Authors: Georges Simenon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Belgian novelist and short-story writer


Georges Joseph Christian Simenon (see-muhn-awn), the master of the contemporary psychological novel, is perhaps best known for his detective stories featuring Inspector Maigret, but he also became internationally celebrated for his other novels, which–like the Maigret works–deal with guilt and innocence, flight and return, and the search for home.{$I[AN]9810000818}{$I[A]Simenon, Georges}{$I[geo]BELGIUM;Simenon, Georges}{$I[tim]1903;Simenon, Georges}

Simenon’s parents were a mismatched couple; his father was a petit bourgeois accountant whose values were at complete variance with those of his wife. The contrast between his parents’ values is reflected in Simenon’s stories, which often depict the narrowness and hypocrisy of middle-class values and the appeal of working-class honesty. Simenon dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to help augment the family income. After finding that he was inept at manual work, he became a successful reporter. His writing career was fully launched by the time he was seventeen years old, when he wrote his first novel. At this time he also began writing fiction pieces for Paris journals. Although Simenon himself was not certain of the extent of his enormous body of fiction, it has been estimated to be more than four hundred books and more than two thousand short stories.

Simenon began writing thrillers and romances for an audience of shop girls and secretaries, but he soon found that his greatest strength lay in the detective story. Inspector Jules Maigret made his debut in Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett in 1931. Intuitive, fatherly, as much against the inhumane criminal justice system as against crime itself, Maigret proved an instant success. Over the next four years, Simenon produced about twenty novels featuring this popular pipe-smoking detective before turning to “straight” novels, many of which were also well received. By the late 1930’s, Maigret fans were mourning the lack of new Maigret novels, and Simenon felt compelled to satisfy the public. In 1939, he began a new series of Maigret stories, and he continued writing them along with other novels for the rest of his career. At about the time he began the new series, he was divorced from his first wife and married Denise Ouimet, a French Canadian. The second group of Maigret novels features Simenon’s experiences in the United States and even includes episodes in which Maigret collaborates with the American police. In the early 1970’s, Simenon gave up writing novels entirely; one of his late works, Intimate Memoirs, is an account of the events that led to the suicide of his daughter, Mary-Georges, in 1978.

Like Graham Greene, Simenon divided his works into two categories, the “Maigrets” and the serious novels. Although the author declared that novels should be short enough to be read in one sitting, his serious “romans durs” often run to three or four hundred pages of action, reflections, and careful settings for his social “dropouts.” Violent action is central to Simenon’s fiction and is brought on by revolt against an intolerable situation. Both the author and his detective, Maigret, realize that the seeds of violence are within all human beings and need only a fatal moment to be triggered. Simenon tended to work by closeting himself for a week or more and living “inside the skin” of his main character until the tale was complete.

Maigret is a very human detective, subject to error; in fact, he is most often blinded by his own desire to believe in innocence and Eden. In Maigret and the Old Lady, for example, he is deceived by the woman’s childlike femininity; in Maigret at the Crossroads, he at first sees openness and innocence, and his unwillingness or inability to look past the surface causes damage. He escapes the dark world of crime by returning to an ideal wife, an orderly and familiar Paris apartment, and the comforting aroma of a French kitchen.

What makes the novels memorable is not their characters, which are sometimes sketchily developed, or their themes, which lack variety, but Simenon’s detailed observation, which makes these novels so realistic that they could easily serve the sociologist as well as the fiction reader. Nearly every conceivable milieu within the French social structure is reproduced in most minute detail–the details of ordinary houses of prostitution, furniture factories, shipping firms, petit bourgeois and haute bourgeois households, fishing vessels, and boardinghouses. Many novels take place in exotic settings, and Simenon prepared himself for his descriptions of Africa, Central America, and Asia by traveling around the world. He believed that people are essentially the same but that their lives and destinies are determined by their environments. The evocative use of the concrete permeates all the novels, giving Simenon the reputation of a novelist of ambience. Simenon’s major contribution to literature may well be in the detective field. He has joined the hard-boiled American school of detective fiction with the more descriptive British school to create an enactment of the ritual of crime and investigation that is both realistic and mythic.

BibliographyAssouline, Pierre. Simenon: A Biography. Translated by Jon Rothschild. New York: Knopf, 1997. A good reference for biographical information on Simenon.Becker, Lucille Frackman. Georges Simenon. Boston: Twayne, 1977. An informative introductory study, with chapters on Simenon’s family background, the creation of Maigret, his handling of such basic themes as solitude and alienation, and his understanding of the art of the novel. Includes a chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography.Becker, Lucille Frackman. Georges Simenon Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999. Further reflections on Simenon, focusing more closely on the novels than did Becker’s earlier work.Bresler, Fenton. The Mystery of Georges Simenon. Toronto: General, 1983. A well-written biography that gives a strong sense of Simenon’s roots and the development of his career. Includes conversations between Bresler and Simenon.Carter, David. The Pocket Essential Georges Simenon. Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England: Pocket Essentials, 2003. Short book containing a critical analysis of Simenon’s work, as well as a bibliography of works by and about him.Collins, Carvel. “The Art of Fiction IX: Georges Simenon.” The Paris Review 9 (Summer, 1993): 71-90. A comprehensive interview with the author about his career and his fictional methods.Eskin, Stanley. Simenon: A Critical Biography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. Eskin provides a meticulous narrative and analysis of Simenon’s work. His notes and bibliography are very detailed and helpful.Franck, Frederick. Simenon’s Paris. New York: Dial, 1970. While this is basically a book of illustrations of Paris, a good deal is revealed about the way Simenon chose locations for his fiction.Freeling, Nicolas. Criminal Convictions: Errant Essays on Perpetrators of Literary License. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1994.Gill, Brendan. “Profiles: Out of the Dark.” The New Yorker, January 24, 1953, 35-45. A succinct biographical and critical profile by an astute essayist.Marnham, Patrick. The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon. London: Bloomsbury, 1992. An excellent study of Simenon’s life and times. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Raymond, John. Simenon in Court. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1968. An excellent overview of Simenon’s fiction, as valuable as Becker’s introductory study.Simenon, Georges. “The Art of Fiction IX: Georges Simenon.” Interview by Carvel Collins. The Paris Review 9 (Summer, 1993): 71-90. A comprehensive interview with the author about his career and his fictional methods.
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