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Time
Sept. 18, 1989, p.81

Milestones

Laureate of The Stakeout

Georges Simenon: 1903-1989


 
Every great popular writer has a characteristic scene that is re-created in book after book. For Agatha Christie it was the gathering of village gentry in a cozy library to hear the explication of a crime. For Stephen King, the sudden glint of evil lurking within some icon of innocent pleasure, a child or pet or automobile. For Georges Simenon the signature moment was a man waiting, squelched in a misting rain or hunched alongside a window, patiently watching his fellow beings until he believed he saw into their hearts. Only then could that man, Simenon's humane and pragmatic police inspector Maigret, make an arrest, astutely aware as he did so of the impossibility of restoring moral order to a suffering world.

Simenon may have been the most prolific and the wealthiest major writer of the century: he produced more than 400 novels and novellas under his own name and 17 pseudonyms, and sold more than 600 million copies in 57 languages. At the peak of his output, according to a biographer, a new Simenon translation was being published somewhere in the world every three or four days. Yet by normal standards Simenon would have seemed an unlikely voice to find a vast public. He was a creator of mood and texture and character more than plot, a limner of delicately etched incidents that he likened to impressionist painting. "I believe a ray of sun on a nose," he said, "is as important as a deep thought."

Although he professed suspicion of scholars and belletrists and bragged that he could produce a novel in as little as 25 hours of compulsive writing, Simenon was a writer's writer, praised by such painstaking artists as Thornton Wilder and André Gide. His works had a spartan simplicity of language and event, and his endings were usually diminuendo — rueful musings on human nature rather than slambang confrontations or surprises.

Inspector Maigret, who appeared in 84 books and numerous film and video adaptations, rarely carried a gun or threw a punch and analyzed violence more often than he witnessed it. Some mystery purists, however admiring, dismissed the tales about him as heretical to the genre. In their standard reference A Catalogue of Crime, Jacques Barzun and W.H. Taylor said the Maigret novels were "not detection" and added, "What he contributes is the patience of a god. And what his readers enjoy is his boredom, fatigue, wet feet and hunger."

As happens with any recurrent character, readers took Maigret to be a self-portrait of the author. But as Simenon made plain in Mémoires Intimes (1981), the bond between the two personalities was at most wish fulfillment. Maigret was a French bourgeois, fond of food and drink and Paris street life, untouched by ambition, unswervingly faithful to the wife he addressed with possessive formality as Madame Maigret. Simenon was a French-speaking Belgian who rarely felt settled and who moved to France, the U.S., Canada and eventually Switzerland, where he built a 26-room dream house of his own design only to abandon it for a simply furnished farmhouse. He had by his account more than 10,000 sexual partners, mainly prostitutes. Two marriages ended in strife, his sons left home young and his daughter Marie-Georges committed suicide in 1978 at 25, after she developed an apparently incestuous fixation on her father. In a 1976 interview Simenon spoke of the deep impulses that drive people and said, "I don't consider any man responsible for his acts any more than those birds outside the window."

For readers, perhaps the most poignant difference between character and creator was in their attitudes toward work. Maigret never lost his love for the hard slog of cracking a case. Simenon described writing as a compulsion, almost an illness, until with seeming contentment he retired from fiction in 1973. Still, he had been so productive that newly translated works kept appearing in English and other languages at the rate of four a year — and will do so into the next century, for millions upon countless millions of fans who wait as patiently and devotedly as Maigret.

—By William A. Henry III

[ born Liège, Belgium, February 13, 1903;
died September 4, 1989, Lausanne, Switzerland.]


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