary body of work that surrounds him. However, not all Simenon’s work is as accessible, easy-going and travel-friendly as his Maigret work. Some of it is gruesome in its impact and demands a very different approach by the reader. About 10 years ago the New York Review of Books reprinted several of these roman durs (hard or tough novels), believing, rightly, that they remain as unsentimental, bleak and scarily addictive to this day. The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938) is a story about a model husband and father who, suddenly bored with his life, catches a train to Amsterdam with the specific intention of becoming somebody else. What follows is brutal. What follows is a writer at his staggering best. Or there is Dirty Snow (1948) set in German-occupied France which focuses on the warped mind of a killer and is every bit as good as The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. These roman durs take their inspiration from Simenon’s excessive social life and his exposure to prostitutes and murderers. The books drew praise from several of Simenon’s contemporaries, including Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and they are perhaps deeper and darker than anything these two great writers produced in the noir mould. But be warned, they are nothing like the Maigret work and you should be prepared for a very different experience if you turn to these works now, which I urge you to do. They are in a different league to most of the pulp fiction genre which was unfolding at this time.
Georges Simenon retired from writing novels in 1973 and turned his attention to his memoirs. His output is exceptional, he created one of the most loved fictional detectives we have and he also produced darker works which make the very best of American noir appear tame. What’s more, he became the best selling author in the world.
That was good enough to come tenth. Tough crowd the Belgians.