April 30, 2004


Would you believe it?: As Georges Simenon's centenary approaches, Mark Lawson unravels clues to the life of the Belgian thriller-writer and discovers a mysterious character who could write a book in 11 days and claimed to have had 10,000 lovers (Mark Lawson, November 23, 2002, The Guardian)

A remarkably prolific novelist, Simenon was also an astonishingly gushing lover. In old age, he claimed to have had sex with 10,000 women and, while all claims of erotic prowess are subject to a certain rounding-up, it's clear he used prostitutes at the rate Parisians get through Gitanes.

Beyond these enigmas involving his imagination and his penis, there are other mysteries to be considered by any writer investigating him, as I have for a Radio 4 play marking his centenary. Part of the reason this Belgian, whose most famous character was French, spent the last 40 years of his life in America and Switzerland was the accusation that he had collaborated with the Vichy regime during the second world war. There is also the question of why his daughter killed herself.

The main biographers - Pierre Assouline (1997), Patrick Marnham (1992), Stanley Eskins (1987) and Fenton Bresler (1983) - frequently disagree on details of the author's life but they are more often contradicted by the more than 20 volumes of autobiography which Simenon himself published. That torrent of autobiography is not even internally consistent. For example, he gives several different accounts of the genesis of his signature character, Superintendent Maigret.

A man who had published at least 400 novels under his own name and a variety of others would frequently lament to interviewers that he had always been incapable of making anything up. Certainly, he transferred a number of people, names and places wholesale from his research to the novels and, in consequence, suffered a number of libel suits. More gravely, when his 25-year-old daughter, Marie-Jo, decided to shoot herself in 1978, she was able to get the name and address of a reputable Parisian gunsmith from one of the Maigret stories.

Reluctant to admit fiction to his novels, Simenon was unusually inventive in real life. It is still, for instance, widely claimed in literary histories that the young Simenon once wrote a novel in public in 24 hours, while sitting in a glass cage in Paris, accepting character and plot suggestions from a gawping audience. The author did not discourage this legend and it became a perfect metaphor for both his exhibitionism and his profligacy. However, his biographers have proved that Simenon never in fact became a literary sea-lion in this way. He signed a contract for the transparent composition but cancelled the happening after being warned by friends that it would wreck his artistic reputation. As with his birth certificate, the misunderstanding seems appropriate.

Apart from the personal memories that went through more drafts than a Hollywood screenplay, he had what might be taken as a novelist's habit of renaming key players in his life, so that his first wife, Regine, was rechristened "Tigy", while her maid Henriette, with whom the libidinous Simenon had an inevitable affair, was asked to answer to "Boule". The second wife, Denise, seems to have held on to what she got at the font although, in an intriguing psychological sideswipe, she began to spell herself Denyse after their marriage ended.

During the 1950s, when Simenon was living in magnificence by Lake Geneva, one of his neighbours was Carl Jung. The crime writer was keen for a meeting and an appointment was made but was cancelled by the psychologist's death. Yet a session with Sigmund Freud would probably have been more appropriate. The more you learn about the author, the more you conclude that his childhood damaged him profoundly.

In the classic no-win of parenting, his father loved Georges too much, his mother too little. His father, Desire, died at only 44 from a heart ailment he had concealed from his wife, who had come to the alternative diagnosis of laziness. Shortly before dying, Simenon Sr gave his son a pocket-watch, which he later used as payment in a brothel. These events gave Georges three obsessions - with early death, timepieces and his mother's cruelty - which became driving forces in his writing.

Henriette - the target of a bitter, late non-fiction book, Letter To My Mother - distanced herself from Simenon not only by her alleged part in hounding his sainted father to an early grave. Most shockingly, when Georges's brother was killed, she complained to her surviving son: "Why did it have to be him? Why couldn't it have been you?"

There's a popular psychological theory that men who are rejected by their mothers often become obsessive copulators, seeking vaginal acceptance, the compensating embrace.

And vice versa.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2004 8:00 AM

If it's a popular psychological theory, it must be wrong.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 30, 2004 7:47 PM

No, popular psychology is generally right, because based on experience. It's intellectualized theories that are wrong, for all the obvious reasons.

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 7:51 PM