Friday, 21 March 2014

The Penguin Revival of Georges Simenon and Maigret

The European Commission’s Representation in the UK holds a fascinating programme of cultural events at their Europe House base in Westminster, London. On 19th March, the focus was on the successful Belgian crime author, Georges Simenon (1903 - 1989) and his renowned Inspector Maigret. The Wallonia trade team at the Belgian embassy organised the event to celebrate their famous son. Simenon’s work is currently experiencing a major revival in translation thanks to Penguin.

Semaine de la francophonie
Angeliki Petrits, Language Officer, introduced the evening in French to support the Semaine de la francophonie. The week celebrates the French language. The Simenon event was also part of crime fiction week at Europe House.

Our host for the evening was Didier Denayer from the Embassy of Belgium. The main speaker was Bill Adler, an associate lecturer in French with the Open University and expert on Simenon. The other surprise speaker was the novelist’s son, John Simenon. Penguin is currently relaunching Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels with new translations. 

Bill Alder began his presentation by quoting some of the extraordinary figures associated with Georges Simenon. He was a prolific Belgian novelist writing in French. He wrote hundreds of novels using a large number of pseudonyms. He could turn out a new novel in a couple of weeks. His work has been translated into a total of 55 languages. There have been around 90 film adaptations and 500 TV programmes.

Simenon was born in Belgium’s third largest city, Liège. The family later moved to Outremeuse. His writing owes much to the area and his early life there. Liège is often recognisable to the reader, even when the novels are set in Belgium and France.

Georges Simenon left school early without any qualifications. He was a news reporter for the Gazette de Liège. His experiences provided much inspiration for stories in which lives are turned upside town by a small incident.

As Simenon’s international popularity grew, critical acclaim still eluded him. He was unashamedly business-like in his approach to writing. Maigret is his most popular creation. His Maigret series saw immediate success and has been adapted into some 60 films.

It is easy to overlook how different Simenon’s work is to that of other crime authors at the time. Agatha Christie focused on “whodunit”. Simenon was more interested in why. He prioritised social and psychological portraiture.

Maigret died at the age of 86 in 1989. His final years were spent in Switzerland. Wallonia’s “prodigal son” donated his literary archive to the University of Liège. Today, Simenon often appears in crime 
fiction modules on university syllabuses. 

Georges Simenon’s entire corpus is being retranslated and published by Penguin this year. Previous translators have often changed the stories. John Simenon related how his father had quarrelled with his English translator, Geoffrey Sainsbury. The translator regarded himself as a co-author. The original translations have dated. The new Penguin translations are regarded as much more faithful. John Simenon commented that they have a better rhythm and spirit.

The lecture was followed by a question and answer session. John Simenon gave some fascinating insights into the character of his father. He did not shun shedding light on some of the more difficult aspects of his father’s past. John stressed the importance of understanding that that his father had grown up in occupied Liège in 1914-18. The psychological scars of an occupation take a long time to heal. The city of Liège was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for its bravery in an unequal struggle.

The audience was highly knowledgeable. It included Karen Seago of City University and organiser of Friday’s crime fiction workshop. Ros Schwartz, (one of Penguin's new translators), raised the subject of the novels' endings with John Simenon. At the end of a Maigret novel, order is restored after the chaos. And yet no one is imprisoned. There remains some social unease.

The Belgian Embassy then treated its guests to some Belgian beer. A very sociable ending to an evening of culture.

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