The Mystery Review
Vol. 6 No. 4
At the conclusion of the French Mystery Novel course I teach, I ask my students which was their favourite novel. By that time they have read 10 mysteries, heard about a dozen more and have seen several films based on them. Invariably the majority answer: Simenon was the best.
Why would young people of today prefer a novel written nearly 70 years ago to something more contemporary, closer to their world and their life? The best answer was given by Simenon himself in an interview with Leslie Garis (New York Times Magazine, April 22, 1984, p.20) : "Everybody is a character in one of my novels ... If you are true in your novels, everybody is in. Otherwise, they wouldn't print books I wrote 60 years ago. They print and print." He told Garis that all his characters were based on real people with emotions, thoughts, anguishes, dissatisfactions and hidden desires. He described them truthfully, he said, and presented them as "naked man." This was Simenon's strength: the ability to create vibrant, believable characters.
Georges Joseph Christian Simenon was born in 1903 in Liège, Belgium, a rainy, sombre and very bourgeois city. His father was modest, dependable, cheerful and gentle; Simenon venerated him. He modelled Maigret on his father, bestowing on him his father's reserve, sense of discretion and his "pudeur" (sense of restraint). His mother was a malcontent, complainer and extremely class-conscious. Her family included alcoholics and abusive and jealous brothers-in-law. She had fits of hysteria, lived in terror of penury and dominated her meek husband. Simenon found her pretentious, prejudiced and self-pitying. He often portrayed wives and mothers in her image. Not a very nice image. But his mother returned the favour: she clearly preferred Georges' younger brother Christian, a colonial bureaucrat and a wartime collaborator who died in his early 40s, to the great sorrow of his mother who openly regretted that it was Christian who had died. The atmosphere at home worsened when Simenon's father died and his mother remarried.
Simenon described that marriage later in The Cat (1966): two people living in silent hate, communicating through notes left for the other to see, and poisoning every encounter. (A wonderful film with Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret was produced in 1970.) Life in such an environment could not have been easy and Georges found that writing was a way to escape it. (Escape became a recurring theme in his works.)
In 1919, at age 16, Georges became a reporter for the Gazette de Liège, and soon started writing his own column: short satirical fiction. At this time he met Regine, called Tigy, slightly older than he, not very pretty but an intelligent, quick-witted woman, with whom he fell in "like." In 1923 he married her, and remained unfaithfully with her for 27 years. Much later, in one of his autobiographies (Quand j'étais vieux or When I was Old, published in 1970), he described her as an "excellent comrade" but unfortunately overcome by "constant jealousy."
Since 1922, he had been living in Paris and writing pulp fiction which he published under various pseudonyms. For these he was paid by the piece no royalties but he was churning them out at a tremendous speed: up to 80 typewritten pages per day (aided by two bottles of white wine) and was now earning a decent wage. Decent enough to engage a 17-year-old virgin as a maid. Boule, as she was christened by him (her real name was Henriette, the same as his mother), fell promptly in love with him and became his mistress. She overcame Simenon's weariness of virgins by having herself deflowered by someone else and remained his devoted lover and servant for 40 years. Simenon, Tigy and Boule all travelled together constantly, often touring the extended canal system (which became a setting for many of his novels), venturing into Belgium and Holland. In 1929 they stopped in Delfzijl, Holland to have their boat recaulked. There Simenon wrote his first Maigret (a statue of the fictional character was erected there in the 1960s) and the first novel he published under his own name.
Pietr-le-Letton (The Case of Peter the Lett, or Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett) became an instant success and changed the character of the French mystery novel. Simenon rejected the classic mystery premise of the super-intelligent detective who unravels by impeccable logic and superior deduction the intricate plot. His detective was not an amateur like Rouletabille (Gaston Leroux) or a gentleman-thief like Arsène Lupin (Maurice Leblanc). He was a police inspector and a real person. The characters did not subdivide into the "good guys" and "bad guys." There was more sympathy felt for the murderer than for the victim. Mainly Simenon added realism, atmosphere, and psychological analysis of characters:"I concentrate, concentrate on my characters I don't say story, because I am not interested in the story. My stories are sometimes very poor. Only the characters matter." (Simenon to Garis, 1984)In addition, his style had also changed: in the mid-1920s when he was writing for Le Matin, a Parisian daily, Colette, who was its literary editor, advised him to eliminate all literary pretentiousness, to simplify. He then adopted his concise, elegant, style; often terse and very effective. From then on Simenon's success and reputation skyrocketed. Finished were the days of piece publishing: he wrote his own contracts. He retained subsidiary rights and made a fortune: about 50 films have been made from his books, in France, England, the United States, Italy, Holland, Russia and Germany. Several long-running TV series, made in various countries (including Japan), ran in at least 12 countries. (A BBC series of 52 episodes aired in the 1960s. )
Simenon wrote the bulk of his first series of Maigret novels (19) in 1932-1933. At the same time, he began to write his straight novels and kept on writing straight journalism! The first of the straight novels was Le Relais d'Alsace (The Man from Everywhere) published in 1931, together with 11 Maigrets in the same year. His writing stamina was unequalled before or since. He wrote fast, possessing the talent of never having to rewrite anything. He usually worked from 4 a.m. till noon, then lived voraciously."Between novels I have three or four weeks of exuberant life, and then little by little, I have a feeling of emptiness. That's why I have had 33 homes in my life." (Simenon to Garis, 1984)In fact, every few months he would pack up, and with his wife Tigy, his servant/mistress Boule and his dog (when he had one), would move to the Riviera, La Rochelle, Paris, Porquerolles and so on, later using the various places for settings in his novels, and lead a brilliant worldly life, with friends such as jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol and Jean Cocteau.
The Simenons went to Africa, where Simenon acquired a contempt for colonialism, which he showed in Le Coup de tune (Tropic Moon) and in a series of articles. These years (1932-35) were probably his most active years of journalism; he travelled all over eastern, northern and Mediterranean Europe, and even around the world writing and interviewing such personalities as Trotsky. In 1935, they travelled to the Americas, New Zealand and Australia, Tahiti and the Galapagos, gathering everywhere impressions and characters which he then depicted, often as the "rates de l'aventure" (the failures who thought adventure would give them the meaning of life).
He wrote in this period 30 straight novels examining themes of alienation, flight, destiny, self-destructiveness and solitude. Back in France. his first child, Marc, was born (1939). His travelling was restricted during the war years, but in 1945 they moved again: back to the United States, which Simenon loved from the first time he visited it. He even loved its bourgeoisie. "No European writer ever loved French bourgeoisie, which is considered both arrogant and petty." (Mémoires Intimes or Intimate Memoirs, 1981)
Next, their travels took them to Canada, to Quebec, where they lived near Sainte-Marguerite. Having the need of a secretary, he called for one, and thus met Denyse Ouimet (a manic-depressive, suffering from paranoid delusions, according to Garis). They fell in love immediately. She moved in with the Simenons, at first pretending to be just his secretary, but soon their relationship was an open secret. They travelled in two cars: Denyse, Georges and his son Marc in one car, with Tigy, and the child's tutor in the other. They actually lived in harmony, the only quarrels coming from Denyse's pretensions of being Simenon's agent: allegedly the publishers disliked her, while Simenon found her inept. They still moved every few months (accompanied now by Boule who had remained initially in Paris), to Florida and Arizona. Everywhere Simenon soaked up the atmosphere of local life. His enormous curiosity in people, his natural charm and his generosity allowed him to befriend scores of locals. He was happy. Those were, according to his memoirs, the happiest years of his life. They stayed in Arizona uninterruptedly for two years, with small, frequent excursions across the Mexican border to visit the local brothels, where Simenon became a well-liked habitué. Unlike his wife Tigy, Denyse (she liked to spell her name with a "y") was not jealous:" 'I was afraid the first time, but then he came back to me,' she answers in a smoker's rough tones, 'so I was never jealous again. When people asked me, I'd say, "Look, I'm a good cook. But I couldn't know all the cuisines in the world. Would I be jealous of anybody going to a Chinese restaurant?" My husband was a genius and a novelist. He was curious about everything. So why not women? I didn't mind. Why should I? He always came back to me.' "(Garis, 1984)As a matter of fact, both Simenon in his Mémoires Intimes, and Denyse in her book, Un Oiseau pour le chat (A Bird for the Cat) write about their group sex encounters, and Simenon even accused Denyse of having a penchant for voyeurism. Anyhow, Denyse would often wait for him in the car while he was visiting the brothel, sometimes even in the parlour. Simenon openly admitted his overactive sexual needs: he boasted to Fellini of having had 10,000 women in his life, and in the interview with Garis he stated:"I have been hungry for all women ... All women tall, short, fat, thin ....Three, four... sometimes five a day! ... It's not so much ... It was five different women."In 1949 Denyse became pregnant. Simenon divorced Tigy and married Denyse. They moved to California first, then to Connecticut, where they spent five years, with Tigy and Marc (for whom Simenon rented a house nearby), and Boule and Denyse and John, their son, who was followed in 1953 by their daughter Marie-Jo. Simenon was happy during those years and adored his children. In his Mémoires Intimes he wrote that those years, and the Canadian experience, were the only years he would like to relive. They continued a frenetic social life, with frequent junkets to New York. Simenon gave lectures and acquired new admirers, such as Henry Miller, who added to his already large group of literary fans composed of Somerset Maugham, T.S. Elliot, and William Faulkner, among others. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and to the Belgian Royal Academy.
In 1955 he felt restless and decided to move back to France. Tigy dropped out of his life and went to live in a house at Nieul which they had acquired previously, leaving Marc with Simenon. Back in Europe they restarted their listless life of travelling and cruising. A year later, they settled in Lausanne in a big mansion with a large household staff, where they resided for 11 years. All this time he continued writing and publishing. At that time there was a Simenon book being published somewhere in the world every three days. Over 200 million books were printed by the late 50s. (To date, it's over 700 million in 39 countries!)
In 1959 his last son, Pierre, was born. Despite his love for his children, it was a period of unhappiness for Simenon. His marriage was falling apart, he went through a writer's block, a four-month period when he feared he had lost his creativity. That's when he wrote his first autobiographical work, Quand j'étais vieux (When I was Old), published much later in 1970. Another autobiographical work followed: Pedigree, which came out in 1962 and became a bestseller praised by English, German and American critics. They moved again, to a small village in Switzerland, Epalinges. Denyse was going through a series of psychiatric crises and was sporadically hospitalized. It is at this point, according to an excellent work by Stanley G. Eskin (Simenon, McFarland & Company, Jefferson NC, 1987) , that Denyse's behaviour affected adversely their teen-aged daughter, Marie-Jo:"Denyse took Marie-Jo on a vacation and is alleged to have shocked the adolescent by masturbating in front of her and lodging a cancerous secret in Marie Jo's fragile psyche, not at all appeased by her father's dangerous love for her. (Denyse denies the incident, though accepts that Marie-Jo believed that such a thing happened. This is the episode she succeeded in having excised by court order from Simenon's Mémoires intimes of 1981.)" (p. 201)Simenon loved his children, and was loved by them. Father/son relationships recur frequently in his novels. Mark thought that he was a wonderful man, "a good father, a very good father" (Garis); John said, "he's been the most incredible father." Simenon himself admitted having only one passion: to be a father. Despite his love and devotion, he soon lost his daughter in tragic circumstances.
In 1961 Denyse hired a new chambermaid, Teresa. Like Boule in his first marriage, Teresa became his sporadic mistress. It soon blossomed into a strong relationship. Teresa was very good to him, took care of him with tenderness. Simenon fell in love with her. In Garis' interview, Simenon acknowledged that he had to wait "58 years for love. It was a long time." And for the only time in his life, he remained faithful: "and for 20 years I haven't needed others."
In 1972 he wrote his last novel. His first written under his name was a Maigret, his last novel was also a Maigret: Maigret et M. Charles; a story of a failed marriage; of a neurotic wife who felt rejected, became an alcoholic and did nothing to improve the union; of a husband, a bon vivant, who liked women, especially women in the profession. Somehow a very reminiscent story. By this time his literary output was composed of 203 novels written under 17 pseudonyms, 80 Maigret novels and 22 novellas, 90 mystery short stories, 116 straight novels, 24 various short stories and in addition, all his journalistic and autobiographical work.
He moved for the last time, with Teresa and one servant, to a small home in Lausanne, keeping just a few possessions. He travelled no more. Denyse was demanding huge sums of money, then wrote her unflattering memoir accusing him of everything under the sun. Marie-Jo, who was living in Paris under psychiatric attention, was devastated by this book. She attempted suicide in 1976 and succeeded in 1978. Simenon was shattered. Till the end he blamed Denyse for pushing Marie-Jo over the limit: "I can't absolve D. I never pronounce her name." (Garis) From then on until his death in 1989, he wrote only essays and his Mémoires:"I wrote them because there are so many books about me which analyze me, claim to tell the truth about me, and they are all wrong. So I said I was 77 I said I would write the truth. Simply the truth. But the crude truth. When someone asked me if I wasn't afraid I'd be disliked, I answered that I prefer to be hated as the man I am than to be loved for a false image." (Garis).Maigret appeared for the first time in Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. His portrait was traced there and, over the years, a few things were added but Maigret did not change. He is a middle-aged man, 45 years old, he is chief inspector (commissaire) at the P J. (Police judiciaire) in Paris. He is married but childless (Simenon was childless at the time). He has a powerful physique, a plebeian appearance. He is solid, confident in himself, curious and silent. All his ac tions are reduced to familiarize himself with the environment, to submerge himself in the atmosphere. The atmosphere is very important because it is never exterior to the characters; there is a fusion between them, so that one explains the other. It is not a precise portrait, it's rather a sketch, but the idea is quite clear; he is not a super hero, he is just a man. A man who seeks what he called "the naked man," the man behind the mask, behind the appearances:"He mistrusted evidence, hasty judgements. Patiently, he strove to understand, aware that the most apparent motives are not always the deepest ones." (Maigret et les vieillards or Maigret in Society)Maigret has the ability to understand. The culprits even know this and need his understanding ear. He knows how to listen. With sympathy. Without judgement. In Maigret et le tueur (Maigret and the Killer), the killer calls him, seeking his understanding. He is not a super hero, thus he is not infallible. Some titles prove it: Maigret a peur (Maigret Afraid); Maigret se trompe (Maigret's Mistake); Un Echec de Maigret (Maigret's Failure); Les Scrupules de Maigret (Maigret has Scruples). This reinforces the reality of Maigret, of this person who dedicates his life, not so much to find the guilty but to understand the reason for the act, for the crime, to feel the psychological crisis which has led to the drama. To discover the secret which moved a man and then to guide him. After all, he wanted to be the mender of destinies. This is why he sometimes lets the culprit go free; sometimes allows him to commit suicide.
He is inherently human. Simenon made him even more human by giving him a life: a wife, his friends Dr. Pardon and his wife, his family life, his wife's devotion, her cooking, his mannerisms, his love of his stove, which he refused to give up, even when his office gets central heating, and obviously his pipes. He appears to be an ordinary person, living an everyday, normal life. This is because Simenon took his characters, their relationships, their social condition, the themes and even the decor from his own life. His experiences, his family, his childhood, the houses he saw, the streets and the cities he visited. Everything is to be found in his novels.
Simenon created real people, basing them on his own family and others he met, but showing them without their masks. He always looked for the hidden truth. Maigret, like Simenon, puts himself inside the victim and the culprit, whom he discovers, little by little, during the evolution of the novel. And, to be true, the characters have to belong to an environment, a profession, and must be animated by thoughts, passions, actions and reactions to their environment.
Maigret, as mentioned previously, was based on Simenon's father not only his personality but his habits: like his father he drinks beer, takes off his jacket upon returning home and says, "I'm hungry." His mother is found in many domineering women, the unsatisfied complainers. His favourite uncle, a clochard (vagabond), is portrayed in several novels. Simenon's childhood experiences as a choirboy become part of Maigret's childhood and help him understand motivations. The realism of characters is emphasized by Simenon's talent in rendering the atmosphere. In very simple language he knew how to choose the perfect detail to create a certain feeling.
Simenon always rendered all sensations, the taste, the smell, the feel, the light, the sound, all are noted. The reader has the impression of seeing everything, of hearing, of feeling everything Maigret sees and feels. The reader also gets to know Maigret. He was raised by his father, the intendant of the castle of Saint-Fiacre. He wanted to become a doctor, like his good friend Pardon with whom he and Mme Maigret dine several times a month, alternating the duties of host, once at the Pardon's, then at the Maigrets' apartment on boulevard Richard-Lenoir.
Mme Maigret, a good bourgoise, waits for her husband and cooks delectable meals for him. She doesn't ask questions (except in the first novel), but from time to tirne she gives him her solid, common sense point of view. We know she is Alsatian, that her sister still lives there and sends the Maigrets local raspberry brandy. We also meet Maigret's collaborators; Torrence, who was killed in the first Maigret and was immediately resuscitated; Janvier, Maigret's favourite he loves him like a son; and the young Lapointe who venerates him.
The first series, written between 1929 and 1933 (the publication dates are slightly different than the actual writing dates), from Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett to Maigret, comprise 19 novels. Maigret is 45 years old in the first 17; in L'ecluse No 1 (The Lock at Charenton) he is on the eve of retirement, and in the last one he is retired. They are slightly more traditional because they contain an unexplained crime and its solution. The second series, started in 1939, is composed of 81 novels and short stories and concentrates on the psychological analyses of characters. The most recurring character is the unhappy man, leading a humdrum life, dominated by his wife, or his employer, or both. His dream is to escape, but even when he does his life doesn't change; he remains a "rate" a failure. The most frequent recurring theme is alienation from society and the anguish it causes.
For more information about Simenon, there is no better book than his own Intimate Memoirs; for analyses of his work, Stanley G. Eskin's book is unbeatable. Just last year Pierre Assouline's biography of Simenon (first published in French in 1992) became available in English.
In my opinion, the best website (there are many) is: <http://www.trussel.com/f maig.htm>. This website gives an on-line biography, a bibliography of Maigret novels and lots of other interesting links. For the sheer fun, read all of the novels!
Ira Ashcroft teaches French (including a course on the French mystery novel) at Sir Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
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