Simenon was not a man to do things by halves. He moved house 33 times, wrote 193 novels under his own name and more than two hundred under 18 pseudonyms, produced 27 volumes of autobiography and at 74 claimed to have slept with ten thousand women, eight thousand of whom were prostitutes (his second wife later smallmindedly reduced the total to 1200). The man who was to be described by Gide as ‘the greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature’ was born in Liège, in Belgium, in 1903. His father, Désiré, a tall, quiet man with a weak heart, was a clerk in an insurance agency; his mother. Henriette, a small woman with a big head, had known abject poverty as a child. As a result, her life was a constant search for security, and this was to be, in Marnham’s view, a dominating factor in the formation of her son’s personality. A younger brother, Christian, was born in 1906. After a chequered career he was killed in Vietnam in 1947 while serving with the French Foreign Legion.
The German occupation of Liège during the First World War turned Simenon from a model pupil with an outstanding school record, a choirboy who had thoughts of entering the priesthood, into the kind of petit voyou and petty criminal whom Maigret would later encounter. He had his first sexual experience before he was 14, started drinking, often returning home drunk, avoided expulsion from school by leaving at 15, and after working briefly in a pâtisserie and a bookshop, was taken on by the Gazette de Liège just before his 16th birthday. Soon, signing himself Georges Sim, he was reporting crime and contributing a daily column. By 1920 he was writing humorous short stories for the paper; a novel in the same vein, Au Pont des Arches, was brought out on subscription, but two others – one an imitation of Rabelais, the other a parody of Sherlock Holmes – remained unpublished. The turn towards literature was fostered by his attachment to a circle of young would-be artists and writers, ‘a little group of geniuses, thrown together by chance’. Calling themselves La Caque (the Herring-Barrel), they met in a candlelit loft, decorated with their paintings, where they read each other their works, discussed ‘the essential questions, God, philosophy, art ... life and death and Michelangelo, heaven and hell’, indulged in a mild Satanism, drank, fornicated and took drugs. In 1922 one of the group, a young painter called Kleine, was discovered hanging by his scarf on the door of the local church, having apparently committed suicide. Simenon returned to the episode several times in his fiction, most fully in an early Maigret novel, Le pendu de St Pholien (1931).
The death of Kleine brought about the dissolution of La Caque; meanwhile Simenon, at the end of 1920, had met and fallen in love with Régine Renchon – whom he immediately renamed Tigy – an artist three years older than himself. His father died the following November: ‘scarcely a day has gone by, since my father’s death, when I have not thought of him,’ he wrote at the end of his life. After a year’s military service, during which he continued to write for the Gazette de Liège, he took the train for Paris in December 1922, returning to Liège for two days in March to marry Tigy and take her back to Paris.
He worked for a short time as office boy for an extreme right-wing organisation; for 18 months as private secretary to the Marquis de Tracy. At the same time he was writing short stories – up to seven a day – for newspapers and magazines; in 1924 Colette, then the literary editor of Le Matin, took him on as a regular contributor; in the same year he published his first pulp novel, most of which was written in the course of a morning while sitting on a café terrace. This genre proved more profitable, and over the next few years his output increased almost exponentially: he published three in 1924, 14 in 1925, 16 in 1926, 11 in 1927 and 41 in 1928. The anomaly of the 1927 figure is explained by the fact that the year was the climax of an ever more frenzied social life, with nightly ‘semi-orgies’ in the couple’s apartment; at the same time Simenon was engaged in an equally frenzied affair with Josephine Baker, possessor, he wrote, of ‘the only bottom that laughs’. Extricating himself from this, he bought a boat and along with Tigy and her maid Boule, spent six months on rivers and canals throughout France.
On his return to Paris he began, unknown to Tigy, an affair with Boule which was to last longer than any other in his life. A new, larger boat, the Ostrogoth, was commissioned from a builder in Fécamp; on it the trio spent the next three years and on it, while moored in Delfzijl, in Holland, in the winter of 1929 Simenon wrote the first Maigret novel, Pietr-le-Letton. So he claims in his autobiography; Marnham, however, argues convincingly that the book was actually written a year later, during a holiday in Scandinavia. Published in 1931, Pietr-le-Letton was the first of a batch of 19 Maigret stories in the last of which, Maigret (1934), the commissaire is already in retirement at Meung-sur-Loire. Their immediate success enabled Simenon not only to taper off the production of pulp novels – the last appeared in 1933 – but also to embark on a career as a serious novelist with what he called romans littéraires or romans durs. Le relais d’Alsace appeared in 1931 and by the end of the war had been followed by 53 others.
Ostrogoth was sold in 1931 and they took a house near La Rochelle, then moving to near Orléans, to Neuilly and back to La Rochelle. There was a trip to Africa in 1932, to Eastern Europe in 1933, and a world tour in 1935. Tigy gave birth to a son, Marc, in 1939. On the outbreak of war Simenon went to Paris, expecting to be called up, but was appointed Commissioner for Belgian refugees – the La Rochelle area had been designated as their reception centre – and for the five months until the Armistice saw to the welfare of some fifty-five thousand people. During the war the family moved to the country. He continued to write, returning to Maigret (whom he never abandoned again) in 1942. Just before the liberation an event occurred which, Marnham writes, had ‘more important consequences for Simenon’s life than the Second World War’: Tigy discovered him in bed with Boule. At first she wanted him to choose between them, but after being told of hundreds of other infidelities, agreed they should keep the marriage going for the sake of Marc, but give each other their freedom.
After the war Simenon lay low for a time; then, apparently worried that he might be accused of collaboration if the Communists gained power, decided to leave France for America. Tigy refused to allow Boule to come with them; Simenon had to acquiesce. They flew to London and then sailed for New York on a Swedish cargo vessel. A month after their arrival Simenon had begun an affair with Denyse (later Denise) Ouimet, a 25-year-old French Canadian ‘with a vaginal voice’, whom he installed as his secretary in the house he had rented near Montreal. He fell passionately in love with her; she was for him the only woman with whom ‘sex and love were merged.’ This time it took Tigy only a few weeks, rather than 13 years, to catch on, but again she put up with a ménage à trois. They moved to Florida, then to Arizona, where Boule – with Tigy’s permission – joined them, turning trois into quatre. Simenon revelled in a new freedom: there was no need to conceal infidelity from Denise, who seems rather to have encouraged him. They visited brothels together. She stayed downstairs, chatting to the girls; if the conversation was interesting, she would suggest, when he reappeared, that he should have another. In September 1949 she gave birth to her first child, Johnny. Simenon used the event as an excuse. He and Denise flew to Reno. Here he divorced Tigy and the following day married Denise.
They bought a large house, called Shadow Rock Farm, in Lakeville, Connecticut. Tigy, Marc and Boule settled into another five miles away, though Boule later moved over to the other family. Simenon spent five years in Connecticut: possibly the happiest period of his life and certainly a very productive one (14 novels, 13 Maigrets). In 1952 they visited Europe and Simenon saw his mother for the first time in 14 years. A daughter, Marie-Jo, was born in 1953, and in 1955, to please Denise, he moved back to Europe. They lived in Cannes for some time, then moved to the Château d’Echandens, outside Lausanne. Denise had a new maid, Teresa Sburelin from Venice, who was soon inducted into the role Boule had played for so long, and from which she was finally dismissed in 1964. A third child, Pierre, was born in 1959, but the relationship with Denise was going badly, marked by episodes of joint drunkenness and mutual violence. Simenon’s love was turning to hatred. On the advice of a psychiatrist, Denise moved out to a nearby clinic. A new house, Epalinges, with 22 principal rooms, a servants’ wing and a laundry room with six washing-machines in continuous operation, was built on the heights above Lausanne. They moved into it at the end of 1963, but Denise lasted only four months before returning to the clinic.
His mother died in 1970, and a year later Simenon stopped writing novels. He sold Epalinges and moved, accompanied by Teresa, first to a flat in Lausanne and then to a small house in the city. In 1978 Marie-Jo, who had had perhaps too close a relationship with her father, and who, of the children, had suffered most from the enmity between her parents (both of whom had published accounts of the break-up), committed suicide in Paris. ‘One never recovers from the loss of a daughter one has cherished. It leaves a void that nothing can fill,’ Simenon wrote. The pain must have been sharpened by the knowledge of his own guilt in her death. Her ashes were scattered in the garden of his house in Lausanne, where he himself died in September 1989.
In the introduction to this admirable life Patrick Marnham points out that one of the difficulties confronting Simenon’s biographer is that, though there is a mass of autobiographical material, the accounts are often contradictory and self-confessedly unreliable. On the other hand, the key to Simenon’s life, he contends, lies in the pattern formed by these contradictions and distortions of reality. In the main Marnham’s analysis is subtle, perceptive and convincing, though, occasionally, when other evidence is absent, he takes Simenon’s account at face value, when a raised eyebrow might seem more appropriate. Did the young Simenon pay for sex with a black woman in a brothel in Liège with a watch his father had given him, an act for which he never forgave himself? Was he really in bed with a distant cousin at the moment his father died? Did he really come across a black railway-worker in the Congo who was so seriously injured that his friends were going to finish him off and eat him?
Marnham is very skilful in bringing the evidence of the work to bear on the life, pointing out how rapidly and indeed how closely the novels reflect the problems – sexual and emotional – of Simenon’s life. Yet here he takes his material almost exclusively from the serious novels; Maigret is relegated to a separate section (which, surprisingly, contains a number of minor errors). This is at least in keeping with his title, though the view it expresses is never argued at length. It is true that Maigret, as the image of marital fidelity, is at the opposite pole from Simenon in one respect; on the other hand, there is Maigret’s own remark to Simenon, in Les mémoires de Maigret (1951): ‘Do you know that with the years you have come to walk, to smoke your pipe, even to speak like your Maigret?’ And something might have been said of La danseuse du Gai Moulin (1931), set in Liège, but not mentioned by Marnham, in which Maigret, who only appears half-way through the book, clears a 16-year-old petty criminal whose father has a weak heart from the suspicion of murder.
Any biography of Simenon must grapple with the problem of finding an explanation for his obsessive need to write and his equally obsessive need for sex (Simenon, of course, believed himself to be normal in both respects). Marnham sees them as allotropes: ‘He made love for the same reason as he wrote: because he had an unsatisfied hunger for human contact.’ ‘A novelist,’ Simenon wrote of Balzac, ‘is a man who does not like his own mother, or who never received mother-love.’ He was also writing of himself: his mother’s rejection of his love, the low opinion she had of him created a feeling of worthlessness, a desperate need for reassurance and love, which drove him to frenzied activity and dictated the pattern of his life. Marnham’s interpretation is supported by the way in which the compulsion to write ceased with the death of his mother. Sitting down to begin a new book at the start of the following year, he discovered he had nothing to say: ‘I exulted, I was free at last,’ he wrote.