Tuesday night, seven Suspects gathered to discuss the life and work of Georges Simenon. I had volunteered to lead a discussion centering on the Maigret novels, since I possessed a wealth of material from a lecture/discussion that I presented last year in Hanover, PA. For that occasion, I had focused on a non-Maigret novel, one of the so-called romans durs entitled Monsieur Monde Vanishes. I actually found myself referring back to that work continually, as it provides a useful contrast to the Maigret books.
I began by quoting some comments by John Banville. This Irish author and Booker Prize winner (for The Sea in 2005) felt in need of a new direction in his writing. At the suggestion of a friend, he began reading Simenon. The experience was a revelation: “’I was really blown away by this extraordinary writer. I had never known this kind of thing was possible, to create such work in that kind of simple — well, apparently simple — direct style. …'” Under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, Banville then began writing a series of mysteries featuring a pathologist by the (not-very-subtle) name of Quirke.
In this video, Banville enlarges on the creative process that led to his writing the Quirke novels:
Several of us had read Christine Falls. Our verdict: it was okay, not great; we weren’t inclined to continue with the series. It was mentioned that the appearance of the stereotypical inebriated Irishman was dismaying. (This thought had occurred to me some months ago while I was reading Claire Keegan’s fine stories.)
I then held up a copy of Pierre Assouline’s magisterial biography of Simenon. Published in France in 1992, this book did not appear here until 1997. This is from a review by Peter Lewis that appeared in the London Daily Mail:
The latest biography of Georges Simenon, by Pierre Assouline, begins by emphasising how much his vanity caused him to spin-doctor his life story, especially in Intimate Memoirs, the last book he wrote. ‘A lot of it was lies,’ says Assouline. ‘He did not so much invent as build legends, sculpted his own myth. By middle age he was unable to tell truth from falsehood, real from imaginary.’ No doubt he felt the need to fantasise for, by the end of his life, he had two estranged wives – one of them, by her own admission, driven mad – a brother for whose death he felt responsible, and a daughter who had committed suicide.
It was, to put it mildly, a turbulent life.
Georges Simenon was born in Liege, Belgium, in 1903, to Desire and Henriette Simenon. He had a notorious ancestor on his mother’s side: Gabriel Bruhl, a criminal who preyed on the good people of Limbourg starting in the 1720s. for his offenses, he was hanged in 1743. (Simenon later made use of “Bruhl” as one of his many pseudonyms.)
In his teens, he ran with a wild and dissolute group of boys collectively called “la Caque.” John Banville tells this story about them:
Early one winter morning, after a night of heavy drinking, a member of the group, Joseph Kleine, “le petit Kleine,” a would-be artist and cocaine addict who lived up, or down, to his name, being slight of build and delicate of constitution, was found hanging by his neck from the door of the church of Saint-Pholien in Liège.
Suicide was suspected, or murder made to look like suicide. Next morning, however, the Liège Gazette confidently reported that the young man had killed himself. Many years were to pass before Simenon admitted that he was the author of that convenient report, which appeared before police inquiries had properly begun. “I plead not guilty on our behalf,” Simenon wrote in his memoirs. “Or rather, I plead lack of premeditation. … We did not know the true state of ‘le petit Kleine.’ But in the last resort, wasn’t it us who killed him?”
To this disturbing tale, Banville appends the following observation:
The image of the hanged man remained a powerful one for Simenon — his second Maigret tale was called Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien— and in one of his finest novels, The Strangers in the House, published in 1940, there is a wild and self-destructive gang of young people, obviously modeled on La Caque, whose escapades culminate in murder. Simenon the novelist knew whereof he wrote.
When Simenon was eighteen, his father died suddenly. Desire Simenon, age 44, keeled over on his desk, at the insurance company where he had worked for some twenty years. At the time, he had only 300 francs to his name. His son had to borrow money in order to pay for the funeral. Peter Lewis speculates that it may have been this event that determined Simenon to die a rich man.
By this time, Georges Simenon knew he wanted to be a writer. In 1925, already married to Regine Renchon, called Tigy, he decamped for Paris. In 1929, he and Tigy decided they’d try living on a boat. It was during this brief sojourn upon the water that the character of Jules Maigret first saw the light of day, in The Strange Case of Peter the Lett.
Simenon, Tigy, and their son remained in Paris during the war years. There is, in fact, some evidence that during the occupation, Simenon was rather more friendly toward the Germans than he should have been. The Simenons left Paris for Montreal in 1945. Soon they moved to the U.S., living at various times in New York City, Arizona, and Connecticut.
By the time Simenon returned to France, he had divorced Tigy and married Denyse Ouimet. After a brief stay on the French Riviera, they relocated to Switzerland, near Lausanne. The marriage to Denyse ended in 1964. Simenon and his housekeeper Teresa became a couple and remained so for the rest of Simenon’s life.
Simenon had three children with Denyse Ouimet: two sons and a daughter called Marie-Georges. Marie-Georges was always called Marie-Jo by her father. She was a beautiful but troubled young woman. In 1978, at the age of 25, she committed suicide.
There is no reason to doubt that her father was devastated by this tragedy. His autobiography, begun in 1980 and called Intimate Memoirs, is addressed directly to her. In it, he says:
I’ve gotten into the habit of saying good morning to you when the shutters are opened, and good night in the evening when they are closed, as well as talking inwardly to you.
It took me a long time to get used once again to living like everybody else.
Georges Simenon died in Lausanne in 1989, at the age of 86.
Once again, John Banville on the creator of Maigret:
As one contemplates the life and work of Georges Simenon, the question inevitably arises: Was he human? In his energies, creative and erotic, he was certainly extraordinary. He wrote some 400 novels, under a variety of pseudonyms, as well as countless short stories and film scripts, and toward the end of his life, having supposedly given up writing, he dictated thousands of pages of memoirs. He could knock off a novel in a week or 10 days of manic typing — he never revised, as the work sometimes shows — and in Paris in the 1920s he is said to have broken off an affair with Josephine Baker, the expatriate American chanteuse and star of La Revue Nègre, because in the year he was with her, he was so distracted by his passion for her that he had managed to write only three or four books.
Yes, well, there is the matter of the legendary, doubtless exaggerated erotic exploits…Simenon claimed to have slept with 10,000 women! He specified that 8,000 of them were prostitutes, whom he praised for their professional prowess.
Somehow, in the midst of this frenetic amorous activity, he managed to be an amazingly productive writer. There’s an anecdote I meant to share with the group but didn’t. (I forgot – it was buried under mounds of paper, a liability in these situations.) It seems that Alfred Hitchcock called Simenon but was told that the author could not take a call at that time, as he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock is supposed to have replied: “That’s all right; I’ll wait.”
This story is possibly apocryphal but, I think, worth repeating for its entertainment value.
What about the quality of Simenon’s prodigious output? Peter Lewis, for one, labeled him “a businessman who dealt in fiction.” But is such a writer necessarily a mere hack? Certainly a person can churn the stuff out and be a mediocrity. But that person could also be Joyce Carol Oates. In other words, quantity does not necessarily vitiate the possibility of quality. In my own opinion, it is remarkable how good much of Simenon’s work actually is. Even Peter Lewis grants that “…Simenon’s economy of language and creation of atmosphere , especially of a now-vanished Paris, which smelled of coffee, Pernod, and Gauloises, lifted him well out of the rut of prolific crime writers.”
Although the Maigret novels and stories constitute only a portion of Simenon’s oeuvre, they are, for most of his readers around the world, his principal claim to fame. In a review in Newsweek, S.K. Oberbeck shrewdly summed up Simenon’s creation:
In Inspector Maigret, Simenon has created the minimal hero, a Gallic gumshoe as renowned as Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason–but with none of their flamboyant traits. He exhibits no flashing forensics, slight deductive genius, rarely encounters personal violence and never steps out with the dolls. If anything, Maigret is utterly bourgeois, egoless, sympathetic and understanding toward criminals, a man whose home life is unruffled domesticity and who wearily laments his shortcomings.
In many ways then, Maigret is the temperamental opposite of his creator.
While preparing for Tuesday evening’s presentation, I finally got around to reading the Simenon/Maigret chapter in one of my favorite mystery references: . There, I discovered that Simenon had written a book called Maigret’s Memoirs (Les Memoires de Maigret). Eames provides a precis of the memoir. Here at last were some vital clues regarding the back story of the “Gallic gumshoe.”
Maigret had originally intended to become a physician. When he was in his second year of medical school, his father died, obliging him to drop out and find work as quickly as possible. While staying in a small hotel in Paris, he made the acquaintance of a detective inspector in the city’s police force. Through him, Maigret became a member of that force.
Early on, Maigret obtained a wide variety of experiences in law enforcement, rising rapidly in the organization until he eventually secured a position in the homicide division. Once there, his exceptional abilities marked him out as a gifted investigator. Ultimately he rose to occupy the position of Chief Superintendent.
As in the quote by Oberbeck, above, Eames contrasts the character of Maigret with his most illustrious predecessor:
Conan Doyle created Holmes at a time when science was undermining Christian beliefs, such as the Creation and Divine Providence, and was offering as consolation the doctrine of inevitable progress.
Man, helped by science, would eventually solve all his problems.
This Simenon rejected. As he said in an interview in the Paris Review, “For a long time man was…observed from the point of view that there was a God and that man was the king of creation. We don’t think any more that man is the king of creation. We see man almost face to face. Some readers still would like to read very reassuring novels, novels which give them a comforting view of humanity. It can’t be done.”
An interesting quote follows this passage, in which the author’s rather bleak world view is further illuminated:
Simenon’s pessimism is exceptionally deep. In When I Was Old, he wrote: “I love man. His history, above all his first stammerings move me much more than all his dramas about passion. I love to see him in search of himself, century after century, failing each time, forcing himself to go on.”
This quote, so redolent of the fatalism of Old Europe, puts me in mind of the final lines of Ulysses by Tennyson:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Members of the group remarked on the darkness of the Maigret novels they had read. The source of that darkness, it would seem, is this combination of fatalism and pessimism, often expressed as a horror of the bourgeois life, devoid of meaning and passion and suffocated by routine, that drives Simenon’s characters to take desperate measures in order to break out into a new, more authentic life. Examples of this paradigm occur in Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard, and doubtless in other novels and stories as well.
And yet and yet…in Maigret, Simenon has formed a character who is perfectly at home in that bourgeois world, who actually draws solace and comfort from his placid wife and his modest little apartment on the Boulevard Richard LeNoir. In addition, Maigret is Simenon’s polar opposite in regard to libido. Again, from Sleuths, Inc.:
“Mme. Maigret is the most unliberated of females,” the English critic Richard Cobb has noted; “her function is to cook meals that her husband will never eat, to wait for his return, to get up before him so that he may wake up to the smell of freshly ground coffee… the relationship is sexless.”
And a French critic has observed, “He never sleeps with anybody, not even with Madame Maigret, whose bed he shares.”
It’s as if Simenon, through his alter ego Maigret, purged himself of ungovernable and unruly passions and so achieved a kind of oasis of serenity amid a troubled and tormented world.
So, how did the suspects fare with their reading? Results were mixed. Mary Edna was confused by The Man on the Bench. Louise read the same title, I believe, and didn’t particularly enjoy it either. (We’re thinking that The Man on the Bench is actually The Man on the Boulevard, but we’re not sure.) For the most part, Ann enjoyed Maigret in Montmartre. Carol definitely liked Maigret and the Madwoman, also one of my favorites. She praised the cunning plot, in particular.
Marge, on the other hand, had less success. She started with The Hotel Majestic, gave up, and subsequently turned to Maigret Goes Home. In this novel, Maigret returns to his natal village where he encounters closed doors as well as closed hearts. Although Marge finished this novel, it was, she said, a struggle. The way the dialog was written, it was often difficult to tell who was speaking.
Mike enjoyed Maigret and the Wine Merchant and recommended it warmly. I especially liked the neat little hardback edition she had, from Tess Press, “an imprint of Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, Inc.,” copyright 1971.
(I’m not sure that I got the above information completely straight. Someone also mentioned listening to Maigret and the Pickpocket. Andrew Sachs reads several of the Maigret novels; this is one of them. His reading is superb.)
I wanted to read a Maigret new to me for that evening’s discussion; I selected Inspector Cadaver. In this novel, Maigret travels to a small village in order to look into a murder investigation on behalf of a colleague in the Police Judiciaire in Paris. Once there, he meets with the same kind of resistance that Marge described in Maigret Goes Home. I have to say that I struggled with this book. I got through it, but just barely. There was a dearth of appealing characters and I missed the Paris crew: Janvier, the jaded but stalwart Lucas, and the eager young LaPointe. And yet Inspector Cadaver furnished me with a good example of the way in which Simenon’s writing can sometimes be almost poetic, if not downright profound:
The minute he left the house, an idea had occurred to him. It was not even an idea, but something vaguer, so vague that he was now striving to recapture the memory of it. Every now and then, an insignificant occurrence, usually a whiff off something barely caught, reminds us in the space of a second of a particular moment in our life. It is such a vivid sensation that we are gripped by it and want to cling to this living reminder of that moment. It disappears almost at once and with it all recollection of the experience. Tryy as we might, we end up wondering, for want of an answer to our questions, if it was not an unconscious evocation of a dream, or, who knows, of some pre-existent world?
To the best of my knowledge, the best site for all things Maigret and Simenon is this one.
Other matters book-related came up at this meeting. There were questions concerning the local library system, so excellent in so many ways. Everyone voiced the hope that public libraries – all of them – will continue to consider the promotion of books and literature to be their primary mission. The fervor with which this desire was expressed saddened me. Where libraries and bookstores are concerned, it’s hard at this point to envision the future clearly. Sometimes, while I’m holding a book, I feel as though I have in my hands an object that is on its way to extinction. I am no Luddite; I am not unalterably opposed to Kindles and their electronic kin. But the physical book is so precious to me, I hate to think of its disappearance. (And anyway they’ll have to dig though the hundreds of volumes in my personal library first!)
On to other matters:
Several of us had read and loved Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris and were excited about the sequel, City of Veils. We’re also looking forward to Blue Lightning, the final volume in Ann Cleeves’s atmospheric Shetland Quartet. Ann mentioned that she found, in Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, a reference to Constance Kent. Kent played a crucial role in the mid-nineteenth century murder investigation described in such vivid detail in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. Crooked House will definitely be the next Agatha Christie novel that I read. (Meanwhile I’m very much enjoying the Poirot stories in The Labors of Hercules.)
We reminisced ruefully about the disappearance of mystery bookstores from the area. For a brief period not that long ago, there were five of them in the greater Washington area. Now there is only Mystery Loves Company, dwelling in splendid isolation in Oxford, a charming town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
What’s next for the Suspects? Coming next month, we’ll be discussing The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen. In October, it’s Kahawa, by the late, much lamented Donald Westlake. And in November, Marge will lead us in a discussion of John Hart’s Edgar winner, The Last Child. There’s much to look forward to.
Usual Suspects is a great group – literate, literary, and intellectual, in the best sense of the word. I feel lucky indeed to be a part of it.