Georges Simenon – An Appreciation of Style, Part 1

I have made several references to my appreciation of Mr. Simenon’s writing style, specifically regarding his Maigret novels, and I would like to take a few minutes now to explain why. Most of the information here, which relates to Mr. Simenon personally, is from Fenton Bresler’s book, The Mystery of Georges Simenon, A Biography. It was written in 1983 while the author was still alive. I also make reference to an interview he gave to The Paris Review in the summer of 1955. Mr. Simenon died in 1989 having written a good 80 plus Maigret novels. I am sure his fans and followers have already discovered this Maigret website (http://www.trussel.com/
f_maig.htm) which is current with all information relating to Mr. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

Mr. Simenon had written other detective stories before his most famous one (early 1930s), which were sold to the pulp magazines. Later, after his success, he wrote other novels along with his Maigrets. These were more psychological and perhaps even literary, a term he rarely used. Regarding the early detective and adventure stories, he is credited with having written eighty pages a day. Bresler quotes him as saying, “That means eighty pages of typing a day, at ninety-two words a minute,” Simenon goes on to explain:

   You don’t count in words in France or in Belgium, you count in lines. And they
   were novels of 10,000 lines each and I wrote them in three days! In French there
   are roughly seven words to a line, in English there are more because the words
   are shorter and in German there are less because the words are longer, but if you
   multiply by seven that means every novel was 70,000 words. In one month I once wrote
   five such novels (qtr in Bresler 52).

He was not referring to the Maigret novels, but those that were published under his seventeen pseudonyms, and “he could have six stories in a single issue of a magazine, each story signed with a different name” (Bresler 53). This prodigious output reminds me of the American writer of western tales, Max Brand (Frederick Faust), who was also in the habit of publishing under various pseudonyms in the same issue of a magazine: “Argosy for August 23, 1935, carried installments of book-length serials by Max Brand and Dennis Lawton, and a long story by George Challis: but no ordinary reader would have guessed that they were written by the same author” (Easton 182).

Commenting on his own method of writing during those early years before the Maigrets, he said:
   I would sit in front of the windows in the flat in the Place des Vosges, then suddenly
   I would get up, go the typewriter and write a story. Then I’d sit down by the window
   again. That happened up to eight times a day because I often wrote eight stories in a
   day (qtr. in Bresler 53).

What I like about Simenon’s style, which I suspect others do, also for this same reason, is his economy of words. He does this almost to a fault (the “fault” I will discuss at another time). Mr. Simenon claimed, from a statistic he had read once, that half the people of France used no more than 600 words in total. “So I endeavoured to use only ‘material’ words: a table, a chair, the wind, the rain. If it rains, I write, ‘It rains’; you will not find in my books drops of water that transform themselves into pearls, or I don’t know what. I want nothing that resembles literature. I have a horror of literature” (Bresler 2). And in reference to a question regarding the novel The Brothers Rico, (a non-Maigret crime novel) Simenon says, “I tried to do it very simply, simply. And there is not a single ‘literary’ sentence there, you know? It’s written as if by a child” (Collins).

Mr. Simenon was also economical in the Maigret novels when it comes to the use of internal dialogue, unlike, say Ruth Rendell, and more along the lines of Agatha Christie in the Miss Marple novels. Most of Maigret’s inner thoughts expressed on the page are those which pertain directly to the case, usually those inspired by the sight of someone present or within sight. To keep a 3rd person narrative moving, I believe the limit of internal dialogue is important, and I enjoy seeing how he handles this.

There are variations to this however, in Maigret’s Pickpocket (1967), the opening chapters have him ruminating about his wife acquiring a driver’s license, of course these ruminations are important to the plot, if he had not been distracted by these thoughts, he would have been aware that a pickpocket was after his wallet and ID. In an earlier work, Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets (1931), the reader is filled in on the action during the first few pages by an omniscient narrator, but this one particular narrator does not seem to want to leave and so remains long after the novel’s storyline was in full play.

Most of these incursions by this narrative voice was to guide the reader. Several examples of this from Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets are as follows: “Was it Maigret or Van Damme who suggested a stroll? In fact, neither did. It came about naturally” (Simenon 50) and “Had he in fact spoken? Could the Inspector, in that fantastic atmosphere, have been the victim of a delusion?”(Simenon 90). These side comments, acting as guideposts for the reader, do fit the free flowing style of this particular short novel. However, I do not see this narrative tone repeated in the later Maigret novels where such a tone would not fit.

To be continued.

Works Cited:
Bresler, Fenton S. The Mystery of Georges Simenon: a biography. New York: Beaufort
  Books, Inc., 1983.
Collins, Carvel. “Interviews. Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No 9.” The Paris
  Review. The Paris Review, n.d. Web. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5020/the
  -art-of-fiction-no-9-georges-simenon.
Easton, Robert. Max Brand, The Big Westerner. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
Simenon, Georges. Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, trans. Tony White. Harmondsworth,
  Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1963.
—-. Maigret’s Pickpocket, trans. Nigel Ryan. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf