“Maigret and the Penguin Books” (published by the Penguin Collectors Society)

Multitude of covers covering a multitude of sins

The world is divided neatly into collectors and others, the latter being people who scratch their heads trying to understand why there are oddballs around them who amass such bizarre items as different strands of barbed wire, back scratchers and banana stickers (yes, it’s all true), rather than just plain old things such as postage stamps, cigarette cards, comics, autographs, mounted butterflies and so on. Or perhaps, in this case, the 127 English editions of the 75 “Maigret” books written by Belgian author Georges Simenon between 1931 and 1972, and published by Penguin.
25. February 2023 8:29

I was going to say “we collectors” rather than merely “collectors”, as I did once put together a mightily impressive (non-Simenon) assemblage myself, and it might have even got me on Google or in the Guinness World Records alongside these I found recently – weirdoes with 10,558 Coca-Cola cans, 571 Daleks, 730 umbrella covers, 75,000 pieces of McDonald’s memorabilia , 15,000 Barbies, 500 traffic cones, 6290 air sick bags, the previously mentioned back scratchers (675) and much more madness (but we deign to dignify the belly-button-fluff fellow). However, more about mine in a moment, and I did eventually kick the compulsion. This is about Penguin and its Maigrets, and a worthy literary topic it is.

First of all, as the Introduction to this splendid little publication recounts, Georges Simenon (born in Liège, Belgium, 1903, died in Lausanne, Switzerland, 1989) “was first a journalist, wrote masses of pulp fiction, numerous detective stories, and many serious novels the genre of which does not easily translate from the French romans durs. Late in life he created copious autobiographical works. Some 425 books bear his name, or one of several early pseudonyms, as that of their author”. (The blurb translates romans durs as “serious novels” – in Simenon’s eyes they were more consequential than the Maigrets.)

And further, “One-sixth of his enormous output involved the character for whom he is best known, Commissaire Jules Maigret of the Paris police judiciaire.” Penguin has for over 60 years been Simenon’s main paperback publisher in the UK, and it is this publishing history that is shown in “Maigret and the Penguin Books”, a detailed bibliography listing the French and Penguin titles of each edition and – collectors take note – illustrating all 127 covers of Penguin Maigrets issued between 1945 and 2007.

Historically, it was in 1935 when British publisher Allen Lane brought out the first Penguin books, realising his vision to make quality books available to all at low prices. They cost sixpence each and famously had plain colour-coded covers with no illustration: orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for crime. The first batch included works by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie. Independently of all this, over in Paris the ultra-prolific Simenon had relocated from Liège and had already published his first 20 Maigret books between 1931 and 1934, in French, of course.

The detective was a success and ultimately became very widely translated – a figure of some 50 different languages is usually bandied around. So, in the UK, Penguin stepped in in 1945. And here in the Penguin Collectors Society’s remarkably comprehensive history we find the 127 covers beginning with the simple green-and-white-banded editions, evolving into all green with strong black images, then more green-and-white ones with black-and-white photos from the 52 memorable BBC Television adaptations between 1960 and 1963 featuring British actor Rupert Davies with his much-lauded characterisation of Maigret.

Colour covers inevitably followed, with photos reflecting the fact that the 75 books had primarily Parisian settings but also rural canals and ports. Then there were issues to coincide with actor Richard Harris’s turn as Maigret in a 1988 television film and Michael Gambon’s 12 title roles in a 1990s TV series. Also, editions to mark Penguin’s 60th anniversary in 1995 and the 100th anniversary of Simenon’s birth, which was 2003.

And so on – Penguin Classics; Red Classics; a few American covers; art deco-style with images by celebrated photographers; orange, green and silver spines; omnibuses and the instantly recognisable oval Penguin colophon, the publisher’s emblem or imprint.

A bonus, as if it’s needed, is a brief guide to many other works on Simenon and Maigret “which devotees of both will relish exploring”. Also, invaluable information on the French and different Penguin titles used over the years for the same English book and creating a source of confusion for readers – for instance, “Signed Picpus” became “To Any Lengths”, and “Félicie est là” was transformed into both “Maigret and the Toy Village” and “Maigret in Exile”.

And we find here a thorough history of the Penguin-Maigret connection, plus the French and Penguin titles of the 28 Maigret short stories and a nice piece by English writer Julian Barnes on the whole phenomenon. “Maigret and the Penguin Books” was published in 2015 in an edition of only 750 copies, and since then Maigret’s popularity has been further underlined, by the completion of Penguin’s ambitious project to retranslate all 75 books and issue them one a month between 2013 and 2020 (the start of which is covered here, and thus the 127 would now be 202), also DVDs at long last of the entire 1960s Rupert Davies series.

One small criticism of “Maigret and the Penguin Books” – its occasional use of French phrases without translating them. A bit irritating, that, but otherwise this is a great volume for the Simenon/Maigret enthusiast. Hopefully one day it could be expanded to include the romans durs.

The Penguin Collectors Society, founded in 1973 by a small band of enthusiasts, describes itself as an educational charity aiming to encourage and promote the study of Penguin Books and of conserving historical material in institutions available to researchers. “The Penguin Collector is the society’s twice-yearly journal. “Maigret and the Penguin Books” is the second volume in the Penguin Papers series, the first being “William Shakespeare in Penguin Books by Martin Yates.

The Budapest Times bookshelves contain some 150 Simenons, half of them the post-2013 retranslated Maigrets. It’s not so much a collection, more an accumulation.


Postscript – As signalled above, your writer, Mr. Osterberg, hinted at his own murky past in the addictive world of collecting. Now an ageing relic, he was a teenager in the UK in the 1960s and grew up with Beatlemania. He had a few random books on the group and then, in the 1980s, stumbled on a memorabilia shop in New York City and bought a few original 1964 US paperbacks on the Beatles.

Returning home, now in Australia, he put his few books together and, in his own words, “felt a collection coming on”. A decade or so later he had 800-plus books on the group and hundreds of magazines with them on the cover, from many countries. As the madness faded, he wrote to George Harrison at his Friar Park home in Henley-on-Thames, UK, and offered the collection.

A letter arrived back from the Beatles’ company Apple, saying Mr. Harrison would like to know the price. Upon being informed, nothing further was heard. The collection eventually went mostly to a fellow similarly stricken, and we hope he is still going strong.

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