Sunday 6 September 2015

Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

Simenon was born in Belgium, the son of an accountant in an insurance company. Simenon was born a few minutes into Friday 13th February but his superstitious mother insisted on his birth certificate being falsified and gave him the more auspicious birthday of Thursday 12th. One of his mother's more notorious ancestors was Gabriel Brühl, a robber who was hanged in 1743; later Simenon used Brühl as one of his pseudonyms.
Simenon's family moved many times in his childhood, a pattern of life that Simenon was to replicate throughout his life. One of the most significant house moves in his childhood was when his parents moved to a large house that enabled them to take in lodgers, which meant that Simenon was mixing with students and apprentices of many nationalities and this early experience contributed to the cosmopolitan flavour of his books.
Simenon's relationship with his mother was stormy and often cold, especially after the birth of his brother whom she much preferred. (It is reported that when Simenon's brother died, she said to Simenon that she wished it had been him rather than his brother.) Perhaps to make up for this deficit, Simenon was very close to his father and devastated by his death when Simenon was only seventeen. Many psychologists have theorised that Simenon's dysfunctional relationship with his mother was the root cause of his extreme promiscuity (in old age he claimed to have slept with at least 10,000 women) and his self-serving egotism, which led to his investigation for collaboration with the Nazis after the Second World War.
From 1914 to 1918 Simenon attended the Collège Saint-Louis, a Jesuit high school, but in 1918, when he was fifteen he left the Collège, using his father's failing health as his reason. For some months he had short-term jobs until, in January 1919, he took a job at the newspaper the Gazette de Liège. Simenon's job was to report on unchallenging human interest stories but his contact with the newspaper gave him the opportunity to explore politics, bars and cheap hotels as well as arousing an interest in crime and criminal investigations. It was at this time he attended lectures by the ground-breaking criminologist Edmund Locard. While at the newspaper he wrote over 150 articles under the pen name G. Sim. Also under this pen name he published his first novel, Au Pont des Arches, in 1921, and under the name Monsieur Le Coq he published more than 800 humorous pieces between 1919 and 1922. During these years he became increasingly familiar with the seamier side of city night life, consorting with prostitutes, anarchists, bohemian artists and criminals, including murderers. This experience forms the background for many of his books, including his best-remembered series featuring Commissaire Maigret.
In 1922 Simenon's father died and he and his mistress, Régine Renchon, moved to Paris. In 1923 they returned to Liege in order to be married. Despite Simenon's lack of faith, his mother insisted that Régine should convert and they should be married in a Roman Catholic Church, and all of Simenon's children were later baptised into the Catholic Church.
Simenon seemed to favour nicknames for the women in his close family circle, which he insisted they respond to rather than their given names; Regine was always known as Tigy, while Henriette Liberge, their cook and housekeeper, was known as Boule (literally translated as Ball) due to her plumpness. Boule was sexually involved with Simenon for several decades, but she was by no means the only woman to have an affair with Simenon; throughout his life he had numerous liaisons with other women, perhaps the most famous of which was his relationship with the singer and dancer, Josephine Baker.
A reporting assignment had awakened Simenon's pleasure in boating and in 1929 he had a boat built. Simenon, Tigy, Boule and their dog, Olaf, lived on board this boat and travelled the French canal system. It was in 1930, while boating in the Netherlands, in and around the Dutch town of Delfzijl, that Simenon created his most famous character, Commissaire Maigret. There is a commemorative statue of Maigret in Delfzijl, which was unveiled in 1966 by Simenon, and the ceremony was attended by actors, of many nationalities, who had played Maigret.
Between 1930 and 1934 Simenon travelled extensively in eastern Europe, Africa, Turkey and the Soviet union, culminating in a two year trip around the world. He and his family then settled in a succession of houses in France and in 1939, Marc, Simenon's only child with Tigy, was born.
Simenon's conduct in the Second World War has cast a shadow over his reputation, although most people now tend to the view that he was apolitical and opportunistic rather than a collaborator with the Germans. In the early 1940s Simenon had a serious health scare when he was misdiagnosed with heart disease, the condition that killed his father. Also around this time, Tigy finally had confirmation of Simenon's sexual relationship with their housekeeper, Boule. Although Simenon and Tigy did not divorce until 1949, for the last few years their relationship was only a marriage in name, especially as, despite Tigy's protests, Boule remained with the family.
In 1945 Simenon chose to avoid questioning about his relationship with the German invaders and left France for Canada and the United States. Simenon, Marc and Boule all learned to speak English, but Tigy struggled with the language and longed to return to Europe. It was at this time that Simenon met Denyse Ouimet, a young woman seventeen years his junior, and they started a tempestuous love affair. In 1949 Simenon and Tigy divorced and in 1950 he married Denyse. It is interesting to note that apparently Denyse did not have a nickname bestowed on her by Simenon and to speculate whether she refused to accept this particular form of control. Denyse and Simenon had three children: Johnny, born in 1949; Marie-Jo, born in 1953; and Pierre, born in 1959.
Although Simenon had not lived in Belgium since 1922, he always retained his Belgian citizenship and, in 1952 was made a member of the Academie Royale de Belgique.
Simenon and his family returned to Europe in 1955, first living in France and then in Switzerland. In 1964 Simenon and his second wife, Denyse, separated. Simenon had already started an affair with his new housekeeper, Teresa, who he had hired in 1961 and she remained as his companion until his death.
In 1966 Simenon was given the Mystery Writers of America's most prestigious honour, the award of Grand Master.
Simenon's later years were darkened by the suicide, in 1978, of his only daughter, Marie-Jo, when she was twenty-five. Marie-Jo was a deeply troubled young woman, obsessively devoted to her father; when she was a child she had begged him to buy her a gold 'wedding' ring, which she had enlarged as she grew older. One of the last things she spoke of was her father's 'crushing genius'. As a final, cruel irony, when she decided to shoot herself she discovered the whereabouts of a Parisian gunsmith by consulting one of Simenon's novels that was set in Paris.
In 1984 Simenon underwent surgery for a brain tumour. He recovered but his health deteriorated and he died in 1989.
When writing about Simenon's life I found it impossible to interweave his novels into the narrative because they were so numerous and seem to be the fabric of his life. He was one of the most prolific writers of the century, producing nearly 200 novels (including a number of 'psychological novels'), 150 novellas, a large number of articles and an immense number of 'pulp' novels written under at least two dozen pseudonyms. He also wrote several autobiographical works, especially in the last years of his life. Simenon would set himself the task of writing a novel in eleven days, eight for writing and three for editing. During that time he would live a monk-like existence, immersing himself in his work. He said, in interview, that if anything disrupted that eleven day writing process, (such as him being unwell and having to rest for a day) he would throw the book away because for him it was no longer a workable project. He also said that he started knowing the names, ages and appearances of his characters but did not plot, because that would destroy his interest in his book.
Rather like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Simenon was outraged that the novels and short stories that proved most popular were his Maigret novels, rather than his more serious works. Nevertheless the Maigret books are a significant and powerful body of work, a view confirmed by T.S. Eliot, a writer that Simenon greatly admired, when asked about the two most significant changes in his life in recent years: 'I now prefer Claret to Burgundy and I prefer Inspector Maigret to Arsene Lupin.'
Between 1931 and 1972, Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories featuring Commissaire Jules Maigret. The Maigret books have been translated into a large number of languages and have been televised in several countries. In Britain, Maigret was first played by Rupert Davies and later by Michael Gambon; a new Maigret series is due to be recorded in Britain starring Rowan Atkinson, an interesting challenge to see if he can persuade the audience to forget his previous creations, Blackadder and Mr Bean.
The Maigret books set in Paris seem to be woven out of the experiences Simenon had in the back streets of the city, the denizen of thieves, prostitutes, the destitute and violent criminals; but he also sets much of the action in his books in the homes of the outwardly respectable middle class, with a feeling of the decay and evil, twisted relationships that lurk behind their respectable doors and shuttered windows. However, Simenon also sets his Maigret books in the other countries that he visited. He was at the height of his creative powers when he was living in the United States and many of his books were set there, such as Trois chambres à Manhattan (1946) and Maigret à New York (1947.)
Maigret is a stocky, tall man, slightly overweight, who smokes a pipe and is very fond of alcohol although it is a matter of pride that he does not get intoxicated. He usually wears a heavy raincoat. His wife's name is Louise, although she is always known as Madame Maigret. They have no children, although they did have a baby that was still born. Maigret usually works with a small team of detectives, notably Lucan and Janvier, who respect him although they are wary of his bad temper when things are not going well. Maigret sometimes depends on police procedure but, more often, on intuition, which leads to long cat and mouse sessions in which he tried to wear down his suspects and intensive (and sometimes inhumane) interrogations that can go on for several hours and occasionally days.
Perhaps Simenon's work can best be explained by himself in an interview published in 1955: 'I am an artisan; I need to work with my hands. I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood. My characters – I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional. And I would like to make a man so that everybody, looking at him, would find his own problems in this man.' (The Paris Review, Summer 1955, interview by Carvel Collins.)

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