For those who don’t know, I am a fan of the romans durs (hard novels) written by Belgium author, Georges Simenon. I may also be a fan of his Inspector Maigret novels, but it’s too early to say as I haven’t read any yet. I am still ploughing my way, slowly, through Simenon’s romans durs.
Out of curiosity, I picked up Patrick Marnham’s bio of Simenon–The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon. I often avoid reading biographies of authors as I don’t want the biographies to deter me from reading the novels. Authors aren’t perfect people, but sometimes knowing the details of an author’s private life can be a disillusioning experience. Tolstoy is a case in point. How can someone write a novel as sensitive as Anna Karenina and then be such an arse at home. That’s a rhetorical question, of course, but my point is that sometimes I’d rather not know about an author’s life. This brings me back to Marnham’s marvellous bio–a book that is so good, so insightful, that it’s sealed the decision that I need to overcome my qualms and read more bios of my favourite authors. Balzac & Zola…this means YOU.
Marnham’s book traces Simenon’s incredible life–from his childhood in Liege, through WWI, WWII, his years in America, his marriages, affairs, and, of course, his literary career. While Marnham obviously admires Simenon and appears to view him as a criminally underrated writer (we agree on that last one), Marnham maintains his objectivity and is also able to identity Simenon’s flaws and his personal demons. If I had to sum up Simenon, I’d say that he was a man who never did anything in moderation. During his lifetime:
He had written 193 novels under his own name and over 200 under eighteen pseudonyms. His world sales were said to be over 500 million copies in 55 languages, exceeded among writers of fiction only by Jules Verne and William Shakespeare, which made him the world’s best selling novelist. … He had taken less than two weeks to write most of his books and in the forty-four years up to 1972, when he retired from writing fiction, he had produced an average of four and five titles each year. … He had been married twice and had twice conducted lengthy affairs with his wives’ maid. He had been a devoted father of four children and had once sent his son 133 letters during a separation of three weeks. And as almost everyone knows, he once claimed to have made love to 10,000 women.
In writing this biography, Marnham had his work cut out for him. He states that Simenon’s “mastery of publicity” made him a difficult subject–especially on the subject of his personal life:
Simenon wrote two autobiographical novels and four autobiographies, and after his retirement as a novelist [he] dictated twenty-one volumes of memoirs. But his autobiographical writings formed a complex web of fact and fantasy which he ended by partly believing himself. He once said that he found it difficult to tell the story of his early years “because we make up the memories of our childhood for the rest of our life, and we change them as we go along.” Certainly in his own case this was true.
Marnham painstakingly picks apart the fact from the elaborations. While some of Simenon’s versions of events can reasonably be explained away as the tricks of time, other versions–the story of the fate of Simenon’s brother, for example, cannot. Simenon remained vague about his brother’s death, but the book reveals some of the shady details of Christian Simenon’s activities in WWII and his subsequent enlistment in the French Foreign Legion. While Simenon adored his father, he had a troubled relationship with his mother, yet in spite of the fact he avoided her for long periods of his life, he didn’t write for a year after her death. As can be expected with a man of Simenon’s temperament and his self-confessed “devouring need for women,” his domestic relationships were sometimes difficult. But this is all Simenon’s personal life–fascinating stuff but what of the writer? Marnham details Simenon’s incredible talent. As a child he exhibited an ability to write essays for his schoolmates with phenomenal speed. As a teenager, he mingled with criminals and narrowly escaped a life of crime. At 15, he landed a job as a journalist at the Gazette de Liege (several versions of how he got the job), got mixed up in a blackmail gig, and by the time he was barely an adult, he had throughly learned his trade as a journalist and the art of self-publicity. He was ready to move on.
Marnham covers Simenon’s progress as a writer, his typical working schedule, his elusive literary aspirations, and the central themes of his books. In 1928 alone, Simenon wrote 44 novels, so it’s no wonder that Simenon is frequently compared to Balzac. But apart from covering the details–which make rewarding information, Marnham also includes the far more complicated area of Simenon’s sources of inspiration.
While I can’t say that any part of this wonderful book was boring, the WWII years were of particular interest. Marnham describes Simenon’s life during this period, and this section of the novel explores the fine line artists sometimes trod when it came to collaboration with the Nazis. As a film fan, the information about the collapse of the French film industry and its cannibalization during Nazi occupation by Continental, the German production company makes for fascinating reading.
There’s a sense of doom and underlying sadness in these pages when Simenon meets Denyse in 1945, and the bio tends to speed up from there. To give credit to Marnham he gives Denyse’s view of the suicide of their daughter, Marie-Jo.
Marnham presents a portrait of a complicated man who never really overcame the profoundly corrupting experience of WWI, and Simenon emerges from these pages as complex human being who “acquired the habits of a man pursued.” As I read this biography’s exploration of various episodes in Simenon’s long life (1903-1989), I recognised plot elements from some of the novels: alcoholism, relationships between brothers, relationships between family members, nagging controlling wives, husbands who long to escape from their boring mundane lives, and middle class men whose lives of bourgeois correctness are derailed by fate. For fans of Simenon, The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret is highly recommended and is an invaluable companion book to Simenon’s work.
The book includes numerous photographs, a chronology of Simenon’s life, a map of Liege, a bibliography and an index.
Thank you, Mr. Marnham.
25 responses to “The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon by Patrick Marnham”
Your review is so interesting I hardly think I have to read the book. 400 books, and 10000 women – prolific in many areas then.
It is difficult for we who have lived in peaceful times to understand the impact of living through two world wars.
Proust: “Happy days are lost days for a writer”
There are perhaps too many writers these days who have settled middle-class lives lived at home and at literary festivals.
“The book includes numerous photographs, a chronology of Simenon’s life, a map of Liege, a bibliography and an index” – ah, and so often that is what makes a book.
What a life…
And I echo Tom’s kudos for the review Guy. Your point about a biographer who sympathises / understands their subject and values their work without tipping over into hagiography is well made. In my experience Richard Ellmann is the best example of this I’ve come across: his bios of Wilde and Joyce are both superb, joys to read in their own right while not shying away from presenting rounded versions of their subjects. Sounds like Marnham has achieved the same end with this.
Per your recommendation I picked up Red Lights a few weeks ago – looking forward to it more after this.
“As a film fan, the information about the collapse of the French film industry and its cannibalization during Nazi occupation by Continental, the German production company makes for fascinating reading.”
On this very topic, have you ever seen Tavernier’s Laissez Passer?
Leroy: yes I have seen that film, and I would really like to read a book on the subject if there’s one out there.
At one point in the bio, there was a jury of 12 men to select for a new literary prize during the occupation. After the war, most of these 12 (I think 9) were executed or in prison for collaboration. It was sobering–of the 3 that were still free men, one was Simenon and another was Troyat.
The biographer makes the point that writers and film-makers just wanted to go on with their lives and sometimes felt a-political. Of course that got them in trouble, and the book touches on some of the things artists did (or failed to do). It raises some interesting moral questions.
I just re-watched Red Lights the other day (Cedric Kahn)–an excellent adaptation. Simenon was fascinated by American car culture and the book was set in America–the film however is set in France.
You know, I think I have that Ellman bio of Wilde on my shelf.
Tom: Yes awful to live through both WWI and II. One was bad enough. Yes, Simenon was shaped by both. One of the passages tells how they were starving in Liege during WWI and his mother took in German lodgers. This was after things had calmed down, but the biographer argued that the experience corrupted Simenon as he was taught to lie, cheat and steal by circumstance.
Guy: Just a short comment to say that while I don’t often comment here, I do visit regularly. Your tastes and interests are in fields that I don’t know well, but will be setting time aside to explore. Please keep up the good work.
Especially as you already have it I’d just say that the Ellmann is well worth your time.
That’s an incredible snippet about the jury and their fate. I looked for this today but it seems I’ll have to order online. My only hesitation is that I feel too much of a Simenon neophyte with a feeble single book of his under my belt. Out of 400!
As an aside, I made time to look at the Noir site…fantastic. I naturally looked out favouties to get a feel for it and now I must do some serious rooting around.
Enjoyed your piece on Bob le Flambeur Guy. Melville, Aldrich, Fuller…I only scraped the surface so I’ll be back for more.
Kevin: thanks. I often visit and read but don’t comment. It’s often been said already and I don’t have much new to offer.
Leroy: the noir site has an archived review of Red Lights but you might not want to read it until you see the film.
This bio had everything I hoped for–it filled in the blanks about Simenon and gave me an even greater appreciation of his work. It only takes reading a few of the books before you realise that the author was something special, and I am really glad I decided to take the time to read it.
I’ll be reviewing Bedelia this weekend (the film) for the noir site if you are interested.
Leroy: you might not want to hear this, but NYRB is re-releasing another Simenon–one of his most autobiograpical novels, Pedigree.
I’m going to get to Red Lights soon and I’ll look at the other NYRB titles as well. I’ll skip the movie review until I’ve read and/or seen it…
Did you look at They Shoot Pictures?
Yes, I did take a look at TSPDT? Someone has spent a great deal of time compiling info and I am going to pass the name along to an acquaintance who is about to start a film blog.
I looked up my fav directors to see how their rating meshed with mine, and it didn’t in most cases. Not that that surprises me, but there you go. I watch most of my all-time favourite films on my own which is not all together a bad thing because then I can enjoy them in peace.
These are the disagreements that ruin friendships and split households down the middle.
I’d put John Waters in the Trash Cinema category. Don’t know how he’d feel about ‘comedies, crimes, and musicals’….
Yes, a lot of work has gone into it and I find the more doctrinaire elements quite endearing. Agree that their assessments are more a starting point for disagreement, but it’s an interesting disagreement at least.
Personally I think the Top 250 Noir list is the best thing on it, again their criteria are quite stringent but it’s a good “core” list to refer to. Very interesting to compare to the stuff reviewed on Noir of the week…
I enjoy reading other people’s lists of top books/films but always have a tough time of writing my own–esp if it’s a low number. I recently tried to write my favourite ten films and argued myself into 15. Then I crossed out 4 but am still stuck at 11.
I like the way the site has the film listed so that you can access the noir info in various ways depending on how you approach it (alphabetically, chronologically, director). Why no British?
The Noir Sentinel (the Film Noir Foundation’s newspaper) just released an issue devoted to British noir–a sadly neglected area of the genre. Although, of course there are those who argue there is no such thing as British noir.
I missed the noir list the first time I visited as I went straight to my fav directors (my benchmark). But thanks, a genuine thanks, for the referral. I’m going to print out the list. Wouldn’t want to miss any….
Been busy lately but haven’t forgotten you. Being of a certain age, I used to watch Maigret on tv but have never read the books. This review though is fascinating and I’d be interested to read the biography even if I never got around to reading the novels.
BTW I have mixed feelings about bios of writers – I want to read them but fear being disappointed as, as you say, have that taint my feelings about their work as I do think that “art” should stand on its own in terms of our assessment of it.
Yes, I don’t want to be put off of the writer and then sometimes I think you can read too much into the life of the author.
bookaroundthecorner was just on my blog ( I posted on one of the Maigret novels) and she said I should visit, as it was one of your favourite authors. I liked Three Bedrooms in Manhattan loads but am hardly familiar with the Maigret ones. My father had a HUGE collection of the non Maigrets but took them with him when he moved away. I think his favourite was La Veuve Couderc. Anyhow, this was an interesting post. I am extremely interested in WWII, Resistance (L’armée des ombres comes to mind). He was really as prolific as Balzac who was my favourite writer for years. I really know about being cautious to read someone’s biographie. Deidre Bair’s Simone de Beauvoir biography put me off her work forever. I will read some of your Simenon posts later, now, just short, which Maigret one did you like and which other would you think as good as The three Bedrooms.
I have yet to read any Maigret novels. I’m still working my way through the Romans Durs. Favourites: Monsieur Monde Vanishes, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Three Crimes (phenomenal!) off the top of my head. You know there’s an Alain Delon film of La Veuve Couderc–not as good as the book of course, as it’s turned into something quite different by the end.
Yeah, I know what you mean about bios. They can be a bit of a mixed bag….
For resistance films have you seen Bertrand Tavernier’s Safe Conduct?
Thanks for the recommendations. I will try to find Three Crimes or whatever it is called in French (I am a native French/German/Italian speaker). I know the movie La veuve Couderc but I hardly remember it, too long ago I have seen it.
I haven’t seen Safe Conduct (will see if I can get it) but I saw L’armée du crime/Army of crime recently… I think it is fantastic. One of the best movies I have seen this year.
I just saw Army of Crime too. A phenomenal film. You will probably find Safe Conduct interesting since it’s set in WWII and covers the film industry, collaboration/resistance.
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Don’t know if you followed through on your stated intent to read biographies of Balzac and Zola. I can recommend Noel B. Gerson’s The Prodigal Genius: The Life and Times of Honore De Balzac as a truly well-written and absorbing book about a wildly improbable character.
I haven’t read any of those bios yet–it’s one of those typical ‘I plan to’ things. Looked up that book on amazon and there’s a sole bad review of it.