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The Japan Times, August 30, 1997
Financial Times Service

The man who made Inspector Maigret

SIMENON: A Biography, by Pierre Assouline. Chatto & Windus, 447 pp., £20.

Georges Simenon, a Belgian, was one of the greatest French novelists of the 20th century, much admired by André Gide, the intimate of intellectuals such as Arthur Miller, Jean Renoir and Maurice Vlaminck, and pseudo-intellectuals like Charlie Chaplin. He deserved — and expected — the literary honors that his sparely written, psychologically acute, atmospheric novels merited, at least the Goncourt, probably the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He did not receive them, for Simenon committed one cardinal error. Around 1930, at the age of 27, he introduced into his already massive outpourings Inspector Maigret of the Paris police. Maigret would keep him in luxury for the rest of his long life but ensured that Simenon, the creator of detective stories would never gain recognition for his genius.

Simenon minded, but not too much. He was driven by other demons: his need to write — he produced almost 400 novels and thousands of short stories; and his need for sex — he claimed to have slept with 10,000 women, a gross exaggeration but understandable when one remembers that most of his encounters were quick couplings in brothels.

But work seems to have been paramount. Starting as a 16-year-old journalist in his native Liege, he kept to a strict writing regime often with books on the go simultaneously, until inspiration deserted him in his 60s. He then concentrated on a fictional account of his own life that occupied him until his death in 1989.

Thanks to his first wife, Tigy, he made a great deal of money, and the couple enjoyed themselves hugely in the 1930s — cruising around Europe, traveling the world, throwing parties for the brightest if not the best of Paris society.

The good times ended with World War II, during which Simenon buried himself ever deeper into the French countryside and carried on writing. He was unnecessarily friendly with the occupying Germans — his brother Charles was a collaborator who escaped execution by joining the Foreign Legion in 1945 — and after the war Simenon felt it prudent to move to North America, where he acquired a second wife (whom he slept with five hours after interviewing her for the post of secretary), more children and an insouciant shell instead of a personality.

The ending appears sad: a retirement home in Switzerland that reminded guests of a clinic; an alcoholic wife and the suicide of a favorite daughter. But, thanks to his work, Simenon seems to have died happy. Perhaps very little touched him outside of his study and his imagination.

In his biography, which goes into great detail about Simenon's publishing deals but with only a cursory look at his books, Pierre Assouline does not seem very surprised at his subject's bizarre life. He explains Simenon's womanizing as a need to compensate for the absence of his mother's love, although Simenon seems to have got on perfectly well with her, and the weirder incidents in Simenon's life — such as the plan to write a novel in public, in a glass cage, for 50,000 francs and an attempt to solve a suspicious death in the guise of Maigret — are not put into the context of his personality.

This is a solid, workmanlike biography of a strange, unreal, man. Simenon's own stab at his life may be highly imaginative, but it is much more fun.

see also: Brilliant together in Paris: A review of Pierre Assouline's Simenon: A Biography,by John Leonard. The Nation, July, 1997.

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