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.