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Simenon: No Mystery to His Fans

September 10, 1989

Ernest Hemingway avidly read Georges Simenon for serious diversion and Thornton Wilder thought him a rare master of the narrative art. Andre Gide believed he was "perhaps the greatest and most genuine" French novelist of his period. And Jean-Pierre Sanguy, director of the Paris police, describes Simenon's most famous character, Inspector Maigret, as "a lesson of classic discipline in his investigations and humanity in his contacts."

Their sentiments were shared by readers in 40 countries, who over the years purchased more than 600 million copies of books by the Belgian-born author who died last week at the age of 86.

Simenon's status as the best-selling writer in history was assured not only by his gargantuan output--84 Maigret books, 136 so-called "psychological novels," lengthy memoirs and more than 1,000 articles and short stories--but also by his work's engaging qualities. However, among non-Francophones, he doubtless will be remembered most for the unforgettable Maigret.

That most formidable agent of 36 Quai des Orfeveres would not be displeased, we think, if we were to suggest that something interesting can be deduced from the fact that the world's most popular works of literary imagination are mysteries.

Our century, after all, has been marked by a general increase in knowledge and a general decline in understanding--by the death of the universal explanation. Except around the fundamentalist fringes, there is little thought of any kind that people of earlier times would recognize as orthodox. Historical consciousness has altered religion's approach to revealed truth; Marxism, capitalism and Freudianism offer insight and methodology, but no final answers.

Against such a backdrop, what is a mystery novel but a fictional affirmation of the idea that, out of facts, however puzzling, understanding may emerge? And who are Maigret and his creator but the Enlightenment's faithful children, artful pleaders that reason itself not be sent to stand among the gods that failed.

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