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The Nation
07/28-08/04/97

Brilliant Together in Paris

a selection from A Book Review By John Leonard:

Simenon.
By Pierre Assouline
Translated by Jon Rothschild.
Knopf. 447 pp. $32.50.

I am chided for my taste for publicity, as though God Himself had no need of his church bells!

— Georges Simenon

He was not a nice man, maybe because his mother never kissed the boy or took him onto her lap, and always loved his brother best. Because of poor health, his insurance-agent father couldn't get a policy on his own life, and died with assets of 300 francs. Even before this death, mom took in boarders, some of whom were Russian Jews, who made Georges read Gogol. He quit school and the Catholic Church simultaneously, preferring women and sin. After brief military service, guarding a stable of cavalry horses, he caught on as a cub reporter at the right-wing Liège Gazette, soon achieved his own column and fell in with the local bohemian set, of which he made fun in his first published novel, at age 18, while also writing a series of articles based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: "The Jewish octopus thus extends its tentacles into all classes of society and into all spheres, where its influence is soon felt. And so it will be until the world finally decides to react. Unless by then it is too late."

After three years at the Gazette he was off to Paris as a dogsbody and ghostwriter for various Action Française types. He married Régine so as not to have to prepare his own meals and clean his own apartment. The best advice he got at Le Matin was from Colette (!), who told him to rid his prose of all the "literature" (adverbs). Between 1924 and 1931, he published 190 pulpy "novels for secretaries" under seventeen pseudonyms, with titles like Secret of the Lamas and The Panther Sulks. While he spent each day churning out his eighty pages per, you'd find him at night in flat cap and knickerbockers at the Boeuf sur le Toit, with Coco Chanel and Maurice Chevalier, about which time he also had a love affair with Josephine Baker and her "famous butt."

He's still remembered for something he didn't do in 1927. Though he'd signed a contract to write a novel for Paris-Matin in a single week, in full view of the public in a glass cage at the Moulin Rouge — hadn't Molière written Bourgeois Gentilhomme in one month, on command? And Victor Hugo his first novel, Bug-Jargal, in two weeks? And Voltaire Candide in a single night? — ridicule dissuaded him. He got himself a boat instead and sailed all the way to Finnish Lapland, typing up a tempest, which may be when, in 1928, he first imagined Maigret, the cop who seeks "to understand and not to judge." Berlin, Africa, Tahiti, the Galapagos, enormous sums of money and many defamations of character followed, which meant Savile Row suits, custom-made silk shirts, designer fedoras, Delage sports cars, Médoc wines, suppers at Maxim's and the friendly interest of André Gide, whom he first met in 1935 and whose homosexuality filled him with contempt, but who woozily announced in 1939: "I consider Simenon... the greatest and most authentic novelist we have in French literature today."

Though I've read all his Maigrets, some of them several times by accident, I'm not an admirer of Simenon's "hard" novels, of which there were so many that his biographer, Pierre Assouline, has organized his criticism in thematic clumps like "key events," "leitmotif," "obsessional return" and "incantatory formula." James M. Cain, his closest American analogue and an altogether more agreeable human being, did it better. The Intimate Memoirs were embarrassing, the late-life tape-recorded Dictées so pinheaded and inconsequential that it's no wonder Helen Wolff declined to publish them. But here's something odd. He seems never to have had a good word to say about any other living writer. There's little evidence he even read them. While Malraux read practically anybody, and Beckett professed enthusiasm for everything from Nausea to Agatha Christie and The Catcher in the Rye, Simenon spent his adult years watching TV, visiting brothels and talking about sex to Henry Miller and Federico Fellini, except when Charlie Chaplin dropped in to use the swimming pool at the Swiss estate with the dollar sign flaunted like a logo on its seigneurial gate.

Maybe the ex-husband deserved his ex-wife's savage memoir, The Golden Phallus. Not even Simenon, however, deserves what happened to him as a father. After calling him on the telephone and asking him to tell her that he loved her, his daughter, Marie-Jo, shot herself to death.

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Copyright (c) 1997, The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Electronic redistribution for nonprofit purposes is permitted, provided this notice is attached in its entirety. Unauthorized, for-profit redistribution is prohibited. For further information regarding reprinting and syndication, please call The Nation at (212) 242-8400, ext. 226 or send e-mail to Max Block at mblock@thenation.com.

see also: Simenon: A Biography, by Pierre Assouline: Review by Antony Thorncroft. August, 1997.


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