The mystery author so prodigious he had no idea how many books he’d written
Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle regularly come top of lists of mystery authors with the most titles sold. But in a contest to win Most Consistently Prolific Crime Writer of All Time, there’s one man who is in a class of his own: Georges Simenon. The Belgian writer’s seventy five novels and twenty eight short stories featuring Inspector Maigret (“a large, broad-shouldered man, gruff but patient and fair”), based on a legendary real-life police commissioner, have fallen in and out of his fashion since his death in 1989. But Simenon, who counted André Gide and Muriel Spark amongst his admirers, is soon likely to be back in vogue more permanently. He is one of a dozen classic writers whose estates have been acquired by London/New York book rights outfit International Literary Properties, with a view to developing the authors’ backlist for a 21st century film and television audience over the next few years. Simenon is masterful at treading the line between nostalgic sentimentality and authentic “Frenchness.” His work is full of glamorous, long-limbed mesdemoiselles who do “delicate embroidery for a shop in Faubourg Saint-Honore”, police inspectors who must take a break to have a smoke of their pipe at crucial points in the narrative and crime suspects who drift just out of sight near the Arc de Triomphe at a crucial moment. Sigh. He excels at suspenseful, atmospheric description and considered that the murderer’s identity was “the most boring part” of a story.
Although in most of his books there’s a sense of Simenon milking the nostalgia of his foreign audience who are in love with the exoticism or Frenchness of his writing (despite the fact that he is Belgian or at least often described as Belgian-French), there’s a wonderful and genuine playful quality to his work which has not only stood the test of time (his prolific output stopped in the 1970s) but is also international in outlook. He is hugely popular in the French-speaking world but also has a global following. In a recent interview with the London Review of Books, novelist and Maigret fan John Lanchester recalled Simenon’s own favourite boast: that he was so prodigious a writer that he had no idea how many books he had authored. That’s impressive.
Simenon was born in Liège, Belgium, in 1903. His father, who had the wonderful, forgotten name of Désiré, worked in an accounting office. His mother Henriette was of Dutch and German descent and had a distant ancestor, Gabriel Bruhl, who was a career criminal in the 18th century, according to Simenon. Bruhl was a pen name he was later to use. Even his birth had a poetic element: he was born on Friday the 13th but his mother insisted that this was not a good start in life and so registered his birth as Thursday the 12th.
At the age of fifteen, Simenon took a job as a reporter at the Gazette de Liège, giving him access to police investigations and the beat of a crime reporter, even though he wasn’t supposed to be working as one himself at the time. He also started to become familiar with the characters and settings that would feature frequently in his work: the moments of intersection between the underclasses and the rest of society; the nightlife of bars and the city streets.
He wrote his first novel when he was sixteen and soon became extraordinarily productive, writing hundreds of humorous articles and newspaper reports. Meanwhile his fiction-writing developed, the start of a career by the end of which he would have published over five hundred novels. Between 1924 and 1931 alone he wrote 200 novels. The New York Times once brilliantly described him as the literary equivalent of “the most-admired jazz saxophonist.” His record? He once wrote a book in eleven days. It’s hard to imagine how you would access all his work as a reader, let alone how he managed to actually write it all.
When his father died in 1922, he moved to Paris. He continued his excursions into the underbelly of city life, developing a reputation as someone who was not afraid to at least partly live the lives he described in his fiction. In the late 1970s he was to claim that in the sixty years since his thirteenth birthday he had slept with around 10,000 women. (Again, it’s difficult to imagine how he physically had time for all this, both the writing and the sex. But I suppose when a person is prolific, they are prolific in many aspects of life.) At one point he supposedly had a wife and two mistresses “and still went adventuring off with prostitutes and casual women he met in bars.”
Of course with a writer as active as this — and as outspoken — there is always controversy. It’s easy to love Maigret’s work but the man himself? That’s more complicated. As the British critic Mark Lawson, a Maigret fan and great expert on the art of crime writing, puts it: “The dividing line between sleazeball and creative artist is often hard to draw.” Similarly Simenon’s record during the war years is hotly debated with some considering that there is evidence that he was a collaborator and others insisting that there is evidence that he absolutely wasn’t. (He later said he worked “under the regime.”) Many critics have bemoaned the fact that his supposedly more serious, literary work is not better known because Maigret has become the star of the Simenon show. Novels like The Mahe Circle, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan and The Little Saint are seen as showing the real Simenon: obsessed with questions of philosophy and how to live a good life, keen to depict the struggle to balance the responsibilities of real life with dreams of freedom and often focused on the limitations of a bourgeois, family existence (which don’t seem to have limited him much in real life, to be fair, although maybe this reflection in his fiction is an indication that he had more of a conscience about his social life than he ever admitted in interviews).
Strangely — and again, great writers often exhibit great contradictions — he was known as a passionate family man, deeply in love with his children and with the traditions of family life, such as three proper meals at the table. I remember being puzzled to see that after his many decades of ridiculously prolific output that he suddenly seemed to grind to a halt. The last Maigret novel was published in 1972 and only one other novel came out in 1977. And yet he lived until 1989, dying in Lausanne, Switzerland, in his sleep. Then I found out that his daughter Marie-Jo committed suicide in 1978 at the age of 25, by shooting herself. The story goes that she acquired the name of a gunsmith in Paris from a Maigret story. Perhaps his output drew to a natural close. Or perhaps it was difficult to write after that. Perhaps both things.
His other legacy? Some great quotes which explain his life and work. “We are all potentially characters in a novel — with the difference that characters in a novel really get to live their lives to the full.” And: “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.” Clearly it’s easier to keep on writing (and keep on selling, years after your death) than it is to be content.
Viv Groskop is a London-based comedian and author of Au Revoir, Tristesse: Lessons in Happiness from French Literature (on sale now from Abrams Press), a biblio-memoir celebrating the works of twelve French writers, including Proust, Camus, Hugo, Sagan and Colette. Her book How to Own the Room, about women and public speaking, has been a bestseller in the UK and the chart-topping podcast of the same name features women like Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Hillary Clinton and Julie Andrews talking about presence and performance. Her other books include The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature (Abrams) and Lift As You Climb: Women and the Art of Ambition (Transworld).