About The Author
Georges Simenon was born in Liege, Belgium, in 1903. He is best know in Britain as the author of the Maigret novels and his prolific output of over 400 novels and short stories has made him a household name in continental Europe. He died in 1989 in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he lived for the latter part of his life. Penguin books are retranslating all 75 of Georges Simenon’s classic Maigret novels over six years, working with a team of 10 world-class translators. Exclusively for Foyles, Penguin’s commissioning editor Josephine Greywoode interviews Simenon’s son about A Maigret Christmas and his memories of Christmas with his father. If you’ve never read the Maigret titles, this is a great place to start. Maigret also returns to ITV on Christmas Eve at 8.30pm with an adaptation from a different book, Maigret in Montmartre.
* For more information on Penguin’s Georges Simenon translation programme please visit https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/georges-simenon/9482/
Questions & Answers
Josephine: A Maigret Christmas opens with a touching domestic scene: Christmas morning in the Maigret household. Are there any aspects that are familiar to you from your childhood? And what represents the polar opposite?
John: Just like Maigret, my father was not a man to linger in bed. But unlike Maigret, and despite a demanding work schedule, he made it a point to spend as much time as possible at home, as he had children and a full family life. Although he wrote about five novels a year, each book would take about 15 days to write and review, which left more than two thirds of the year available for other activities. Even while writing, he always attended the family lunches and dinners, which we took at home and at regular times, and was available in the afternoons for long walks in the countryside, and in the evenings for watching the news on TV together followed by exciting discussions about current affairs.
Josephine: Many readers will be discovering Maigret for the first time this Christmas. Do you remember when you first started reading your father’s work? What impression did it make on you as his son?
John: I first started reading my father's novels hot from the photocopying machine at around the age of 12-13. To be honest, I was not very enthusiastic: there was very little action, and I could not bear the many references to our daily life, even the most minute ones, that I could detect on almost every page, and I often cringed as I felt like my life was thus being revealed to the whole world.
Of course, no one could guess anything about these autobiographical details, and I have changed since.
All that I rejected at that time is now the source of deep emotions: a novel is often compared to a mirror tendered to readers by the novelist, which helps them understand themselves. But when the mirror is held by your father, it is not only a story written by the novelist that you discover, but also, and most importantly, an essential part of yourself that the father has, moreover, contributed to raise.
Josephine: Four years and 50 books into the Penguin series of new Maigret translations, I’m encouraged by the growing, dedicated following for these books and how your father’s work continues to resonate today as much as ever. What do you think makes his work so timeless and relevant?
John: One reason is perhaps that all my father's novels are attempts at understanding what he called the ‘naked man, the man face to face with his destiny’. That man has not changed much in the last thousands of years and is not very likely to change in the future, despite all the technological and scientific discoveries that accompany our history. Other possible reasons are the shortness and sheer density of his novels, which my father structured like Greek tragedies, and his use of simple undated words which create a direct and straightforward, but very evocative, style, calling upon all our senses which have not changed much either.
Josephine: The Maigret novels are incredibly atmospheric, and the short stories in this collection are so evocative of Paris at Christmas. What initially drew your father to the French capital from his native Belgium and how did the Maigret character come into existence?
John: The process that culminated in the creation of Maigret took about ten years, and Liège, my father’s birthplace, should not be underestimated as a key to his early development as a writer. There he worked for several years as a journalist for a local newspaper, and it is there that, as he wrote later, he realised that ‘in the heavy smell of molten lead and printing ink […] the whole city life comes to coalesce. It is human pulp that printing presses brew day and night, for everything these machines devour is human […] I had to know the world in all ways […], in all its dimensions, to be in contact with the countries and the races, but also to […] access the various social strata, to be equally at home in a small fisherman's pub as in a cattle fair or a banker's living room.’
But by 1922, my father had outgrown Liège and needed a more challenging environment to live up to his aspirations. At that time, Paris was the only place to be for ambitious artists, and that is where my father, who called himself a ‘craftsman of words, decided to learn his trade, churning out hundreds of writings, sometimes 4 to 5 in a single day, under various pseudonyms for scores of different magazines and pulp fiction collections. As he later wrote: ‘I had to learn to tell a story. That apprenticeship lasted ten years, and I am not sure that by now it is really finished. To tell stories, that is to tell the lives of men… In other words, to give life to men and women, to lock as many humans as possible in the two hundred or five hundred pages of a book.’ Then, in the late twenties, came the ‘furious urge to measure myself no longer against conventional dramas, but against reality, […] to breathe life into characters, as long as I could lean against props, against a structure, as I could rely on a game leader, and that is what detective stories are about.’ Between 1929 and 1930, my father tried various characters, including Maigret under different guises in different stories. And through the process, it is Maigret who slowly but surely imposed himself in the eyes of my father, with all the attributes that would make him famous.
Josephine: Despite the series format and the protagonist’s profession, the Maigret novels read very differently from classic crime. What would you say is the key difference between these novels and enduring classics from that genre?
John: A critic once wrote that Maigret does not solve crimes, he solves people. In that sense, Maigret novels are not ‘whodunnits’ but rather ‘whydunnits’. I see both the Maigret stories and the novels my father called his ‘Romans durs’ as discovery journeys through the human soul, the main difference between the two being that in the Maigret novels Maigret is like a guide to the reader, whereas in the ‘Romans durs’, the reader is on his own.