BORN: 1903, Liege, Belgium
DIED: 1989, Lausanne, Switzerland
NATIONALITY: Belgian, French
Intimate Memoirs (1984)
Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine (1990)
Georges Simenon. Simenon, Georges, 1986, photograph. AP Images.
With over five hundred titles to his credit and translations of his work into more than forty languages, Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, who wrote in French, is probably best known for his series of detective novels featuring French police inspector Jules Maigret. Through this protagonist, Simenon introduced to detective fiction the exploration of character as the primary means for solving a crime. Simenon’s non-Maigret novels, also highly regarded, feature characters who are compelled to commit crimes due to some kind of psychological crisis. The detail of atmosphere his writing possesses sets him apart from his European contemporaries.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Callings. Georges Simenon was born in Liege, Belgium, on February 13, 1903, to insurance accountant Desire and homemaker Henriette Simenon. A bright pupil, he was determined to become a writer. When his father died, Simenon’s schooling was cut short, and he was apprenticed to a pastry chef to learn a trade. Simenon abandoned his apprenticeship after one year, and at the age of seventeen he began his career as a writer by taking a newspaper job with the Liege Gazette as an assistant night police reporter. It was also at the age of seventeen that he published his first novel, Au pont des arches ( Aboard the Ark, 1921), under the pen name Georges Sim.
Prolific Output. Between 1921 and 1934 he wrote nearly two hundred novels, which he published under more than a dozen pseudonyms. Simenon moved to Paris in 1924, and in 1930 he began the famous Maigret series of detective novels, which he published under his own name.
For many critics, however, Simenon’s best novels are those that lie outside the Maigret series. In the 1930s he wrote many other thrillers, a notable example being The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (L’Homme qui regardaitpasser les trains, 1938). Pedigree, written during the war years and published in 1948, is a largely autobiographical novel that presents a powerful and convincing picture of the life of a boy and his parents in Liege from 1903 to 1918. Subsequently, Simenon wrote novels in which the psychological analysis of the leading character, exceptional in some way, forms the center of interest. Examples include The Heart of a Man (Les Volets verts, 1950), which portrays the closing stages in the life of a great actor, and The Little Saint (Le Petit Saint, 1965) about the formative years in the life of a great artist.
Simenon’s desire to be known as an earnest novelist was tempered by his lack of self-confidence as a writer and his distrust of the intellectual community. He therefore formed ‘‘a theory of the ‘semi-literary’ novel, or, more earthily, ‘semi-alimentary,’’’ according to one critic, who continued, ‘‘The theory was that he wrote pulps to make money, was aiming at ‘straight’ novels but felt insecure about ‘high’ literature, and took up the detective story as a midway step.’’ In an article titled ‘‘Simenon on Simenon’’ for the Times Literary Supplement, Simenon illuminated the man behind the writer who believed that humility was the grandest virtue one could hope to possess. ‘‘Simenon,’’ he wrote about himself, ‘‘is truly a modest man. He knows his own limitations and does not make for himself the claims that have sometimes been made for him by some of his more florid admirers. He describes himself as a craftsman, has a healthy distrust of intellectuals ...of literary occasions and intellectual conversations, feels ill at ease at social functions, and is quite unambitious in conventional terms: recognition, decorations, and so on. He can, it is true, well afford to be.’’
Final Output. Simenon retired from writing fiction in 1974 after producing a range of novels, short stories, diaries, and other works. In 1978, the author suffered the greatest tragedy in his life when his daughter, Marie-Georges, committed suicide in her apartment. Devastated by his loss, Simenon felt the need to write about it. The result was his lengthy Intimate Memoirs (Memoires intimes, 1981), an exhausting book for the writer to compose. It was his last work.
Although he described himself as a craftsman, Simenon’s popular Maigret novels, as well as his more serious works, came to be admired by distinguished French critics. Nobel laureate Andre Gide called him ‘‘perhaps the greatest and most genuine novelist of today’s French literature.’’ Simenon died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1989.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Simenon's famous contemporaries include:
Ella Josephine Baker (1903-1946): Baker was a leading African American civil rights activist who worked behind the scenes alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and several others.
Agatha Christie (1890-1976): A popular mystery/detective writer with record-breaking book sales, she was dubbed ''Queen of Crime'' in the twentieth century.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1975): Twice prime minister of the United Kingdom, this statesman and acclaimed orator was also a Nobel Prize-winning author.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): He is best known as the famous expatriate writer whose name is synonymous with the Great American Novel.
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961): Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon (1930), which introduced the famous detective Sam Spade.
Works in Literary Context
Plain Style. Simenon is above all a storyteller. His style is deliberately simple, as he aims at a kind of ‘‘universal vocabulary.’’ He builds compelling action and atmosphere through careful, subtle touches, and his readers are immediately gripped by their desire to know what happens next. Simenon’s themes are particularly focused on the inner workings of the human mind. Commenting on the astonishing range of characters that move through his world, Simenon said, ‘‘Some people collect stamps; I collect human beings.’’ In this respect he excludes politics, religion, history, and metaphysics from his books and instead concentrates on psychology and on the minor, yet often extraordinary, details of human existence.
Maigret. Because of the dozens of novels in which he appears, as well as the many films and television adaptations starring his character, Inspector Maigret, of police headquarters in Paris, has become almost as well known as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Though recognizable to fans, Maigret is unlike any other fictional detective. A man with simple tastes who is sensible and tolerant but not brilliant, Maigret puzzles his way to the solution of his cases by intuition, as opposed to deductive reasoning or by relying on stereotypical clues such as fingerprints or lab reports. An element of immeasurable importance in Maigret’s investigations is his extraordinary patience; sometimes he spends weeks simply observing the scene of a crime. He attempts to understand the victim and suspect completely by immersing himself in their lifestyles and by examining the psychological reasons that provoked the crime. This added psychological dimension enhances the reader’s typical interest in learning the solution to a mystery. A surprising trait for a detective to have is compassion for the criminal; Maigret often feels sorry after he catches the perpetrator he has sought.
Unconventional Detective Stories. In the same way that Inspector Maigret is unlike most famous fictional sleuths, Simenon’s crafting of the stories themselves differs from the traditional form of the mystery and detective genre. Anthony Boucher observed that Simenon’s work in this area departed ‘‘from the well-shaped plot and the devious gimmick (though he could be very good at these when he chose) to lay stress on the ambience and milieu of the crime and on the ambivalent duel ... between the murderer and Maigret.’’ Devotees of mystery and detective fiction agree that the Maigret stories do not strictly adhere to the conventional features of the field. In the introduction to their Catalogue of Crime, Jacques Barzun and W. H. Taylor stated that ‘‘anyone who says, ‘I can’t bear detective stories, but I love Simenon’ is saying that he prefers the art’’ of Simenon’s mysteries, a quality which is atypical of the detective genre. Because the usual Simenon novel ‘‘is often of the highest order’’ artistically, Barzun and Taylor contend that ‘‘it is not detective fiction. True, Maigret, like any other policeman, wants to get his man, and he knows where to wait for him—he has had previous information. But what he contributes is the patience of a god. And what his readers enjoy is his boredom, fatigue, wet feet, and hunger.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Maigret is one of the most famous fictional detectives in world literature. Other famous fictional detectives appear in these works:
A Study in Scarlet (1887), a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. Legendary detective Sherlock Holmes makes his first appearance in this novel.
Murder Must Advertise (1933), a novel by Dorothy L. Sayers. In this murder mystery, Lord Peter Whimsey tracks down the murderer of the copywriter Victor Dean.
The Maltese Falcon (1930), a novel by Dashiell Hammett. Hard-boiled detective Sam Spade appears in this novel about the fate of a mysterious black bird.
A is for Alibi (1982), a novel by Sue Grafton. The first of the Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries, this novel picks up where Sam Spade left off.
Works in Critical Context
Attesting to the uniqueness of Simenon’s mystery fiction in general and his Maigret series in particular, novelist and critic Julian Symons wrote in his Mortal Consequences: A History—from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, ‘‘The Maigret stories stand quite on their own in crime fiction, bearing little relation to most of the other work done in the field. (Simenon is not much interested in crime stories and has read few of them). ... There are no great feats of... [logical reasoning or deduction] in them and the problems they present are human as much as they are criminal.’’
Serious Novels. Although Simenon ‘‘attempted to persuade critics and publishers that he should be taken seriously as an author of... serious novels,’’ observed Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Catharine Savage Brosman, ‘‘sales figures suggest that the Maigret series and a few other books in the same vein have the most appeal, and his fame continues to rest principally on them.’’ Brosman later explained, ‘‘His serious novels do not offer wisdom or illumination, and, despite the strong characterization, the reader does not enter into their world. ...In the detective mode, however, his work sets the standard, rather than following it.’’
Delicate and Refined Readers. Andre Gide, an admirer and long-time critical correspondent of Simenon asserted that there is a ‘‘profound psychological and ethical interest ‘‘in all of Simenon’s books,’’ not just the serious novels. Gide stated, ‘‘This is what attracts and holds me in him. He writes for ‘the vast public,’ to be sure, but delicate and refined readers find something for them too as soon as they begin to take him seriously. He makes one reflect; and this is close to being the height of art.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Research the psychological profiles of at least three infamous criminals from the past fifty years. Do you notice any characteristics these people have in common? Pretend you are an attorney defending one of these criminals. How would you argue his/her case from a psychological perspective? Write an opening statement for the trial.
2. Make a ‘‘Wanted’’ poster for the suspects in two or more of Simenon’s novels. Use character descriptions from the texts to visually portray the suspects. You may draw the characters on posterboard; take photos of people you know or cut out pictures from magazines of people who fit the descriptions; or create a poster using the computer program of your choice. Underneath each picture, include a short paragraph describing both the physical characteristics of the characters and the characters’ alleged roles in the crimes for which she or he has been accused.
Assouline, Pierre. Simenon: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime: Being a Reader’s Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, and Related Genres. New York: Harper, 1989.
Becker, Lucille Frackman. Georges Simenon. Boston: Twayne, 1977.
Bertrand, Alain. Maigret. Brussels, Belgium: Labor, 1994.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 72 of French Novelists, 1930-1960. Detroit: Gale, 1988.
Gide, Andre. The Journals of Andre Gide. Vol. 4: 1938-1949. New York: Knopf, 1951.
Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History—-from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Harper, 1972.
Simenon, Georges. Times Literary Supplement, December 14, 1940; November 25, 1960; July 29, 1983; August 12, 1988.
Books and Writers. Georges (Joseph Christian) Simenon (1903-1989). Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/simenon.htm.
Trussel, Steve. ‘‘Simenon and His Maigret’’. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www.trussel.com/f_maig.htm. Last updated on February 16, 2008.