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Good Housekeeping
April, 1954, p. 28

 

Interesting People:

Georges Simenon

By Stephen White

In 30-odd years he's written 300-odd novels. Not a bad score.


 

Naturally I want to write a novel. Every red-blooded American boy wants to write a novel, and most do. But I am anything but impetuous, and it occurred to me not long ago that novel writing was not the sort of thing a man should rush into; before squaring away on Chapter One, it might be wise to take counsel.

Consequently I made my way to Lakeville, Connecticut, to consult with Georges Simenon, who is eminently the man to give counsel on the practice and theory of novel writing. Simenon, creator of that great French detective, Maigret, has been writing novels for some thirty-odd years, during which he has averaged better than ten novels a year. They have been popular enough to make Simenon a wealthy man, and good enough to lead the late André Gide to describe Simenon as perhaps France's greatest modern novelist. Furthermore he has recently signed a two-year contract with Doubleday for ten novels a year, and a single novel, No Vacation for Maigret, and a set of three, Tidal Wave, are now in the bookstores.

This would seem to make Simenon an authority on novels, wholesale and retail. But when he met me warmly at his door, he neither looked nor acted at all like a novelist, who should be sallow and sensitive or wear a beard. He is a stocky, amiable chap and was dressed in a flannel shirt and a windbreaker. He guided me into the house and told me how to write a novel.

Very well, then. The first step in writing a novel à la Simenon is to decide to write a novel. "I have decided," says Simenon to his wife, "to write a novel two weeks from Thursday." And Mrs. Simenon nods agreeably.

The evening before the day he has set, he begins to think about his novel. This involves inventing two or three characters, described in toto on the back of a Manila envelope.

At 6:30 the next morning he descends to his study, previously stockpiled with hot coffee, a cooler full of soft drinks, and a necklace of amber beads to play with when the words won't come.

His characters, as invented the previous evening, are deep in some sort of crisis, and Simenon proceeds to write about it. He is usually unable to predict the ending; that appears to be a problem for the characters to solve, not the novelist.

He types steadily until 9:30 A.M., at which point he has finished Chapter One. He immediately emerges from his study and heads for the refrigerator and a snack. Then a long walk, lunch, a nap, and another walk. At 5:50 P.M. he may return to his study and write part of the next day's chapter in longhand; then dinner, an idle evening, and bed.

This goes on exactement for ten or eleven days, depending upon whether the characters manage to emerge from their crisis in ten chapters or eleven. The morning walk covers precisely the same ground; lunch is at the same moment; the nap begins and ends with stop-watch precision. He mimics himself fiercely. ("Once I had caviar the first day," he said, "and my wife had to have caviar in the refrigerator – and in exactly the same spot in the refrigerator – for eleven days.")

At the end of that time Simenon has written another novel, to be sold by the million copies in anywhere up to twenty-three languages. In America alone 3,000,000 paperbacked "Simenons" have been sold so far. Meanwhile motion-picture companies, radio, television, newspapers, and magazines may be expected to bid for rights, which Simenon agreeably sells for the fattest fees he can command.

All this seems very easy. Actually the detailed routine Simenon follows while he writes is not merely a quirk; he works with such furious intensity that he must throw every ounce of his mental power into his book and spare himself the necessity of irrelevant decisions over which path to follow when he takes his walk.

Simenon was born in Liège, Belgium, on Friday, February 13, 1903. At the age of sixteen he took a job in a bookshop to escape a career as pastry cook (his mother's idea), and soon afterward became a newspaper reporter; by the time he was twenty he was in Paris writing pulp fiction under seventeen pen names and getting rich on it.

In 1930 he invented Maigret, one of the great creations of detective literature, a placid, unexceptional Paris police detective who goes about his business quietly and without heroics, solving crimes by patient attention to detail and an astute perception for the vagaries of human nature. The "Maigrets" are immeasurably his most popular books but not his best. Simenon will probably always continue to write them; he feels a spirit of loyalty to his friend Maigret, who freed him from the bondage of pulp fiction.

Whereas critics of the detective novel welcomed the Maigrets with huzzas, the more serious books had a longer road to travel; it was assumed that no one who wrote that much could write particularly well. But in recent years a Simenon vogue seems in the making, and even the august The Times Literary Supplement (London) has consecrated a long review to Simenon. all of it favorable. "[His] writing," the Literary Supplement commented, "has an almost contemptuous ease" – a description that can hardly be improved upon.

He first visited the United States in 1933, liked it here, and was particularly impressed with American education. When his first son, Marc, was born in 1939, Simenon vowed the boy would he brought up in America, finally settled in Lakeville after World War II. His ménage now includes Denise Simenon, a sparkling French-Canadian who is his wife, and their two children, Jean, four, and Marie-Georges, just a year old. Marc attends The Hotchkiss School, a few miles away.

Of the twenty novels that Doubleday will publish, twelve will be new and eight will be translations of older novels. In addition Simenon has sold rights to earlier novels to TV, and a Simenon program is well along the road to completion.

All this appears to be a sound approach to the problem of getting along in the world. At this moment my wife is out buying caviar and an amber necklace. I have a Manila envelope, and I am trying to think of a few characters. Let's see. Perhaps we can start with the greatest living French novelist, at home in Lakeville, Connecticut – but no – I guess not. Too improbable.


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