Book Review: The Pitards by Georges Simenon (Trans by David Bellos)

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Disappointing novel offers few glimpses of Simenon’s greatness.

Determined to retire his most famous creation Inspector Maigret, Simenon intended to focus on writing literary fiction. Simenon used the term ‘roman dur’ to refer to his portraits of deviance. Freed from the crime genre’s conventions he explored themes present in the Maigret novels without the restriction of having to include a police investigation and a tidy resolution.

The famously prolific author was determined that his literary reputation would be based solely on these studies of aberrant behaviour and psychological torment. Unflinching in their examination of moral, social, and sexual transgressions, the novels presented accounts of people transformed by a moment of crisis. Unremittingly pessimistic, the 171 roman durs suggest that in an unstable world a change of fortune can shatter the veneer of a normal existence and transform an individual into a murderer, thief, or a sexual deviant. In Simenon’s fictional universe the everyman has lived a repressed life and is finally set free once their basest desires are revealed to the world.

The extent to which Simenon succeeded in transforming his reputation from that of a producer of well-crafted pulp fiction to a master of literary novels is debatable. In purely commercial terms his legacy largely rests on the widely translated seventy-five Maigret novels.

Simenonlogists consider the roman durs to be the author’s most significant literary achievements. The critical breakthrough came with the publication of seafaring saga The Pitards. French newspaper Les Temps published a critical essay by André Thérive which declared ‘I believe I have just read a masterpiece in its pure state, in its basic state.’ The journalist conceded that Simenon’s productivity had previously prevented critics from taking his work seriously and suggested that if The Pitards had been his first novel ‘there would be great enthusiasm in the republic of letters.’

Significant for ensuring critics began taking Simenon seriously, The Pitards is nonetheless a minor work from a major author. Unevenly plotted, the patchy novel is a laborious read. The account of a marriage disintegrating during a voyage to Reykjavik is a muddled work which only comes alive during the final twenty pages. Simenon’s trademark atmospheric prose is not enough to lift a novel tries to simultaneously romanticize the seafaring life, settle old scores (Simenon’s mother is present in the form of the ship captain’s wife Mathilde), and offer commentary on the French class system. The text’s primary appeal is that Simenon consciously drew from his life experiences. A lesser work in comparison to the remainder of the roman durs canon, it is nonetheless a key novel to read in order to solve the mystery of Georges Simenon.

The Pitards is published by Penguin.

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DVD Review: Maigret – Season 1

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For French viewers, Bruno Cremer’s performance of Paris-based detective Maigret is the interpretation against which all others are judged. Owning the role in the way that Jeremy Brett and Joan Hickson did respectively with Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple, Cremer’s realisation of the pipe-smoking detective is the most authentic screen embodiment of Simenon’s fictitious sleuth.

Premiering a year before ITV’s Michael Gambon starring adaptation, the Cremer series remains a regular fixture on French TV thanks to constant repeats. Running for fourteen years, the producers originally intended to adapt the entirety of the Maigret canon (75 Maigret novels and 29 short stories). 54 feature-length episodes were filmed before plans were abandoned due to Cremer’s ill health.

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Best known to English-speaking audiences for his appearance in William Friedkin’s 1977 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Cremer appeared in more than fifty films. He worked with many of Europe’s most prominent directors, including Costa Gavras and Luchiano Visconti.

Already in his early 60s at the time of casting, Cremer had the unenviable task of following Jean Richard who had played the role on French television since 1965 and for an entire nation was Maigret despite being publicly derided by Georges Simenon.
Cremer’s core appeal was that he perfectly conveyed Maigret’s world-weariness, compassion, and humour.

Restoring credibility to a character that over the course of numerous adaptations been reduced to a hat wearing sleuth, Cremer’s fondness for the novels and determination to be true to the source material resulted in the most complex portrayal to date.

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Comprising the first six feature films, this DVD boxset is more faithful to Simenon’s material than ITV’s recent Rowan Atkinson starring version. Despite its age, the series remains a satisfyingly atmospheric recreation of Simenon’s world thankfully devoid of the ersatz Frenchness which has plagued other adaptations.

If you’ve discovered Maigret via Penguin’s issuing of newly translated editions this should be your next DVD boxset purchase.

Maigret – Season 1 is available to order from Amazon.

DVD Review: Maigret

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Sacré bleu, ITV’s over hyped adaptation of Simenon’s Maigret novels is très boring.

Ranking alongside Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Phillip Marlowe as one of the world’s best-known fictional detectives, Jules Maigret was created by the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon. First appearing in 1929’s Pietr the Latvian,75 novels featuring the pipe-smoking detective were published between 1931 and 1972.

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Staking a claim to inventing the police procedural, Simenon’s innovations also included an emphasis on the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of criminality. Transforming the genre, Simenon used its conventions to show what could push a person over the edge. Illustrating the authors belief in man’s fundamental irresponsibility the crimes featured in the Maigret novels are a response to a moment of crisis.

With Maigret Simenon didn’t just invent a new type of hero, he also created a distinct sub-genre. Standing apart from any fictional detective published up to that point, Maigret’s methods and raison d’être established the character as unlike anything published before. Equal parts secular priest and psychologist, biographers have suggested that the detective represents the person Simenon would like to have been while the criminal elements are literary representations of who he might have become had his life taken a very different turn.

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One of the novels many innovations was its rejection of tired tropes exhausted by the puzzle school of crime fiction which focused on unmasking the killer and made little attempt to dramatise his emotional backstory. Written from a humanistic perspective, the Maigret novels seem less concerned with apprehending the assailant than discovering what had tipped an ordinary person over the edge and led to them committing horrific criminal acts. Emphasising his difference from other literary detectives Maigret’s compassionate approach to policing involved offering the perpetrators one last chance of redemption before the judicial process took over.

Famously written over several days, each of the novels is an economically told stark exploration of society’s disenfranchised and dispossessed. Deliberately using a restricted vocabulary, Simenon’s atmospheric descriptions bring alive a now vanished France. Widely read, according to the UNESCO Translation Index Simenon is the seventeenth most translated author.

A number of accomplished actors have played the pipe-smoking detective on screen and radio. For a generation, the Rupert Davies starring series is the definitive version. More recently Michael Gambon and Bruno Cremer have introduced successive generations of TV viewers to Simenon’s work.

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Following in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, Rowan Atkinson is the latest actor to play Maigret in a series which promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver. Simenon’s work seemed to be bullet-proof and was able to withstand a mercifully now forgotten production starring Richard Harris who seemed to be under the misapprehension he was playing the then Labour leader Michael Foot. This latest heavily promoted series reaches the screen as Penguin books is issuing newly translated editions of the books.

On paper, this series should have been a sure-fire winner. Expectations were high for the lavishly budgeted production. Initial optimism soon faded when critics realised ITV had delivered a misjudged adaptation which transforms two of the twentieth century’s most notable crime writer’s novels into a tortuous yawnfest.

Rowan Atkinson reportedly devoured the novels prior to playing the part. Physically he bears very little resemblance to the stocky detective in Simenon’s novels. Previously known as a comic actor his performance is too rigid and downplays the books’ humour. Lacking the passion of Bruno Cremer’s interpretation, Atkinson’s understated portrayal occasionally comes across as a one-note performance.

Expanded for the small screen, Simenon’s tightly-plotted novels rich with social detail have been transformed into ponderous and unfocused period police dramas devoid of anything resembling atmosphere.

A diversion to kill a few hours, even if the slow pace will make them feel like forever, Maigret is a misguided adaptation which does a great disservice to Simenon and his most famous fictional creation. Filled with a supporting cast unsure if they should play it straight or parody the material, it is an uneven series. Bland cinematography adds to the show’s many deficiencies. Avoid and buy the books instead.

Maigret is available to buy from Amazon.

DVD Review: Maigret Sets a Trap, Maigret and the St. Fiacre Affair, Maigret Sees Red

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Renowned French film star’s Maigret trilogy.

Despite being largely unknown to English audiences, Jean Gabin was one of French cinema’s biggest stars. The son of music hall artistes, he initially had no interest in an acting career. After a period working as a labourer and warehouse clerk he was cajoled by his father to join the Folies Bergère. Graduating from bit-parts to a leading man, he demonstrated an ability to play a wide variety of roles. He started a screen career at the dawn of the talking picture era.

A commanding screen actor, he appeared in 95 films in a career that lasted over 40 years. Performances in Pepe Le Moko, La Grande Illusion, La Bete Humaine, Le Jour se leve, and Le Quai des brumes were critically acclaimed. One of the pre-war period’s biggest stars, his career’s trajectory was interrupted when hostilities erupted across the continent.

In stark contrast to Georges Simenon, Gabin refused to collaborate with the Nazi regime’s film industry. Relocating to Hollywood, he was offered a contract by Twentieth Century Fox and promoted as “The Spencer Tracy of French pictures.” An artistically fruitless period, he made Moontide for Fox and The Imposter for RKO. A third project, The Temptress, was canceled when he demanded that the producers cast Marlene Detrich as his co-star (Gabin and Dietrch were real-life lovers). Told that he would never again work in Hollywood, Gabin enlisted in the French liberation forces and fought against German troops in Africa.

At the end of the war, he returned to acting. No longer a matinee idol, he played a succession of everyman parts. Gabin and Simenon’s careers first intersected with the 1950 adaptation La Marie du port. A 1958 film En cas de malheur based on Simenon’s romans dur In Case of Emergency saw Gabin act alongside Brigitte Bardot. Also released in the same year was the first of Gabin’s three cinematic outings as Simenon’s pipe smoking Inspector Maigret.

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Despite being maligned by the French new wave, Jean Delannoy directed a number of box-office hits and won the Palme d’Or for his 1960 film La Symphonie pastorale. He was made an officer of the Legion of Honor, a Commander of Arts and Letters and a Commander of the National Order of Merit. In 1986 he received an honorary César. Paying tribute to Delannoy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy described the director as “More than just a great artist, he was a man of great intelligence, alert, pertinent and faithful in friendship,”

By the late 1950s, Delannoy’s reputation had been tarnished by a string of sub-standard films and criticism by François Truffaut. Attuned to the cinematic possibilities of Maigret the director had considered adapting a Simenon novel for several years before securing the cinematic rights to Maigret Sets a Trap. With a reputation for directing solid thrillers including Le garçon sauvage and La minute de vérité, he may have considered an adaptation as an opportunity to restore his box-office fortunes.

First published in 1955. The English translation of Maigret Sets a Trap was issued in 1965. The book has been adapted several times. A recent version starring Rowan Atkinson was poorly received by critics. Delannoy’s version is the most satisfying adaptation.

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Primarily known in English-speaking territories as Maigret Sets a Trap, prints were circulated with the alternate titles Inspector Maigret and Woman-Bait. The film and its two sequels were the last big screen outings for Simenon’s detective released prior to the character migrating to the small screen.

An atmospheric adaptation blessed with supreme production design. Indebted to Film Noir and aware of the urban environment’s importance in the Maigret novels, the director ensured the film made the story’s location the de facto star. An entire district was slavishly on a soundstage. The decision to shoot the majority of the action on a studio lot enabled the director to exercise total control over the environment.

Hybridising American and French approaches to crime films, Delannoy’s location sequences employ expressionistic camera angles favoured by Film Noir directors and attempts to document a city still scarred by war and in the throes of modernisation.

Claustrophobic, tightly coiled and utterly focused, it’s hard to see why Delannoy’s film isn’t better known in the English-speaking world. Maigret Sets a Trap is sensitive to the humanistic philosophy expressed in Simenon’s novels. The film has many reasons to recommend tracking down a copy; tight plotting, thematic complexity, a distinguished supporting cast. At it’s core is an electric portrayal from one of French cinema’s most popular actors. Stripping away the over reliance of props that had plagued previous attempts at filming Maigret, Gabin’s performance conveyed compassion and solidity. Simenon was pleased with Gabin’s interpretation and is alleged to have suggested that future Maigret novels might be influenced by the performance.

A box office hit in France, Maigret Sets a Trap was seen by more than 2,500,000 cinemagoers. It was nominated for a BAFTA and won an Edgar Allan Poe award. The film’s producers commissioned a sequel to satisfy a public clamouring for further cinematic adaptations. Released in 1959, Maigret and the St. Fiacre Affair is considered by critics to be a less successful film. Adapted from a novel first published in 1933, the film contains a number of elements that will delight Maigret enthusiasts and Simenonologists.

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Leaving behind the first film’s urban environment, the sequel relocates to a small village. Maigret is visiting his childhood home at the request of the Duchess of Saint-Fiacre. She has recently received an anonymous letter stating that she will soon die. When she suffers a fatal heart attack during a religious service the local doctor pronounces she died of natural causes. Maigret is not satisfied with the diagnosis and is convinced the Duchess was murdered.

Tonally very different from its predecessor, the portrait of a once-great family in decline is indebted to Agatha Christie and Citizen Kane. Delannoy once again demonstrating a sympathy for themes present in the originating novel, effectively balances moments of joy and intensity.

Jean Gabin played Maigret one final time in the disappointing Maigret Sees Red. Jean Delannoy declined an offer to return to direct and was replaced by Gilles Grangier. Released in the UK shortly after the finale of the BBC’s highly-praised adaptation featuring Rupert Davies, Grangier’s film was largely ignored. Gabin’s performance is not enough to save the film. Not entirely unwatchable, it suffers from having a director too much in awe of American B-pictures and a lack of enthusiasm for the work of Georges Simenon. Jean Gabin’s Maigret deserved a better final investigation.

Maigret Sets a Trap, Maigret and the St. Fiacre Affair,  and Maigret Sees Red are available to order from Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Maigret-Sets-Trap-Tend-Pi%C3%A8ge/dp/B00HAS22IS/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1474730330&sr=8-2&keywords=jean+gabin+maigret

https://www.amazon.com/Maigret-Fiacre-Affair-Laffaire-Saint-Fiacre/dp/B00BFIGRZ8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474730330&sr=8-1&keywords=jean+gabin+maigret

https://www.amazon.com/Maigret-Sees-Red-Voit-Rouge/dp/B01LOY123E/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1474730330&sr=8-3&keywords=jean+gabin+maigret

Book Reviews: The Late Monsieur Gallet, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, and The Carter of ‘La Providence’ by Georges Simenon

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Discussion of Simenon’s remarkable productivity is frequently couched in terms of the seventy five Maigret novels and accompanying twenty eight short stories written over the course of forty one years. The twelve months following publication of Pietr the Latvian saw a further nine books issued, Simenon’s exceptional discipline and fecundity of creativity having been honed during a career in France’s pulp magazine industry. Estimates vary of the number books written before the creation of Maigret but conservative reckonings put the figure somewhere in the region of one hundred and eighty.

An impatient writer, Simenon frequently invented the plot whilst writing a novel. Perhaps as a consequence of the decision not to prepare a detailed storyline before sitting down at in front of his typewriter, despite an ever present editor’s deadline, the prose is clear and direct whilst paying homage to classic French literature. Publicly pronouncements stressed the importance of creating commercially successful fiction not literary masterpieces but fans may, with some credibility, argue he achieved both.

Despite having repeatedly proven he was able to deliver a book length manuscript on time, and often within incredibly short deadlines, the publisher was initially unconvinced about the Maigret novels. Suggesting that the books had limited to commercial appeal due to a lack of violence and an unromantic main protagonist, Arthème Fayard tried to coax Simenon into ditching them and returning to the fiction forms he was adept at churning out to order. Sales figures and critical response swiftly alerted the publishing house to the novels immediate viability and in subsequent decades the appreciation would magnify as international editions were issued and the production of numerous film and TV adaptations ingrained Maigret within popular culture alongside the other giants of detective fiction: Sherlock Holmes and Phillip Marlowe.

The first novel, Pietr the Latvian, established the hero, his modus operandi, story milieu, and distinctiveness of the author’s voice particularly in comparison to the then prevalent schools of crime fiction. With meticulous concision Simenon painted vivid pictures of a France still scarred from the wounds of World War I and soon to be engulfed by The Great Depression. In cultural terms although working in a different medium and bound by the constraints of genre his documentation of now lost French buildings and social practices places him firmly alongside that other recordist of environments, Eugène Atget. From the opulence of Parisienne hotel suites to less salubrious railway cafes, Simenon’s recounted civil minutiae with surgical precision, ensuring that then contemporaneous readers were able to appreciate his skill in placing Maigret within a fictional world that was a recognisably accurate reflection of the one in which they inhabited.

Equally focused on the quest to apprehend the suspect and understand his motivations, Maigret employed the then relatively fresh additions of forensic science and psychology to the criminologists arsenal, ensuring he was able to see the foe as a fully drawn human being with hopes, desires, and foibles instead of a statistic on a a crime sheet. By taking equal care with constructing the antagonists’ backstory and making some astute decisions as to the precise moments when this information is revealed, Simenon justifies his position as one of the key writers in twentieth century crime fiction.

Having spent much of the première instalment in this series trying to see beyond Pietr the Latvian’s false identity and discover the truth about a murky web of cross border gangland activity, The Late Monsieur Gallet sees Maigret investigate the death of a commercial traveller in a hotel room. A more intricate plot than its predecessor packed with melancholic despair and a forlorn cast of characters and places. The pipe smoking hero has to delve deep into the deceased’s past to discover what dark secrets could have led to him being murdered. Duplicitous lives are placed under the microscope by the Chief Inspector as he endeavours to peel away decades worth of ingrained falsehoods and determine how a seemingly impoverished man was able to finance an extremely generous life insurance policy.

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His professional curiosity piqued after witnessing 30,000 Francs being parcelled up and posted, Maigret follows the sender from Brussels to Bremen. The trail goes cold when the suspect takes his own life. With just an empty suitcase, blood stained suit and forged identity papers to base an investigation on, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien sees the Chief Inspector haunted by guilt throw himself in pursuit of the mystery of why such a large sum of money was sent in the mail. Back in Paris the theft of his personal luggage propels Maigret to break through layers of deceit and intrigue as he sifts through the testimony of a group bound together by a dark secret.

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In The Carter of ‘La Providence‘ Maigret is dispatched to Dizy, Marne. A woman has been strangled, her identity unknown. A British lord arrives on his yacht and claims that the deceased was his wife. Traces of horse hair and tar are found on the corpse and suspicion falls on the crew of a barge that was parked nearby at the time of murder. Overflowing with descriptions of the 1930s French canal lifestyle, the book is an emotionally potent read and a window into a lost world.

The Late Monsieur Gallet, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, and The Carter of ‘La Providence’ can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Late-Monsieur-Gallet-Inspector/dp/0141393378/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_y

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Hanged-Man-Saint-Pholien-Inspector/dp/0141393459/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_z

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Carter-La-Providence-Inspector/dp/0141393467/ref=pd_sim_b_2

Book Review: Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simeon

Belgian writer Georges Simenon was perhaps that rarest of breeds; able to produce novels at the rate of one a month and yet maintaining literary credentials despite working within the confines of genre fiction. The precise number of works authored by Simenon is open to debate but is estimated to be in the region of 400 books under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms. Despite a prodigious output, biographical information about the author is frequently vague and contradictory. Conflicting accounts of Simeon’s life and the genesis of his most famous literary creation occur in all the main biographical texts and the twenty volume autobiography contains much which has been disputed by other sources.

Although regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most prolific writers, Simenon is largely remembered within the UK for the seventy-five novels featuring the laconic detective Inspector Jules Maigret. With a trench coat and ever-present pipe the detective frequently solved cases using intuition whilst literary counterparts (Sherlock Holmes) used precise deductive methodology. The popularity of Maigret has led to numerous film and TV adaptations including a  BBC production starring Rupert Davies which was highly praised by Simenon.

Written over a forty-one year period, the seventy-five Maigret novels have never been issued in the UK by a single publisher. Recognizing their status as modern classics Penguin have commissioned fresh translations, new cover art and will be releasing the books on a monthly basis in order of original publication.

First issued in 1931 Pietr the Latvian introduced the world to the terse detective in a case involving a hunt for an international criminal that has an audacious plan to unite Europe’s gangster fraternity. In this initial novel Simenon displayed the skills that would lead to him becoming both a bestselling author and highly regarded literary figure; an awareness of how to manipulate popular narrative forms coupled with subtle characterisations, and authentically sketched locations. A dark beginning to a franchise. The murder of Maigret’s colleague separates this book from other more cosy fare which was published at the same time and convinces the reader of the dangers Maigret must confront to solve the case.

Adroitly plotted, this is the perfect introduction to seventy-five months of regular doses of murder and pipe smoking.

Pietr the Latvian can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141392738/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0MHW0XNAH03ACZ0AB8VW&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=430153987&pf_rd_i=468294