Of course one would expect to find a world-renowned writer in a country where language is taken so seriously it forms the basis of political parties.
Certainly one would also expect the descendant of the two most contentious ethnic groups in Belgium – the Latin-oriented Walloons and the Germanic-oriented Flemings – to have had a tumultuous personal life.
These considerations go far in explaining the remarkable man who was Georges Simenon, but like the opening of one of his most famous Inspector Maigret stories, Lock 14 from 1931 (also known as Maigret Meets a Milord and Le Charretier de “La Providence”), the simplicity of the basic facts conceals a much more turbulent and complex hidden world.
The basic facts
Georges Simenon was born on February 13, 1903, to Désiré Simenon, a man of Walloon heritage, and his wife Henriette, a Fleming, in the working class district of Outremeuse in Liège, Belgium. The family moved several times, but usually stayed in the Outremeuse district.
Georges learned to read at the age of 3, and from age 5 to 11, he was educated at the Institut Saint-André. Then, in September 1914, shortly after the start of World War I, he entered the Collège Saint-Louis, a Jesuit high school, but dropped out in 1918 before completing the final exams.
After trying multiple jobs, Simenon found work the next year at the Gazette de Liège covering human interest stories.
He thrived, writing 150 articles for the Gazette as well as a novel which was published in 1919. This job also gave him a view the seamier side of urban life. As well, he attended criminology lectures.
Simenon met his first wife during this time while socializing with a group of artists. When his father died in 1922, they moved to Paris, where his writing eventually started to become lucrative. In 1930, Simenon’s most famous character, Inspector Maigret, first appeared in Detective, but Simenon was also doing other writing assignments. He traveled to several countries in 1932, and around the world in 1934 and 1935.
Simenon spent World War II in the Vendée in the Loire country of west central France, writing non-Maigret novels, which he sometimes called “hard novels.”
Simenon’s “hard novels” have been described as “… blunt, frequently punishing studies of human beings driven by circumstance and personality to the end of their tethers, forcing them to extreme measures.”
After the war, in 1945, Simenon and his family traveled to North America, living in both Canada and the United States for ten years. While Simenon never lived in Belgium after 1922, he did remain a Belgian citizen and returned in 1952 to accept an invitation into the Académie Royale de Belgique.
In 1955, Simenon and his family moved back to Europe, first to France and then Switzerland where he remained for the rest of his life. Georges Simenon died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in September 1989.
Hidden life still a mystery
“Everything is true while nothing is accurate,” Simenon once said one of his autobiographies.
Others have tried to dig deeper, but one could spend a lifetime trying to understand the life of Georges Simenon.
Perhaps the best known Simenon biography is Simenon, by Pierre Assouline.
It’s all a little unsatisfactory. There seem to be as many different Simenons as there are biographies of him.
I would like to know more about the Fleming and Walloon background of his childhood, and how the clashes may have disturbed his life while the contrasts may have sparked his creativity.
There was always a tremendous clash going on around him, through the midst of which – seemingly unscathed – he made his way, observed the world and wrote about it.
This was not just on the family level.
Britain entered World War I for the sake of Belgium. Despite the tumult, this young Belgian carried out his ordinary daily life, going to school and then entering the work force.
A few decades later, he sat out another world war in an occupied country, writing.
Perhaps one line in Lock 14 might sum up Georges Simenon’s view of his place in the world.
During the hour that he had been there, the chief inspector had thought of nothing but of how to familiarize himself with a world that he had suddenly discovered and about which, on his arrival, he had only vague, mistaken ideas.
He was, perhaps, trying to clarify his ideas, trying to get at the truth of life, and would not be put off this quest by life’s superficial yet overwhelming and often contradictory facts.
Our curiosity about Georges Simenon may be unsatisfied, but we owe him a debt of gratitude for many hours spent in pleasant reading. Whatever the actual facts of his life, he familiarized himself very well with our world’s beauty, blemishes and mystery and then gave it all back to us as seen through the eyes one of the most popular fictional detectives ever – Inspector Maigret.
Note: A version of this article appeared on Helium in January 2012.
Categories: Thursday Lit