Sunday Times, 13 March 2016
Detective Chief Inspector Jules Maigret of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris, situated at 36 Quai des Orfèvres, is the perfect modern man. He has no faith — his creator, Georges Simenon, abandoned Catholicism in his teens — and no time for great ideas of philosophy or society. He lives a comfortable bourgeois life, but he is in that world, rather than of it. His mind is usually far from his loving wife’s amply stocked table. His real dwelling is on what Robert Browning called “the dangerous edge of things”, the moments when the ordinary man plummets out of his ordinary life into crime.
Maigret is unlike other great fictional detectives — Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Miss Marple — in that he does not solve puzzles. He is more like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but he has none of Marlowe’s moral anguish. Nor does he, or his author, indulge in Chandlerian poetic musings. My theory is that he has influenced much more modern detectives: I remember Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968) making me think of Maigret, as did David Tennant in Broadchurch. Superficially they are quite different, but they share that sense of damaged cops being ever more damaged by the world they contemplate. Like Maigret, they are Christlike in absorbing the sins of the world, but, of course, there is no Christ for them.
For Maigret, evidence and the moral condition of society are secondary: all that matters is understanding the mind of the murderer. This is the most difficult task, perhaps an impossible one, because the criminal himself does not know his motives. He is “irresponsible”.
“My very first Maigrets,” Simenon said, “were imbued with the sense, which has always been with me, of man’s irresponsibility. This is never stated openly in my writings. But Maigret’s attitude to the criminal makes it quite clear.”
“Even in the Maigrets,” writes the philosopher John Gray, the greatest British explicator of Simenon, “the question is not why a crime was committed, but how the person who committed the crime departed from a settled routine of living, and the detective resolves the conundrum by imaginatively entering into the life of the suspect.”
So, in the first of two ITV Simenon films — Maigret Sets a Trap — Rowan Atkinson’s detective wanders through the bloody killings of Parisian women as if in a dream. His team wait on him and watch, knowing he is working in ways that are inaccessible or even offensive to ordinary cops. He gives the impression that, in some ultimate sense, he knows the murderer long before he meets him, and when he does meet him, the recognition is instant.
Atkinson is the latest in a distinguished line of TV and movie Maigrets. There was the still fondly remembered Rupert Davies from the 1960s TV series, and the more robust Michael Gambon in the 1990s. In France, there were three Maigret films starring the great Jean Gabin. No pressure, then, Rowan. But don’t worry, he pulls it off, not least by silently capturing the intensity of the unexpressed workings of the maestro’s mind.
Behind all this lies Simenon the man, one of the most successful authors of all time. He sold more than 600m books around the world. He wrote almost 500 and could knock off a Maigret in 10 days — eight days’ writing and two revising.
These astounding figures, and the fact that his most famous works are detective stories, have perhaps disguised from a few literary snobs that he is, without doubt, one of the greatest writers of our time, not least because, like Maigret, he is so perfectly of our time. André Gide was one of the earliest to point this out, and he has been followed by William Faulkner, Muriel Spark, Peter Ackroyd, PD James and John Banville.
The keeper of the flame is John Simenon, one of the three children of Simenon and his second wife, Denyse Ouimet. He was born in America and christened Jean, which swiftly became Johnny and now seems to have settled down to John. Though his first language was English, the family left America when he was young, and he now speaks English with a pronounced French accent.
He has spent his life working in the world of the media and intellectual property, but now, aged 67, he commits himself to his father, as, apparently, he has always done. In his memoir When I Was Old (great title!), Simenon, seemingly bewildered, writes of 10-year-old Johnny’s dogged devotion: “He has become a sort of disciple, which is disturbing. It’s a relation I’m not used to, and when I’m conscious of it, it bothers me.”
In a giant room in a Soho hotel, I remind John of this passage. He did indeed admire his father, but this account is, he feels, one of the exaggerations to which his father was prone — the most famous being his celebrated boast that he’d slept with 10,000 women.“I knew you would ask about that. He said that in a discussion about Casanova with Fellini. To take it literally is a bit of a jump, and I never did… My father is clearly a person who attracted the need to create a mythology around him.”
Nevertheless, devotion to the father runs in the family. Simenon was devoted to his, although, John points out, he was actually more like his mother. He also recalls that Simenon always said being a parent — he had four children — was his most important role in life. He told him, “Le métier d’homme est difficile” — being a man is a hard task — a wonderful manly message for a son. It was not, however, always hard for Simenon.
Whatever the actual number, he clocked up a large number of conquests, including, most famously, Josephine Baker, the black American dancer who became a huge celebrity and artists’ muse in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s. He was, in authorship and life, burdened with boundless energy. One symptom was women, another his pathological urge to move home, or just to move in general. John does a huge Gallic shrug when I mention this.
“I went through his diaries not long ago, trying to create a timeline of his life, and he was all over the place all the time. When I was born, in Tucson, he was going to LA twice a month. In those days, you had to have a car specially fitted for the journey. His whole life he was doing things like that.”
Another, darker aspect of the mythology is the suggestion that Simenon was a collaborator with the Germans during the war. The truth is that this has twice been dismissed by official investigations. All he seems to have been doing is getting on with his work with minimum interference.
“The facts are simple: he was a foreigner [Simenon was originally Belgian] in an occupied country and he had to report to the Germans every week. The collaboration is all part of the mythology. My father never went to Berlin, he never wrote a sentence in favour of the fascist regime and he never thought about them.”
The fact that Simenon was a foreigner in France is important. Though we tend to think of Maigret as the supremely French detective, John says he would have been completely different if the author had been born and brought up in France — “Not that he would have been a Belgian detective, just that he would have been different.”
Perhaps Simenon never lost the watchfulness, the anxiety and curiosity of the man abroad. The foreigner, the displaced and deracinated hero, is, of course, a central figure in modern literature; Maigret always feels like a stranger in a strange land.
Simenon was also a hypochondriac. A story he told about himself was that he had his blood pressure taken once when he embarked on a 10-day Maigret, and once when he had finished. It had usually fallen, he said. In fact, John says, he had his blood pressure taken all the time, not just when starting or finishing a book, and he introduced the American habit of annual check-ups for all his family. He needn’t have worried. He died in September 1989, aged 86, having burnt the candle at both ends and got away with it.
His later years had been darkened by the suicide of his daughter, Marie-Jo, in 1978, when she was 25. John can scarcely speak of this. He offers no explanation and clearly feels there is nothing to be said. “It affected him more than anything, not because he was Simenon, but because he was a human being.” Her death inspired one of his latest autobiographical books, Intimate Memoirs.
Nevertheless, in old age he attained a degree of what John calls “tentative serenity”, a rest from his superhuman energy and his unremittingly bleak view of the human animal. He found peace in acceptance. “Maigret’s was a far from perfect world, but he finds his place in it. That’s the difference between Maigret and my father. My father finds a certain centre of gravity within that chaotic world. You felt he would have to struggle much harder to be able to find that serenity.”
Simenon’s reputation seems to fluctuate more than most. John says, a touch bitterly, that he was utterly dismissed in France in the 1960s. “But now I have the feeling people are definitely getting it much more intuitively and quickly when they are reading the romans durs [the “hard novels”, generally regarded as his finest].
“There’s a new generation discovering him. David Hare has adapted a late book, La Main, as The Red Barn, and that’s going to be on at the National Theatre. That was dismissed when it was first published.”
I ask him why we are now beginning to understand Simenon’s works. “There is a resonance, I think, that is taking place. It may have to do with the world we live in today. It’s not an easy world. We had an illusion in the 1960s. Now we are post-ideological, post-growth.” We live, perhaps, in the world of Maigret’s mind.
John, however, now seems to have found comfort and, perhaps, serenity in his immersion in the world and works of Simenon. He speaks often of his gratitude to writers such as Banville and, especially, Gray for offering him new critical pathways into that mighty imagination. Does he do all this as an act of love or, perhaps, payback for the father to whom he was devoted?
“No. I’m going to sound a little strange here. I’m really doing it for pleasure. People say his books are like a mirror offered to the reader, but that mirror is my father, and when I am reading, I am going deep into my own roots. How can I find that a burden, for Christ’s sake?”