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John Simenon interview: ‘Maigret’s the man my father wanted to be’

Georges Simenon in May 1984
Georges Simenon in May 1984

In 1931 Georges Simenon, a 28-year-old Belgian living in Paris who had already written some 150 pulp novels under various noms de plume, published a book under his own name for the first time.

A short, sharp thriller, Pietr the Latvian was launched in a Montparnasse nightclub with a fancy-dress bal anthropométrique, named after the part of the police station where suspects were stripped naked to be measured and photographed. The ball cost so much it left the author in hock to his publisher, but the French newspapers lapped it up, making both Simenon and his new lead character, a police detective called Maigret, instantly famous.

Simenon died 30 years ago this week; the 75 Maigret novels he left behind represent less than a fifth of his total published output. Subsequently, his popularity waned, in Britain and the US at least, but he has enjoyed a glorious resurgence over the past few years, thanks to one of the most imaginative and ambitious publishing ventures of recent times.

Beginning in November 2013, Penguin Classics have been publishing new translations of all the Maigret novels, in order, at the rate of one a month. Simenon the master publicist would surely have applauded the ingenuity with which so many readers have been pushed into Maigret addiction, desperate to complete the set. The project is now on the home straight, with the 75th title, Maigret and Monsieur Charles, to be published in January.

Josephine Greywoode, the editorial director at Penguin Press and mastermind behind the series, points out that anglophone Simenon fans have not been well served by publishers in the past. “The quality of the translations has varied quite a lot,” she tells me. “Geoffrey Sainsbury [the pioneering English translator of Simenon] famously altered some of the plots, for example.

Rowan Atkinson as Maigret Credit: Colin Hutton

“We wanted to invest in a whole set of new translations, paying attention to faithfulness and to continuity, so that English-language readers can feel that they are returning to the same world with each book.” The various translators were even sent off on a retreat to Belgium, in the company of Simenon’s son John, to discuss how to achieve that consistency.

As a chronic Maigret addict myself, I feel, when I read the new translations of these familiar books, as if I am looking at a favourite painting that is gleaming anew after careful restoration. When I ask Greywoode about sales, she replies: “Globally, we’re set to reach a million copies.”

I have always found Simenon just as fascinating to read about as Maigret, not least because of the contrast between the personalities of character and creator. In an effort to put my finger on the nature of Maigret’s appeal, I spoke to John Simenon. Now 70, he was born in Tucson, Arizona, where his father had moved from Canada with his former secretary Denyse, a French-Canadian whom he went on to marry in 1950. John is the oldest of their three children; Simenon had also had a son with his first wife, Tigy. I asked John whether there was anything of his father in Maigret.

“Maigret is perhaps a reflection of what my father wished he had been as a man. Stable, with no anxieties,” John tells me. “There are some aspects there of my grandfather, who he admired because he was like that [Simenon’s father Désiré was an accountant who died dutifully at his desk]. I think he thought, ‘My main character is going to be someone like that, not like me.’”

Perhaps the power of the Maigret books derives from the tension between Maigret’s ordinary surface – he’s a placid, pipe-smoking petit-bourgeois who goes home for lunch with his wife every day – and the radical compassion his bohemian creator projected on to him. Maigret listens to murderers and tries to help them, reflecting Simenon’s stated belief that “there are no criminals”.

“He is the mender of destinies, that was my father’s description of Maigret, and this is what my father wished he had been able to do and be in life,” says John. “I think, for example, he worked very hard to save his relationship with my mother, but she expected too much from life and from him. She was extremely unstable and her condition deteriorated over time. He really tried to be a mender of destiny, and it was something that was not in his hands. Real life is not like a novel.” Simenon and Denyse separated in 1964.

Rowan Atkinsonas Maigret and Shaun Dingwall as Janvier Credit: Colin Hutton

“It was the same with my sister.” Simenon’s treasured daughter, Marie-Jo, committed suicide in 1978, aged 25. “What made it even more of a tragedy for him is that he constantly saw it coming. One of his books, The Disappearance of Odile [his 1971 novel about a suicidal 18-year-old girl], can be read as an attempt to exorcise that doom that he saw coming. He couldn’t.”

John insists that his father’s promiscuity did not contribute to the break-up of his marriage: “He was very open and it had been totally accepted from the beginning.” It was John, then working in film production, who arranged for his father to conduct an interview with Federico Fellini in 1977 to promote Fellini’s film Casanova, and so was present when Simenon stole Fellini’s thunder by remarking that “since the age of 13-and-a-half, I have had 10,000 women” – 8,000 of whom, he added, were prostitutes.

Was that the first time he made such a claim? “It was the only time and it was really said in jest, not to brag about himself but to say in a conversation about Casanova that these days one can easily make love 10,000 times, where Casanova managed only 200 times in his life.” Does he believe his father’s tally? “I don’t care.”

I’m not sure I agree Simenon hadn’t taken to boasting or at least being provocative in his old age. (Talking to John Mortimer about prostitutes in a later interview, he claimed: “I always let them have their pleasure first. And of course I was enough of a connoisseur to know if their pleasure was faked.”) But it is touching to hear the strength of affection in John’s voice as he tries to set the record straight about his father.

John recalls that “we had tremendous rows just like any child would have with his father”, but “I think he was more concerned with us than anything else in his life. We spent a lot of time together – he was totally, entirely available. There was never any competition for attention between his work and us.”

John admits that, as a teenager, he did not care for his father’s work. “He always said that he acted like a sponge, absorbing everything he had seen and using it all in his books. One day, when I was 16, I recognised myself. I read a description of a young boy that used a lot of my traits to describe him. That was when I stopped reading his books,” he recalls, laughing.

But when he picked up a copy of his father’s The Snow Was Dirty 20 years later, “my experience as a teenager was just turned around 180 degrees. In that book there’s a sentence, ‘Being a man is difficult’, and I was raised on him saying that sentence all my life, and all of a sudden here I find it in what I consider one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read. So the link with my upbringing became a very rich and positive one, instead of a negative one. And that was the beginning of a new relationship with his work.”

Georges Simenon sitting next to a model of Maigret Credit: Getty

He thinks it was his father’s spongelike receptiveness to his surroundings that made the various settings of his books so vivid, and that drove him to live in so many places around the world: “He would suck everything from a place like a tree, and then need to move on.” Eventually Simenon settled in Switzerland and, when he was 70, announced his retirement from writing fiction.

“He just ran out of energy. For him the act of writing was a physical exercise as much as an intellectual one. He wrote in a sort of trance and would lose about a litre of sweat every day. That is the reason he never wrote long books: he did not have the energy to write for longer periods. And eventually I think he felt spent.”

John thinks his father was contented in his final years, even getting over his frequently expressed disappointment at never being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. “He realised that that is not what makes you the person you want to be. Eventually he gave us all his medals and diplomas. To him they were worthless.”

Georges Simenon died unexpectedly in his sleep on September 4 1989, aged 86. He had always told his children that they would hear about his death on the radio news, by which time his remains would have been cremated and disposed of, and so it proved.

“I think he suffered very much himself from having to deal with everything surrounding his own father’s death, and he wanted to preserve us from that. I would say it would have been nice if the family could have gathered together just for the one last time as his ashes were dispersed. But he did not make it more difficult for us to deal with it, let’s be very clear about that. It was his death, his choice.”

The final choice, indeed, of a man who rarely chose to do anything conventionally – something for which those of us who adore Simenon’s vast and unique body of work will always be grateful.

Maigret and the Wine Merchant, 71st in the series, is out on Thursday from Penguin Classics. The 75th and final book, Maigret and Monsieur Charles, is out on Jan 9 2020