Wednesday, February 4
The unknown man
Film noir wouldn't be the same without Georges Simenon's tales of mystery, scandal and sexual misdemeanour. But how much were his stories inspired by his own life?
Peter Lennon, The Guardian, July 5, 2003
Throughout the summer, Liège is celebrating the centenary of the birth of one of its most famous and wayward sons, Georges Simenon. An immense canopy spanning 2,500m has been put up over the town's Espace Tivoli, under which the acts and artefacts of one of the world's most prolific writers are on display. There is the obligatory re-created writing den, but also a series of portholed cabins recalling his obsession with boat and barge; a cinema constantly reruns old Maigret films; every wall is lurid with his old paperbacks.
There are about 70 Maigret stories, 193 Simenon novels and about 200 books of pulp romances and adventure produced under pseudonyms - Sim, Kim, Gut, Plick and Pluck, Christian Brüll (his mother's maiden name), Georges d'Isly, Jean du Perry and G Violis...
Commercial success came early to a youth who could deliver, when necessary, 8,000 words a day of "stories for secretaries", as he put it. His skill in characterisation developed rapidly, until, in March 1930, the figure who was to rank with the top detectives in world literature emerged. Commissaire Jules Maigret is more of a genuinely rounded human being than the collection of tics and talent that is Sherlock Holmes, and he has decidedly more grey cells than the posturing Hercule Poirot.
What distinguishes Simenon is the disciplined spareness of the writing - essential to an author who often set himself the task of getting a book down in eight days - and the emphasis on character. A Maigret story may begin as a banal detective yarn, but the characters develop with oppressive intensity. Take one story, L'Ombre Chinoise (1963). The unhurried probings by the placid, intuitive Maigret expose the weaknesses of his suspects, peeling away the layers as if they were so many onions, until the wife of the impoverished civil servant is revealed in all her rancorous malevolence. There are no car chases; one bullet does for an entire story. But the intensity is unrelenting, until an exhausted Maigret returns home to the culinary comforts of his wife.
There is a case to be made that Maigret's life was a projection of a fantasy of Simenon's: returning each night to a stable domestic environment, having mastered the demons beyond. He certainly took pains to look like Maigret, with his soft-brimmed fedora and his ever-present pipe.
But the reality was very different. Simenon's sexual appetite was gargantuan.