In January this year, Penguin Modern Classics published Georges Simenon’s last novel to feature his laconic French detective, Inspector Jules Maigret. It was something of an event for it heralded the culmination of a mammoth long-term project to publish new translations of the seventy-five Maigret novels which Simenon wrote between 1931 and 1972. The first in the series, Pietr the Latvian, was reissued in November 2013; Maigret and Monsieur Charles now completes the set and caps a laudable endeavour.
Simenon (1903-1989) is best remembered as the creator of Maigret. However, the exploits of his pipe-smoking Parisian commissaire constitute only one part of his output. Simenon wrote around 400 novels, either under his own name or pseudonymously. Most of them he churned out in eleven days — supposedly eight days spent composing and three correcting. In 1933, with nineteen Maigrets under his belt, he shocked and incensed his publisher by announcing that he was putting his detective “on the shelf” and writing “a real novel now.” A string of them ensued. Simenon called them romans durs, or “hard novels”. He considered them more serious than his formulaic Maigret adventures and thought they might secure him the Nobel. They never did, but the finest of them are mercilessly bleak and psychologically astute studies of human nature.
The Maigrets may well have run dry but Penguin continues to publish these dark, flinty masterpieces. Some of them appear in English for the first time. Those who have yet to sample them and be seduced by their brutal charms will find a suitable entry-point in Mr Hire’s Engagement, an early work completed in 1933 shortly after Simenon put Maigret into cold storage. The title character is far from sympathetic. He is physically repulsive (“one sensed in him neither flesh nor bone, nothing but soft, flaccid matter”) and a man of mystery. Gradually, Simenon fills in the blanks. When not visiting bars, bowling clubs or bath-house brothels, or working late in Paris trading dubious literature, Mr Hire can be found holed up in his apartment spying on his pretty neighbour Alice. His concierge, who lives in fear of him, believes he killed the call girl who was recently discovered nearby, mutilated beyond all recognition. Police are on the lookout for a man with scratches on his face. Their prime suspect is Mr Hire, who has taken to wearing a bandage on his cheek to conceal a nasty “shaving cut”.
Simenon thickens his plot. Detectives pursue Mr Hire, waiting for him to put a foot wrong. Alice tries to tempt him into showing his true colours. But the book’s bogeyman and wanted man turns out to be innocent. Far more offensive are the sleazy police officers. “Admit this sex fiend business excites you!” says one of them while groping Alice. “All women are alike.” Simenon cranks up the tension and flags up injustice as he works towards a gripping final scene inspired by a sight he witnessed as a cub reporter in Liège: that of a desperate man hanging from a roof pursued by a baying mob.
There is similar suspense and queasy uncertainty at play in The Mahé Circle (1946). Set on the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles, where Simenon spent valuable recreation time, it tells the story of one man’s infatuation with a young woman beyond his reach and his subsequent breakdown. While on holiday with his family on the island, Dr Mahé comes in contact with Elisabeth, a striking teenager in a red dress. It is the briefest of encounters, but it is enough to render him smitten. Returning to the mainland after his break he becomes fractious and restless. The only solution is Porquerolles: “Down south, all the time, he had felt as if there was a tremendous chaos around him, a kind of life that was too vivid, so that the slightest contact with it made his blood pulse more quickly and prompted a rising fever inside him.”
The good doctor comes back to the island over successive summers to play boules, drown his sorrows in pastis, and, above all, track down Elisabeth. But in time that “rising fever” intensifies and pushes him towards the edge of madness. Simenon expertly depicts Mahé’s inner turmoil. We feel his pain and grasp the total extent of his mental and moral collapse. It is hard not to be disturbed by Mahé’s desire for innocent Elisabeth to be “soiled, broken”, or by the general sense of unease and foreboding that accompanies his every move. And yet Simenon ensures we stay focused and follow his protagonist’s fate until the bitter end.
Not all the romans durs play out against French backdrops. The Hand, written in 1968, employs as its setting a fictionalised version of Shadow Rock Farm (here Yellow Rock Farm) in Lakeville, Connecticut, where Simenon lived during the early 1950s. One cold January night two couples drive home from a party but get stuck in a snowstorm. Donald and his wife Isabel continue home on foot with their friend Mona. But Mona’s husband Ray disappears in the blizzard. Donald heads out to look for his best and oldest friend but ends up taking shelter in his barn. There he smokes one cigarette after the other while musing on his inaction and his culpability (“isn’t the refusal to help someone in danger considered a kind of crime?”) Slowly, he makes sense of his jumbled thoughts and puzzling rationale: in actual fact he hates and envies Ray for being a successful New York advertising executive and for having a more glamorous and beautiful wife.
Ray’s body is eventually found, by which time Donald has already started an affair with his widow. But he has also developed a negative, almost nihilistic outlook, no longer believing in his family, mankind, or even himself. Compounding his misery, and prompting his crack-up, is the fear that Isabel has got wise to his deceptions and now suspects him of both cheating on her and leaving his friend to die. She chooses not to confront him openly and verbally; instead he is disconcerted by her silent treatment: “She deploys an entire range of looks like precision instruments,” a guilt-ridden Donald informs us. “I might reply to words, but you cannot reply to eyes.” Simenon’s slow-burn of a drama smoulders and crackles throughout – then flares up in the shocking denouement.
Penguin has just released another of Simenon’s non-Maigret works set in America. Three Bedrooms in Manhattan was originally published in 1946. It revolves around two strangers going nowhere fast in New York who meet by chance in an all-night diner and embark on a passionate relationship. At first glance it seems a black sheep among the “hard” novels: it contains no deaths, no moral ambivalence and no real hint of menace. It does, however, share other traits with those books. It is claustrophobic, atmospheric and cinematic. Its characters are rocked by private crises and steered by odd impulses and urgent feelings. And by the end of the proceedings the author has trawled their minds, laid bare their hearts and excavated their souls.
François Combe is an actor who moved from Paris to New York after his wife left him for a younger man. Both his work and his luck have dried up. In the wee small hours he finds himself sitting on a bar stool and propping up a counter next to a fellow European exile. Kay was born in Vienna and married to a Hungarian count. Now she is adrift in the Big Apple with nowhere to live. The pair leave together and join forces: “Starting all over again from zero.” They spend their days wandering aimlessly through the city, stopping in bars and staying in cheap hotels and shabby rented rooms, each one clinging to the other for support. But their rosy future together becomes tarnished by his fits of jealousy and his anger at her lies and evasions. Then when she parts from him and makes a trip to Mexico to be with her sick daughter, his love for her turns frantic and obsessive. Will she come back to him? If not, can he survive without her?
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan is a captivating tour de force. The flawed characters ring true and the raw emotion feels real. There is a good reason for this: the book is one of Simenon’s most autobiographical novels, being a fictionalised account of his intense love affair with his second wife Denyse Ouimet. (The couple met in Manhattan in 1945 and married in Nevada five years later.) It is unclear to what extent Combe resembles his creator. One interlude suggests they may possess a similar libido. Combe comes clean to Kay about a one-night stand he had with another woman while she was in Mexico. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” he explains, “but simply because I’m a man. It might happen again.” It happened again and again for Simenon. Not content with writing 400 novels, he also allegedly found time to have sex with 10,000 women.
For us, it is the novels that matter. Unfortunately, much of Simenon’s output was quantity over quality. Some of his books are inconsequential; others feel dashed off. The romans durs are different. The majority still stand up — and indeed stand out — as grimly satisfying tales filled with complex characters out of control. Many of his protagonists are, in the words of writer John Banville, “feckless and reckless malefactors”: there is Kees Popinga in The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (1938), who breaks free of his safe domestic Dutch existence for a life of danger and lawlessness on the run; there is Hans Krull in The Krull House (1939), who wreaks havoc and sows distrust when he visits his relatives in rural France; and there is Simenon’s most despicable anti-hero Frank Friedmaier in The Snow Was Dirty (1948), a petty thief in a city under occupation who, in the depths of winter, commits one senseless and sickening act of violence after another.
Simenon excelled at sketching people but also places. Dr Mahé’s Porquerolles is no sun-kissed retreat, rather “a hostile world” governed by enervating heat and filled with smells, disease and shrieking cicadas. Mr Hire’s Paris is no romantic City of Light. Instead it comes alive through a series of monochrome street scenes: “The rain fell harder and harder. People waited at the kerbs as if by a river, unsure how to cross. The taxis moved slowly, afraid of skidding. In the kiosks, the newspapers slowly disintegrated.” And then there is the diner where lonely souls Combe and Kay take refuge in that city that doesn’t sleep: “The place smelled of fairgrounds, of lazy crowds, of nights when you stayed out because you couldn’t go to bed, and it smelled like New York, of its calm and brutal indifference.” Again and again Simenon worked wonders by keeping his prose lean, simple and unadorned. “You have a beautiful sentence — cut it,” he said in his 1955 Paris Review interview. “Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.” By pruning and trimming he took his readers right to the heart of the matter.
Despite Simenon’s best efforts, and to his immense frustration, his Maigret novels were the books his public really wanted. His publisher told him so in no uncertain terms when he learned Simenon was ditching Maigret and swapping genre fiction for literary fiction: “Just like Conan Doyle. He always wanted to kill off Holmes and write a real novel. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life. No author of detective novels has ever succeeded in other domains.” But Simenon did succeed elsewhere, and in the years since his death his romans durs have risen in stock and cemented his reputation. Alongside his Maigret books they can be viewed as optional extras. Far better, though, is to regard them as necessary companion pieces.