Graeme Macrae Burnet on the Novels and Literary Legacy of Georges Simenon
"What all these novels share is the alchemic capacity to make the everyday fascinating and compelling."
For the Book Prize-shortlisted author Graeme Macrae Burnet the novels of Georges Simenon have had a lasting resonance, proving a vital inspiration for his first novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau and his latest The Accident on the A35. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, he introduces a writer with a unique power to shape the imagination and reveals other authors whose work owes a debt to his legacy.
Sometime around February 2001 I found myself in a traditional bistro in the unremarkable town of Saint-Louis on the French-Swiss border. It was the sort of place you find in every provincial French town, where everyone from clerical to building site workers gather for the menu du jour and to catch up on the local gossip over a glass of wine. The décor was traditional: waxcloths on the tiny cheek-by-jowl tables; the menu chalked up on blackboards; the green-stemmed wine glasses, peculiar to the region. But I hadn’t just walked into a restaurant. I felt that I had walked onto the set of a Georges Simenon novel. For this is Simenon’s terrain, and his unrivalled ability to sketch out such a scene in sparse, elegant prose, and to burrow inside the minds of the characters that frequent such places, has been the biggest influence on my writing. Back in 2001, I wrote a little sketch (two or three pages) of the scene I found myself in. A decade later this became the basis of my first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau
In Britain, Simenon is very much thought of as a crime writer, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he wrote 75 books in the Inspector Maigret series. But to my mind he is at his best in his standalone novels, or romans durs as he called them, many of which do not feature crimes at all. If you haven’t read any Simenon, it can be hard to know where to start (he wrote over 200 novels), but Penguin has been helpfully reissuing all the Maigret novels and selected romans durs. Two of the best of these recent reissues are The Blue Room (1964) and Mr Hire’s Engagement (1933).
The Blue Room opens with two lovers enjoying a post-coital moment in a provincial hotel room. But we soon learn that the protagonist, Tony Falcone, is now in custody, although for what crime is not revealed. It’s a novel that vividly evokes its small-town setting, but it is also a masterfully structured exploration of the working of its central character’s mind.
Monsieur Hire’s Engagement is set in Paris and features one of Simenon’s most archetypal characters: the lonely eccentric outsider, who attracts suspicion and persecution simply because he does not fit in. Monsieur Hire obsessively spies on his attractive neighbour and finds himself drawn into a plot that is at once cruel and touching. We do not necessarily warm to the protagonist, but we come to share his faint hope that he can somehow attain a degree of happiness, while simultaneously knowing that his situation is hopeless.
A less well-known author who shares Simenon’s spare style and close attention to the minutiae of everyday life is Madeleine Bourdouxhe. Bourdouxhe was born in 1906 in Simenon’s hometown of Liège. She wrote only two novels, La Femme de Gilles (1937) and Marie (1943), which are in some ways a mirror image of each other. In the first, Elise, a housewife in a small Belgian town, looks on as her husband has an affair with her sister, all the time hoping that he will return to her. Plot-wise it’s quite minimal, depending instead on the slow accumulation of incident and detail. Like its protagonist, it’s delicate and achingly sad, and probably the most exquisite novel I’ve ever read.
In its companion piece, Marie, it is the female protagonist who embarks on an affair, this time with a young man she meets on holiday. It’s a more emotionally detached novel, but equally powerful, full of yearning and vividly evoked Parisian locations. The two novels have recently been re-issued by Daunt Books in elegant translations by Faith Evans. And if further recommendation is needed, Simone de Beauvoir was a fan.
Finally, a more recent novel that shares my own fascination with unglamorous settings is David Szalay’s Man Booker-shortlisted All That Man Is. In a sequence of tangentially linked stories, Szalay takes us on a series of journeys through Europe’s hinterlands. His characters are disillusioned, possibly bored, sometimes unpleasant, but the whole is made compelling by the author’s brilliant eye for detail and his cool, unadorned prose. It’s perhaps not a novel one would immediately associate with Simenon or Bourdouxhe, but what all these novels share is the alchemic capacity to make the everyday fascinating and compelling.