Simenon in the Pleiades
To celebrate George Simenon’s one hundredth birthday, twenty-one of his novels have just been assembled in two volumes in the prestigious “Pleiades” edition.
In addition to a luxurious presentation and the convenience of having the works grouped together, the interest of the “Pleiades” edition lies with the detailed annotations which accompany each text and which shed light on the reading, making it a fascinating way to extend one’s knowledge.
The publishers have entrusted the responsibility of this work to Professor Jacques Dubois from the University of Liège, President of the Centre of Georges Simenon Studies. We had the opportunity to record for you his thoughts about his task during the “Simenon Festival”, which takes place every two years at the Sables D’Olonne in Vendée.
-Perhaps we’ll begin with this: a French colleague, a Professor of Literature like me, very distinguished, I believe, and fascinated with Simenon, told me last week, “At the heart of it, Simenon in the Pleiades is a casting mistake. I will never read Simenon on Bible-like paper under a leather cover.”
-Well, I wasn’t insensitive to his comment, but I was able to respond to him without much difficulty. “Well, we’re all going to keep on reading Simenon in the paperback editions as well, and furthermore, it seems to me that the role that the Pleiades plays in this affair in particular is…. this collection which is somewhat the “editorial pantheon”, if you will, of literature, and not only French literature… is that with Simenon you open your spectrum a bit and welcome in an author who’s somewhat from another place compared with the more classic authors, if you will. And it seems to me that it’s absolutely important, that it’s absolutely a good thing. Besides, I noticed that since we’ve been talking about this edition and since the volumes came out-and already as you may know, have been sold out-the double Pleiades has for the moment become impossible to find, and since then I’ve heard very little negative feedback.”
-From this very vast work we would like, first off, to give a sort of representative image. If, in very few respects, we want to make someone who’s never entered into Simenon’s book understand what it’s about, what novels would we present? We determined a time criterion…a historical time criterion, if you like. Georges Simenon’s career was long, a half century, let’s say. We wanted the different periods which it covered to appear in these two volumes. And to simplify things, I’m going to qualify them here for you geographically. There was the French period, whether Parisian or provincial, and you know, it had quite a bit from the Vendée region. There was the American period, there was the Swiss period… all three are there, not all in equal proportions but fairly close. Finally, the last concern we had perhaps was, well, first not to leave out the titles which were considered as “not to be missed”, as they say today. I’ll just take one or two examples… how would you leave aside “Dirty Snow” which is a work of sheer genius, if you will. How would you leave aside “The Bells of Bicêtre”, which is a novel containing so many things. So, it had to be that the big titles were included. What’s more, I noticed along the way that we joined very well with the cinema. No one really wanted it, I think, but it turns out that most of the 21 novels, or in any case a majority of them, have been adapted into films.
There was also the theme criterion.
-You know “The Watchmaker of Everton” and you know perhaps its cinematography adaptation due to Tavernier. This novel, which is first of all a story of a father and son, is very representative of a series; the father/son theme is in any case very much present throughout the work. We saw to it that what “The Watchmaker of Everton” said was included. Speaking of which, all of his novels – and how numerous they are- about the little bourgeois man, about the simple man who, trapped in his routine, gets to be a certain age, and who all of a sudden breaks his moorings, leaves his family, leaves everything, runs away. It’s “The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By”, but it’s also “Monsieur Monde Vanishes”. We included “The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By”, but we didn’t include “Monsieur Monde Vanishes” in order to avoid doubling up. So, if “Monsieur Monde Vanishes” is your favourite or your preference, you’re going to hold it against us.
-He really revolutionized detective novels. He gave it a literary nobleness. What’s more– at the moment when, and without him knowing it, or very little of it, in my opinion– pretty much the same result transpired in the United States. You know, what we call in France “the dark series” and what the Americans call differently, dates back also to the 1930s, to the moment when Maigret was taking shape, and in both cases, the detective novel whose main expression was especially British, is in the process of changing meaning. And it’s going to become a work in its own right. I’ll quickly explain this– It’s going to become a work in its own right, if you will, a novel about what’s real, a realistic novel, we could say, which represents a state of society, and which very often represents it in a critical manner. And it’s in this way that Maigret, as you know, is not an ordinary detective, of course. And very often even, the solution to the puzzle does not figure in the foreground. In fact, for him it’s about understanding, it’s about explaining someone or several people, the suspects, the culprit, the victim, it varies, and it’s even who very often comes to his rescue regardless of the crime he has committed. It’s that to which this commissioner is often compared, who I’ll gladly say is a credit to public service, since he’s a civil servant, and a civil servant who does his job perfectly. Sometimes we quite easily compared this civil servant to a doctor, sometimes to a social worker, sometimes to a psychoanalyst. I think Maigret is a bit all of that. In any case, a profound student of French society at different moments.
-Contrary to what is sometimes thought, Georges Simenon was more attentive to the literature he wrote than he let on. And several critics at the time were already struck by the compatibility that existed between some of Simenon’s novels such as “Dirty Snow” or “The Widow” and those novels or novelists of existentialist thought. So, it could seem to be somewhat of an amazing overlap, but whether it referred to Camus or Sartre or Beauvoir, it’s true that Simenon wrote a kind of novel about the absurd, if you like, at least in some cases. Which is explained, moreover, by his profound question, “What is man; what is he doing here in this society in which he still hasn’t signed up for?”
-You’d have to talk about it with a lot of nuances, but in the end you could still say that worldwide he’s the novelist of certain bourgeoisie circle, which is rather traditional and locked into its routine, and who, at the moment when Simenon made it his aim, that is, in the 1930s, was in the midst of asking itself what its purpose was in the world, so to speak. From there on, probably, all of his novels were about break-ups. This theme about the simple bourgeois who wants to say, “I’m here!”, I think is a theme very anchored within Simenon, who would never stop saying, “There’s a social class there whom we must let speak. We need to let them speak, and since historically they’ve not had a voice, I’m going to give them a novelist’s voice.”
There are also traces of Simenon’s life in the work:
-You need to understand a little about the source, if you will, to realize, but all the same the attentive reader notices fairly easily that there are innumerable little motives like that which make their way through the entire work and which come from somewhere. I’ll gladly give you an example which is striking and simple. It’s that of the red hat. There is in the work as a whole a number of female characters, some of whom wear a red beret, some a red hat, some a red cap, and of course, it (the cap) comes from a girlfriend Georges Simenon had in his adolescence, who was spotted thereafter.
-Look in the novels, there are many choir children. They begin with “The Saint-Fiacre Affair”, but we’re going to find a lot of it again in what follows. It comes from somewhere, it comes from far off, it comes from Simenon’s service at the chapel mass at the Bavière hospital. But, in the end, it’s not essential to know that in order to understand that there is an almost dream-like quality, if you will, which played a very big role and which kept the author busy throughout his life.
And his contribution in terms of his writing?
-Simenon’s writing always somewhat embarrassed the critics, the journalists, everyone. I think on the other hand-and even if it’s not a writing which is obviously rhetorical, all the rhetoric with the metaphors, the metonymies, the figures of speech, etc., is rather absent– it’s not certain, but I think that there are some very strong writing styles with Simeon, which are used to describe, to make a point, to observe. A certain Jacques Drillon made a very subtle remark which was spot on, it seems to me. He said this thing which seems enormous: “Simenon writes in long sentences.” It jumps out at you that he writes in short sentences, but Drillon explained it very well by saying, “You don’t have to look at the sentences as being tied together.” The uniting factor with Simenon is the paragraph. And the paragraph is general because he’s often starting a new paragraph made of four, three, four, five consecutive sentences. But which are well articulated together. And when you read the flow of them, they make for a single sentence, if you will, with a very strong flow, a very strong impulse.
-Simenon’s use of the imperfect is no small thing. In the same way, Albert Camus – you see the comparisons repeat – did something amazing with the past tense in “The Stranger”. Simenon accomplished with the imperfect a usage which goes a long way because he gives to it this tense, which is the tense of an underlying duration, if you will, a much larger extension than what we do when we write or when we speak.
-I’ll leave you, finally, on that note. I don’t want to make a class out of it. You see professors always finish with what they feel comfortable.
In the month after its publication, Simenon-Novels sold 15,000 copies – beating out therefore all of the records for the Pleiades edition.
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