GEO (N° 69)
November 1984, pp 48-64
The World of Georges Simenonphotos: Wilfried Bauer
In the intrigues which nourished his 212 books published in nearly every language, the creator of the famous Commissioner Maigret envelops the life of his "little people" in a hazy atmosphere, loaded with inner mystery and hidden nostalgia. Wilfried Bauer, a German photographer aspiring to reconstruct this universe of Simenon's, visited places the Belgian writer had lived. He crossed the low countries, Belgium and Holland, went to the north of France and the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle, then simply added captions to his photos from passages that he remembered from the novels... While looking at them in his Swiss retirement, the author not only recognized the novelistic settings, but recovered his "little internal movies" and even his adolescent anguish. Simenon, who long ago gave up Maigret and his journeys to the four corners of the world, has decided to take up his typewriter for GEO to produce this small, previously unpublished autobiography in the vein of his famous Pedigree, or his last work, Intimate Memoirs. He evokes his childhood, marine harbors, faraway horizons, his love of women and his great appetite to "experience everything, learn everything, understand everything."
A GEO EXCLUSIVE
"The influence my childhood has had on me"
From birth, the child I prefer 'the young of man,' as we speak of the 'young' of any animal from birth, the child absorbs avidly, through all his senses, the life that surrounds him. For years, he will continue to fill his brain with colors and odors, the contact with the maternal breast, objects and movements, creating unconsciously a storehouse of emotions on which he will draw for his entire life. At what age do we stop voraciously absorbing the world thus? According to most specialists of the subject, toward the end of adolescence, when intelligence prevails little by little over instinct... which means long before we have reached our twentieth year. There are, however, beings that we call artists, painters, sculptors, musicians, or poets, who preserve all their lives this faculty to enjoy the treasure of pictures, colors, sounds, the vibration of a body, a tree or a bug, who stay attached, in other words, to the eternal cosmos of which we take part. And those people, sometimes, push this integration with the universe so far, that we call them geniuses... or madmen, like Shakespeare, Goethe, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, Gauguin... Thanks to the stupendous talent of Wilfried Bauer, I have just lived an unforgettable hour. The images that he recorded have so powerfully resuscitated in me memories that I had believed lost, and shown me, more forcefully than ever, the influence that my childhood has had on me all my life, and that it still has as I approach my eighty-first year.
His photographs are a kind of synthesis of the "picture game" I've played every day for so long. It may seem ridiculous that an old man still takes pleasure in such childish practices. Whenever I lie down, whether for a nap or for the night, I try not to think about anything, to empty myself of all my worries, of all my thoughts, and then, lids closed, I watch what I privately call my 'little cinema'. From disordered colors, at first, to colors in motion that suddenly, without any action on my part, form a precise picture recorded unconsciously long ago. It is a teeming street, like the rue Puits-en-Sock, in Liège, that already fades away more quickly than I want, to be replaced by another unexpected image: a desolate harbor pier, a mooring post with a cable wrapped around it, boats frozen in fog or in the newborn night. This game, an almost daily affair, I have just played with real pictures that another has captured, just as alive and full of meaning, since they explain my life and my work. These photographs, I prefer to say these pictures by Wilfried Bauer are for me like a microcosm where I find myself nearly whole, and where, without wanting it, were born the characters of my novels.
I am a child of what I like to call the 'little people', those people you meet, nameless, in streets on the outskirts of town, craftsmen, laborers, employees you see on the sidewalk at the same time every day, modest and retiring, women holding a child by the hand or a babe in arms, who head, as if worried about the money they are going to spend, toward the market or shopping street. But it is to the world of the earth that my distant past leads, whether on my father's side, the Simenons, or my mother's, the BrŁlls. A professor at Liège University, of Flemish origin, had the curiosity to go back as far as possible to the source of the Simenons, and he patiently scoured Belgian villages of Limbourg, then the Dutch Limbourg and finally Germany close to these two provinces. By consulting local and parochial registers, he could reach back to the end of the 17th century, where he found, at Vlijitigen, a Simenon who had practiced the most modest profession, that of a farm worker, renting his arms, for a day or a season, to one farmer or another. Other farm workers followed, in these low lands of the immense sky that spread on both banks of the Meuse, be it in Belgium, Holland or Germany. Linkages followed themselves thus during three centuries. There were two or three vicars as well, a miller, and finally, first cousin to my grandfather, a bishop coadjutor, who carried the same first name as me, and whom I very vaguely knew.
"I discovered the North Sea at Ostende"
As for my grandfather, Christian Simenon, he left his village as an adolescent, to learn the hatter's trade, going from city to city, country to country to Austria, for example, to familiarize himself with the construction of felt hats, to Italy to learn the secrets of straw hats, to France, finally, for the top hats that they wore at the time and that my father still wore during my childhood. Having become a master milliner, he opened a shop in Liège, surmounted by an enormous sheet metal opera hat painted a brilliant red. I went to see him every Sunday morning, and often during the week. At those times I found him in the back of the shop, where were arrayed, on shelves, the wooden heads on which he molded the hats that he finally modeled in steam above a basin of boiling water. I was only a youngster, yet this is how still today I give to my hats the shape that I want. He had Bismarck mustaches and spoke a nearly incomprehensible language, mingling Flemish, French, and German, not to mention patois Walloon and some words of Italian. He had thirteen children. My grandmother was the daughter of a miner, and I remember him as well, nearly a hundred years old, blind, making every morning the tour of the block while munching on great raw onions.
The Brülls, on their side, were from Hertzogenrath, of which it seems my grandfather was Bürgermeister before marrying the daughter of a Dutch farmer and settling in Belgian Limbourg, where he was Dijkmeister, then wood merchant and owner of several barges at Herstal, close to Liège. The Brülls also had thirteen children, of which one at least, I learned from the family album, did his military service in Germany. My mother was the thirteenth, and when she was five years old, her father went bankrupt and died. One of my aunts had a shop for mariners, close to the barge harbor, where they sold everything from groceries to rope, even tar to caulk the hulls of boats. Her husband made wicker baskets. I was born on the rue Léopold, a busy shopping street in the center of Liège, but while I was still less than six months old, my parents moved to the rue Pasteur, a quiet street, where there lived, among others, an old woman of independent means and her daughter, a violinist at the Royal Theater, an ex-officer, dismissed for having killed a friend in duel, who had become a café representative, and a very dignified justice of the peace.
We moved once more to the nearby rue de la Loi, where my mother decided, in order to supplement our meager budget, to take in students. At that time foreign students, especially Russians and Poles, nearly all poor, chose Belgium over France, because life was less expensive on our side. When I was twelve they had me reading Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Chekov, which affected me as much as the barges of the Coronmeuse harbor and Christian Simenon's shop. Outremeuse is, in Liege, the district of the "little people", of craftsmen and shopkeepers, and I remember my grandfather's neighbor, named Kreutz, from Germany, whose shop was called "The Doll Hospital." Not only did he repair them, but he made some with his two daughters, and for one of them he used my aunt's hair, cut when she became religious.
I was an altar boy at the Bavière Hospital. From our windows we could see the bell-tower of Saint-Nicolas, our parish. The odor of the incense, of my Aunt Maria's grocery store, where they also served gin at the end of the counter, the odor of the rue Roture, of the place du Congrès where I played with my friends for me every street had its odor, its own particular color, its own light as well. I can still see the place Saint-Lambert illuminated by the first electric lamps, the cold rays that made ghosts of passersby. I spent my winter vacations at Nerceteren, Brüll country, near my grandfather's. Fields stretching forever, with every now and then a row of poplars. We went to Sunday Mass in a sleigh harnessed to an old horse, and I still retain the odor in my nostrils, and that of my cousin, and the damp snow that covered us.
I'm from the low country, (the country low, as Brel sung) and I remember it with nostalgia, with its endless skies where clouds marched by, now gray, now silvery. The odor of rain... Of trains at the Guillemins station that gave me the desire to be going to see what the faraway world was like. And those "hot streets" you always passed furtively, with lustful looks at the plump women who knitted while waiting to close the heavy lace curtains at a customer's entry. Very young, I entered, blushing, in the sallow light of oil lamps, then of gas lamps. At seventeen, I nearly ran away with an actress who was three times my age very much the young reporter, I had gone to interview her in her dressing room, where I had found her completely nude. A little past midnight, carrying a cheap suitcase, I was on my way to take the Paris train with her, when a wiser colleague showed up and put an end to the adventure. I discovered the North Sea at Ostende where it appears, silvery, at the end of a sloping street that leads to the embankment.
"I lived in the capital, my senses gorged"
Married at twenty, I lived in Paris on the little money that came in from stories I wrote for the more-or-less humorous weeklies, and sometimes we were hungry. When I had the means, I bought a 15-foot boat, with which my wife, our maid, our Danish dog and I toured France by river and canal, alongside barges still pulled by horses, clearing close to a thousand locks, typing on my machine, under a tent, the popular novels that permitted us to live. Locks, canals, the odor of Norway tar and dung... because I also like the odor of the dung, the horse droppings. I did my military service in the Army Service Corps, and for most of my life I've had several horses, that I rode or harnessed to my sulky. Seaports, especially in the North, because I remain a man of the North, like all the Simenons and Brülls that preceded me...
From the time I had a bicycle, I followed the towpaths of the canals, and sometimes I went to Aachen... I can still see the market in front of the Kurhaus, the small dark restaurant where I devoured knockwurst and potato salad... I stole a little of the life of all my uncles, all my aunts and cousins, as innocently as I stole the odor of the wet fields, the cities, the villages, the human odor of everything around me... I had an uncle who was a cabinetmaker, and I visited him just to sniff the wood that he worked, to caress the pale shavings that littered the shop, to hear the sound of his plane or saw... I was hungry for it all and, perhaps to return to my roots, I had constructed at Fécamp, where there were still two- and three-masted terre-neuvas that went out to fish the cod, a strong, pot-bellied boat, some thirty feet long, twelve wide, with a six-foot draft. I christened her the Ostrogoth, maybe for my distant origins, and I traveled Holland by the canals, the Zuydersee that was still part of the North Sea... I lived two years on board, and I wrote a lot along the way. At Delfzijl, very close to Ems, I had to have my boat recaulked, and as the noise of the hammers was intolerable, I settled myself into the bottom of a stranded old barge, on the bank of the canal. There was about foot of stagnant water in the bottom, but the odor didn't displease me. I set up some old crates, one for my typewriter, another to sit on, and two smaller ones for my feet, and it is there that I wrote, without knowing there would be any others, my first "Maigret", Pietr-Le-Letton.
I reached the port of BrÍme, and then Wilhelmshaven where I turned back, always writing at every stopover. Honfleur... Deauville... Ouistreham... fishermen's cafés, where I arm-wrestled gladly with sailors who smelled of the sea and Calvados... Place des Vosges, where we were lulled to sleep by the song of the four fountains. The district of workers of gold and diamonds, the twisting and secret alleys... They are all part of my "little cinema" before I fall sleep, and you can find them in many of my books. I lived, in short, in the capital, all my senses gorged during my young years, unaware that this capital would be mine again today. I knew, as an adult, of other horizons, but I don't retain what I would call, for lack of a better term, any schematic memories. The small harbors of Norway, the North Cape, the Glacial Sea, Lapland roamed by reindeer sleigh at forty-five degrees below zero, nights passed in a Lapp tent and, far off, a tip of Finland and the Russian border... The Black Sea twice, Odessa, Yalta, the Crimea where camels and donkeys mingled with the autos... Africa, from north to south, from the desert to the bush and the bush to the tropical forest... islands of the Pacific, at a time when you didn't meet any tourists there; New Zealand and Australia that you only reached after forty-five days at sea... Asia... the Near East, Istanbul and Ankara... Ten years in the United States and Canada, from Montreal to Miami, three years in Arizona, one in California, five years in New York and Connecticut... Where else did I go? South America and Ecuador...
All that runs through my fingers, for I am no longer a child, images, clear or dark. From the cold to the sun of the tropics, which I crossed, I don't know how many times. I watched with curiosity, curious about people, especially women. I wanted to experience everything, to learn everything, to understand everything. But to try to understand leaves you with empty hands. In childhood, we "learn" without asking any questions, we absorb innocently. Thank you Wilfried Bauer, for bringing me back my true past, images, colors, sounds, odors, light and haze. And thank you GEO for helping to give me this joy. In this my 'little cinema' has been enriched.