A NOVELIST, GEORGES SIMENON ONCE WROTE, "is a man who does not like his mother -- or has not known mother-love." The Belgium-born writer was talking about Balzac at the time and although few fictioneers would agree with his judgment, he was talking from experience. After all, he despised his own mother – he accused her in a book of being a censorious skinflint who hounded his much-loved father to an early grave. And he wrote 425 novels.
That’s no misprint - so prolific was Simenon that in 1932 he was complaining “I’m already 29 and I’ve published only 277 books.” Such scorekeeping was important to him. Although he appeared almost arrogant in his self-belief, he was essentially insecure. And he desperately wanted to spite his mother. She was jealous of his cultural aspirations – she had her own thwarted ambitions – and she persistently belittled his literary achievements. And disparaged him: when his only brother was killed, for instance, she reportedly turned to him and asked, “Why couldn’t it have been you?”
A complex man of many contradictions, Simenon would possibly be classified today as an over-achiever overcompensating for feelings of maternal rejection. He might also be diagnosed as having had a form of OCD, for he was obsessional in his work and in many daily rituals.
This maternal rejection/obsession behaviour tag-team found its fullest expression in the writer’s priapic pursuits - he famously and frequently boasted of having had sexual relations with more than 10,000 women. His second wife suggested the true tally was “closer to 1200” women but Simenon’s sexual rapaciousness was … well exposed. Although he had affairs (including a liaison with the then 19-year-old American chanteuse Josephine Baker in 1925, who reputedly exhausted the insatiable Simenon with her own appetites), he was more interested in the quick fix – he was a serial propositioner who preyed on his domestic servants, his secretaries, his wife’s maids and female admirers of his fiction. He was also a compulsive habitué of brothels.
In looks, the pipe-smoking author was definitely more Clark Kent than Superstud. In bookshops, however, he was Superseller, the 20th century’s largest-trading mystery author after Agatha Christie. His stats are mind-boggling: his writing career spanned some seven decades and his novels – 205 of them pot-boilers written under pseudonyms – have sold more than 1.5 billion copies in 55 languages, his 75 Inspector Maigret novels accounting for 60 per cent of sales. More than 300 TV films and some 60 movies have been made from his works in eight countries (including Japan): Charles Laughton, Michael Gambon, Richard Harris and Eli Wallach were among the screen Maigrets, Jean Renoir, Claude Chabrol and Bernard Tavernier among Maigret movie directors.
For nearly 60 years Simenon was a literary phenomenon, a one-man publishing whirlwind whose readership would make the Michael Crichtons and Jeffery Archers of today weep in mortification. He was famous around the world, he was wealthy, influential, a revered living legend in his adopted France, where he arrived virtually penniless and unknown as a 19-year-old.
After his death in 1989, however, Simenon’s significance waned. A hard corps of addicts and scholars maintained the sage but his sales prominence and must-read relevance slipped, particularly after estate and copyright problems led to many of his books slipping out of print. In the context of modern novel-writing, mention of Simenon (outside Belgium and France) would most likely attract a “who cares?’’ comment.
Until now, that is. Because a European publishing-led push is seeing those Yesterday’s Man pronouncements put on hold. With his estate copyright wrangles recently resolved and a Simenon rights partnership formed between his son and a French corporation, there is a vested interest in drumming up interest in him again.
Besides, this month is the centenary of his birth - and in European literary circles 2003 has been declared “l’annee Simenon”. Well it has in Belgium at least, where his hometown Liege has revenue-and-tourist attracting Simenon exhibitions, plays, film festivals, musical revues and city tours planned.
And in France, where the writer was in 2000 voted among the top five authors of the 20th century writing in French – there, literary, cinematic and TV festivals are on the agenda, and his books are being repackaged and re-released.
And in Britain, where Maigret was compulsive TV viewing in the 60s, Penguin is reprinting six novels as Modern Classics and issuing a new paperback of Patrick Marnham’s definitive biography, The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret; Orion and Oldcastle Books are also publishing titles by or about him; Howard Ginsberg’s play Murder in Paris, which investigates the writer’s tragic and psychologically incestuous father-daughter relationship, is touring nationally; and Radio 4 is broadcasting the first new Maigret series for a quarter-century.
Suddenly Georges Simenon is hot again (even if an argument could be made that he was never really cold: Simenon conferences and Simenon conventions have been regular events in France and Belgium over the past decade, his literary archives at Liege University have attracted influxes of scholars and aficionados, and he has a significant following on the internet.)
Whether or not this manufactured Simenon fever will endure is open to debate. As is the question of whether it should – literary worth is not just a matter of productivity and Simenon has several justifiable counts against him, in his work and as a man.
To his own enduring chagrin, he became most strongly identified internationally with his series of Paris-based crime novels starring the often-grouchy Maigret – this was particularly galling to a man who prided himself on his intellectual prowess because the Maigrets were “soft” fiction, his term for the easily assimilated, reader-friendly stories he dashed off for bottom-line pleasure. (After all, he did have mansions, wives, mistresses and a luxurious life style to support.) He invested far more effort and ego into his “hard” fiction, those tightly plotted psychological dramas that were wrapped around domestic or sexual narratives, or his stand-alone crime/mystery novels that revolved around intricate psychological puzzles. The hard novels were admired and endorsed by fellow writers like Jean Cocteau, Henry Miller, TS Eliot and John Le Carre - he was, Andre Gide once noted (with tongue possibly in cheek), “the most genuine novelist we have had in literature”.
There’s no doubt at all that Simenon was the fastest literary gun in the West. His writing routine reflected his meticulous discipline: he would allot just a dozen days to complete each novel: one day for planning, eight for writing, three for correcting. He allegedly limited his “pulp fiction” vocabulary to 2000 words to ensure lucidity and pace, began writing at 4am, finished in late evening, taking breaks only to refill an ever-present carafe of wine, to replace a blunted pencil from the four dozen he had had pre-sharpened, to eat at rigidly specified times and to take a lengthy afternoon walk.
His productivity was a matter of personal and professional pride. When a Paris publisher advertised another writer’s “first work for three years”, Simenon released a flyer spruiking “the first Simenon for eight days”.
And he had a well-developed eye for self-promotion – he launched the first Maigret novel (which was also the first novel he published under his own name) in early 1931 with a crims-and-cops fancy dress party. There, 400 invited guests got down and dirty with 400 gatecrashers. This grandly titled “Anthropometric Ball” was a wild and scandalous success, Parisian newspapers headlining its all-night-long excesses. Simenon capitalised on the notoriety: by year’s end, another 11 Maigret novels were in books-shops and selling out.
By 1934 the now-famous Simenon “retired” Maigret so he could focus on writing a Nobel prize-winning novel. His readers, however, clamoured for more adventures of the pedantic, always-underestimated “mender of destinies” whose method of detection eschewed the melodramatic in favour of shrewd analysis of personality, intuition and an ability to profile the behaviour of criminal and victim. Maigret returned in 1942, and then Melba-ed in and out of “retirement” until the late 1970s.
When English crime writing critic HRF Keating published a chronological list of the 100 best crime and mystery books in 1987, Simenon appeared on it three times, twice with a Maigret novel (My Friend Maigret (1949) and Maigret in Court (1960)), once with The Stain on the Snow, a hard novel written in the US in 1948. Keating later remarked that if his listed had been ordered on merit, My Friend Maigret would have ranked number one.
Whether Simenon would rate as highly today is more moot. As he told interviewers, writing for him was “a vocation, a renunciation, if not a sickness and a curse”, and in the context of creativity, he was a psychopath. He was also suspect in his prejudices – an undercurrent of racism lurks in the works, as does a Germanic precision that has dated many of his tales into a fustiness not present in, say, Conan Doyle’s Holmesian masterpieces.
Towards the end of his career, Simenon suffered critical fall-out in the same way Picasso did for his prodigious painting output: possibly driven by the jealousies of less successful writers, the perception spread that Simenon had become “over-productive” and facile. Although he had been the confident of filmmakers Frederico Fellini and Jean Renoir and much of Europe’s intelligentsia, his attitudes, values and relevance were being questioned. He also became increasingly embittered at not winning the Nobel acclaim he desperately desired (and expected), and in his late-60s became reclusive, working obsessively and almost exclusively on what was to become 21 volumes of memoirs.
Part of the enduring Simenon attraction, of course, is his Maigret series. Many see the former medical student cum detective Jules Maigret as the author’s alter ego, although there is strong evidence to suggest he was actually based on his idealised “wise father”. Whatever his genesis, Maigret is unflappable and resolute, solving the “unsolvable” by his methodical means. Even more alluring in the books is the atmospheric co-starring role of his Paris of the past, its canals, seedy hotels, food, wine and enigmatic characters captured in all their Gallic mysteries.
The mysteries of the author also attract – for despite (or because of) his extensive self-exposure, much is disturbingly unclear about him. Although he was born 10 minutes into Black Friday in February 1903, his superstitious mother bullied authorities into recording his birthdate as February 12. That “lie”, which he never uncovered, is symptomatic of his life – the reported facts are close to the truth but never the whole truth.
Even today, unresolved questions remain about his life and his character:
- As a teenager during German occupation of Belgium in World War I, Simenon became at 15 a crime reporter on the Gazette de Liege. Part of his duties included writing pulp novels for the paper, and many of these were demonstrably anti-Semitic. He excused himself post-war with the “following orders” defence, but as one critic has noted, they bore the mark of conviction. And they resurfaced in many of his later works.
- In World War II, he again prospered during the occupation of Paris, working for the German film company Continental. At war’s end he was accused of having been a collaborator and was blacklisted in both France and Britain. Simenon insisted that he had worked under the Nazis, not for them. He was investigated but there was insufficient evidence to sustain the charges, which could have led to execution. After he was cleared, he decamped immediately for America where he remained for ten years and entered a tempestuous second marriage, which included his first wife as part of the family and ended years later in mutual hatreds.
- During his time on the Gazette, he hung out with a school of hard-drinking writers and painters, one of whom was a drug addict who died in suspicious circumstances, with Simenon the last to see him alive. At the time, Simenon was flirting with the idea of a criminal career, and he became a “person of interest” to the police.
- His life revolved around fiction yet he repeatedly told interviewers that he was incapable of making things up. (He was disingenuously cavalier about using people’s names in his books, and was frequently served with libel writs.) He would also habitually offer contradictory versions of his own life story to journalists, as if cultivating red herrings and false clues for future biographers.
- In his later years, his Swiss mansion was allegedly “bugged” so that he could eavesdrop on the conversations of his guests.
- For all his self-discipline, he was profligate with alcohol, with prostitutes and with friends. And although he was besotted by his children, he has been blamed by some for helping to destroy his adored daughter Marie-Jo. She became trapped in hopeless love for her “god-like father”, who did not – or could not - discourage her unhealthy fixation. When she committed suicide at 25 after several previous attempts, she did so using a gun she had bought following instructions in one of his novels.
There’s much more to the Simenon story, of course – and given the impending deluge of Simenonalia, probably more than enough opportunities to unravel the sleaze-bag-or-misunderstood-genius conundrum. Although given the glut of contradictions in his stories, it would probably require a Maigret to disentangle the truth with any authority.