The New York Times Book Review, October 30, 1983
By JULIAN SYMONS
IN a discussion that Georges Simenon had with Charles Chaplin, actor and writer agreed that they were psychopaths. The difference, Chaplin said, was that other psychopaths paid to be cured, while they were paid to cure themselves. "Cure" is not quite the right word, however, in Simenon's case. It is rather that the act of writing was necessary to maintain his mental equilibrium, even though it involved a strain so extreme that he could not endure it for more than the seven or 10 days it took him to complete a book. Physically, the strain caused frequent vomiting and made it absolutely essential for him to make love to one or more women as soon as the book was done.
Fenton Bresler's biography is the product of conversations with Simenon and discussions with his two former wives and his family, all of whom talked to him with remarkable freedom, plus considerable further research. The writing is never better than common-place and is in places unnecessarily sensational, particularly in the detailed accounts of Simenon's sexual exploits, but, still, this is the best and fairest view we have of an extraordinary life. Some sexual episodes that seem particularly to belong to the realm of fantasy are authenticated, especially by his second wife, Denise. Mr. Bresler's conclusion that the "key to the mystery" (his own journalistic phrase) of Simenon's personality lies in the writer's relationship to his formidable mother is no doubt correct, although his suggestion that Simenon had sex with so many women (10,000 by his own account, 1,200 according to Denise) because he was basically homosexual has its comic element. Would he have proved his heterosexuality by sleeping with only one?
Mr. Bresler's book tells us more than has previously appeared in English about Simenon's early days as a writer, his production of Westerns, adventure tales and "juicy stories" under 17 pseudonyms, including Gom Gut and Plick et Plock as well as the better-known Georges Sim. All this was before the creation of the Maigret character in his late 20's, when at last he used his own name. Mr. Bresler says Simenon's production includes "around 220" novels under his own name and more than 200 pseudonymous novellas.`
Almost from the beginning of his career as a serious writer (although he always said, "I want nothing that resembles literature"), his books fell into certain patterns of characterization and attitude. The men are usually subordinate to the women; the women love power and exercise it ruthlessly. Simenon's easygoing father provided the model for Maigret, his mother for the many authoritarian women in the "hard," non-Maigret novels. Sometimes — in the finest stories — the men rebel against feminine or family restrictions. Novels of rebellion (which almost always fails) include "Monsieur Monde Vanishes," "The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By" and, in a slightly different vein, "The Stain-on the Snow," with its central character, Frank, who becomes a murderer out of disgust with his life of prostitution and petty crime.
"I was always tempted by what I call complete liberty," Simenon said once, and there is something Dostoyevskian about his rejection of the bourgeois life he has lived. Marriage, he says, is "a swindle ... because biologically those two people ten years later won't have the same cells in their bodies.... And yet you want to make them stay together all their lives!"
Such "complete liberty," of course, shows no regard for others, and it is not surprising that Simenon's marriages ended in recrimination. His first wife, Régine, disliked sex and for a long time refused to have a child, although in the end she relented and they had a son. The marriage lasted more than 20 years, until in 1945 Simenon met in New York the sexually voracious Denise, a woman he now detests so much that he refuses to mention her by name. Yet the strains of living with Simenon must have been almost as great as the burden of being Simenon. Denise entered a psychiatric clinic, and so did their daughter, Marie-Jo, who later committed suicide, leaving a letter to her father saying, "Take care of yourself, for me, for all that I was not able to be." Their two sons, like his son by Régine, were less scathed. Simenon himself is now 80 years old. Cared for by Teresa (she was formerly Denise's personal maid), he lives in a small house in Lausanne dictating volume after volume of memoirs.
It is not surprising that Simenon resents the popularity of the Maigret stories over his hard novels. In many ways, Maigret is the reverse of what Simenon would have liked to be: a super-typical bourgeois, happily married to his job and to the foursquare, Régine-like Mme. Maigret. It is the hard novels that reflect his dreams, desires and regrets, and this is true of "The Lodger," a lesser but interesting novel of the 1930's. Elie Nagear, its central figure, is a native of Turkey who has come to Brussels on a carpet-selling deal that promises big profits but collapses, leaving him without money. He murders a fellow train traveler for his attaché case full of francs — but is it really for the money, for Sylvie, the cabaret girl he has picked up, or because he identifies the stealing of a fortune with a new life?
The result is disastrous. The money is in 1,000 franc notes, their serial numbers are known, and he dare not change them. He becomes one of several lodgers with Sylvie's working-class family, and although his secret is revealed, he is not betrayed. The plot has the blend of improbability and conviction characteristic of Simenon's writing at slightly below its best. Elie's reasons for committing murder are suggested much too casually, but the events that follow, including the acceptance of Elie and his deed by Sylvie's parents and their lodgers, is made remarkably credible. Elie's slow disintegration is also well done. When at last he is arrested, Sylvie's mother sees in his eyes "a curious blank intensity that reminded her of the eyes of certain caged animals she had seen in the zoo."
It is the illusion of complete liberty that attracted Elie, just as it does his creator. Simenon said once that only the tramp who owns nothing and has no commitments can be truly free and that it was such freedom he desired. Words are easy for a millionaire, of course, but the longing was genuine and provides the motive behind many of the finest stories. At the end of "The Stain on the Snow," the father of a girl who has been brutally treated by Frank, the pimp and murderer, says in a kind of forgiveness, "It is a difficult trade to be a man." That might be echoed by Simenon.
Julian Symons is a critic, historian and practitioner of the mystery novel.