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The Extraordinary Georges Simenon

It’s not the number of books Simenon wrote that is impressive. It’s their consistent quality.

In The London Review of Books, John Lanchester writes that we don’t know exactly how many books Georges Simenon wrote. He published his first at 18—a semi-humorous novel partly “set in a chemist’s shop which specialised in laxatives for pigeons,” as Patrick Marnham described it. There are 75 Maigret novels, 150 pulp works, and 20 autobiographies dictated after he retired from writing. According to Penguin, he has written over 400 books. What is striking is how consistently good those books are:

Pietr the Latvian and The Carter of ‘La Providence’ were both published in 1931. That’s something they also have in common with The Late Monsieur Gallet, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, A Man’s Head, The Yellow Dog, Night at the Crossroads, A Crime in Holland, The Grand Banks Café (Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas – the only case where the new series’s policy of translating the titles faithfully breaks down) and The Dancer at the Gai Moulin. Ten novels in one year; the next year he published seven more. The books aren’t long – for the most part they clock in at a little over 30,000 words – but this was nonetheless an extraordinary burst of creative energy on the part of the 28-year-old Simenon.

The writing method was as extraordinary as the books. A Maigret novel came on Simenon like an illness: he would feel the pressure of an idea building to a point where he had no choice but to write it. At that stage he would go to his doctor for a check-up, then shut himself up in a room and write flat out until the novel was finished. This would take around seven days, plus two for revision. Each book is a delirium, a sweatbox, a spell trapped on a desert island. The bizarre thing is that for Simenon they may also have represented a welcome easing-off and slackening of the pace: during the hack period of his early twenties, he would work every day until he had written eighty typed pages. Then he’d throw up. That’s how you write 150 books in seven years.

The Maigret novels, by comparison, were less work. Or shorter hours, anyway. It is notable that the novels written in that first amazing burst of creativity often have a sequence in which Maigret is performing a feat of endurance, of obduracy in the face of physical hardship. He stands vigil all night outside the house of a suspect in Pietr the Latvian; he spends a large chunk of The Carter of ‘La Providence’ cycling long distances alongside a featureless canal. Many passages in these early books stress the fatigue and exertion and repetitiveness of the work Maigret is undertaking: he pushes on, exhausted, when completely knackered. He is unstoppable, remorseless. He never gives up. I think what’s happening in this phase is that some of Simenon’s own sense of effort and exertion leaks into the text: the character is forcing himself to extraordinary physical feats, just as his creator is forcing himself to the feat of writing a novel in less than a fortnight.

The manner in which the Maigret novels were written explains, I think, one of the peculiar truths about them. They are uncannily consistent in quality. Most prolific writers have oeuvres that look like mountain ranges: peaks and valleys. The masterpieces stand out as sunlit peaks, and shadowed abysses conceal the duds, where even the fans cough politely and move on to the next one. The Maigret books aren’t like that. When I tell people I’m a fan, I’m often asked which I think is best; although it’s a good and simple question, it stumps me. They are eerily alike in quality – no especial highs, no especial lows. How did Simenon achieve that? I suspect it’s because the process of writing Maigret involved Simenon going somewhere in his head, the place where Maigret lived. While Simenon was writing the books, he was in a room alone with his character; when he finished the book he stepped out of the room; when he had another idea he went back into the room, and there his reliable inspector was, waiting to go. The books are consistent because they all come from the same place. All of which would be of little interest if the books were no good.

In other news: The Japanese are obsessed with Anglo-American culture. So why do they speak English so poorly? “In a 2019 survey, Japan dropped to 53rd in global English proficiency, squarely in the ‘low proficiency’ band. Japan ranks near the bottom of Asian and developed countries alike despite constant reshuffling and refinement of the English educational curriculum in schools and the frequent assertions, acknowledged by Japan’s Ministry of Education, that English-language skills are needed to compete in the modern economy. The failure to adopt English is particularly unexpected given that the English language—and the whiteness associated with it—signifies privilege in Japan. Countless advertisements flaunt white foreigners on TV and use English aptitude as the basis for selling products. Top companies such as Rakuten, an e-commerce website and the Japanese competitor to Amazon, place immense weight on English proficiency, whether or not English is needed for an employee’s role. Eikaiwa (English conversation) programs run daily on TV, and accounts featuring videos of Japanese American children speaking English cultivate tens of thousands of Instagram followers.”

Confessions of an art thief: “Mr. Durham has been charged several times with thefts and break-ins, including a bank job for which he was acquitted, but he now admits he committed. He has in recent years spoken a good bit about his past, agreeing to participate in a 2017 documentary about his life. In a 2018 biography, Master Thief, by Wilson Boldewijn, he confessed to committing other thefts as well, but insisted that he never committed any violence against people to commit his robberies. (Under Dutch law, criminal prosecution records are sealed.) . . . At least 34 van Goghs have been stolen worldwide since 1975, said Nienke Bakker, a senior curator of Van Gogh paintings for the Van Gogh Museum. That number includes 20 paintings that were robbed in 1991 from the museum where she works; they were recovered within a few hours, from an abandoned car. Ursula Weitzel, the lead public prosecutor on art crimes for the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service, said that in general, art is stolen for the same reasons people steal cars. ‘Unless it’s a crime of passion, usually the motive is to make money,’ she said. ‘It’s as simple as that. People don’t steal it because they want to hang it on the wall. That kind of theft for pride or status, I haven’t seen that. It’s usually for money. Or, for safekeeping, in the event that it may be necessary.’ . . . Mr. Brand estimates that a work of art in the criminal underworld is worth about 10 percent of its value in the legitimate art market — so if a painting might sell for $10 million at auction, it can be traded among criminals for a value of about $1 million. Mr. Durham said the value is even lower than that — about 2.5 to 5 percent of market value.”

English gardens and style: “What do we mean when we speak of the connection between fashion and gardens? Nowadays, they are linked by a concern with the seasons. Like gardeners working in their gardens, the modern fashion world follows a seasonal cycle, always looking ahead to the next one, trying to anticipate the changes of light, temperature, mood, and scale that await at each turn of the year. We deck out our gardens, as we do our bodies, to magnify our impressions of the passing year. They bring a sense of occasion to the seasons. Midsummer seems more authentic among muslin and roses; russet velvet and gold-licked chrysanthemums concentrate our sense that autumn has arrived. Both gardens and dress are types of wishfulness. In the past, people had fewer clothes. Charles Worth invented the ‘seasonal’ collection in the nineteenth century as a way of selling more dresses. But gardens and costume, arts governed by time and natural forms, have a long tradition of shared concerns.”

What did Bach sound like to Bach? “Scholars look to recover the original soundscape of the composer’s work.”

Stefan Beck reviews Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten: “Good satire is hard to find. The absurdity of modern life accelerates and mutates so rapidly that satire often tells a joke just as we’ve tired of laughing at it. Then there is the tendency to satirize reality not as one finds it but as one finds it easiest to criticize. Novel trends and dangers are ignored in favor of old bogeymen or else pinned on scapegoats. The latter is nowhere truer than in satire of technological progress. It is a relief, then, that Mary South’s new collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgotten, never flinches from an uncomfortable truth: We often invite and abet the conditions we claim to despise. Her stories unfold in a grotesquely comic projection of our technological society, peopled by online trolls, content moderators, deranged fanboys, clones, and a ghost in a machine (a cellphone, of course). But it’s very much about us and how our motivations create feedback loops with our technologies.”

A short history of band names: “ABBA use capitals not because the letters are the first of their four Christian names, but because there was a brand of canned fish called Abba. Lynyrd Skynyrd was a reference to Leonard Skinner, a teacher who’d told one of the band members to cut his hair.”

Photo: Gunung Kapur Ciampea

Poem: James Matthew Wilson, “On Being Ill”

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