Simenon by Pierre Assouline

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I always imagined Pierre Assouline to be a Simenon parasite. This is because I had bought his biography of Simenon two years before he published the Auto-dictionnaire of Simenon, and I wondered how much more would he milk out of Simenon’s reputation.  

In all honesty though, both books are quite nice to have for Simenon fan(atics)

“Simenon” is the first biography I read (I think… at least not counting the political figures’ biographies). I normally don’t like to know the hidden details of the lives of authors – or people in general – whom I admire; but I rationalized that I have read too many Simenon books that I could take the blow, if there would be one. And boy are there plenty in this book! 

Assouline managed to write 940 pages on Simenon and he still has tons of unpublished material; this is hardly surprising, as Simenon was such a prolific writer. Around 400 published books of hard novels, Maigret stories, crime stories without Maigret, some fluffy romance novels, screenplays, and memoirs… Surprisingly, the material for those romance novels and for the crime stories (the bulk of his work) come from Simenon’s youth: he had little exposure to the world of police and courts after his journalist years. 

Assouline divides the book into titled chapters including the timeframe the chapter deals with. I think Assouline did a very good job reflecting the gradual transition Simenon undertook from a simple reporter to an author hugely admired by Gide and supported by the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Then again, Simenon himself aids Assouline in this clear-cut division of his working years; it seemed that Simenon knew exactly where he wanted to be at particular points in time. 

He knew how much time span to give writing popular novels, before moving to Maigret, building his reputation there, before again taking the risk to write serious literature. Assouline presents to us a writer who was in control of the the minutest details that affect his work: for instance, he had a daily writing routine that he changed little wherever he would find himself around the world: waking up at 6 am, soundproof bureau, his pipes charged and ready before him, yellow envelopes, white paper, the yellow pages, dictionaries, coffee (and Coca Cola when he was writing in America).

He exercised a lot of control over his author’s rights, and he was one of the few who were able to command such high royalties and advances over his books. Assouline goes into the intricate details of Simenon’s accounting books, unearths correspondence between Simenon and his publishers to demonstrate what a tough businessman he was; a reputation that became solidly established in the world of publishing at that time. Even when he was young in the business, he would be furious at the manipulation done to his books when they were transported into movies (though having his books made into movies at that time was a feat by itself) and he learned, early on, to be quite cautious with production houses, screenwriters and directors. Similarly, once he familiarized himself with the English language, living in America, he rechecked the English translations of his books, and it did not take him more than a year before he broke off his contract with his English translator, the respected Geoffrey Sainsbury.

Though Simenon had such a rigorous system when he was writing, yet he managed to get in touch with the local culture, wherever he found himself, but only as an observant. Assouline tells of an incident where Simenon sensed the suspicious looks of two gentlemen at a cafe in Lakesville, Arizon who suspected “The Frenchman”, as they used to call him there, fishing around for stories. Nevertheless, his environment never influenced his writing style, and it would be quite the challenge to point out which novels were written in Paris, which ones in America, and which ones in Switzerland, later.

What I particularly loved about the book are the thorough investigations Assouline undertakes when digging out little details. He does an excellent job, since early on in the book, in setting apart the memorialist from the writer. Frequently, he will point out to some incident that Simenon writes about in his “Mémoires Intimes” or in his previous memoirs, and will detail the differences between the two, supporting his claim by other evidences. Early on, we are told that Simenon is not be trusted when he remembers the past events of his life. 

Assouline reveals, albeit towards the end of the book, what could be (because we are never sure) the true source for the name Maigret, he also reveals personal, family details about the Simenons, about Marie-Jo, about Denyse, Simenon’s second wife. He shocked me with how little Simenon read and how little interested he was in the literary world. By itself, this is not a bad thing, but Simenon in this biography is quite the self-centered type. For example, it wasn’t until later that we realize, from his own letters, how little he paid attention to Gide and how ignorant he was of his novels, even though Gide was quite helpful in pushing him upon Gallimard, in proofreading his stories, in helping him draw his characters… Though I write this months after reading this book, I still remember how horrified I was when I read Simenon’s notes about Gide – sometimes, his egocentricity bordering on ungratefulness and hypocrisy. 

Having said that, Simenon himself suffered from his Maigret-writer reputation, his voluminous production – though with all the care and business strategies in the world – could never shift the light from Maigret to his hard-novels. He was never the recipient of the Goncourt prize, never made it to the Académie; his “presidency” of the Festival de Cannes was a big flop. 

At the end of the book, it seemed to me that he was quite a mechanical writer, quite modern in his production: he was able to structure his novel in such a way to attract the regulars yet with slight variations to keep readers asking for more, but rarely, if ever, showed much originality. This is clearly reflected in the sales figures of his books, his Maigret books outselling his romans-furs 3 to 1, but both maintaining more or less the same publication figures: the Maigrets at around 60,000 copies (in France) and the romans-durs at around 20,000 copies.

In conclusion, I found the book quite entertaining, very enriching, as objective as a biography could be, and quite honestly a must-read for Simenon fans.