(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

To legions of mystery fans, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris Judiciary Police is a more familiar figure than his creator, Belgian novelist Georges Simenon. Now Pierre Assouline taps Simenon’s own life to tell a story only marginally less compelling than one of Maigret’s own cases.

The future novelist was born in Liege, Belgium, in 1903, the son of an easygoing insurance agent and a driven, embittered boardinghouse keeper who made no secret of her preference for Simenon’s brother. By the time he set out for Paris at age nineteen, Simenon was already an accomplished journalist. In France he published almost two hundred novels under some seventeen pseudonyms. Satisfied that he had finally mastered his craft, he began writing under his own name in 1931, producing another two hundred thirty or so novels and collections of short stories. Many featured the immortal Maigret, but many others were probing psychological studies that drew the praise of critics and fellow writers.

Along the way Simenon claimed to have bedded ten thousand women—a figure one of his wives put at closer to twelve hundred. Most were prostitutes, but one was famed American entertainer Josephine Baker, with whom he carried on a passionate affair. He stopped writing fiction in 1972, devoting himself to memoirs in which he attempted to come to terms with his mother’s bitterness and his beloved daughter’s suicide.

Simenon’s prodigious life has been recounted before, but Assouline is the first biographer to be given access to Simenon’s private papers. The result is the most thorough account to date, and likely to remain the standard for years to come.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, June, 1997, p. 1646.

The Economist. CCCXLIV, September 6, 1997, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. LXV, April 15, 1997.

Library Journal. CXXII, June 15, 1997.

The Nation. CCLXV, July 28, 1997, p. 25.

National Review. XLIX, September 29, 1997, p. 58.

The New Republic. CCXVII, October 20, 1997, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, August 10, 1997, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, April 28, 1997, p. 56.

The Spectator. CCLXXIX, September 6, 1997, p. 38.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 5, 1993, p. 9.

World Literature Today. LXVIII, Winter, 1994, p. 83.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Any account of Georges Simenon’s eventful life must deal in superlatives, the most obvious of them literary. “Between 1924 and 1931,” estimates Pierre Assouline, the Belgian novelist “published about 190 pulp novels under at least seventeen pseudonyms.” This is an extraordinary figure, even when one realizes that most of them were short novels of little consequence. More astonishing still, Simenon went on to write more than two hundred further volumes under his own name, dozens of them featuring the immortal Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris Judiciary Police.

Who was the man behind this accomplishment? Assouline divides Simenon’s life into four parts, each of them set in a particular country and each dominated by a particular woman: Simenon’s mother, Henriette, his two wives, Tigy and Denyse, and his final companion, Teresa.

Georges Simenon was born in Liège, Belgium, in 1903. His father, Désiré, was an amiable and easygoing insurance agent whose fondness for timepieces would eventually become an obsession with Georges. His mother, Henriette, was in many ways Désiré’s opposite, an ambitious, emotionally repressed woman who made no secret of her preference for Georges’s brother. (When the latter eventually died in the French Foreign Legion, Henriette would wonder aloud, “Why did it have to be him instead of you?”) One of Simenon’s late works, Lettre à ma mère (1974; Letter to My Mother, 1976) represents an attempt to come to terms with Henriette’s bitterness.

At nineteen, already an industrious journalist with one published (albeit minor) novel under his belt, Simenon set out for Paris. A year later, he married a childhood sweetheart, Régine Renchon, nicknamed Tigy. It was during his early years with Tigy that he transformed himself into a virtual writing machine, turning out a seemingly endless series of brief romances and sensational novels under a stable of pseudonyms. Also at this time Simenon met Josephine Baker, an African American entertainer who was the toast of Paris in the 1920’s. Simenon was frankly infatuated with Baker and celebrated her sexual appeal in print, although Tigy seems to have been unaware of the relationship that for a while flared between them.

Finally concluding that he had mastered his craft, Simenon began writing under his own name in 1931. His first signed work was Monsieur Gallet, décédé (1931; The Death of Monsieur Gallet, 1932), a mystery featuring an astute but unassuming French police inspector named Jules Maigret. Second only to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in the annals of crime fiction, Maigret would eventually appear in seventy-six novels and collections of short stories, including Simenon’s last work of fiction.

At first Simenon sought out a variety of publishers because he wrote so much—certainly more than any one firm could reasonably handle. Even after he moderated his production, however, he changed firms with some regularity, driving bargains that left his publishers reeling. These negotiations made Simenon an increasingly wealthy man, but the attention Assouline devotes to them is sometimes numbing.

Simenon could be relentless in his attempts at self-promotion. He insisted that reprints of one novel be sold with free pairs of handcuffs, resulting in an order for three thousand of the restraints. He launched the Maigret series by renting a nightclub and throwing an “Anthropometric Ball” featuring actors dressed as policemen, prostitutes, and pimps. Another actor appeared as “a butcher in a bloodstained apron.” Invitations were printed as booking cards, and fingerprints were taken at the door. The event was attended by more than a thousand guests and was an enormous success.

A vague sensation of ennui led Simenon into a brief period of withdrawal from “ordinary life.” There followed a brief period of withdrawal from “ordinary” life. It was during this period—eleven days, later nine, still later seven—that a handful of characters took over Simenon’s consciousness, their names drawn from a collection of telephone books. Subsequently Simenon evolved an obsessive method for writing his novels. The writer sharpened his pencils (but kept a typewriter nearby), filled half a dozen pipes, and began his story, completing one chapter a day. The work almost always involved an ordinary, often mediocre, central character driven to his or her limit—and then beyond, into violence and death. The finished manuscript was retyped and presented to Simenon...

(The entire section is 1867 words.)