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October 18, 2017

Simenon and Inspector Maigret

On this day in 1989 Georges Simenon died at the age of eighty-six. Most accounts of Simenon's writing life begin with the numbers: some 500 books published, seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories in the world-famous Inspector Maigret series, a daily output sometimes as high as eighty pages, total sales sometimes figured as high as 1.5 billion. Not to mention the dozens of movies, and the handful of television/radio series -- or one legendary Alfred Hitchcock story that has him calling Simenon, being told that the author can't come to the phone because he has just started another novel, and Hitchcock saying that he will hold.

The same approach is also often taken to Simenon's personal life -- more or less with his encouragement, as the numbers were often offered in interviews. He moved in and out of thirty-three homes, such was his restlessness. He estimated that he had had intercourse with 10,000 women, most of them prostitutes -- his last wife reducing this estimate to 1,200, though concurring that he might have sex five times a day, with different partners. (His previous wife expressed the same toleration, differently: "Look, I'm a good cook. But I couldn't know all the cuisines in the world. Would I be jealous of anybody going to a Chinese restaurant?") At the age of twenty-four, already with 1000 short stories and 60 books published (many of them "novels for secretaries," written under a pseudonym), he made a 300,000 franc-deal with a new Paris newspaper to write a novel in one week while sitting in a glass cage in the Moulin-Rouge, the public not only able to watch day and night but to choose from the titles and characters which Simenon offered them. The newspaper went bankrupt before the stunt could materialize, though Simenon tried to shop the idea around: "I am chided for my taste for publicity, as though God Himself had no need of his church bells!"

The circus aspect of Simenon's life would continue, often giving a freakish twist to fame, literary respect and personal tragedy. His estranged and unstable second wife published a payback portrait of Simenon which she entitled The Golden Phallus; this appears to have triggered the suicide of their twenty-eight-year-old daughter, Mary-Jo, though there were abundant root causes. Mary-Jo bought the weapon she used in a gun-shop which she had read about in her father's last Maigret story. Her apartment was sealed for five years, the blood-soaked sheets still on the bed, while the family wrangled over who should inherit it, and while Simenon wrote his Intimate Memoirs, a 750-page glass cage which begins with the event, set-up as a murder mystery. Among the personal revelations and confessions, Simenon argues that Mary-Jo was sexually abused by her mother; this in turn triggered legal proceedings which resulted in Simenon's publisher having to paste opaque stickers on several passages in the book, though 100,000 unpasted copies had already been sold.

Some pick Simenon's "hard novels" as his best work; others pick one of the detective series as his best -- often My Friend Maigret -- preferring the foursquare and unflamboyant Inspector, driven "to understand but not judge" the world of driven, overboard souls which he pursues.

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