“Simenon. The Man, The Books, The Films” by Barry Forshaw (published by Oldcastle Books)

Detective, defectives under the magnifying glass

I wouldn’t call it an obsession, as such, but certainly a deep fascination. It began decades ago with the many books and then spread to the author himself – The Man – and finally on to the resultant films. Not in quite the same order as in this book, then, and certainly not with the same depth of knowledge, for Forshaw shows that there are still things to be learned about all aspects of this fascinating subject.
11. December 2022 8:54

While all 75 of Georges Simenon’s “Maigret” novels adorn The Budapest Times bookshelves, we only have half of the 28 “Maigret” short stories and also just some half of the 120 so-called psychological novels – enough to be going on with for sure, but still leaving us feeling a mite jealous of the other juicy material about which Forshaw informs us. (Collecting from Hungary adds to the difficulty and cost.)

Regular readers of these Budapest Times columns may have noticed a distinct bias towards the works of Simenon, and this is due to the efforts of publisher Penguin Random House, which retranslated those 75 “Maigret”s and put them out one a month in chronological order between 2013 and 2020. Penguin also gave us half a dozen short stories and now they are publishing a retranslated roman dur (the “hard novels” featuring assorted oddballs) every couple of months or so, with around 15 so far and more coming – long may it continue.

Belgian author Simenon, Forshaw reminds us, was, by the time he died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1989 the most successful writer of crime fiction in a language other than English in the entire field. His most iconic creation was the pipe-smoking Inspector Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire in Paris, but simultaneously the standalone psychological books are among the most commanding in the genre.

Forshaw approaches his subject from a number of angles –  Simenon’s life and character, his remarkable literary achievements  and the many adaptations of his work in other media: cinema, television, radio and so on. Apart from the author’s own essays, he has interviewed people who worked with Simenon or on his books: publishers, editors, translators and other specialist writers.

First, then, The Man – Georges Joseph Christian Simenon, born in Liège, Belgium on February 13, 1903; dispiriting jobs to pay father’s debts, then journalist at Gazette de Liège; when teenage published his first novel, joined bohemian group, married young; moved to Paris in 1922, published many novels and stories under great number of noms de plume, travelled the canals of France and Europe; in 1930s introduced doughty Maigret who became his principal literary legacy, branded a collaborator in World War Two, so relocated to Canada and the United States; returned to Europe in 1950s, finally settling in Lausanne.

It is Paris that is central to the Simenon ouevre, and Forshaw conducts us on a tour around the police headquarters at 36 Quai des Orfèvres on the banks of the Seine on the Île de la Cité; the crooks, drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes of Pigalle; the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir where Maigret and his wife lived, the Taverne Henri IV by the Pont Neuf and La Coupole at 102 Boulevard de Montparnasse that Simenon frequented, and sleazy Montmartre; and, while much of his Paris has changed, the beautiful Place des Vosges, where he lived, still retains its elegant atmosphere from the surrounding 17th-century buildings.

And then there are those sometimes rubbery numbers associated with Simenon – 75 “Maigret” mysteries, 117 “serious” novels, which Forshaw calls mostly  psychological thrillers in the deepest shades of noir, 200-odd pulp potboilers of his torrentially productive youth (the noms de plume ones), the slimmed-down vocabulary of 2000 or so words, the infamous 10,000 women he said he had sex with, including many prostitutes and a figure revised to 1200 by his second wife, plus, beyond dispute, sales of more than 500 million books by his death.

Son John Simenon casts doubt on the 10,000 figure, and Penguin editor Josephine Greywoode talks about the raison d’etre in resissuing those 75 “Maigret”s in spanking new translations, and how the translators tackled the rhythm, syntax and sentence structure of the author’s original French. The whole ethos of the ambitious project was to be as faithful as possible to Simenon without smoothing him out. Some of the translators themselves talk about the issues they faced, and similarly there are the dilemmas in transplanting Simenon from the written page to other media, such as English-language radio.

For the Simenon enthusiast a particularly valuable part of this guide to The Man is the listing of The Books, complete with short synopses. Here are all 75 “Maigret” cases and, if we counted correctly, no fewer than 107 of the romans durs. Presumably this number omits the few that haven’t been translated to English yet, but it would be useful to have a full list. “The Mahé Circle”, from 1944, wasn’t translated until 2014. Of course, it’s frustrating at the same time to read about the ones we don’t have, but will spur us on to greater efforts to find what we can.

And then we come to The Films. Since about 2007, this particular miscreant at The Budapest Times has engaged in wholesale theft of other people’s cultural property through the device known as downloading on the internet. Some call it outright theft, and perhaps they are right.

Anyway, we thought we were doing well, having tracked down and knocked off a dozen or more films made from Simenon’s works. Now, thanks to Forshaw, we find there have been some 68 films made from the novels, most of which we will never have the chance to see. Many aren’t on the market, let alone available as internet torrents, and the consolation must be that quite a few are apparently of dubious faithfulness to the source material anyway.

Still, we did recently buy the new “Maigret” box set starring Rupert Davies in the 1960s BBC production, and have already watched all 52 episodes. Forshaw covers these and other television series, such as the ones with Michael Gambon in the 1990s and Rowan Atkinson in 2016-17. Rowan Atkinson as Maigret? Being a fan of the books didn’t qualify him as good casting. Many viewers had their doubts and the series lasted for only four programs. Simenon gave Davies his imprimatur, presenting the British actor with a novel inscribed “At last I have found the perfect Maigret”.

This November saw Penguin issue “The New Investigations of Inspector Maigret”, a collection of 17 short stories that had been published in 1994 as “Maigret’s Pipe”, now retranslated in English. Ours is in the mail from London. Also in 2022 has come the film “Maigret” starring Gérard Depardieu and directed by Patrice Leconte. We knocked off a torrent and weren’t overly impressed with Depardieu, ageing and overweight, shuffling along.

But at least it means Simenon is living on, and “Simenon. The Man, The Books, The Films” tells us why and is a comprehensive study and suitable tribute. Barry Forshaw is described as one of the UK’s leading experts on crime fiction and film, a writer, broadcaster and journalist with many publishing credits.

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