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Private I : THE MAN WHO WASN'T MAIGRET: A Portrait of Georges Simenon, By Patrick Marnham (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25; 322 pp.)

April 25, 1993|John Banville | Banville is literary editor of the Irish Times . His latest novel, "Ghosts," will be published by Knopf later this year

When I think of Georges Simenon, I see a man in a mask sitting in a bare room, writing; it might be an image out of a painting by Simenon's fellow-countryman, the surrealist Rene Magritte. There is something uncanny about the creator of the great detective Maigret, something sinister and faintly alarming. He seems not quite human, or perhaps more than human, this man who before his death in 1989 had written nearly 400 novels, who had sales of 500 million copies in 55 languages, who after he had given up writing fiction dictated 21 volumes of memoirs, and who claimed to have made love to 10,000 women. Not your average wordsmith, certainly.

Simenon was born in 1903 in Liege, inheriting from his Flemish-Walloon-Dutch-German forebears what Vladimir Nabokov would have called a salad of genes. His adored father, Desire, one of the chief models for the character of Inspector Maigret--was an insurance clerk, a slow, tranquil, infinitely accommodating man who shielded his feral son from the threats, and sometimes the fists, of the boy's self-loathing mother. The Simenon family was large and loud--25 people sat down to Sunday lunch--and young Georges from an early age had ample opportunity to study the passions that lie just beneath the surface of domestic life.

In the opening pages of this admirable biography, Patrick Marnham paints a lively picture of the Liege of Simenon's childhood, a provincial city that had changed little since the Middle Ages. The life of the streets was colorful, noisy and harsh. Marnham speaks of the newspaper-seller, whose cart was drawn by a dog, and of the vendors of mousetraps and shoelaces and holy statues. "But perhaps the most specialized trader of all was the collector of urine. He had a barrel on his cart into which he emptied jugs of urine . . . which had been allowed to stand for a few days. He sold it on to dyers, and the barrel was regularly scraped for phosphorus, which was sold to match makers."

The Simenons were Catholic, and Georges was brought up to be devout, even serving for a while as an altar boy. He was a prize pupil at school, and at an early age had decided he wanted to be a priest. All that was to change, however, with the coming of the Great War. Early in the hostilities, Liege was occupied by the Germans, and overnight the world that the boy had known was turned upside-down. "Occupation," says Marnham, "was a slow process of corruption, of abandoned standards and compromises, and this did not escape the attention of an intelligent boy."

From his first-hand experiences of the war, Simenon learned that "there was no such thing in life as strict rules which applied in all circumstances," a dictum which informs all his fiction. Inspector Maigret, for instance, tracked down criminals less through procedure than through intuition and an objectivity that let him look upon even the most brutal criminals without pity or hatred. Simenon's own motto in life, and in art, was "to understand and not to judge," and this is the basis on which his greatest creation--the massive, pipe-smoking, infinitely patient Inspector Maigret--works. What interests Maigret is not the forensic procedures of the law but the nature of human nature itself, the ways in which the human mind and heart operate. He does not carry a gun, does not engage in manhunts (except at his own leisurely pace), is happily married, likes his good ragout and his glass of wine, and is utterly fair to the guilty as well as the innocent.

Maigret is unlike his creator in many respects. Simenon, if we are to believe his biographer, was an incurable obsessive: truculent, high-strung, promiscuous, often small-minded and unforgiving. What they have in common, however, is a fascination with the Other, the lonely, lost individual plotting dark deeds behind the fusty curtains of his cheap hotel room. Simenon realized that he himself might have been just such a loner had he not found his calling as an artist.

Once young George sensed that the rules of the big world had given way, he quickly understood that the rules in his own, small world might also be dispensed with. By the age of 12 he had lost his virginity and his religion. In 1918, when Georges was 15, his father suffered a crippling heart-attack, and the boy was forced to leave school and take up work as a pastry cook, a job he detested. Then one day in 1919, passing by the offices of the Gazette de Liege, he went inside and asked for a job. Simenon, who had a cavalier way with the facts of his life, gave differing versions of this piece of impudence, but whatever the true circumstances, he did get a job, and found himself, not yet 16, reporting murder cases from the local courts, dressed for the part in a snap-brim hat and a mackintosh, and drinking and whoring with the most hardened of his colleagues.

He also began to write short stories, at an astonishing pace, under the pseudonym "Georges Sim," the name he was to publish under for many years to come.

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