*Is there a reason the English-speaking world should be rediscovering Simenon now?
New York Review Books has begun reissuing his non-Maigret novels—eight so far. (Disclosure: I wrote the introduction to The Man Who Watched Trains Go By [1938; all titles in English translation].) These books, which Simenon called romans durs (hard novels) or roman-romans (novel-novels), are not mysteries, although they usually involve crime. They are hard, blunt, frequently punishing studies of human beings driven by circumstance and personality to the ends of their tethers, forcing them to extreme measures. Most of them were overlooked by English-language readers when they first came out; they often had only one printing, or were published in the UK but not in the US, or were never translated at all. Why this should have been is uncertain. Maybe American culture wasn’t ready for them. Today, they appear with the force of revelation, as if they had been unearthed decaying in a warehouse instead of lying in plain sight all these years. Weaned on moral ambiguity, their readers are ready for them. They are acute, compact, remarkably varied, and as lapidary as great pop songs, and there are 117 of them.
*Simenon made a distinction between his Maigret novels and his romans durs. (I’m reminded of Graham Greene’s distinction between his entertainments and novels proper. Similarly Joyce Carol Oates has her genre novels written under a pseudonym, and the rest; she generalizes that the genre formula demands closure, whereas serious fiction allows for ambiguity.) Do you think this is a legitimate distinction? What makes the romans durs dur?
*I recently read my first Maigret (Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard), and I was struck by how similar it was in its themes to the romans durs. The notable difference is that in the case of Maigret novels, it’s Maigret who is observing and unfolding the themes in the lives of the victims and criminals he deals with, whereas in the romans durs, they are lived and narrated from the inside.
*One of the recurring themes in the romans durs is the idea of stepping outside of your life – sometimes it’s a conscious, active decision to break with the day-to-day (Monsieur Monde Vanishes, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By), often it’s a passive giving in to circumstances and acting on impulses that in normal circumstances one would put in check (The Train, Red Lights), and sometimes we see characters that have long dissociated from reality (The Strangers in the House, The President).
It's a fairly normal... temptation is too strong, but curiosity — simply most people don’t act on it.
Simenon in interview wondered if it would be possible to live several lives simultaneously, but to live each one properly.
*Simenon:"I was born in the dark and in the rain and I got away. The crimes I write about are the crimes I would have committed if I had not got away. I am one of the lucky ones. What is there to say about the lucky ones except that they got away?"
*One of the ironies is that stepping outside of your life doesn’t lead to happiness (well, maybe very temporarily) — indeed, it often has tragic consequences (Act of Passion, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By). Or it leads to the very kind of life you left behind (Monsieur Monde Vanishes).
*Many Simenon characters flout social convention for the sake of it — why not? — not out of any conviction about the standards they’re held to. Their behaviour holds that “a respectable bourgeois life isn’t a choice as much as it is a lack of opportunity” (Guy Savage, blogger) (Act of Passion, The Train).
*These characters just want to feel something. In Red Lights, for example, Steve is essentially picking a fight with Nancy for the whole car ride, testing to see if his having one more drink will set her off. It’s not to make her angry per se, but for her to show some emotion, some life.
*What about love? Many characters seem to act out of love (Monsieur Hire, and the man in Act of Passion, for example). It’s easy to dismiss this as simple physical attraction, lust, but it seems to me these men genuinely believe they’re in love, though they barely know the women they fall for.
*Simenon: "A man never forgives a woman who forces him to tell lies."
*Simenon claimed to have had sex with 10,000 women. Does this colour what his books express about love, or passion?
*The traditional detective/crime novel is a kind of morality play, where we expect order to be fully restored at the end. Do you find this to be the case with Simenon’s novels (whether his Maigret stories or the romans durs)? Is there a clear sense of right and wrong? Of justice? Of just desserts?
*The Train is a distressing novel because it's about doing the right thing, and it forces you to consider what the right thing is. How often when we do the right thing is it the socially expected thing, the socially accepted thing? Doing right is an adherence to social norms and standards; it has very little to do with being good. Often, "right" and "good" coincide. But it's devastating when they come into conflict.
*Simenon: "We are all failed heroes."
Do you find Simenon’s characters to be sympathetic (me: usually)? Realistic (me: at least believable)? Do they ever find redemption (me: rarely!)?
*Most mysteries by their nature are plot-driven. It’s been said that Simenon's books are "a subversion of the detective genre and its constraints," and novels might rather be about atmosphere or character study. (Chad Post, publisher Open Letter Press, blogger, critic)
*Deduction was replaced by intuition. (Simenon when he was 17 apparently wrote a parody of Sherlock Holmes.) Is this a credible technique? Why does this have such great appeal to readers (does it)?
*"On the whole Commissaire Maigret finds criminality easy to understand and adopts a frankly sympathetic attitude towards many of his clients. His first question is not "Who committed this crime?" but "Why was it committed?" and in order to answer, he has to understand the person who committed it." (Marnham, p 100)
*The narrator is not omniscient — he sees everything, but he doesn’t know everything. We rarely get a glimpse inside the characters' heads. Simenon describes their actions, their words, their expressions, but it's up to the reader to fill in the emotions and motivations.
Simenon doesn't pass judgement (nor does Maigret), that's for the reader to do.
*Henry Miller: "Few writers are able to express this everyday, intimate, universal realm of thought and sensation. It makes me envious . . . It's what you leave out that makes your books so full of revereberations."
*Colette to Simenon: "Pas de littérature!... Supprimez toute la littérature et ça ira!"
The language is economical — it gives the impression that Simenon says exactly what he wants to say, he is always in control. Simenon limited himself to a vocabulary of 2000 words.
*"The writing is utilitarian, sparse, and probably had to be, since Simenon wrote his novels at a blistering clip. And he seemed to have an "of the people" belief that the language in his books should be comprehensible to all. A sort of anti-literary stance, which may have hurt his reputation as a "great writer" (well, that and the fact that he wrote 400 plus books), but did get him a large readership." (Chad Post, publisher Open Letter Press, blogger, critic)
Do you think Simenon is anti-literary? Would his novels be received differently if they were written today?
Online resources at Words without Borders
Joyce Carol Oates describes these novels as "a sequence of cinematic confrontations in which an individual—male, middle-aged, unwittingly trapped in his life — is catapulted into an extraordinary adventure that will leave him transformed, unless destroyed."
Review at Three Percent
The Engagement starts with an immediate reversal of a typical crime reader’s expectations — instead of starting with a crime, or the set-up for a crime, the book opens in the aftermath of a murder with a very tense interaction between the solitary Mr. Hire and his concierge, who is a bit frightened of him. It’s only after this portrait of a creepy, suspicious, bloody man is damningly established that we hear about the dead prostitute.
Interview with Tristan Davies (author and lecturer)
"Simenon has that special gift of making something seedy seem at once mundane and yet spectacularly relevant."
"Simenon never tried to write tough. Instead, he wrote evocatively about a tough world."
Essay on Simenon’s influences
Reading these chapters made me extremely nervous. I have no idea of how Simenon achieves this effect, because there is nothing overtly sinister going on. There are no supernatural events à la John Dickson Carr, and no conventional suspense technique or events. There is just an apparently normal middle class suburb. But the reader constantly waits for some totally ominous catastrophe to erupt. The sheer placidity of everything is frightening. Maigret himself seems to do no real detection, but rather to just stand around and observe the suspects. His lack of action engenders a helpless feeling in the reader. So do the hints that something monstrous or abnormal is going on at the house of The Three Widows in the tale. Paradoxically, when the solution finally comes, it is far less frightening than the body of the story. It deals with mere criminality, something that seems far more familiar to the reader than the nameless dread which dominates most of the novel. Also, here Maigret finally takes action and does things.