Early this summer, at a colleague’s suggestion, I returned to an author I last read in my teens. Georges Simenon churned out some 200 crime novels in 40 years, of which 75 featured his imposing creation, Inspector Jules Maigret.
A hulk of a man, prone to use his fists when detection failed, Maigret featured in many screen adaptations, always with pipe in hand, memorably striking his match on a brick wall in the BBC’s opening titles. He has flickered all my life at the edges of cultural respectability.
Rereading Maigret was no easy matter. Most of the books were out of print and second-hand copies were scarce. I was relieved to learn that Penguin are reissuing the complete set, one volume a month, in much-improved modern translations, starting this week with the very first Maigret mystery, Pietr The Latvian, dated 1930.
Maigret is well worth investigating. Unlike Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, he makes no claims to brilliance, cracking his cases through plodding observation and plenty of alcohol. A copper of the working classes, his sympathy lies more with the criminal than the wealthy victim; he is a shrewd reader of the desperate mind.
More appealing still, he wears a permanent air of near-defeat. Childless and without close friends, heading for early retirement, his reflections on men in midlife are more profound than we have a right to expect in a potboiler. Simenon is a compelling writer. He is also an unqualified antisemite.
His prejudice leaps off the page, unannounced: “People like this Samuel — he had dealt with hundreds in his time. And he had always studied them with a curiosity that was mixed with some other feeling — not quite repulsion, as though they belonged to a different species altogether to the one we call human…”
This is from The Madman of Bergerac, dated 1932. It depicts the Jew as a dangerous alien, predatory and well-organised. The family counts a lot with the Jews…they’re thrifty, too. These are classic, hostile clichés, and there are plenty of them. In Pietr The Latvian, you’ve got Jews spread all over, constituting a separate race… and then you’ve got mixed-race Jews, who eat garlic and slaughter livestock their own special way.
There are copious references to the Jew, the Jewess, his overweight wife, along with lascivious insertions of heaving breasts and a glimpse of underwear.
Time and again, Simenon employs stock caricatures of Jews to arouse suspicion and disgust in his readers. One Simenon scholar finds Jews in 13 Maigret novels, an inexplicably high ratio. Two of Maigret’s Jews are murderers. None is sympathetic.
Simenon has form on the far right. A wartime collaborator with the Nazi occupation, he fled to North America in 1945 and stayed abroad for a decade. In France, a judicial order banned him from publishing for five years. He was, and remains, suspect.
So you have to wonder what went on in the minds of editors at Penguin when they passed for publication a series of racist slanders in a gleaming new translation. Did they not consider the possibility that these slurs might reinforce a warming climate of antisemitism?
Apologists have long argued that Simenon’s racism was a product of his time, no different or worse than the attitudes of such crime writers as Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie. It should, writes one analyst, “be seen as a symptom of intellectual and moral laziness rather than a deliberate expression of a social or political agenda.” Perhaps. But Simenon’s antisemitism persists longer than the rest; his last slur appears in Maigret’s Patience, as late as 1965. He is, in a word, unregenerate.
Now no one would expect a publisher to suppress books that have sold half-a-billion copies and remain gloriously readable. Nor would a professional translator agree to modify an original text in tune with current sensibilities. What is required, however, is an expression of detachment. Penguin need to issue a cover warning of racism in all Maigret novels where Jews are mentioned. Nothing less will do.