(Rupert Davies as Jules Maigret: via Sunday Times)
I read my first Simenon in translation more than forty years ago – and that wasn’t actually a Maigret but The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By. In the 1990s, particularly, I did read a lot of the Maigrets, between thirty and forty, usually in batches of five or six, some of them Penguins but probably at least as many Harcourt Brace paperbacks when the Penguins were out of print. Whenever the bookshop needed to order titles through our American wholesaler, I would add a few Maigrets.
In 2013, Penguin Books, Simenon’s long-time British paperback publisher, began producing a complete edition of the seventy-five Maigret titles, in new translations – and featuring some of the leading contemporary translators. Early volumes in the series are by David Bellos, Anthea Bell, Linda Coverdale, David Coward and Linda Asher.
These new translations, or the ones I’ve seen, are fresh, clean, brisk: these are qualities often ascribed to Simenon anyway, the shaving off of adjectives, of ‘every word which is there just to make an effect’, of anything ‘literary’, that lesson learned early from Colette, then literary editor of Le Matin: ‘“Pas de littérature!” she said. “Supprimez toute la littérature et ça ira!”’
The first Maigret (not, originally, the first in book-form, since it had appeared as a serial), Pietr the Latvian is, as Julian Barnes observes in a TLS piece of May 2014, reprinted in Maigret and the Penguin Books (London: Penguin Collectors Society, 2015), ‘the most hectic and the most anxiously complicated’, but he adds that the template is established as early as the opening paragraph of the second book. And yes, there are many of the details and much of the texture that readers recognise and rely upon: the office stove, the characteristic exchanges with telephone operators, the endless sandwiches and beer—the endless food and drink in fact (if Maigret hasn’t eaten for a while, that is always commented on), Maigret’s physical characteristics, his height and weight (‘a good hundred kilos’), his solidity, his imperturbability. He can and does talk to anyone, focusing often on those who have felt the rough edge of life. In the series’ first novel, we read that Maigret, ‘worked like any other policeman. [ . . . ] But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.’
The Yellow Dog has some enlightening exchanges between Maigret and Inspector Leroy (with whom he hasn’t worked before, since he usually teams up with Lucas): ‘But I don’t go in for deductions.’ When Leroy comments that he doesn’t quite understand Maigret’s methods but is beginning to see, Maigret replies: ‘You’re lucky, my friend. Especially in this case, in which my method has actually been not to have one . . . ’
Most readers find a few authors, or series of books, which they’ll happily return to repeatedly. Those resources can seem, and often are, priceless. Mine are hardly controversial: the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle; the novels of P. G. Wodehouse; and Georges Simenon, particularly the Maigret stories.
So, when the series of new translations was nearing completion, I ordered half a dozen and asked for a few more for Christmas, so that I had a reasonable store against the time when winter really kicked in – or the world was unarguably going to hell. I dip into the news a little warily these days but the runes aren’t hard to read: Trump’s America, Modi’s India, my own unfortunate country; Australian bushfires illuminating flat-earthers; coronavirus in China – and in how many other countries by now?
Six Maigrets read in as many days is not so surprising then. But I should probably pause now and keep some in reserve – just on the off-chance that there are still dark days ahead. . .