Georges Simenon, the creator of Commissioner Maigret
Simenon was an exceptionally prolific novelist: he penned 193 novels, 158 novellas, several autobiographical works and numerous articles and essays published under his own name, as well as 176 novels, dozens of novellas, pulp novels and articles under twenty seven different pseudonyms. He is the most widely-read Belgian author in the world. Altogether, about 550 million copies of his books have been printed, and he is the third best-selling author in the French language after Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, and the most translated Belgian author in the world.
Georges Simenon was born in Liege on Friday 13 February 1903; his father, Désiré Simenon, was an accountant and his mother Henriette Brüll worked at the department store "L’Innovation". His domineering mother didn't hesitate to impose her way of life on all the family: haunted by a lack of money and disappointed by Désiré's salary, she took the initiative to take on lodgers at the house. As such, from a very early age, Georges lived among lodgers, most of whom were foreign students. For the young Georges, this was an extraordinary opening to the world which we would later discover in many of his novels including "Pedigree", "Le Locataire", or "Crime Impuni".
He received his education at Catholic schools, firstly at the Institut St-André, right near his home, and then with the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes. From the age of eight, he was a choirboy at the chapel of the Hôpital de Bavière, an experience which would later be recalled in "L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre" and in "Le Témoignage de l’enfant de chœur". In his sixth grade in September 1914, he attended the Collège Saint-Louis, and from the age of twelve, decided to devote his life to writing novels. The following year, he continued his education in another Jesuit college in Liege, the Collège Saint-Servais, which taught the arts and sciences, and where he spent three years of his education. One day in 1916, the Simenon family doctor sent for the young Georges to inform him that his father didn't have long to live and that he had to work. In June 1918, he decided to put an end to his studies, without even taking the end-of-year exams. He subsequently worked a number of small odd jobs (apprentice baker, book store clerk). Finally, in 1919, he took a job as a reporter and columnist at "La Gazette de Liège". For the young Simenon, then just sixteen years old, this journalistic period was an extraordinary experience that enabled him to explore the underbelly of life in the big city, as well as its politics and criminality; he was able to frequent and penetrate into the real nightlife, to get to know the excesses in the bars and brothels; it also enabled him to learn the art of quick editing. He wrote more than a thousand articles under various pseudonyms, including 150 under the pseudonym "G. Sim". At the time, he was particularly interested in police investigations and took part in lectures on police technique given by the French criminologist Edmond Locard.
Throughout this entire period, during which he rubbed shoulders with bohemians and outsiders, Georges started to toy with the idea of a clean break. This materialised in 1921, when he left Liege for Paris. Two years later, he married his visual artist fiancée Régine Renchon, whose nickname was "Tigy". After almost a year spent in the company of the Marquis de Tracy as Secretary at the Château de Paray-le-Frési, Simenon, who already wrote stories for the weekly pulp journals of the capital, decided to take the plunge and completely earn a living from his pen by returning to Paris. He now offered his stories to prestigious daily newspapers such as "Le Matin", light reviews such as "Le Merle blanc", and especially to publishers of collections for the general public. Having met Colette in 1923, their cooperation was fruitful and the young man always appreciated her advice. The first "popular" novel from the aspiring writer, "Le roman d'une dactylo", was published in 1924, under a pseudonym. For six months in 1928, the novelist discovered France "entre deux berges" (via the canal system), to borrow the title of one of his articles: the novice sailor, who set off accompanied by Tigy, Boule, his cook, and the dog Olaf, didn't leave his typewriter behind and worked in the open air, much to the amazement of passers-by. He found material for several novels during this experience, in particular "Le Charretier de la Providence".
The years 1929-1930 marked a turning point for Simenon, who decided it was time to abandon pseudonyms and popular novels. At the end of 1930, Fayard was still requesting popular novels from Georges Sim, for much less money in return... Simenon dug in his heels and prevailed: on 20 February 1931, Maigret was launched. The novelist transformed himself into a marketing machine and organised an evening to which the Paris regulars were all invited. This was the famous "Bal anthropométrique" (Anthropometric Ball) in a nightclub in Montparnasse, an unusual party since the guests were all disguised as gangsters and prostitutes! This promotional stunt appeared rather unusual and the next day, the press gave the event widespread coverage in their columns. This time, it was a success and Maigret sold very well in the weeks following the "Bal anthropométrique". Around the same time, the first films based on the work of Georges Simenon were shot. He alternated between novels, travel and articles, and left his publisher Fayard for Éditions Gallimard, where he met André Gide in the corridors, the latter wishing to speak with the Simenon "phenomenon" without delay. The future Nobel Prize winner for Literature was full of admiration for the author of Maigret, especially when the commissioner was not present in the novel! Simenon was bombarded with questions and it was the start of a long dialogue, reciprocal visits and correspondence between the two men, who had hardly anything in common to begin with… Gide devoured Simenon, was excited about some titles, but didn't hold back either when it came to criticism.
In the meantime Simenon and his wife decided to move to the countryside, to a 16th-century manor house situated between Nieul and Marsilly, not far from La Rochelle. But Simenon quickly became bored with this peaceful retreat and decided to set off to discover Africa. Consequently, the writer and his wife set sail for Egypt, and then visited Khartoum, crossing Africa from east to west to arrive at the mouth of the Congo river. The discovery of the African continent culminated in a classic return onboard a ship from the west, a voyage which inspired numerous "exotic" novels and a series of articles. Simenon, who had banished a number of received ideas and clichés from his mind, was now the champion of anti-colonialism.
The German attack of 1940 was too fierce for him to be able to respond to the call to mobilisation from the Belgian army. At the Belgian Embassy in Paris, where he presented himself, he was tasked with returning to his adoptive region to welcome his countrymen who were fleeing the German army: he was appointed High Commissioner for Belgian refugees at La Rochelle. He fulfilled his mission effectively and with dedication. The atmosphere of this period can be felt in the novel "Le clan des Ostendais".
In 1945, he emigrated to the United States. The American years were characterised by a certain happiness for the novelist. After having divorced his first wife, he married Denyse Ouinet, an attractive 25-year-old French Canadian who was his secretary and mistress from the very first evening they met. During his stay in America, his literary activity was significant: he produced major novels, some of which had been inspired locally. He didn't shy away from bread-and-butter literature either, relaunching the adventures of the famous commissioner he had retired prematurely with "Maigret se fâche" and "Maigret à New York"!
In 1952, Georges Simenon decided to make a trip to Europe: this was to be a triumphal tour at Paris where he was received everywhere and in particular at the headquarters of the Judicial Police, 36 quai des Orfèvres, where Commissioner Maigret had his office. In May 1952, Georges Simenon returned to his home town of Liege. He wanted to arrive a day in advance to see his mother alone. The next day, the novelist visited his old neighbourhood of Outremeuse, escorted by a throng of journalists. Brussels was the third important stop on this tour. His countrymen offered to make him a member of the Royal Belgian French Language and Literature Academy. Simenon accepted this honour.
In the spring of 1955, Simenon returned to Europe. At the end of spring 1957, having spent two years in France, the novelist looked for a new refuge. Scouring the canton of Vaud, he discovered the château of Echandens twenty kilometres from Lausanne, and settled in Switzerland for good. In 1960, he felt the urge to revive the autobiography genre: "Quand j’étais vieux". On the cinema side, there were numerous adaptations during this period: Claude Autant-Lara directed "En cas de malheur" with the unusual couple of Gabin-Bardot, while Jean Delannoy directed "L’Affaire Saint-Fiacre" with the same Jean Gabin, who remained a very believable Maigret. Also in 1960, Simenon was even entrusted with the presidency of the Cannes Film Festival. In 1963, he moved to Épalinges, north of Lausanne, where had a huge house built.
1971 saw the release of "La Veuve Couderc", adapted for the cinema by Pierre Granier-Deferre from Georges Simenon's novel by the same name, with Simone Signoret and Alain Delon playing the lead roles. Still in ‘71, by the same director, but this time with Simone Signoret and Jean Gabin, "Le Chat" was released, a masterpiece which would bring the public to the cinema in droves.
In 1972 and at the age of 69, Simenon gave up writing novels, but was far from done with writing and exploring human meanderings, starting with his own. He produced a long autobiography which stretched to 21 volumes, dictating everything on a small tape recorder: "Ideas? I never had any. I was interested in people, in the man in the street especially, I tried to understand him in a fraternal way… What have I constructed? Essentially, that doesn't concern me".
In 1974, he left Epalinges to live modestly in the pink house, Avenue des Figuiers at Lausanne, moving closer to the "naked man" that he had always tried to understand.
The suicide of his daughter Marie-Jo, who shot herself in the chest at the age of 25 in 1978, darkened his final years. Georges Simenon died in Lausanne in 1989.