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Harper's Bazaar
November, 1964, p. 156

The World of Bond and Maigret


The ensuing dialogue between Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and Georges Simenon, creator of Jules Maigret, had gone to press when the sad news came of Fleming's death. This, their only meeting, was arranged and recorded by Gordon Young.

Fleming's low-slung black Avanti – black leather upholstery, crimson-lettered dials on its dashboard, a top speed of 220 m.p.h. – had just driven up to the ancient Château d'Echandens outside Lausanne.

The talk takes place in Simenon's study. High-vaulted castle windows look out on a quiet park; white walls are sparsely decorated with a few family photographs and a painting by Fernand Léger. Simenon, young at sixty, sits back at his desk in a white open-necked silk shirt and flannel trousers. The fifty-five-year-old Fleming, ostentatiously casual, in a crumpled gray sports shirt and black woolen cardigan, looks like Bond on a holiday. Perched on a stool is Denise, Simenon's French-Canadian wife.

FLEMING: I read your first books in 1939 on my way to Moscow. I stopped in either Amsterdam or The Hague and there on the bookstall was a whole collection of those very good jackets you had in those days, those graphic jackets. I bought three or four to take to Moscow, and I absolutely adored them. And I think, of course, that if it hadn't been for those jackets I probably shouldn't have bought them for years. I think jackets are very important for books. But the publishers don't seem to think so.

SIMENON: Oh, yes, now they care a lot about jackets, especially in America. They study a jacket for weeks, sometimes, and try five, six, seven jackets.

FLEMING: Do they give you a chance to comment on your jackets?

SIMENON: They give me the chance, but I don't bother. I never care about a book when it's finished.

FLEMING: Really? Don't you mind the way it appears and how it's printed?

SIMENON: Not at all.

FLEMING: Oh, I'm very keen on that.

SIMENON: As soon as the book is out of this room, I don't care about it.

FLEMING: What about correcting? I mean who does the correcting for you? Does your publisher correct and then send corrections back to you and suggest things or not?

SIMENON: No.

FLEMING: Nobody does?

SIMENON: No.

FLEMING: I find I make stupid mistakes which they correct for me.

SIMENON: My publisher has not the right to change a comma – not even to suggest to change a comma.

FLEMING: Very interesting. But I find I keep on getting into bad habits: I get a word which I use too often. At the moment I'm going through an awful period of using the word 'just.' "It was just five miles away" . . . "He was just going to jump into his motor car" – I keep putting this damn word in.

SIMENON: I have exactly the same trouble – but the word changes for each novel. In one book

I will always use the word 'mais' – 'but'; in another, always 'perhaps,' so it takes me three days to take out all the perhaps's.

FLEMING: Well, I do most of that myself, but I still find . . . you see, I've got a very good publisher's reader, William Plomer, who's a great poet and an extremely nice man, and he said some time ago that I never put in any exclamation marks. This stuck in my mind, and so in my last book I put in exclamation marks like pepper. And my publishers stupidly enough left them in. Then I get a fierce review from The New York Times saying not only is Ian Fleming a very inferior writer but he has the girlish trick of putting in exclamation marks all over the place. I think a little help occasionally from a good reader is a very helpful thing. How many people read your typescript?

SIMENON: My wife reads the copy every day, but she doesn't correct anything and she doesn't speak to me about it.

FLEMING: Well, my wife rarely reads my books even when I've finished them.

SIMENON: My wife reads the pages every day and then she doesn't read it again.

MME. SIMENON: Well, I usually look at the proofs when they come back.

FLEMING: That's what I mean. Who does the proof correcting?

MME. SIMENON: Well, I weed them out a bit.

FLEMING: You just get the MS and then a page proof and then finish?

SIMENON: But I don't even give away my manuscripts. When I've corrected the manuscript, instead of typing it again it's photostated, and it's the photostat which goes to the publisher. So the MS never leaves this house. I prefer some little mistakes to a too cold correctness.

FLEMING: Well, you write the most wonderful French. I read your books always in French when I can. You have one of the most beautiful styles I know.

SIMENON: Some French critics have said I have no style at all! And they are almost right, because what I have tried for forty years now is to avoid everything which is like literature.

FLEMING: Not to be too literary? I agree.

SIMENON: Yes. To stay as simple as possible.

FLEMING: Well, you've always been like that. I think that, say, a hundred years from now, you'll be one of the great classical French authors. I've always said so. You'll be the Balzac of . . .

SIMENON: To tell you the truth I don't care, because I won't be there.

FLEMING: Of course, you've written novels, you see. In fact all your books are novels of suspense, whereas I write quite a different thing, which is the thriller, a thing of action and no psychology – except that the villain occasionally has to have some psychology to explain why he should be a villain. But I never try to examine my characters in depth, whereas all your books do that.

SIMENON: I know what you write, but to tell you the truth I have never read it – for one reason: at the age of twenty-five I decided never to read any novels again. And I haven't – not a single one. I know your books from the critics, and that's why I know you very well.

FLEMING: Have you ever written about Switzerland?

SIMENON: No. I very seldom write about a country where I live. I prefer to he far away, to have some recul ... You stand in Trafalgar Square or the Champs-Elysées and try to describe it in, say, a hundred words. It's impossible – because you see too many details, you will have three pages instead of a hundred words. But if you are in Tanganyika dreaming about a glass of ale and Trafalgar Square, you will in two sentences give the essential.

FLEMING: Quite true. I write all my books in Jamaica. I can't really write anywhere else – because there's a vacuum there and I can only write in a vacuum.

SIMENON: Here. we cut every connection with life around us when I am on a novel. Nobody comes here, not even relations, and I don't go to town or even to the village. I walk in the garden, I count my steps, and I know how many kilometers I make a day just to get some fresh air.

YOUNG: How long does that go on for – how long do you put yourself through that?

SIMENON: It depends on the length of the novel, and on whether I write a book at the rate of one chapter a day, or as I wrote the last one – one day writing by hand, and the next day writing it over again on the typewriter, so that it takes twice the time, or about twenty-two to twenty-four days. Then the revision takes from three days to one week. I hate revising a book.

FLEMING: I don't mind revising because I feel the book is finished. I've done my work and I can play with it then.

SIMENON: It seems to me so disgusting when I read my book over again; I say to myself: but this is not at all interesting, nobody will read it – it's so flat and dull and inconclusive. I hate that job.

FLEMING: Well, I write straight onto the typewriter and I never look back until I get to the bottom of the page; otherwise I'm so horrified while I'm writing at what awful piffle it is that I could never get on with it – I'd lose pace at once if I started correcting what I'd written the day before.

SIMENON: I understand. I never do it until later; I work until the book is finished. That's why I like the typewriter, because you don't look back – you keep your rhythm. You spoke about style a little while ago. I consider rhythm as the definition of style – and the style comes from rhythm, as in music or painting. And if you write and keep coming back on it again, you lose the rhythm.

FLEMING: And you lose pace. I think pace is very important. I think in books where there's some sort of a mystery, people do want to get on.

SIMENON: Yes, that's even more important in the books you write than in the books I write.

FLEMING: But then, don't you feel that people get rather tired if Maigret, for instance, at the end of a book, has to assemble all the suspects and examine them all and give the reader a chance to guess which is the villain? Don't you have to be very careful not to hold up the speed too much?

SIMENON: I don't care at all about it. In most of the Maigret stories. I think people know after ten or twenty pages who is the killer or whatever it is. I don't like to have four or five suspects and have to choose between them. Do you think that the reader of today does still try to guess? I don't think so.

FLEMING: No, that's very old-fashioned.

SIMENON: So you have to give them something else than just to guess. Even my children now guess everything after five or six minutes.

YOUNG: As an ordinary reader, I have always wanted to know this: to what extent have your personal experiences been the basis of your writing?

FLEMING: Well, from my point of view, practically none at all, except through one's powers of observation. I invent the most hopeless sounding plots; very often they are based on something I've read in a newspaper. And people say, "Oh, this is all nonsense" – and then the Russians come along in Germany and shoot people with potassium cyanide pistols. So I find constantly that things I've read about in some obscure magazine or somewhere are always coming true in real life.

SIMENON: I never put a precise experience of my own into a book, but everything is experience to an author, every minute of his life. So I wouldn't write the same books if I didn't lead the same life. But I never consciously use something I know, or some person I know.

FLEMING: Do you have to make little notes about, say, a good name, if you see a good name up above a shop?

SIMENON: No, I never do that. Until last year I used telephone books. I have 180 or 200 phone books from all over the world and I used them. Then I had some trouble with that. So now I use the Littré [French dictionary]. That's wonderful. You see, almost all French names come from some professional name – Boulanger, the baker; Maréchal, and so on. So if you take a name from the Lime and somebody happens to have the same name, they can't say anything. (Simenon draws from his desk a four-sheet folder covered with columns of names.) Look, that's just for one novel. I make this list and then choose my names from it. I use perhaps only ten.

YOUNG (to Fleming): Where do you get your names from?

FLEMING: Well, I get an awful lot of mine motoring – if I pass through a village street any where abroad, and see a good name outside a shop.

SIMENON: That was Balzac's way. All his names came from shops.

FLEMING: I found particularly in German Switzerland some very good villains' names. I saw one wonderful villain's name, but I can't use it. Unfortunately it was the name of a very respectable builder. It's getting more and more difficult to find villains.

SIMENON: Ah yes. In America there's only the Cubans left now. Even the Chinese you can't touch!

FLEMING: Of course, you don't have villains like I have villains. My villains are so black and, as you know, people aren't really like that. I make them like that. I generally give them a moustache because I dislike people with moustaches. But I find it more and more difficult to find good villains. I used the Russians marvelously for four or five books; but now, you see, I think we ought to have peace with the Russians, so I've had to stop ragging them. I've had to invent an international organization.

YOUNG: The last time I saw Madame Simenon, we were talking about women and she said, 'Oh well, if Mr. Fleming has had half as much experience of women as my husband, I'm sure he will be able to talk very well on that subject.'

SIMENON: (exploding with laughter) : Oh well, you know all my secrets, do you?

YOUNG: So, perhaps we can ask to what extent life enters into your art in that respect.

FLEMING: Well, Mr. Simenon is sixty years old and I'm only fifty-five, so he's got the advantage of five years!

MME. SIMENON: It depends a bit on the age at which you started!

FLEMING: Yes. I remember trying to tempt my governess once, but I failed. No, I think I make my heroines entirely out of my head, and instead of making them too beautiful I try to give them some little peculiarity – a slight limp or something of that sort to make them slightly more true to life, because one's girl friends are never perfect. They've always got some little thing, so I try to give them something. They are, I admit, inclined to be over-luscious.

SIMENON: And people are very seldom in love with a very beautiful woman. A beautiful woman is something to put in a theatre or to make a movie about, but you don't like to have them in your drawing room or in bed.

FLEMING: I talked to an oculist about that, and he said just the same thing. I asked him if he'd ever seen a pair of perfect eyes. And he said, yes, he had once, in a woman, and he said they were frightfully dull. He said it was quite extraordinary: they looked cold and lifeless, and yet they were a really beautiful, perfect pair of eyes.

SIMENON: What we consider beautiful in a woman is just the little difference! So the more little difference they have, the more chance they have to catch a man. It's the same with the eyes: a little difference can be attractive.

MME. SIMENON: Yes, we call it in French une coquetterie de l'oeil. It means eyes which are not crossed but just a little, little bit out of alignment. My daughter has it. It gives so much life to her eyes.

FLEMING: Very good. Of course that particularly applies to teeth. I can't understand what the film-makers are doing. They find a girl and the first I think they do is to take all her teeth out and put caps on. I mean, how dull can you be? . . . Now, about Maigret. Where did Maigret, the man himself, come from? Can you remember?

SIMENON: Not at all. You know, I wrote the first novel about Maigret not knowing at all that it would be a series. He just came into my mind.

FLEMING: How old is Maigret now?

SIMENON: He has no age. In my novels he is still about fifty-three. When I started thirty years ago he was forty-five. I would like to age so slowly.

FLEMING: Bond's still in his middle thirties. Unfortunately, I've had to write his obituary in the last book – oh, the news of his death is exaggerated – but I've had to give certain facts that get him to about thirty-eight or thirty-nine. But I've I had the greatest difficulty in keeping him down. Do you suppose you'll go on writing about Maigret?

SIMENON: Very seldom. You know, at first I wrote eighteen Maigret books in a row just to learn my trade, to know how to write a novel, and then I stopped and I said, 'Never any more.' And then I wrote just plain novels. And then so many readers and critics said, 'Why is Maigret dead?' and so on, that I started again for the fun of it. So I decided about once a year or so to write a Maigret. Partly through sentiment and partly as an exercise; one plays games and so on.

FLEMING: Your ambition really is to write the great novel?

SIMENON: Not big literary – just plain novel.

FLEMING: Well, I've no ambitions at all to write a novel. When I've finished writing James Bond I don't think I shall write any more. I'm getting very close to the end of my. tether, too.

SIMENON: It would be very difficult for me to live without writing.

FLEMING: Yes, I dare say it would be I for me.

SIMENON: When I stay two months without writing I get almost sick lose confidence in myself; I am a man without roots. I feel completely loose.

MME. SIMENON: Lost.

SIMENON: Yes, lost.

FLEMING: Do you feel that as you write you improve? Because if you didn't improve in some tiny way, you'd get disconsolate, too.

SIMENON: I am not very ambitious, but I have the feeling that on each novel I learn something new, or that I reach a goal a bit further ahead than the last one. But the question for me is to try to have less and less story in a book, less artificial story, fewer conventional ideas – to go instead a little deeper under the skin of the man.

FLEMING: Yes. But do you find you need to move about a lot in order to see more of life, to write more about life?

SIMENON: Not any more. I use my memories of the people I have met. I see them now from far away. And I learn more about people from my children than from people who come here. Each child teaches you so much.

FLEMING: And renews you too, presumably, because you can see a lot of your own youth in it.

SIMENON: For me the complete novelist is the one who makes the full round of life. I mean that at twenty, for instance, he gives the ideas of life of a boy of twenty; and at thirty you can keep the same character, the same situation, and yet have a completely different book. At forty the same – and at fifty, sixty and seventy. That's why Goethe's such a big man; because he made the full round.

FLEMING: Yes. Goethe, I think, was the only homme complet in the world. You can't fault him. Psychologists say that most geniuses are suffering from some kind of physical inferiority or defect. I mean Beethoven was deaf and so on. But they've never been able to find anything wrong with Goethe. He was healthy, he lived a full life, his sex life was normal, he covered an enormous range of interest – even the pollination of flowers.

SIMENON: ...and he studied the eye, too, and everything.

FLEMING: You do read some other books then – not novels, but technical books?

SIMENON: Yes, especially medical books. That's my hobby. I take five or six medical reviews every week.

FLEMING: Have you ever thought about writing films?

SIMENON: I never cared about that. My wife sells the rights and I never even see the producer or the actors.

FLEMING: No, I'm not interested in the least either. They consult me and I give them my ideas, perhaps at a lunch, but that's all.

SIMENON: I don't even go to see the films of my books.

FLEMING: Have you ever seen any of your television series in England: I think they are well done. The character's good.

SIMENON: Very good. Rupert Davies. But of course, everybody, when he reads a book, has his own idea of the character.

MME. SIMENON: That's one reason why one needs to be more difficult about Maigret than about James Bond, because you describe Bond, but my husband never really describes Maigret. I went through all the Maigret books and I tried to make an identica, but you cannot do one. You can read every Maigret that he's written and you never know whether his hair is red or brown, or the color of his eyes. People think that he's stocky, but actually he's tall – that was mentioned in just one book. Maigret has no age, so if he matures ten years in forty years it doesn't matter. When my husband created Maigret, he was already then, ageless and timeless. It was an unconscious feat of creation, whereas I think that when you created Bond you had a precise image of him.

FLEMING: Quite. One thing would interest me to know: I'm a collector of rare editions, a bibliophile – which is the rarest Simenon book?

SIMENON: From a bibliophile's point of view, the rarest is Le Pont des Arches – my first book, which I wrote at sixteen. It's now completely disappeared, except that I have one copy here. I wrote it when I thought I was going to be a humorist.

MME. SIMENON: Actually, it's been republished.

FLEMING: That doesn't count from a bibliophile's point of view.

(A servant comes in with whiskey and soda for everyone, except Mr. Simenon who has a pint of beer.)

MME. SIMENON: Tell me, Mr. Fleming, why did you have such a bad review of your last book in Newsweek?

FLEMING: Did I really? I had a wonderful review in the Herald Tribune – he compared me with Shakespeare and heaven knows what all; tremendous stuff. But The New York Times! Anthony Boucher has always hated my books.

SIMENON: He hates my books too.

FLEMING: Do you pay much attention to your reviews, Mr. Simenon?

SIMENON: No, my wife sometimes shows me one or two and that's all. I don't read them.

FLEMING: Actually, I'm as interested in my bad reviews as I am in my good ones, because very often they deal with a legitimate complaint. I regard my oeuvres in a very humble fashion.

SIMENON: So do I!

FLEMING: So I really don't mind if somebody gives me a kick in the pants. I think I deserve it anyway.

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