Georges Simenon The Grand Banks Café translated by David Coward and The Mahé Circle translated by Siân Reynolds (both forthcoming with Penguin Classics, June 2014)
by Graeme Macrae Burnet
In November 2013, Penguin launched their publication of the complete series of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, all in new translations by renowned translators such as David Bellos, Anthea Bell and, in the case of the current volumes, David Coward and Siân Reynolds It’s a colossal venture, seventy-five titles to be issued monthly for six years, with the stated aim of bringing Simenon’s work to a wider British audience. This is welcome, of course, but there persists a feeling, in the UK at least, that Simenon’s novels are fast food rather than fine dining; there to be guzzled in quantity, rather than lingered over. It’s a perception for which the author himself must bear some responsibility, given that he hardly lingered over his works, turning out each novel in a brisk eleven days. Simenon made himself into a one-man literary industry, producing around 185 novels over a period of forty years, yet he craved critical acclaim. When Camus won the Nobel prize in 1957 (on the basis, it should be remembered, of three slim novels and a couple of volumes of essays), Simenon flew into a rage and declared, “Can you believe that asshole got it and not me.”
It is perhaps the Maigret books that are responsible for Simenon’s exclusion from the pantheon of great twentieth-century writers. There is nothing wrong with the detective novels. They are written with Simenon’s customary sparse elegance and are often rich in atmosphere and setting, but they largely remain genre pieces, and, trapped in the point-of-view of the affable Inspector, they lack the psychological insight that characterises the author’s non-Maigret works.
In 1955, Simenon gave an interview to the Paris Review at his then home in Connecticut. The interviewer, Carvel Collins, asked how the Maigret novels differ from his romans durs or “hard novels,” as the author called them. “Exactly the same difference,” Simenon replied, “that exists between the painting of a painter and the sketch he will make for his pleasure or for his friends or to study something.”
He then describes the process of writing of each roman dur:
[…] when I am doing a novel now I don’t see anybody, I don’t speak to anybody, I don’t take a phone call – I live just like a monk. All the day [sic] I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels [. . .]. And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. 
It is perhaps from this method that the characteristic claustrophobia of the romans durs comes – the feeling as a reader that you are trapped inside the head of the protagonist. So, while Penguin’s decision to re-issue the Maigret series is laudable, it seems strange to concentrate on the sketchbooks, when one could view the paintings. For this reason, it is pleasing that Penguin also plans to publish a selection of Simenon’s romans durs alongside the detective novels. June will see the publication of both a sketch, The Grand Banks Café, and a painting, The Mahé Circle, which quite clearly illustrate the gap between the two strands of Simenon’s work.
The Grand Banks Café appeared in 1931, the year Simenon “came out” as a novelist, publishing twelve books, ten of them Maigrets. It is set in the small fishing port of Fécamp in Normandy, where Maigret is holidaying with his wife. There is a crime (the captain of a fishing vessel is murdered); there are suspects; there is a femme fatale. Maigret questions the suspects, and, as he often does, befriends one of them. By the end of the novel, the crime is solved and there is even a postscript – “five years later” – to ensure that the loose ends are neatly secured. The eponymous bar, the port and its workers – “clothes torn and stiff with salt” – are vividly and concisely evoked, but the narrative is formulaic. Aside from Maigret’s unconventional methods, it’s standard fare and unlikely to convert newcomers to Simenon.
The Mahé Circle, of which Siân Reynold’s crisp rendition is the first English translation, is another matter altogether . In 1942, two years before its completion, Simenon wrote a novel called Oncle Charles s’est enfermé – Uncle Charles has locked himself in. At the beginning of the novel, a provincial book-keeper, Charles Dupeux, returns home from work and locks himself in the attic of the modest house where he lives with his wife and three daughters. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that Dupeux is not just literally locked in, but metaphorically as well. He is locked into a cycle of poverty which, even equipped with the means to do so (he has embezzled a large amount of money from his employer), he is incapable of escaping: “None of them,” his brother-in-law reflects, “for all their good intentions, would ever amount to anything, and […] each time they tried to raise themselves, they fell back into the same grubby mediocrity.”
It’s a key notion in Simenon. In one way or another, all his characters are locked in. They are locked in to miserable marriages; tedious jobs; unalterable routines; and to the self-defeating temperaments they have inherited from their similarly inhibited ancestors. And this is the source of their unhappiness. They are sometimes capable of imagining another life, perhaps glimpsed through a neighbour’s window or the door of a sleazy nightclub, but they are incapable of grasping it. Thus, typically, there is an act of rebellion or an outburst of violence – some attempt to break free of their mundane existence.
In The Mahé Circle, Simenon presents us with François Mahé, an overweight, thirty-five-year-old doctor, who lives with his wife, two children and mother, who still wakes him in the morning and tells him “when to change his underwear.” The novel is mainly set on Porquerolles, a small island in the Mediterranean, where the Mahés are on vacation. Holidays occur quite frequently in Simenon. They offer an opportunity for the author to wrench his characters out of their familiar surroundings. But nobody enjoys themselves on a Simenon holiday and the Mahés are no different.
As the novel opens, Dr Mahé is fishing. He surreptitiously watches a local as he plucks one fish after another from the water, but he cannot catch a thing. He observes the fish in the clear water below the boat as they approach his bait before turning away. Mahé suspects that by refusing to reveal their fishing secrets, the locals are conspiring against him, but of course they are not. What is clear, however, is that Mahé is a fish out of water. He does not fit in here. It is too hot; the food is different; his children get upset stomachs; he gets sunburn; his wife is miserable.
Mahé is entirely alienated. When his friend, Dr Péchade, is talking to him, he is unable to concentrate on what he is saying, and becomes fixated on his moving lips.
It was extraordinary, almost repulsive, to see the rolls of fat with pink inside, parting, closing, stretching, uncovering the little yellowish bones, that were his teeth.
Later, when watching his ten-year-old daughter, he observes that “one could already see some inborn vulgarity” (the tyranny of heredity), and that, “Her skin was coarse-grained, her face too wide, her mouth without shape. He felt no disappointment. He didn’t feel anything. Everything around him left him quite cold.”
The “circle” of the novel’s title refers to Mahé’s friends and family. But Mahé does not perceive this circle as a benevolent, supportive network; rather it is more akin to a noose, slowly strangling him. In a dream, Mahé sees his family surround him, but suddenly they are not men and women, “but tombstones standing in a circle.” It is this circle into which Mahé is locked.
Then, in Porquerolles, something changes. Mahé is called to attend the death of a poor woman, who has been squatting in an abandoned military accommodation with her family. As Mahé surveys the dismal scene he catches sight of a little girl, eleven or twelve years old, in a red dress. At first, the incident appears to be of little significance, but over time the girl in the red dress develops into an obsession.
For the next three years, the family return to Porquerolles. Slowly, Mahé begins to fit in. He is greeted in local bars, learns how to fish, and joins the local men in a daily game of boules. But it is not for this that he returns. It is because of the girl in the red dress:
He wasn’t in love, it wasn’t that . . . No, it was an obsession, that was the word, a haunting obsession. And it had started that very first day, but faintly, insidiously, like those incurable illnesses that you only become aware of when it is too late for treatment.
The nature of Mahé’s obsession is enigmatic. It is not overtly sexual, although, in an unsavoury episode, he persuades his teenage nephew to force himself upon her and then makes him describe what has occurred. Nor does he wish to “save” her from deprivation. It is rather that she is something “other”: “the disavowal of his own life, of everything his life had been.” Towards the end of the book, Mahé calls on the tiny apartment where the girl lives. He is invited in by her younger sister, but the girl, Elisabeth, is out working. We do not know what Mahé intends to do. As he waits, his attention is drawn to the counterpane on the bed, “a white counterpane with a honeycomb weave, exactly like the one on his bed when he was twelve years old.” And that in turn reminds him of the counterpane in the boarding house when he studied in Paris. In Simenon, through such associations, the past is always encroaching on the present, reminding his characters of where they have come from; crippling their ability to act decisively. Mahé lingers a while in the apartment; then, unsure or embarrassed of his reasons for being there, leaves.
Very little happens in The Mahé Circle. There is no tension. It is austere and unfathomable. Certainly it is not the work of a populist. There are few concessions to entertainment: the characters are unlikeable; the narrative is unexciting; the dénouement, when it comes, is enigmatic. It has more in common with “that asshole” Camus or even Robbe-Grillet than with Agatha Christie, to whom, on the basis of her prodigious generic output, Simenon is sometimes compared. It is less overtly philosophical than Camus, less experimental than Robbe-Grillet (whose first novel, The Erasers is a kind of deconstruction of a Maigret mystery ), but in its portrayal of a character who is entirely indifferent to the people around him, it bears some resemblance to The Outsider, which had been published two years before. Indeed, in what seems an overt attempt to differentiate Mahé from Meursault, Simenon’s protagonist is deeply moved by his mother’s death. However, while Simenon was not given to pontificating about the philosophical content of his work, that does not mean it is shallow or superficial. Especially given that the novel is so lacking in narrative pleasures, it is perfectly possible to view it as a reflection on the struggle of the individual to exert control over his or her life. Mahé is a character whose life is not his own; his course in life has been entirely determined by others, primarily his mother. He realises that, “Until this point, one could almost say that other people had been living his life for him”:
He found that at thirty-five, here he was […] with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week. He followed it […] because he could see no other solution, because he refused to admit there could be one, but he was floating inside this world that had been arranged for him as if in a suit of clothes that didn’t fit.
The real story of the novel is Mahé’s journey towards this realisation and what he does in order to attempt to exert a degree of free will over his fate.
In 1939, in a long letter to his “Master and Friend” André Gide, Simenon wrote of his attempts to “eliminate the ringmaster [Maigret]”:
But I’m still in a narrow framework. I need support, some big action. The only way I can hold attention is with a dramatic story. And, above all, I can handle only one character at a time. I think this is the key to all my effort […] I want to be in full possession of my craft before writing the great novels I plan to write. 
There is something rather poignant about this. First of all, it’s hard to think of another writer who, with around fifty novels under his belt (as well as the hundreds of pulp stories he previously published under pseudonyms), would write of wishing to be in “full possession” of his craft. But it is the aspiration towards the “great novels I plan to write” that went unfulfilled. Simenon was a great admirer of Balzac and Zola and, presumably, by great novels, he meant works on a large canvas and time frame, teeming with multiple characters. But he never attempted this. Certainly by the time of writing The Mahé Circle he had managed to dispense with the “big action,” but he remained, to a very large extent, wedded to the single character study.
By 1955, Simenon had changed his tune. In response to those critics who demanded that “it is time for Simenon to give us a big novel,” his response was: “They do not understand. I will never write a big novel. My big novel is the mosaic of all my small novels.”
He had, himself, become locked in to a pattern of behaviour: locked in to his eleven day per novel writing schedule; locked in to his self-imposed need to supply the Simenon industry with six novels a year; locked in to a certain formula in which a single character is driven to attempt to escape whatever circle is asphyxiating them.
The absence of the “big novel” does not, however, diminish Simenon’s worth. Like Raymond Carver, he had found his form. The mosaic of his romans durs does indeed form a coherent body of work, one with characteristic preoccupations of alienation and the desire to break out of an inauthentic existence. The Mahé Circle is not Simenon’s finest book, but it is a valuable and fascinating piece of the mosaic.
1. In Pierre Assouline, Simenon: A Biography (1997). In The Man who Wasn’t Maigret (1992), Patrick Marnham reports that by 1964, Simenon was abusing the Nobel jury as “the cretins who still haven’t awarded me their prize.”
2. Carvel Collins, ‘Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No. 9’ in The Paris Review, Summer 1955, No. 9.
3. Sîan Reynolds explains her approach to translating fiction in an interesting interview with Peter Rozovsk.
4. Les Gommes (1955), translation by Richard Howard, 1964. Currently published by Oneworld Classics, 2009. Curiously, Robbe-Grillet’s later novel The Voyeur (1955), in which a travelling salesman is unable to leave a small island on which a young girl has been killed, also bears some resemblance to The Mahé Circle.
5. Quoted in Assouline, p.148
6. In Collins