One of 20th Century literature’s most revered detectives came to life nine decades ago in a café beside a Dutch canal. Author Georges Simenon would later remember enjoying a drink while sorting through images in his mind: “a large powerfully built gentleman … a pipe … a bowler hat … a thick overcoat.”
A gruff but dedicated Parisian policeman was being born — a policeman who would resist use of his first name and prefer to be known simply as Maigret as he prowled the mean dark streets of his creator’s universe.
Maigret’s fictional debut in 1930 marked the first instalment of an astonishing literary phenomenon, a grittily compelling mystery series whose devoted fan following would endure into the 21st Century. And now, Maigret and his creator, the incredibly prolific Georges Simenon, have dramatically reaffirmed their potency, courtesy of Penguin Books.
In November 2013, Penguin Classics announced that it would reissue, in new translations, all 75 Maigret mysteries. And it began with the very first, Pietr The Latvian, a book the Guardian newspaper promptly reappraised, concluding that it still captured the “moral squalor” of the Paris of 90 years ago.
The Bookseller magazine hailed the new series as “an ambitious act of reinvention” in the service of “some of the bleakest and best works ever produced in the genre.” And when the reborn Maigret canon finally reached its conclusion earlier this year with the publication of Maigret And Monsieur Charles, there could be no doubt of its success. Booker-winning novelist John Banville was calling it “a positively heroic publishing adventure.” And international sales had passed the million mark.
“It’s been an awful lot of books,” laughs Josephine Greywoode, the Penguin editor who oversaw the project from start to finish. “The one thing that crossed my mind was that this was an enormous undertaking. When I started, I wondered if I’d still be around when we got to the end. But I here I am!”
Chatting to Postmedia from London, Greywoode says that from the beginning she and her Penguin colleagues were conscious of the challenge they faced. “The sheer scale of it was quite daunting at the beginning. As you can imagine, it involved a big investment in time, But we proceeded with the hope and ambition that it would draw even more readers to the Maigret series, and we’ve been very pleased with the events so far.”
The Belgium-born Simenon, who lived from 1903 to 1989, was one of the most prolific novelists in history. He boasted that he could churn out a book in 11 days — in one year alone he actually delivered 11 new volumes. And he would often vomit from the tension of producing a daily torrent of words. He was not an admirable human being. Details of his messy personal life continue to stoke controversy, giving us a surly misanthrope, a compulsive womanizer who boasted of bedding 10,000 different conquests during his lifetime, a suspected wartime collaborator in Nazi-occupied France — and a bigot whose writings sometimes laid him open to charges of anti-Semitism.
”I think there are certain things in the novels that are very much of their time,” Greywoode says, choosing her words carefully. “They did come up in connection with our new translations. But they are part of that picture of that world — a world we might like to sentimentalize — but they did reflect prevailing attitudes.”
Yet Andre Gide called Simenon “perhaps the greatest and most truly a novelist in contemporary French letters.” Albert Camus revered him, as did William Faulkner who compared him to Chekhov. Meanwhile in popular culture, Maigret has flourished on both large and small screens. British television alone has fostered three Maigret series, the most recent starring Rowan Atkinson.
Early paperback editions of Maigret novels appeared in a famous green and white Penguin Crime format that now can fetch high prices in used bookshops. But this time the entire canon is appearing under the Penguin Classics banner.
“It’s very much in the spirit of Penguin Classics to encompass forgotten classics or ones that many readers haven’t heard of,” Greywoode says. “But we also seek to ensure that key books in our literary culture are available in packaging of a quality that keeps them fresh and relevant”
So Penguin took its time in bringing out the books.
“I basically did it one book at a time, which was very much the key to our approach,” Greywoode says. “In the past we might have done it in sets of 10 at a time, but this time round we wanted to give each novel its moment to be celebrated and savoured.”
“We wanted translations that would be faithful,” Greywoode says.
Aware that earlier English-language translations of Simenon have been of mixed quality, Penguin commissioned 10 top-notch translators to tackle the novels this time. “We wanted translations that would be faithful,” Greywoode says, adding that new translations will also be commissioned for planned reissues of other Simenon novels.
Meanwhile, the Maigret series is also winning plaudits for its stunning cover designs, which draw on the archives of legendary photographer Harry Gruyaert whose work is increasingly sought out by collectors.
Simenon repeatedly professed little interest in ingenious plotting. Yet he was prodigious in his gift for setting up tantalizing situations. An elderly vagrant is found dead in a condemned building. A childhood friend seeks Maigret’s help after his roommate is murdered. A mysterious letter arrives on Maigret’s desk warning of imminent murders — yet the informant doesn’t know the identity of the victim or the killer, or even when the crime will occur. A well-liked nightclub owner turns up dead in a cemetery. But Simenon rarely dealt with these puzzles in a predictable manner.
“The criminal is often less guilty than his victim,” he famously said.
British critic Sam Jordison has noted that the Maigret novels “show pathos, pain and human frailty … There’s satisfaction in watching Maigret at work, but there’s no sense of triumph. Maigret doesn’t win. The murderers and their victims always lose.”
Ultimately, the Maigret novels are about society, of which Simenon took a dim view. “Some readers still would like to read very reassuring novels, which gives them a comforting view of humanity.” he told Paris Review in a `1955 interview. “It can’t be done.”
So he bestowed a motto on his famous fictional policeman — “to understand and judge not.”
— Jamie Portman