Anyone intending to read the complete works of Belgian writer Georges Simenon has a task on their hands. According to the brief biography at the front of The Second Simenon Omnibus (about which, more anon), he published over 180 novels in his own name (which begs the question, how many more under a pseudonym?), including 67 in his Inspector Maigret series. And that was in 1975, when the latest edition of the Omnibus was published.
By that reckoning, I’m barely scratching the surface of Simenon’s output: like many readers I came to him via the Maigret books, of which I’ve read maybe four or five. They’re terrific reads, and I have a great time whilst I’m consuming them; but they also blur somewhat, and I have to think hard about whether I’ve actually read that one, or what the plot of another actually is.
That’s very far from being the case with Simenon’s non-Maigret output, and this is also the reason why I’m bestowing him the dusty and recently little-used MNFA-status. Simenon made a clear distinction in his writing between the Maigret books, which he could pump out with frightening regularity, and his other novels – books he liked to call romans dur, ‘tough’ novels. In the Maigret books, the ending is never really in any doubt: criminal is captured, order is restored. In Simenon’s other works, however, nothing is quite so simple. After the initial set-up, you literally don’t know what is going to happen next – except for the certainty that the outcome will be very, very bad. These books are also usually very short, so their tight focus never wavers for a second.
You can read what I thought of one of Simenon’s most celebrated romans dur ‘The Stain on the Snow’ here. But there are two other titles I also wanted to highlight which are very different, but no less gripping or dramatic. The first, Sunday, takes a tight time-frame (the single day of the title) and a classic plot (unfaithful husband decides to murder nagging wife) and does something remarkable with it. Simenon tightens the tension as the novel progresses; as reader, you have the nagging, uncertain feeling that this plot might yet succeed, even if you’re not sure how. And then the climax comes, and you’re left re-evaluating everything that has come before it, and where your sympathies truly lie.
Most recently (coming back to The Second Simenon Omnibus), I read The Accomplices. First, context: during summer holidays, I used six weeks out of the classroom to catch up on my reading. I’ll leave the full list for another post, but suffice to say that it included quite a lot of non-fiction, some it of quite long. What I wanted was something short and punchy; and when I found the Omnibus (which I believed I’d mistakenly discarded) in a bottom drawer, I knew I’d found my next book.
The Accomplices starts with a simple premise: small-town businessman Joseph Lambert is driving in his car, his attention much more focused on his mistress in the passenger seat than the bus full of school-children behind him. Lambert swerves suddenly into the middle of the road; the bus crashes, bursts into flames, and all but one of the passengers are killed. Lambert flees the scene, seemingly without anyone witnessing what has happened. Or have they?
This simple device gives Simenon the key to unlocking an extraordinary exploration of guilt, obsession and small-town paranoia. The writer invades Lambert’s head; not once in the novel’s 124 pages does the focus shift from him. The reader comes to know him extremely – and arguably, too – well, becoming party to Lambert’s darkest thoughts. He makes all sorts of internal bargains and promises, somehow convincing himself it would be better for the community if he were not to admit his guilt. In making this decision, Lambert is lead ultimately to his doom.
As usual with Simenon barely a word is wasted, and the plot drives onward with a tragic, irrevocable inevitability. Having said that, Simenon does not lay everything out on a plate for the reader; he retains an important ambiguity, with the reader questioning what is happening, and why Lambert decides to behave in the way he does. Today, one might argue that he is suffering from PTSD, having seen the accident take place and feeling responsible for it. But there is also frustration on the reader’s part at the way Lambert is unable to fully grasp redemption when it is offered to him. His fate – when it does come – feels utterly fitting.
Simenon is such an interesting and varied writer that I regret that I didn’t start reading him earlier. My chances of reading his whole output are slim, but that doesn’t stop me making the attempt. Be sure not to make the same mistake – seek out his works wherever you may be.