The Belgian's Paris
Nowadays, ”mid-century” is the word we use about this specific historical period. What we have in mind is a certain kind of modernistic design, the 1950s landmark and contribution to architecture and design. The years following the Second World War meant a new way of structuring our cities and an urge to reshape our domestic space, in an austere yet elegant way. Light and air, instead of an abundance of furniture. A whole new concept of beauty, if you wish.
Gone were the conventions from the 19th century, when historical design periods formed a pattern for the time being and even future buildings. Simply put, the 1950s meant a farewell to traditional ways of shaping the buildings and interiors where people spent their time.
All this is perfectly true – as long as we talk about the avant-garde, be it the realms of art and literature or architecture and music. However, it is not the whole truth; the fifties were a bipolar decade, culturally speaking. The avant-garde only defined a small portion of what the period was about. In a wider sense, the 1950s was a conservative period. People tried to leave the horrors of the disastrous World War behind, which led to embracing static values. And probably the threat of a World War 3, now with the atomic bomb, made people confine to a small circle, the family sphere. The way of living became conformist, even more so than during the years before the war. A counter-movement was evolving, but it did not affect society in a broad sense before the next decade.
In my eyes, there is an almost iconic example of what the fifties were about – the world of Chief Inspector Jules Maigret. The character was invented by a Belgian writer: Georges Simenon. He had left his home city Liège, the largest city in Wallonia, and settled down in Paris. His literary success was almost immediate – at least since he decided to follow advice from Colette, author and literary editor for Le Matin: Make your work “less literary”!
Simenon sported simple descriptions and a limited stock of common words. Combined with exceptional productivity — 80 typed pages a day! — Simenon became “the goose that laid the golden eggs”. A wealthy man already in his early twenties. Chief Inspector Maigret, however, was not a particularly wealthy man. He represents the “petty-bourgeoisie” world. A life-style that excludes everything that is different, deviates from strict social norms. On the other hand, in his trade as a police officer, he encounters the antipode to all this: the criminal, the prostitutes, the drug addicts. In one word: the dark side. Or the “shadow”: according to the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the aspect of a personality that contains all that is personally unknown and what the person considers morally reprehensible. Maigret was not a copy of his author.
There are some peculiarities about Simenon. He started as a young intellectual discussing art and philosophy with a group of like-minded friends: artists and bohemians, prone to experiment with drugs. However, a few years later, he was found in a completely different context, working with a far-right political group. Furthermore, not before long he was an established writer of stories. He used pseudonyms like “Jean du Perry” and “Georges Simm”. From 1921 to 1934 he wrote 358 novels and short stories. His productivity as a writer was as huge as his unfaithfulness as a married man. He claimed he met prostitutes several times every week.
Georges Simenon’s biography is divided into specific chapters: Belgium, France, America etcetera. The Second World War could arguably be seen as his life’s most problematic phase. During the Nazi-German occupation of France, with censorship and paper restrictions, Simenon continued to write and publish books. Intentionally or not, he avoided war themes and anti-German sentiments. Furthermore, he sold the film rights to five of his novels to a German-controlled French film production company. It turned out that the film adaption had exaggerated anti-Semitic themes, which are not in the novel.
After the war, Simenon was under house arrest on suspicion of collaboration. After months of investigations he was cleared of all charges. So he could have carried on with his life in Paris, but surprisingly enough, he left France for the U.S. Despite his image as an archetypal depicter of Paris, his French connection was relatively loose. Simenon’s life spanned over 86 years – of those years he only spent 23 in France. In fact, the novels that depict the 1950s Paris, he wrote in New York.
Some say he left France for political reasons, out of concern that the Communist Party might take over. But the literary aspect of the matter is maybe even more interesting – was it the distance to Paris, a city now only existing in his memory, that made his depiction of the city so vibrant, so evocative? When you read a Maigret novel, you cannot avoid feeling the humid, almost misty air at Quai des Orfèvres on your skin.
Georges Simenon led a life in luxury – 500 million copies of his Maigret novels were sold. After his upbringing in a family who had to save nickels and dimes, money must have felt like heaven-sent. Living in fashionable Neuilly, arriving at Paris’ fashionable restaurants in chauffeur-driven luxury cars. All in all, it was a life that he later described as “sickening” and “oversumtous”.
Simenon described his Maigret novels as “semi-literary”. Their vocabulary consisted of just 2000 words, if we can trust his estimation. His intention was to write books to be read by people of average education in a single sitting. He held his more literary novels higher. But there is another aspect to the matter. Simenon’s Maigret stories often deal with more serious themes than his other novels. Issues about political influence over the justice system, snobbery and class divisions, and the role of social background and pure chance in determining whether an individual becomes a criminal or a respected member of society.
Detective stories are not my first choice of literature. Certainly, they can be quite entertaining – and their depiction of people and different social scenes can be spot-on, there’s no denying that. But they tend to leave the reader empty, with a feeling of all mysteries being solved. That’s a shallowness, which makes the books feel flat, compared to the surge of unanswered questions that real life is about. Human existence is about mysteries – persistent mysteries. Life cannot be fully analysed or reduced to a simple package of diminishing enigmas.
But in his Maigret novels, Simenon does not instil in us the concept, that life is clarified, and mess is cleaned up. One or two bad guys get caught, no doubt. But life, society, and humans keep their secrets. They withstand all efforts to be dismantled, and taken to pieces. They leave the mystery untouched. Which is not a critizism.
In me, the Maigret novels tend to implant images. Visions of a bygone era, times past. Human beings faded into history.
The characters found in my series of photographs are fictional. Not only in the sense that they are figurants who embody non-existing, literary personages, but also because the figurants themselves are non-existing. They are invented by me, with the support of available AI-technology. This represents a new art form: purely imagination-spurred photography.