Georges Joseph Christian Simenon was born on February 13, 1903, in Liège, Belgium. His father, Désiré Simenon, was an accountant from a solid petit bourgeois background; his mother, Henriette Brull, came from a family known for financial instability and social snobbery. The contrast between his paternal and maternal families preoccupied Simenon and often figures in his stories, which tend to idealize the petit bourgeois life and cruelly satirize the pretentious social climbers of the upper-middle class.
Simenon’s family was never well-off, and his education was interrupted by the need to earn money when he learned (at the age of sixteen) that his father was seriously ill. After failing at two menial jobs, he became a cub reporter, at which he was an immediate success. While working at a newspaper and frequenting a group of young artists and poets, he wrote his first novel, Au pont des arches (1921), at the age of seventeen. In 1920 he became engaged to Regine Renchon and enlisted in the army; in 1922 he went to Paris, and he was married the following year. At this time he was writing short stories for Paris journals with amazing rapidity; he wrote more than one thousand stories over the next few years. For two years he was secretary to two young aristocrats, and through them, especially the second, the marquess de Tracy, he made literary connections. In 1924 he began writing popular novels at an incredible rate. The first, a romance titled Le Roman d’une dactylo (1924; the novel of a secretary), was written in a single morning. Simenon ordinarily spent three to five days writing a novel; he was once hired to write a novel in three days before the public in a glass cage, but the publisher who set up the stunt went bankrupt before the event. In 1929 he wrote his first Maigret, Pietr-le-Letton (1931; The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, 1933; also known as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, 1963); Maigret was an instant success.
In 1939 Simenon’s son Marc was born, but his marriage was already in trouble, partly because of his rapacious womanizing (in later life, in a typical Simenon embellishment, he claimed to have had sexual relations with ten thousand women). In the 1940’s he traveled to the United States, where he lived for ten years in relative contentment, adding to his repertoire of atmospheres. In 1949 he was divorced from Regine; the day after the divorce was finalized he married Denyse Ouimet, with whom the couple had been traveling. That year his second son, Johnny, was born to Denyse. He and Denyse had two more children, Marie-Georges (born in 1953) and Pierre (born in 1959, after their return to Europe). He received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1966.
Denyse’s alcoholism led to their separation and a bitter literary attack on Simenon in her memoirs, Un Oiseau pour le chat (1978). Because it vilified the father adored by Marie-Georges, the book contributed to her depression and suicide in 1978. After her death, Simenon was wracked by guilt and memorialized his daughter in Mémoires intimes (1981; Intimate Memoirs, 1984), “including Marie-Jo’s book,” drawing in part on notes, diaries, letters, and voice recordings that Marie-Georges left behind. Though scandal resulted from the revelation that her suppressed incestuous love for her father may have led to her death, a potentially greater scandal was itself suppressed by Denyse’s lawyers, who recalled the books to censor the story of Marie-Jo’s sexual abuse by her mother at the age of eleven. Unable to reconcile with Denyse, Simenon would live out the rest of his days with his Italian companion Teresa Sburelin.
For most of Simenon’s writing life he produced from one to seven novels a year, writing both Maigrets and serious novels. In 1973 he decided to stop producing novels, and after that time he wrote only autobiographical works, including the controversial Intimate Memoirs.
Born in 1903 in Liège, Belgium, the elder of two brothers, Georges Joseph Christian Simenon enjoyed an urban childhood that was sufficiently middle class that he recalled being disgruntled when his mother felt herself obliged to take in boarders in order to make ends meet. The failing health of his father, an insurance clerk, obliged the young Simenon to cut short his formal education and join the workforce at about age sixteen. After false starts as apprentice to a pastry cook and subsequently as a salesclerk, Simenon found steady work as a journalist at a still-precocious age and thereafter earned his living through writing, either as a journalist or as a secretary-speechwriter. Married in 1923 to Régine Renchon, Simenon later in that year began selling short stories to newspapers and soon expanded to the novel as well, publishing more than two hundred potboilers under various pseudonyms between 1925 and 1934, by which time his own name, thanks in part to Maigret, was beginning to ensure brisk sales.
According to Becker, Simenon originally attempted the detective novel “as a bridge between the popular potboilers he had been writing and the more serious literary efforts to which he aspired but for which he did not consider himself ready.” His proposal accepted by the publisher Fayard, Simenon contracted in 1929 to write eighteen Maigret novels, which in time would expand to eighty-three in addition to shorter Maigret adventures. Curiously, Simenon’s talent and fame as a mainstream novelist developed almost simultaneously with his reputation as a mystery writer, with several examples of each type of novel published annually throughout the 1930’s to generally good sales and reviews.
In the mid-1930’s, Simenon traveled extensively throughout the world; the “exotic” novels resulting from these voyages are justly famous among readers and scholars, although they constitute a small fraction of his literary output and depend more heavily on character than on atmosphere for their overall effect. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, already involved in refugee relief work, Simenon began writing his memoirs in the erroneous belief that he was soon to die of a respiratory ailment; after revision, those memoirs would form the basis of the major novel Pedigree, completed during 1943 but not published until five years later. Toward the end of the hostilities, Simenon traveled extensively in North America and met the Canadian Denise Ouimet, who, after his divorce in 1950, would become his second wife. Residing first in Arizona, Simenon settled in northern Connecticut following his marriage to Ouimet; there he would write a number of his best-remembered novels, many with American settings and characters.
After returning to Europe in 1955, Simenon spent most of his time in the Lausanne area of Switzerland, where he was to die in 1989. Around 1972, Simenon renounced the writing of fiction, preferring instead to record on tape the most salient excerpts of his photographic memory. In 1981, he published his massive autobiography, Intimate Memoirs, notable for its sensational disclosures with regard to his unconventional sex life and his obsession with the suicide of his daughter, Marie-Jo. Despite its self-advertised candor, it is a strangely unrevealing work; Simenon the man remains elusive.