The Mastery of Georges Simenon

He created a world that you can smell and taste, that you enter in riveted fascination

“I was born in the dark and in the rain and I got away. The crimes I write about are the crimes I would have committed if I had not got away.” In this celebrated statement—from an interview with the New Yorker—the novelist Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, dramatized his own life with a characteristic mixture of self-congratulation and false modesty. But Simenon (1903-89) was not just shooting a line, and the evidence is to be found in “Pedigree,” his lengthy but little-read autobiographical novel. Written in the dark days of Nazi-occupied France, “Pedigree” (1948) stands alone among the author’s mature novels because it took him more than two years to write, rather than the usual three weeks.

“Pedigree” is an unforgettable picture of the Belgian city of Liège and its people as observed by the innocent but pitiless eye of a very unusual little boy. It is a Dickensian portrait, with poverty, crime, lunacy, wealth, corruption, and mockery, but a complete absence of Dickensian sentimentality. The story opens with the birth of Roger Mamelin in 1903 and ends with the liberation of the city from German occupation in November 1918.

PARIS NOIR: Brassaï’s 1934 photograph of headlights on Paris’s Avenue de l’Observatoire.
The author objected to the book being called an “autobiographical novel,” but the details of Roger’s life are too close to those of Simenon’s for argument. Roger’s parents, the houses the family inhabited in the working-class district of Outremeuse, the schools Roger attends, the aunts and uncles and cousins of his extended Flemish-Walloon family, the Russian and Jewish lodgers his mother takes in, are all just like those in Simenon’s life. In many cases, the novelist did not even bother to alter the names.

This Liège is a place where the crowded streets are dominated by lethal electric trams and the market is made lively by battling, foul-mouthed fishwives. As a child, Simenon noticed and remembered the “fat, pink arms of the dairymaid,” the smell of eggs and bacon in the kitchen before a summer’s day picnic in the wooded heights outside the city, and the rituals of Catholic life and, more particularly, death. Then there were the horrors of war and occupation—no fuel, no food, the terror of collective punishments and all the prettiest girls on the arms of German soldiers.

The only hero in Roger’s life is his father Désiré, an honorable failure: a tall trustworthy insurance clerk who the little boy adores—all equally true of Simenon’s father, Désiré. In “Pedigree,” Désiré is married to the monstrous Élise. The battle between Roger and his mother dominates the novel, with the child struggling to understand the volcanic, unloving personality that fate had given him for a mother.


A Reader’s Guide to Simenon

Simenon became world-famous for Inspector Maigret, the good police detective who solved crimes through intuition and a shrewd understanding of human frailty. There are 76 Maigret books, most of which evoke a pungent world of 1950s Paris and provincial France: street markets, warm bars, cold beer and a policeman with the patience of the hound of heaven. The best include “The Madman of Bergerac” (1932), “Maigret’s Dead Man” (1948), “Maigret on Holiday” (1948), “Maigret and the Calame Report” (1955), “The Patience of Maigret” (1965) and “Inspector Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife” (1951). You couldn’t go wrong starting with any of these mysteries.

But Simenon also wrote 117 literary novels, which he called romans durs: psychological stories that examine the behavior of apparently non descript characters at a time of extreme personal crisis. The greatest of these have been ranked among the finest French-language fiction of the 20th century. Between 1946 and 1955, Simenon lived in America, mainly in Arizona and Connecticut, and during this period he produced many of his best novels. “Three Beds in Manhattan” (1946) is a study of sexual jealousy and fear of loss. “Act of Passion” (1947) takes the form of a letter written by a convicted murderer, a doctor in a small French town, to the judge who condemned him. “The Hitchhiker” (1955) takes place on Labor Day on the road between New York and Maine and is the story of an alcoholic whose wife is kidnapped by a killer on the run. “Dirty Snow” (1948), considered by many to be his finest novel, takes place in an unidentified country under German occupation during World War II. Its anti-hero is an 18-year-old youth who commits abject crimes but refuses to break under torture.

Simenon’s is a world that you can smell and taste and that you enter in riveted fascination. His characters stay with you for life. There is the drunken lawyer in “Strangers in the House” (1939), for instance; or the elderly sisters in “Poisoned Relations” (1938), trapped in mutual hatred inside the family home. There is also the building contractor in “The Accomplices” (1955), watching as the police close in on the hit-and-run driver who has killed a bus full of school children. Although you may be appalled by the imaginary world that the novelist inhabited, you are not repelled. On the contrary, you are drawn back to it again and again. So fecund was Simenon’s imagination that there can be no short list of his finest novels. Any such summary must include, along with the titles mentioned above, “The Engagement” (1933), “The House by the Canal” (1933), “The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By” (1938), “Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945), “The Heart of a Man” (1950), “The Door” (1962) and “The Little Saint” (1965).

Patrick Marnham

This drama comes straight from the author’s childhood. “The Simenons,” he once said, “took life as a straight line, the Brülls [his mother’s family] came from a tormented race.” From the start of the story, Simenon emphasizes the contrast between Roger’s father’s French-speaking Walloon family and his mother’s Flemish relations. At the time of his birth in 1903, sophisticated or ambitious Belgians spoke French, the language of the country’s dominant group, and Flemish speakers were patronized or treated with contempt. The division grew worse during the 20th century when Belgium suffered two brutal German occupations and Flemish-Belgians were accused of being less anti-German.

Shortly after World War I ended, Désiré Simenon died, and one year later Georges, aged 19, left Liège and never lived in Belgium again. He moved to Paris, started to write pulp fiction and eventually created Inspector Maigret. One of the models for the inspector was undoubtedly Désiré, the merciful father, now brought back to life as the just policeman who exemplifies Georges Simenon’s motto: “Understand, don’t condemn.” But there are also some touches of the autobiographical: Maigret knows the criminal world and studies human nature; he operates on intuition, like a novelist. “Pedigree” shows where the creator of Maigret gained some of this knowledge.

At the age of 15, Simenon (like the novel’s Roger Mamelin) was living in a city made desperate by four years of military occupation. He abandoned his schooling and hesitated on the verge of a life of crime. He was tempted by the black market. He joined his mother on food-smuggling ventures. He had friends who procured girls for prostitution, and together they discussed opportunities for blackmail. He was saved by chance; his father became gravely ill, and Georges was told to leave school and find a job.

By 1939, when war broke out again, Simenon was a highly successful popular novelist who had decided to terminate the Maigret series and work to win the Nobel Prize with his romans durs (“hard novels”), as he called his literary fiction. His working methods were notorious. He did not just write his stories; he lived them. He immersed himself in the personality of his leading character, went into “a sort of trance” and, possessed by the world he was creating, worked in short bursts at tremendous speed.

He would type a page every 20 minutes, 1,500 words an hour, 4,500 words a day for 20 days. In this way he could produce three or four books a year and take nine or more months off. While he was writing he could drink two liters of red wine a day and still lose weight. His children would watch him from the window, notice how his walk changed and try to guess what sort of character would emerge in the next book. But “Pedigree” was different. He did little else in 1942 except write this book. He worked on it in 1941 and in 1943 as well.

The period when “Pedigree” was written explains much. Living again under German occupation, Simenon’s imagination returned to his own childhood. War had traumatized him as a boy and his relationship with his mother, Henriette, was a lifelong trauma. For the purposes of the novel, the author conflated the anguish, making Roger’s mother, Élise, half-German, whereas in real life Henriette Simenon was entirely Flemish.

The other clear departure from biography was that Roger Mamelin is an only child, whereas Georges had a younger brother, Christian. In 1944, as German forces retreated from Belgium, Christian Simenon went on the run, accused of collaboration. On the advice of Georges, he joined the French Foreign Legion and was killed fighting in Indochina in October 1947. Henriette never forgave Georges for helping his younger brother to join the Foreign Legion.

Simenon insisted that “Pedigree” was a book in which “everything is true while nothing is accurate.” But the story was close enough to real life for three people to sue him successfully for libel. (He had to pay damages and cut several passages from the French-language editions of the novel.) His version of the truth was a novelist’s psychological truth, and the most important truth he revealed in “Pedigree” was the identity of his lifelong muse.

Simenon married twice and enjoyed long-standing affairs with two domestic servants; he died in the arms of a maid originally hired by his second wife. But the woman who drove his work was none of these; nor was it any of the 10,000 women he famously claimed to have conquered. It was his mother, the over-apologetic, proud little lodging-house proprietor whose standards he never managed to reach and who never loved him as she loved his younger brother.

Shortly before she died in 1970, Henriette visited Georges in Switzerland, where he was living the life of a millionaire, and returned every penny of the money he had sent her over the years. When she died, Simenon’s inspiration died too. The man who had published 76 Maigrets and 117 dark novels battled on for 12 months and then gave up writing fiction.

Mr. Marnham is the author of “The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret.”


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