Celebrate Belgium’s Independence Day with Georges Simenon July 21, 2010

Today marks the anniversary of Belgium’s independence from the Netherlands and, in 1831, the coronation of the first king of Belgium. So, it is particularly fitting that Georges Simenon’s Pedigree, the magnum opus of Belgian writing, is released this week. An epic merger of fiction and autobiography, Pedigree has been heralded by Luc Sante as “quite possibly the greatest single work of Belgian literature.”

Simenon, who was born in Liège, Belgium, was the prolific creator of the popular Inspector Maigret series as well as the romans durs, or psychological novels. He wrote over 450 novels and short stories throughout his lifetime, and more than 500 million copies of his books have been printed in over 55 languages. NYRB Classics has previously published nine Simenon titles, including Dirty Snow, Red Lights, and Three Bedrooms in Manhattan.

Pedigree stands alone among Simenon’s works, not only because of its length, scope, and attention to autobiographical detail. It uniquely evokes a national experience, describing his Belgian childhood with both sensory intensity and a full, deep understanding of daily life. Sante, in his introduction to the novel, writes that Pedigree is an unparalleled homage to the Belgian quotidian:

Inhabitants of countries more often depicted in literature may become blasé at reading the same old apercus concerning their lands retailed again and again, but for Belgians who have only experienced things firsthand and unmediated, the effect is startling, a concentrated series of shocks of recognition. All the tropes of petty conversation are there on the page, all the minor superstitions, the strictures on dressing children, the religious-holiday baked goods, the precise cuts of meat that mark different grades of economic well-being, the exact shadings of social cruelty, the odors of shops, the styles of deviance, the disposition of rooms, the forms of address… Pedigree is the embodiment of this homeland of the mind.

Lucille Frackman Backer agrees, writing that “Simenon in Pedigree does for Liège what Joyce did for Dublin: he evokes the city with such immediacy that we feel we’ve walked in its streets.” The autobiographical novel is a tribute not only to Simenon’s own story, but also to the national history it mirrors and probes.