SIMENON

A BIOGRAPHY

BY PIERRE ASSOULINE

TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH

BY JON ROTHSCHILD

ALFRED A. KNOPF. 447 PP. $32.50

At the height of his career, Georges Simenon was said to be the most widely read author alive.

He certainly gave the world plenty to read. By 1972, when he stopped writing fiction, he had published 193 novels under his own name and about 200 others under pseudonyms. By the time he died in 1989 at age 86, an estimated 500 million copies of his books had been sold worldwide.

He is, of course, best known — at least in the English-speaking world — as the creator of Inspector Maigret. And it is probably going to take a Maigret among literary biographers to take the full measure of the man, something Pierre Assouline has not managed to do in Simenon: A Biography.

Though not for lack of trying. Assouline displays something of Maigret's industry and patience, but lacks the inspector's sympathy and imagination. Still, his investigation is thorough. He finds lots of clues and often makes illuminating connections (noting, for instance, that Simenon published his first novel shortly before the death of the father he adored and his last just after the death of the mother who never cared for him). But he never follows up on his leads and doesn't come close to solving the case.

To give him his due, by the time Assouline gets around to discussing Simenon's work habits and literary style — and in his account of Simenon's daughter's suicide — he provides compelling reading. But much of the rest of the time he seems unduly preoccupied with not being taken in by Simenon. As he says in his preface, Simenon ``always managed to remain the principal source of information about himself. '' But ``[Simenon's] self-intoxication grew to the point where . . . he became the worst possible source of information about Georges Simenon, . . . author and readers alike . . . lost in a hybrid form of autobiographical fiction. '' So ``he must be constantly challenged'' and sometimes ``ruthlessly refuted.''

Assouline would have done better to take his cue from Simenon's own rather Maigret-like differentiation between accuracy and truth. As it is, his rather selective skepticism seems governed by conventional pieties.

So he buys into Simenon's claim that he gave up living in America because of McCarthyism (though Simenon's lifelong right-wing proclivities make the claim a little dubious) and that his reason for abandoning Catholicism was simply its restrictive views on sex, which seems a bit disingenuous, given that the Church has harbored its share of sexual athletes (recall Augustine's prayer: ``Lord, make me chaste — but not yet'').

But when it comes to anti-Semitism and Simenon's conduct during World War II, Assouline weighs his subject in the balance and finds him grievously wanting.

When he was starting out as a journalist in Liege, Belgium — where he was born in 1903 — Simenon (still a teenager) wrote a series of 17 articles on ``the Jewish peril.'' He later contended he was ordered to write the pieces, and that was probably true, but he carried out the task with uncommon gusto. Assouline goes on to cite several instances of unsympathetic portrayals of Jews in Simenon's fiction.

But Patrick Marnham, in The Man Who Wasn't Maigret, a very readable biography of the author published a year after Assouline's came out in France in 1992, takes a different — and somewhat more convincing — view of the matter, pointing out that at the time Simenon wrote the articles, he was ``politically inexperienced and intellectually naive . . . uncritical of the anti-Semitic views of his employers and capable of regurgitating pre-Nazi theories with spirit and conviction.'' Marnham also notes, in direct contrast to Assouline, that Simenon very soon ``showed abundant evidence . . . of a broad and quick sympathy for the plight of European Jews. . . . ''

As for Simenon's conduct during the German occupation of France, had Assouline taken another look at his earlier chapters he might have noticed that Simenon did only what he had observed his elders doing when he was a child during the German occupation of Belgium during World War I, namely, making the best of a bad situation.

Simenon made out very well indeed during the occupation, but when it came to his career, he was almost invariably successful. His productivity was preternatural. Restricting himself to a vocabulary of about 2,000 words, he wrote each of his novels — all of them short, able to be read in very few sittings — in about 10 days and averaged about four or five  a year. He was a master of publicity, launching the Maigret series with what he called an Anthropometric Ball (after the room in which criminal suspects were stripped, photographed and measured), which was the social event of its season. He was also a shrewd and tenacious businessman who used — and needed — no agent.

His personal life was less dazzling. His first marriage became a purely formal affair after his wife found him with the cook (who may really have been the love of his life), and his second turned into an unmitigated disaster. His voracious sexual appetite was no help. He claimed to have had sex with 10,000 women — a good example of how egregious inaccuracy can still convey the fundamental truth of a matter.

His three sons all attest that he was a devoted father (sending one of them 133 letters during a three-week separation). He was perhaps too devoted to his only daughter, Marie-Jo. She was certainly too devoted to him (she had a ring he bought her when she was 11 — it was actually a wedding band — repeatedly enlarged so she could wear it always).

When she was 25, she phoned him and said, ``Listen, Dad. Tell me you love me.''

``I love my little girl,'' he replied.

``No. Just say, I love you.''

``Yes, Marie-Jo, I love you.''

``No. Just those three words.''

``I love you. ''

She hung up, and the next day his oldest son, Marc, called to tell him Marie-Jo had shot herself through the heart.

The old man — Simenon was 77 — was devastated, but the event drew from him his last and least characteristic book — Memoires intimes, an immense, staggeringly frank account of his life addressed to ``my darling little girl'' that included some of Marie-Jo's own writings (so her wish to be published with her father would be fulfilled). Simenon put his house up as security to ensure the book was published exactly as he intended and to secure the publisher against any loss (not that it made any difference — it was a best-seller).

After his daughter's death, the man who had lived in high style for so long — in French chateaux, a mansion in Connecticut, an estate in Switzerland, withdrew to an apartment and sat in the same room day after day, even his books housed elsewhere. In September 1989, he fell from his bed in the middle of the night (he had been a lifelong sleepwalker). Helped backed into bed by Teresa Sburelin, his final female companion, he remarked, ``I think at last I will be able to sleep. '' And indeed, he never woke up.

Frank Wilson is an Inquirer copy editor.