EIBF 2015: CECI N’EST PAS UNE PIPE: Celebrating Simenon

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 15th–31st August 2015 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
John Simenon and Daniel Hahn discussed Georges Simenon’s work on 21st August 2015.

By Graeme Macrae Burnet

The event was part of the Festival’s Talking Translation series and was occasioned by Penguin’s current seven-year project to re-translate the entire 75 book Inspector Maigret series, as well as a number of the author’s other novels, which have so far included The Mahé Circle [1] and The Blue Room. In the UK at least, it is for the Maigret books that Georges Simenon is best known, but the Belgian author also wrote around 120 psychological novels – or romans durs as he called them – as well as hundreds of other early pulp novels published under various pseudonyms.

Simenon’s son, John, is now in charge of the author’s estate, or what might more accurately be called the Simenon empire, given the hundreds of novels, film and television adaptations, and, as Daniel Hahn revealed, the 2300 translations already in existence worldwide.

John Simenon

John Simenon bears a strong resemblance to his father, accentuated by tortoise-shell spectacles. His replies, in impeccable English, to questions both from the chair and audience members were given in a thoughtful and measured fashion. There was no sense that he was reeling off answers he had given before and he made a stout defence of his father in response to a question about the oft-repeated allegation that Simenon had been a collaborator during the Second World War. His passion for his father’s work came across strongly, although in a touching (and, to a Simenon obsessive like myself, reassuring) admission, he confessed that even he had not read his father’s entire output. Daniel Hahn, himself a highly respected writer and translator, was a knowledgeable and genial host, and the session struck a fine balance between introducing Simenon’s work and yielding a few gems of inside information for the more hardened devotee. [2]

Simenon was born into a lower middle class family in Liège in 1903, at that time the most affluent city in Europe. At the age of 15, he joined the Gazette de Liège as a cub reporter and many of his experiences from this time found their way into his later work. John Simenon expressed the view that this early journalism is at times rather flippant and comic in tone, and certainly not expressive of his father’s worldview. The first hints of Simenon’s later novelistic style came in a series of travel articles. When Simenon went to Russia, he wanted to “enter by the back door.” So rather than going to Moscow, he went to the Black Sea port of Odessa, resulting in the early roman dur, Le Gens en face/The Window Over the Way, set in the vividly evoked Black Sea port of Batum. This “back-door approach” to subjects was to become very typical of the author’s methodology.

In 1922 Simenon went to Paris which was, of course, the then cultural epicentre of Europe. John Simenon stressed how his father had “learned his trade for ten years,”“churning out” pulp novels, and it was this that enabled him to write with such great speed – an astonishing eleven days per novel.

Maigret sets forth

The first Maigret book, Pietr le Letton was published in 1931. Simenon initially planned to write “only” about fifteen Maigret books. Simenon’s research was living and observing his surroundings. A relentless traveller, “he wanted to live as many lives as possible,” and it is, to my mind, Simenon’s ability to evoke a scene through the observation of detail that makes him such a great writer. “He would,” said John Simenon, “have been a great blogger today.”

Maigret’s name came from the police motorcyclist who ferried the young Simenon round the Liège crime scenes. The Inspector’s character evolved a great deal over time and, after the books’ initial success, Simenon was invited to Paris Police Headquarters at Quai des Orfèvres, which resulted in the books becoming more realistic in their portrayal of legal procedure. According to John Simenon, Maigret came to represent, “the ideal man my father wished to be”: a man “without anxiety, who knows where his destiny will take him.” Nothing is black and white in the Maigret books, and the Inspector’s attitude towards the criminal is sometimes ambivalent, something audiences were then unused to. Today it’s much more acceptable to leave a question mark in the reader’s mind, but in this aspect Maigret and Simenon were very much ahead of their time.

The Maigret books were, to some extent, a separate project from the romans durs. The figure of the detective is a convenient narrative agent (“a crutch”), who can intervene in the story any way he wants. The absence of this crutch was what lead Simenon to call his one-off novels romans durs – they were simply harder to write. But John Simenon discerns a clear continuum between the two parts of Simenon’s work in terms of how themes are treated: “All his books are about the human mind. He was trying to explore the root of what we are all about.”

Translating Simenon

Simenon was a very shrewd businessman who had his eye on foreign language markets from the beginning of his career. His earliest English translator was Geoffrey Sainsbury, who had a rather gung-ho approach to translation and thought nothing of editing or shortening the story, apparently a common enough practice at the time. As John Simenon drily put it: “Until my father could speak English, he had a very good relationship with Geoffrey.”

The Mahe CircleSimenon’s prose is famously spare. He liked to describe the world in mots matières – “words that have weight” or concrete words. When he mentions Maigret’s pipe, he simply writes “pipe”. There is no need to describe the pipe. Each reader can have his or her own view of what the pipe looks like, based on their own memories or experience.

In reply to a question about the need for new translations and the challenges of translating Simenon, John Simenon deferred to Sian Reynolds, who was in the audience. Reynolds, a Professor of French at Stirling University and translator of a good deal of French crime fiction including The Mahé Circle, described how the group of translators working on the Penguin project have communicated with each other about the need to avoid making the translations either archaic or overly modern. She also revealed that the commonly held view that Simenon employed a vocabulary of only 2000 words is something of a myth, and that his work represented a “challenge for translators – it’s very hard to translate something written so simply.” “Authors,” she explained, “often cry, ‘Why can’t they just translate what I wrote?’ But it’s not that straightforward.”

Perhaps Maigret’s pipe is not just a pipe after all.


[1] Graeme Macrae Burnet previously reviewed The Mahé Circle here.

[2] You can read Daniel Hahn’s translation tips here.

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