Simenon: Every one of his books is a dark mirror


Simenon has traditionally been classed with the serial manufacturers of mysteries, who assign their detectives one problem after another in an endlessly self-renewing process, a glorification not of crime but of drudgery: the novelist as omnipotent employer. He is closer, though, to Balzac’s encyclopedic ambitions, to the positivist notion that all of life can be pinned and mounted in a continuous series of fictional display cases. Simenon, in part on account of his background—the Belgian pessimism and fatalism and guilt and schadenfreude and morbid curiosity—became an encyclopedist of temptation and pain. Every one of his books is a lit window across the air shaft, through which a few people can be observed engaging in the business of everyday life, except that there’s something wrong. You the reader are pulled into the situation, maybe against your better judgment, by an irresistible wish to figure out what exactly is wrong with the picture. And then, helplessly, you witness spiraling chaos. The process is addictive, but it is neither banal nor complacent. Simenon’s genius—his native inheritance, refined into art—was for locating the criminal within every human being. At the very least, it is impossible to read him and remain convinced that you are incapable of violence. Every one of his books is a dark mirror.

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