France mourned one of its most popular and prolific writers Wednesday as the body of Georges Simenon, author of more than 500 books, including the immensely successful Inspector Maigret detective series, was cremated in a family ceremony near his home in Lausanne, Switzerland. Simenon died in his sleep Monday night after a long illness. He was 86.
The French government television network, Antenne 2, suspended regular programing Wednesday night for special broadcasts on the life and work of the Belgian-born author. Homage to Simenon, whom the French Nobel laureate Andre Gide honored in 1939 as “perhaps the greatest and most genuine novelist of today’s French literature,” poured in from every corner of the French-speaking world.
Actor Jean Richard, one of 22 performers who played Inspector Jules Maigret in movies and on television, described Simenon as “a giant who has disappeared.” In all, 52 films and 211 television episodes were made from Simenon’s books.
Even detectives at Paris police headquarters, the Palais de Justice at 36 Quai des Orfevres, the setting for most of the Maigret books, said they had been inspired by Simenon’s work.
“For us here at ’36,’ ” Police Director Jean-Pierre Sanguy said, “Simenon was a lesson of classic discipline in his investigations and humanity in his contacts.”
In Maigret, the pipe-smoking intellectual police commissioner with great, almost omniscient, objectivity that allowed him to see even the most brutal criminals “without pity or hatred,” Simenon created an idealized Frenchman.
In fact, Simenon’s many biographers contend that the author himself began to adopt Maigret’s traits as the character evolved, beginning with “The Strange Case of Peter the Lett” in 1931, through more than 80 books.
One writer commented Wednesday in the newspaper Le Monde, “Simenon gave birth to Maigret and then adopted his tastes, his tics, his methods to the point that one could ask who is the father of the other.”
Canadian Denise Quimet Simenon, the author’s second wife, from whom he separated in 1969, said in an unflattering biography that he even demanded that she imitate the fictional detective’s wife, including gaining weight.
Inspector and Madame Maigret were what many consider an ideal petit-bourgeois couple. He was absolutely respectful and faithful to his wife. She brought his slippers, filled his pipe and always had a hot meal waiting when he arrived home late from work.
In truth, Simenon was much more complicated than his character. He said in his characteristically copious memoirs that he had made love to 10,000 women, ostensibly to study female traits for his novels. He described his stormy second marriage as an “infernal symphony.”
Daughter Committed Suicide
The most telling blow in his life came when his beloved 25-year-old daughter, Marie-Jo, committed suicide in 1978, shortly after he began a relationship with his second wife’s chambermaid, a lasting arrangement in which he claimed to find “complete harmony.” In his will, Simenon stipulated that his ashes be spread on the same spot as his daughter’s under a 250-year-old cedar tree outside his home.
Born in Liege, Belgium, on Feb. 13, 1903, Simenon quit school at 16 and worked as an apprentice baker before launching his writing career as a journalist.
He moved to Paris in 1922 and began producing books under 17 different pseudonyms, including comical names such as Monsieur Le Coq, Bobette and La Deshabilleuse. An early financial success, he began to enjoy literary recognition in the 1920s when the writer Collette spotted his work and encouraged him.
He traveled extensively and lived in the United States and Canada before moving to Switzerland.
Simple, Direct Style
Simenon had a crisp, clear writing style, a strong sense of the mot juste that is admired in French writing and a genius for descriptive writing. His simple, direct style helped make him one of the most exported French writers in history.
His books have been translated into 55 languages. A United Nations survey in 1973 estimated that more than 500 million copies of Simenon’s books, including pirated editions, had sold worldwide. He was especially popular in the Soviet Union, where editions of his works sometimes sold 500,000 copies.
The volume of Simenon’s work, in fact, has always detracted from his reputation as a writer. He appeared to produce books without effort, bragging once to Gide that he could complete an entire novel in three days. During his peak years of production, in the 1960s, he wrote an average of six books a year.
Complete Works Planned
His Paris publisher recently decided to publish the complete works of Simenon, an effort that will require 32 volumes of 800 pages each before it is completed.
“Each time I have an idea for a book,” Simenon once joked, “I have to ask myself if I have already written it.”
Simenon’s productivity, which may have kept him from winning the Nobel Prize that some believed he deserved, was best illustrated in an anecdote attributed to Alfred Hitchcock.
Attempting to reach Simenon on the telephone, Hitchcock was intercepted by the writer’s secretary.
“Impossible to connect you,” she said, “he’s just started a book.”
“No problem,” Hitchcock is said to have replied. “I’ll wait on the line until he finishes.”