THE BELGIAN WRITER Georges Simenon was the creator of Jules Maigret, one of the greatest of all fictional detectives: the anti-Holmes, the stout "mender of destinies" who fuels himself with copious amounts of beer and calvados and gets to the bottom of things, not through deductive process, but by intuition and his compassionate feeling for the outer reaches of human behavior. Most literary detectives embody their creator's fantasy; Maigret is especially unusual in that the jumping-off point seems to be Simenon asking himself not, what would I be like if I were clever or tough, but, more intriguingly, what would I be like if I were a good man?
Simenon certainly didn't see himself as a good man. He once made the outrageous claim that in his life he slept with 10,000 women (or was it 20,000?), most of them prostitutes. And he was just as prolific on the page. In fact, he's remembered chiefly for the swiftness of his output; he reckoned he could crank out a first draft in eleven days or so, and once agreed to write a book in public, in a glass booth.
Simenon was a relentless self-mythologizer, but a pitiless self-analyzer too, from which emerged the invaluable second strand of his output, the so-called romans durs, or "hard novels." Most of these deal with more or less the same predicament: a character, usually a man, is caught in a trap of his own devising and then pushed to the limit. The best of the romans durs feel raw and electric, because Simenon, despite all his worldly experience and his enormous wealth, never stopped seeing his own life in such anxious terms. He always thought the roof was about to cave in.
Over the last few years the New York Review of Books Classics Press have been steadily issuing these remarkable books in paperback, featuring new or substantially revised translations, and with introductions by writers as eminent, and different, as Larry McMurtry, Joyce Carol Oates, P.D. James, Luc Sante, Anita Brookner, William T. Vollmann, and Roger Ebert. Now the Brookyn-based publisher Melville House has joined the Simenon party, with handsome new editions of The President and The Train in their Neversink Library series.
The Train is a good place to start. It's an untypical Simenon in that it deals with World War II, and springs from the pangs that he felt about having remained in France throughout the German occupation. In another way, however, it's perfectly true to form, in dealing with a character who seizes the opportunity to flee his everyday life and finds himself trapped nonetheless.
The time is May 1940. The place is a cattle truck on the train of the title, heading south through demoralized France, one step ahead of Hitler's Panzers. The narrator is Marcel, short-sighted and tubercular, traveling with his heavily pregnant wife Jeanne. But then Marcel glimpses someone else:
I could see her from a distance, standing in front of our wagon, and her dusty satin dress, her figure, her tousled hair, seemed foreign to everything around her. She was stretching her legs without paying any attention to what was happening and I noticed her high pointed heels.
This alluring, highly sexualized figure (Simenon's narrator acts like both voyeur and erotic camera here: that "stretching her legs" is great, a note struck by a man who really did look at and notice such moments) turns out to be Anna Kupfer, a Czech Jew...read more