I enjoy writing and talking about crime, be it at crime conferences or in the comfort of my own home. Its not all about listening to myself speak though, i do like to look deeper into the characters that I read about. It is not a forensic academic look, but more from the heart.
This chapter appeared in “‘Crime Uncovered: Detective” Edited by Barry Forshaw. It was Published by Intellect in September 2015 and focused on how I thought Chief Inspector Jules Maigret might have behaved during the Second world War. As Simenon didnt place his novels in any time period it was quite a difficult task. But here are my thoughts anyway:
Simenon and Maigret: Moral quandaries
Qu’est-ce que vous avez fait pendant la guerre, papa? Yes, exactly what did Jules Maigret do during the war? Maigret was, of course, very happily married, but with his only child dying in infancy, it remains one of the few questions Maigret was never asked. His creator, the Belgian writer Georges Simenon, would not be obliged to face the question either. He customarily avoided the issue, facilitating a contretemps between the ethics and the aesthetics of the writer.
Jules Maigret is one of my heroes. Simenon’s saturnine policeman introduced me to Paris, to detective fiction, to a world I never knew existed. Today, I read Cara Black and her depictions of Paris through the eyes of her detective Aimée Leduc, who (one might argue) is related to Simenon spiritually. Black puts her hero in Paris, as much a character in her novels as the city is in Simenon’s novels. Simenon puts Maigret in a world we can all acknowledge as authentic. His sense of place is paramount, and Paris is as much a part of the plot as Maigret is himself. But what most characterizes the detective is his apparent ordinariness.
Maigret is one of us – a quiet, pipe-smoking, rather overweight fellow who would make a good neighbour. He is no tough guy in accord with the American pattern, forever punching out or shooting down his adversaries. On the contrary, he is touchingly vulnerable (RBC 1979).
We can all relate to him and his wish to get home to his beloved wife, to smoke his pipe, to drink whatever is at hand, to go to the theatre, to walk around town, or just sit with his partner as company in peace and contemplation. His ordinariness is what makes him different. We can understand his dedication, though we sometimes see his wife becoming irritated as he is late home (again), solving yet another crime, but we know that she understands that this is part of his life, it is what makes her husband who he is. Maigret would not be Maigret if he was a bully, a shouter, a tub thumper. Maigret is relatable and mundane, but with a mind as sharp as a knife.
In the war years, while Maigret’s fellow French detective Nestor Burma was bumbling along as a World War II private eye, flitting between Vichy and Paris, where was Maigret? The silence is significant. And what was his creator up to, besides – allegedly – profiteering from the war?
A man of principle
The writer made his escape in 1945 to America until the heat had died down so perhaps we can guess.
But it is possible to discover by reading Simenon’s non-Maigret work to see how he viewed the war; such an understanding may illuminate how Maigret coped with serving under the Nazis. The detective is old school, hardworking, monogamous. A man of principle, both private and public. Ethically he resists being read as consonant with the conflicted personality of his creator. We must judge Maigret on what is on the page, assessing Simenon’s suggestion that his stories are timeless and can fit into any period thus precluding the use of war as a backcloth. There are no books identifying any political involvement for Maigret during the war years. In the six Maigret novels written between 1939 and 1945 there is silence, with the war not even acknowledged. Then in 1945 Simenon moved to America, perhaps to escape claims of collaboration and a possible trial. Certainly, the author profited from the war. He sold the film rights for the Maigret books to Continental, the official German film-makers, and made a great deal of money, eschewing the resistance to the regime of Albert Camus or the high-minded stances of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
If his character Maigret had continued to serve in the Paris police during the war, he would have been in a difficult – not to say compromised – position. Police were often accompanied by German troops, and official French support was given to the rounding up of Jews in the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of 1942 (Davoust 2012), when almost 5,000 were sent directly to the camp at Drancy before their deportation to Auschwitz. Indeed, the Paris Police controlled the camp until 1943, so very few of their officers could have escaped taint during this time, no matter how heroic they (abruptly) became during the Liberation of 1944.
In his biography of the author, Assouline comments that Simenon is ‘not a man of commitment, but an opportunist’ (1997: 197).This may have led to the widespread perception that Simenon was only too prepared to compromise and benefit from opportunities offered to him. The author is perceived today as a womanizer, according to his interview with Federico Fellini (Vandy 2006), far removed from the steadfast Maigret, whose only vice was his pipe and the more than occasional tipple.
In Les Scrupules de Maigret (1958) (Maigret Has Scruples 1959), Simenon writes almost dismissively of the concentration camp experiences of a character, Doctor Steiner. This is one of only three references to the war in his Maigret series, (The others: Maigret and the Minister, which includes a short description of the minister Auguste Point’s wartime background; and in The Patience of Maigret , in which two of the characters are caught up in the bombing of Douai in 1940.):
‘During the war, he refused to wear the yellow star, claiming that he hadn’t a drop of Jewish blood in him. The Germans proved him wrong and sent him off to a concentration camp. He came back thoroughly embittered’ (Simenon p142 ).
No other thoughts or considerations are mooted; the whole malign experience dispensed with as if it counted for nothing. It was almost as if this had been a holiday with unaccommodating hosts. Was this how Simenon regarded the period?
An article online from the Jewish Chronicle in January 2013 states categorically that Simenon was an anti-Semite, as evidenced by the fact that too many of his stories contain slurs on the Jewish people (Lebrecht 2013). The author Norman Lebrecht does not tell us his sources, but writes of researchers asserting that in thirteen of his novels Jews are the aggressors. It is perhaps true that there is often evidence of the casual racism of Simenon. How his language reflects the time is often used as an excuse, but if this is true, is it possible to surmise what Maigret would have done during the war years?
In Le Train written in 1961, (The Train 1964) we observe Simenon at his darkest and also perhaps get a hint of where the true feelings of Maigret could lie.
His hero, Marcel, has a passionate relationship with Anna, a Jewish girl, as the war opens in France. Later in the novel further combat ensues and she comes to him one night asking for protection for herself and an RAF pilot that she is helping to escape. He refuses. Later that month he discovers that the airman and the young woman have been shot (Simenon 2011b ). There is no remorse, no regret. He appears to have no feelings either way. Did he once love her? Is there nothing that he remembers of the relationship? Did he side with the invaders? The tragedy has no effect on him; that he slept with the girl whilst his heavily pregnant wife was separated from him when he fled his home town, seems a mere distraction. He owes the girl nothing and will give her nothing. At best Simenon appears indifferent to the victims, ambivalent to the war, at worst a collaborator. Is this reflected in Maigret? The answer would appear to be in the negative; there is no mention of the war in any of his ‘timeless’ novels, so we might conclude that such ethical considerations do not influence the aesthetic of the writer.
I feel that this reflects the character of Simenon more than of his protagonist Marcel. Indeed Marcel is Simenon to the extent that Meursault is his creator Albert Camus in L’Etranger (1942). The World War II record of Camus and his history afterwards shows the ethical differences between the two authors. Indeed, Camus was quoted as saying in January 1955,
I summarized The Outsider a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game. (1955 Carroll 27)
Simenon played his own personal game, profited, and left France to let things die down. Camus stayed, fought in the resistance, established the newspaper Combat and was a hero. Simenon enjoyed no such reputational enhancement. The author’s actions were to have political ramifications. He was to some degree ignorant of politics, and his sundry right-wing affiliations in the 1930s had more to do with social insecurity than with any actual convictions. When war broke out, Simenon briefly extended himself to assist Belgian refugees; after the Germans invaded France, he was, ironically, suspected of being Jewish (on the grounds that his real last name would have been Simon) and subjected to a lengthy police investigation. Even before this occurred, however, he had with some alacrity become a collaborator, (as in the aforementioned signing up with the German-controlled film company Continental). His motives were simple: the Continental contract assured him a comfortable income, as well as a permit to travel between Paris and his country house in the south. Self-preservation appeared to be his modus operandi (Sante 2007).
The authentic Simenon
Despite the rather caustic view articulated above, I believe that we can see the true, authentic George Simenon in Jules Maigret. The Chief Inspector is the man his creator wished to be. Simenon may have believed his non-Maigret novels were to be his principal life’s work, but after failing to win the Nobel Prize, he retreated into the world of his policeman, who personifies that which Simenon himself could never be. The author lived in the world of his romans durs (or ‘hard novels’), and while we see his dark and calculating side, in Maigret we see the man. As Eskin writes in his biography:
Rarely does Maigret express any views about himself or his methods of detection. Only in one novel, Maigret in Society, is there a glimpse when Simenon writes of his character, ‘He did not take himself for a superman, did not consider himself infallible. On the contrary, it was with a certain humility that he began his investigations, including the simplest of them. He mistrusted evidence, hasty judgements. Patiently, he strove to understand, aware that the most apparent motives are not always the deepest ones. (p223 Eskin 1987)
It is not often that we gaze into the soul of Maigret, and when we are permitted to do so it is both intriguing and enlightening. He is a rare sort of man, a hero who does not recognize himself as such. A quotidian figure at one with the victim, but also with the perpetrator. He sympathizes with both. We believe in Maigret, as he is one of us. He believes in us; he is on our side. In the comforting, tobacco-scented presence of Inspector Maigret, we are reassured that all will be well. Who would not want to believe in a man like that, serene and reassuring?
Critics have discerned two key aspects of Simenon’s work: tragedy and wisdom. The wisdom shines forth in the Maigret stories, where the stark motifs of tragedy, subjected to the uncompromising glare of Simenon’s artistry, come under the softening influence of the detective’s humanity (RBC 1979).
Hilary Mantel talks of writing with ‘maximum ambiguity’ (Channel 4 News 2012) and we can see this in the two shades of Simenon. It is apparent in La neige était sale of 1948, (Dirty Snow 1951), another of his self-proclaimed romans durs; often thought to be based in an unnamed city in France or in Brussels, Simenon insisted the book was set in an Eastern European state. The ambiguity is typical of the author in the avoidance of any political reference to France, his adopted nation, though we can extrapolate. The novel was written in 1948, and is another of the books Simenon hoped might win him the Nobel Prize for Literature. The story is set in a town under occupation, though Simenon was insistent that the setting was not occupied France. Why did he want to disguise the setting? The author – by not identifying the country – is perhaps attempting to universalize the narrative, which centres on the amoral and cynical 19-year-old Frank Friedmaier in a winter of endless snow that serves a symbolic function throughout the novel. In the opening scene Frank stabs an enemy soldier as he walks home through the snow at night. The murder is nothing to do with any act of rebellion against the occupier or of patriotism. It is a pointlessly evil act that Frank describes as ‘losing his virginity’.
Friedmaier is a young man bereft of a moral compass. A manipulator, proxy rapist, abuser – a thoroughly unlovable individual. But at the end of the novel Friedmaier tells his captor, ‘I am not a fanatic, an agitator, or a patriot. I am a piece of shit […] I want to die, as soon as possible, in whatever fashion you choose’ (p242 Simenon 2011c ).
The novel is revealing concerning Simenon and his perhaps nihilistic world view, radically different here from his Maigret novels, suggesting the work of two different writers: the self-styled ‘typewriter’ who rushes out his detective stories with such speed and the aspiring Nobel Prize winner. His attitude to literary acclaim and popular success was complex: Simenon proclaimed that he would write a novel in a glass box as a publicity stunt, and was ridiculed by the elitist writers of the day. He never felt that he was given his due, and perhaps he was right. But he was partly responsible for such attitudes.
‘are constructed in exactly the same lines as the novels with Maigret’ (cited in Hutton, 2013: 13).
The romans durs, however, delve much deeper into the psyche of the protagonists. There is a huge difference between the two novelistic forms. The writer Larry McMurtry notes that Simenon
is as meticulous as Jane Austen when it comes to excluding world events. In the case of Dirty Snow, he revelled in the leaps made by readers in assigning physical locations to the novel’s setting and identities to the characters. ‘Germans are never mentioned in my book,’ he pointed out after its publication. ‘Indeed, I wanted the occupier to be as neutral as possible, in order to lend the work more generality.’ He conceded that he had a location in mind – Central Europe, an Austrian or Czech city – and an occupier as well, the Russians, but his decision to leave these identities murky no doubt gives the book broader appeal.’ (quoted in McIntyre n.d.)
One might argue about the ‘broader appeal’ and the notion that readers can supply their own location, especially if the writer is reticent to name one. It seems relevant to think of this as Paris, perhaps Brussels or even Liège. The premise is the same: a rare look at an occupied city during World War II. A city that Simenon knows very well, especially the seedy underbelly. Paris.
After the war, according to the Mark Lawson article in The Guardian:
Simenon later claimed protection under a popular post-war formula in France – that he worked ‘under’ the Nazis rather than for them – and the liberation government, despite investigation, found insufficient evidence to deport or execute him. Yet guilt and fear about his war-time record made him a voluntary exile from France. He had written anti-Semitic articles as a young reporter in Belgium but one might conclude that he was (in the final analysis) more pro-Simenon than pro-Nazi. With the egotism and political naivety of many artists, he simply could not accept that something as trivial as a world war could interrupt his career. (Lawson 2002)
Simenon finesses the distance between himself and Maigret almost obsessively. They are not the same man, and do not share the same ethical views, but I venture to suggest that Simenon wished he were that man, with Maigret’s particular qualities. Did Simenon accept that his own views were perhaps unpalatable and not to be reflected in his detective, as this would disturb the relationship with the reader?
This is, of course, supposition, and less than generous to his writing. Simenon was a superlative writer of detective fiction, and Maigret is one of the key fictional detectives. After the German invasion, and as time went on, despite the antipathy towards Jewishness that we can discern over several novels, he would become more and more aware of the true Nazi agenda and would attempt to distance himself from them. It’s conceivable that the final straw for him would have been the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of the Jews and the support that this gleaned from many of his colleagues, which he regarded as untenable. He had two choices, one of which was that he could leave France and align himself with the Free French in England. With his gifts he would have been ideal as an organizer and as a man who saw through the fog of war, and could have made decisions that could influence its outcome. The more dangerous option would be to work in Paris as a clandestine supporter of the Free French. He could use his position to help those threatened by the occupying forces – though how much he could have achieved is of course debatable.
But if Simenon comes out of the arena of wartime behaviour in compromised fashion, in Maigret he created an imperishable character. A champion for the ordinary man or woman. A fighter for truth. Indeed, in ‘A Salute to Georges Simenon’ (2014), Patrick Marnham writes:
Simenon did not write Maigret stories just to keep the pot warm; the policeman who solved his cases by understanding and frequently sympathising with his quarry was presented as the model for the way in which a good man should live his life. Maigret’s motto was comprendre et ne pas juger (‘Understand, don’t condemn’). The romans durs, on the other hand, depict a very different world – one in which justice plays little part and men and women have to learn how to survive without it. It is also a world that to some extent reflected the way in which the novelist actually lived his life. (Marnham 2014)
One would like to think that if Jules Maigret believed in something, then surely Simenon did too.
Assouline, Pierre (1997), Simenon: A Biography, Chatto & Windus, London.
Carroll, David, (2008), Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice, Columbia University Press, New York.
Channel 4 News (2012), ‘Booker Winner Hilary Mantel on ‘Opening up the Past‘ [YouTube], 17 October, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1-wBRsQAVo.
Accessed 17 November 2014.
Davoust, Andrea (2012), ‘Police Files Shed Light on Wartime Jewish Roundup’, France 24, 16 July, http://www.france24.com/en/20120714-france-police-history-archives-world-war-two-deportation-jews-vel-dhiv-holocaust/. Accessed 17 November 2014.
Eskin, Stanley G. (1987), Simenon: A Critical Biography, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina .
Hutton, Margaret-Anne (2013), French Crime Fiction, 1945–2005: Investigating World War II, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, Surrey.
Lawson, Mark, (2002) ‘Would you believe it?’ The Guardian Online, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/nov/23/crime.georgessimenon
Accessed 24 October 2014.
Lebrecht, Norman (2013), ‘Detecting a Nasty Side to Maigret’, The Jewish Chronicle Online, http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/113650/detecting-a-nasty-side-maigret. Accessed 24 October 2014.
Malet, Leo (1991 ), 120 Rue de la Gare, Pan Books, London.
Marnham, Patrick (2014), ‘A Salute to Georges Simenon’, 20 September, http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/books-secondary-feature/9315032/homage-to-simenon-by-patrick-marnham-essay/.
Accessed 23 November 2014.
McIntyre, John (n.d.), ‘A Measure of the Master: Georges Simenon’s romans durs’, Open Letters Monthly L: An Arts and Literature Review, http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/a-measure-of-the-master-georges-simenons-romans-durs.
RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) (1979), ‘The Great Detectives’, RBC Monthly Letter, 60: 11, http://www.rbc.com/aboutus/letter/november1979.html.
Accessed 24 November 2014.
Sante, Luc (2007), ‘Soul Inspector’, Book Forum, June/July/Aug, http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/014_02/241. Accessed 17 November 2014.
Simenon, George (1958) Les Scrupules de Maigret
Maigret Has Scruples. (1963) (tr. Robert Eglesfield) Penguin Books Harmondsworth
Simenon, George (1958) Le Train
The Train, (2011) (tr. Robert Baldick) The Neversink Library, New Hampshire.
Simenon, George (1948) La neige était sale
Dirty Snow, (2011) (tr. Louise Varese) NYRB Classics. New York.
Vandy, Josiane (2006), ‘Is Communication Closer Between Those Who Couple?’
(tr. Steve Trussel), Trussel.com, January, http://www.trussel.com/maig/lscommune.htm?zoom_highlight=fellini+10000+women.
Accessed 30 October, 2014.
Narcejac, Thomas The Art of Simenon (1952) Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London.
[i] http://www.rbc.com/aboutus/letter/november1979.html Accessed 24/11/2014
[ii] Malet, Leo 120 Rue de la Gare 1943 Pan Books 1991
[iii] Police files shed light on wartime Jewish roundup http://www.france24.com/en/20120714-france-police-history-archives-world-war-two-deportation-jews-vel-dhiv-holocaust/ Accessed 17/11/14
[iv] Assouline, Pierre, Simenon: A Biography. Chatto & Windus 1997 p197
[v] Is communication closer between those who couple? http://www.trussel.com/maig/ls-commune.htm?zoom_highlight=fellini+10000+women Accessed 21/10/14
[vi] Simenon, George, Maigret has Scruples 1958 Penguin 1962
[vii] Lebrecht, Norman ‘Detecting a nasty side to Maigret’, The Jewish Chronicle online. http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/113650/detecting-a-nasty-side-maigret December 1, 2013 Accessed 24/10/14
[viii] Simenon, George The Train 1958 The Neversink Library 2011
[ix] Carroll, David. Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice. Columbia University Press. p. 27.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stranger_(novel) Accessed 14/11/14
[x] Sante. Luc Soul Inspector Georges Simenon pushed his characters to emotional extremes, exposing the criminal within, a shadowy core he believed we all share. Book Forum June/July 2007 http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/014_02/241 Accessed 17/11/14
[xi] Eskin, Stanley G, Simenon: A Critical Biography
[xii] http://www.rbc.com/aboutus/letter/november1979.html Accessed 24/11/2014
[xiii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1-wBRsQAVo Hilary Mantel interview Accessed 20/11/2014
[xiv] Simenon, Georges Dirty Snow
[xv] McIntyre, John A Measure of the Master: Georges Simenon’s romans durs, Open Letters Monthly an Arts and Literature Review http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/a-measure-of-the-master-georges-simenons-romans-durs/Accessed 3/12/14
[xvi] Hutton, Margaret-Anne French Crime Fiction, 1945-2005: Investigating World War II. p13
[xvii] French Crime Fiction, p13
[xviii] A Measure of the Master Accessed 17/11/14
[xix] Lawson, Mark The Guardian
[xx] A salute to Georges Simenon Patrick Marnham September 2014 http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/books-secondary-feature/9315032/homage-to-simenon-by-patrick-marnham-essay/ Accessed 23/11/2014