By Georges Simenon
Translated by David Watson
Penguin Classics, 2019
A brutal portrait of human weakness and venality.
As I got into this very decent, good enough crime novel (Simenon does not write masterpieces but he doesn’t do duds either), I recalled something I read once concerning Walter Benjamin’s reading habits. Benjamin is a celebrated intellectual, of course, and he was as well, for his sins, an inveterate consumer of detective stories. He read loads – it is pretty much certain that he read Simenon, actually – and believed that crime novels (and maybe literary novels too?) should be read in one go, wolfed down in at most a few days, while the human passions contained within them were fresh and immediate and intense. What is interesting here (the reason why I recalled and record all this) is that Benjamin read novels in the same way that Simenon wrote his, that is over the space of a few intense days. Given his writing practice, it is no wonder that Simenon was so prolific, pulp fiction’s very own Balzac.
What I like about Simenon’s fiction is its opulent polyphony; there is always a lot going on. There is more than one case, as often as not (here robbery – a series of jewel heists – segues into murder), and a bevy of intriguing suspects and seeming innocents to keep tabs on. Maigret has an infinite number of junior detectives that he can direct to do the donkey work, perhaps by following persons of interest, though you wouldn’t get that nowadays, what with the current level of cuts to the police budget. And this rich incident always makes for engaged and entertaining reading. Hardly surprising, then, that Hammett, a crime writer who did write masterpieces, admired him so much.
His great detective, Maigret, is not unlike Sherlock Holmes: a pipe smoker, yes, yet, more importantly, a man who is remorseless in the pursuit of truth. even as he realises that it is all – most of what he does, anyway – ultimately futile. And Maigret’s Paris (by Paris I mean Paris, France) is as vividly wrought as Holmes’s London. It is not so much a city as a Circle of Hell that twists its denizens into queer shapes, swerves them toward unstable alliances that make betrayal more or less inevitable. Paris, City of Light, has a civilised veneer but it is in fact a savage, merciless jungle.
Mind, Simenon has a darker, a more profound or, at any rate, a more complicated understanding of human beings when compared with Conan Doyle. Each novel (in the present one, Maigret is hunting for the killer of a jewel thief) offers an unwelcome peek into what low evil people are capable of. But while evil comes – can only come – into the world through human beings, there is one bright consolation. Human beings are weak. Their petty, ambitious schemes for advancement tend to come to nothing in the end; their carnal, scherzo passions soon enough peter out. Here criminals are unhappy failures, participants in a petty tragedy. Maigret’s patience, his staying power, ensures his triumph.
Penguin is apparently reissuing all of Maigret novels in new translations. This is number 64. If you want to finish them all in one lifetime, my advice is learn to read jildy, like a certain Walter Benjamin.
The publisher’s description of Maigret’s Patience can be read here.