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L'Écho de la Mode   (N° 39)
Sept. 25, 1960,
pp 8-9, 11

 

 

The Écho
visits Simenon

Jérôme Lefranc

original French

 

Photo Dalmas
Georges Simenon, born in Liège, February 12, 1903, is of Belgian nationality. You know his famous police novels, and the silhouette of his creation, Chief Inspector Maigret, is familiar to you. But he is also the author of numerous psychological novels, like The Trial of Bébé Donge, The Strangers in the House, A Chit of a Girl, and The Shadow Falls, where a passionate character study is mixed with the police intrigue.

SIMENON was waiting for me at the Lausanne station. I'd expected the massive silhouette of Chief Inspector Maigret... I find a Simenon fairly small, thin, his back slightly curved. He's wearing a yellow and white checked jacket, a hat whose brim is pulled down to his eyes, and a bow tie which is a bit for Simenon what the pipe is for Maigret.

Too many murders for the Petit Echo

Simenon leads me to his car and we leave for Echandens where his property is. He drives slowly, speaking non-stop, slowing down to light his pipe with one hand.

I'm flattered that a man as busy as he would take the trouble to come greet me at the station. It doesn't take me long to understand... L'Echo de la Mode is part of Simenon's memories!

"The Echo de la Mode, that was the Petit Echo de la Mode before the war, wasn't it? If I remember correctly, the offices were at the corner of a park... wait... Montsouris Park... Do you know that when I first came to Paris, I sent one of my first novels to the Petit Echo? They rejected it... too many murders!"

We arrive at the château at Echandens. We enter... a long pink hallway opens onto the rooms on the ground floor. Simenon pushes a door and we go into a room where the walls are entirely lined with books. They are all by Simenon. On a long table, are piled stacks of new works which have appeared this month. I see Maigrets translated into Russian, Japanese, Spanish. Every three days, a book by Simenon – original edition, translation or reprint – appears somewhere in the world!

"They say that my library only contains my own works, and the phone books in which I'm supposed to search for the names for my characters!"

He shrugs his shoulders, plants himself before me in a familiar attitude, his hands in his pants pockets. "This room is not my library. These are my archives... Follow me, we can talk better in my office..."

We go up to the second floor. Simenon stops, turns to me. "They also say that I have blue eyes. Look – they are brown. And that I married my secretary. Now when we were married, in Canada, my wife had never trained for the kind of work she now does. She came to it little by little... At this point, she's the one who takes care of all material questions, who signs the contracts, discusses things with my publishers. It's all done here, in Echandens. Fifty-six of my novels have been made into films. All these projects are overseen by my wife. She works at least 10 hours a day, not counting the time she devotes to taking care of the house.

The man with 58 pipes.

We cross a very large room overlooking the park. Armchairs, a sofa, some low tables, a grand piano. And a piece of furniture which would seem to belong in a church. "This was a 16th century organ, a discovery of my wife's. She had it made into a television cabinet... In the evening, with Johny, my second son, we sit on the couch and watch a show..."

I'm astonished to see the degree to which Simenon is attached to his family life. He speaks constantly of his wife, his children... Marc, his eldest, married and living in Paris, who is an assistant director; Johny, 10, Marie-Jo, 7, who isn't old enough to be allowed to watch television yet. In a moment, he will show me from the window his newest-born, Pierre, who is one, and is taking his first steps. It's a new Simenon that I discover.

Here we are now in his office. White walls, brown carpeting. On a large Spanish Renaissance table, which he brought back from Mexico, a cup containing at least 20 yellow pencils, sharpened like they were brand new, and an enormous ashtray. In a window alcove, a smaller table holds a typewriter. On the right, within arm's reach, an incredible number of pipes are lined up in pipe racks.

On the left, some shelves with six glass jars, like those you might see in a pharmacy, containing six different kinds of tobacco. During the day, Simenon smokes English tobacco. But in the evening, while he's watching television with Johny, he mixes up in a dish his personal cocktail, made, following his own inspiration, of blond and black tobacco...

"Come this way," says Simenon, opening the door to a long, narrow room, a section of whose wall is covered with books... "You see, I don't only have my own books. Here are my readings..."

I see books on medicine, tracts on criminology, works on psychoanalysis, psychology, technical police journals...

I begin to understand that if Simenon, thanks to his exceptional gifts, takes but 12 days to write a novel – at 25 pages a day – he has pondered and worked on his subject for weeks, and has sought out the smallest detail with the precision of a man of science.

On an old yellow envelope.

Simenon has just seated himself in a large red armchair. He has removed his jacket, and is filling an enormous pipe. He does it with a great deal of care, and I take advantage of the opportunity to ask my question. I'd like to know how he composes his detective stories. Does he know how they'll turn out? Does the action unfold following a plan worked out in advance?

"Not at all. I don't know the ending when I write the first chapter. I start off with an idea, I get into it, I work it. Or maybe a character, or a situation. In the beginning, it's always a little blurry in my mind, then things get clear, and little by little, it's my characters who impose themselves on me, who lead me – I'll say who force my hand towards the denouement... when there is one. Because sometimes there isn't..."

Simenon also knows how to be the best friend to his children.

"Is it true that before starting a new book, you make notes on the back of an old yellow envelope and that it's become a veritable ritual for you?"

"Yes, it's true, I think I have quite a few manias. Once I've done something in a certain way, it seems to me that I have to do it with all the same moves, to assure myself success. For example, I have the habit of making my corrections in pencil... I never use any other pencils than those you see there, and I always have to have at least two dozen ready to use. Just now I have a new mania. The evening before I'm going to start a novel, my wife cleans all my pipes... As you've seen, I have 58... not counting some broken ones which I still keep. There are easily enough for each evening..."

"Do you write all day long?"

"No, only in the morning, from 6:30 to 9:00. Time for seven pipes. Then I go for a walk, I go out with my children, I wander around, read..."

Chief Inspector Maigret, he's my father.

"Have you always smoked a lot?"

"I started when I was 12. I stopped for a few weeks when a doctor told me that I had a serious heart ailment, and that I had but a few more months to live. That was 20 years ago..."

"When you learned that your days were numbered, what was your reaction?"

"I accepted that eventuality calmly. I can't say that the idea of death frightened me. I thought most of all of my son, Marc. What image would he retain of me? You know that my father died when I was 16. They say I used him as my model – physically and mentally – to create the character Maigret. That's true. Furthermore, I wrote my first novel at 17, a year after my father's death. I'm asked why I continue to write – at present, I write five books a year – even though I could live handsomely on my royalties. To write is necessary for my equilibrium. It's a need, which permits me to explain myself to myself...to understand myself, to try to understand others."

"In fact, how many novels have you written?"

"More than 300."

"And how do you explain your success?"

"I don't explain it..."

Simenon straightens up. He's thinking. I see his brow furrow suddenly, forming little accent circumflex folds.

"I often receive letters. These are not letters from admirers. Those who write to me say... 'Your character – it's me, his problem is mine.' And they ask me for advice."

"Do you reply?"

"To every one of them. But unfortunately I'm not able to resolve all the problems they pose. And these are furthermore never police-related problems. No one's ever asked me to play the role of Chief Inspector Maigret in reality. Apparently Conan Doyle had the luck to clear up some police mysteries... I've not yet been able to arrest the slightest murderer..."

Red light or green light?

For 10 hours a day, Mme Simenon is the most competent of secretaries.

Mme Simenon has just entered the room. Tall, thin, dark-haired, she wears her hair up in a high chignon. Her serious face lights up and becomes very soft when she smiles. She's wearing a blue suit, of a very sober cut, which brings to mind the look of a stewardess. Under her arm she carries the voluminous mail which she'll bring to the post office in Lausanne. She's the one who'll drive me back to the station.

The afternoon goes by in a flash. You listen to Simenon like you read his books, without stopping to catch your breath. In the car which is taking me to Lausanne, I ask Mme Simenon if she'd read her husband's books before meeting him...

"Yes," she says, "but without knowing that he was the author. You know, I'm Canadian... I'd already known Georges for some time when he asked me if I'd read any French police novels. 'Only one,' I'd answered, 'but I've forgotten the name of the book and the author...' I told him what I remembered about it, and it was then that he said, 'You read Talatala, and I'm the one who wrote it...'"

"Wasn't it pretty hard to become your husband's secretary?"

"Not at all. I think I was made for it. When I went into the hospital for Johny's birth, I brought with me a briefcase filled with files in progress. The nurse said to me, 'Oh, your baby's clothes are so heavy!' A half hour after he was born, I'd hardly gotten back to my room, when I received a telephone call from our lawyer in Hollywood. We talked for about 45 minutes. At the end, he asked me 'The baby is due soon?' When I told him that Johny had been born about an hour earlier, he just about fell over!"

We arrive in town. The car stops for a red light. I look at Mme Simenon and she guesses my thoughts. I knew that the day she'd gone to her first date with Simenon, she'd said, "If I only meet green lights, I'll continue, if not, I'll stop..." I'd read that story in a magazine. I wanted to know if it were true.

"It's true," she said. When I saw Georges for the first time, in New York, it was love at first sight. But at the same time, I was afraid... The lights stayed green. The city was making some test in preparation for the elections. I learned that a year later..."

The story of the green lights... Isn't that the best of Simenon's novels, where happiness wins in the end?

JÉRÔME LEFRANC.

The two photos above are taken from the film about Simenon by the Société Son et Lumière.


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