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L'illustré   (N° 50) 37th year
Lausanne, December 12, 1957, p 27-29

 

Author of 168 signed novels,

IS GEORGES SIMENON
A WRITER?

by M. M. BRUMAGNE

original French


Simenon in his car, leaving his new residence, the chateau at Echandens.

It is five o'clock. The sky is growing dark. Simenon comes out of his office suddenly, and we hear him shout, "Denise (his wife), would you bring me my wallet, a handkerchief and a handful of change? I've just noticed that since this morning my pockets have been empty."

This direct sentence, commonplace in appearance, revealed to us better than any explanation, the freedom of action, the freedom to be, of the man who had received us. He stood perfectly at ease in the large bright living room of his Echandens chateau, his Swiss home, perfectly himself, apparently sheltered from the constraints of existence by the natural distance that he establishes with the world. Nevertheless, Simenon doesn't remain indifferent to the restraints imposed by society. The way he finds to handle them is through his imagination: he invents some characters, becomes embodied in their fictional flesh and then lives in the fever of his creations – their liabilities, their prejudices, their dramas – to the limit of their resistance and his own.

It is in this way that he throws himself into the written adventure, attempting to unknot spontaneously the destiny of another – and thereby his own – in a single burst, without restrictions and with no recourse to science, metaphysics or morals. He tries merely to understand man, neither proposing a remedy nor assuaging his misery.

The "case" of Simenon


Attentive, welcoming, with a perfect simplicity, Simenon doesn't try to dress up his ideas, to make them dazzle for publicity. Honest in his work, honest with men, he looks on everything with attention and appreciation. (Photos Yves Debraine)

It is not easy to speak of Georges Simenon. Even less to define him. If he receives journalists politely, if he grants interviews (it is often his wife who gives them for him), he doesn't care much for publicity. He doesn't hate it either, but is rather indifferent. In the world press we've read and reread everything about him: Simenon, the most prolific writer, has just settled near Lausanne... Simenon, the most-read novelist... Simenon brought to the screen... etc.

Yet, this author, far from miserly with his words and publications, refuses to utter those "fundamental sentences" – as in his work, he evades frankly; somewhat paradoxically, he is quiet, suggestive. You'd like to place him, but at the same time you're afraid to betray his silences and confessions. Why? Because the Simenonien œuvre, so thoroughly analyzed, (which makes the author smile) escapes all grasp. You are tempted to explain it, to annotate it, to look for a relationship, an ancestry. It remains, and Simenon with it, an unclassifiable phenomenon apart from the contemporary literary world. Because above all the writer's quantity of output is such that one is at a loss as to whether to criticize or applaud it. There is no criteria on which to base a realistic judgment of this new form of the novel that he has created, in a manner often masterly. Admired by some, attacked with gusto by others, he pursues a quest which is, in the end, his own conquest.

In our time, a novelist who is not something of a moralist, who doesn't philosophize, is labeled an entertainer: he is disqualified. Simenon is instinctively opposed to this formula, to this fashion that has bloomed abundantly for some years. His exceptional intuition, his astonishing sense of a certain human psychology, and his memory, added to a patiently learned profession, serve him as base, preparing the ground for what he calls the novel of tomorrow, that of the naked man, of any man pushed to his limits.

"I hate psychoanalysis," he says, "and I never think about the 'why' of my writing. A novel, for me, is life digested. But most current writers romanticize a moral climate. They write upside-down, with no spontaneity. They search for some serious question to debate, glue on some characters, and enter studiously into a labyrinth of explanations... No! The school of the novel is in the street. It feeds on odors, on colors; it impregnates itself with beings and things, and when the digestion is complete, like a mature fruit, the work falls from the tree."

Since he began to write (at the age of 15), Simenon no longer reads novels, but only memoirs, correspondence, biographies and newspapers, from the first line to the last.

"Why keep up with what comes out, when it's already life digested by others? One doesn't evacuate anything new... And furthermore, it is absolutely wrong to claim that a book must be written slowly. True novelists work quickly: Balzac, Stendhal, Victor Hugo... I believe that it is since authors started taking themselves for thinkers that they produce one work per year, that they cogitate in silence! And then, you see, I refuse to judge – whoever and whatever. People often forget this deep truth of the gospel. In short, I am incapable of operating in the abstract. No, I am not made to think and what I say now say is of no value... My need is to write without prior intention, with no plan to take one direction rather than another. It is only when I have finished a book that I learn what I had to search for, through the intermediary of my characters, a corner of myself in which I was once again unconsciously involved."

Simenon in the process


All of Simenon's working material is on his big table: a spread out plan, some Michelin guides, his dozens of carefully sharpened pencils, his tobacco, ashtray, pipe – the same as that of his commissioner Maigret.

He speaks while walking. Behind his desk a wood fire burns quietly. All seems easy in this room with the big windows giving onto gardens and farther onto Lausanne, illuminated by a sunbeam. Pipe in hand, eyes alert, he lets the questions come, catching them on the fly...

"Without work? I am uneasy in my skin. I have a sudden need to remake contact with my world. It's physical. My wife notices it before I do, the infallible symptoms of a book in gestation. She cancels appointments. It's been a long time since I've answered letters or the telephone myself. I'm like a cat in labor! Then I go out for a walk... one hour... five hours... I have no sense of time. And as I walk a rhythm is born, the key to the rhythm of the work to come. I know, I sense rather, that my novel will construct itself according to a particular modulation, fast or wide, tight or in counterpoint. From this rhythm spring the colors that will determine the atmosphere – somber, drab, clear, humid, cotton-wool... And then I'm struck by an odor. I'm very sensitive to that, it's often an odor that forms my true starting point. It's something I recall – a particular place which appears in puffs in my memory. And from this place, eventually, emerges my central character, doubtless a jumble of faces encountered here and there...

"For this embodied character I must find an identity, a house, parents, a network, a life. Back at home, I draw up lists of names to discover the one that will best encompass his appearance, his nationality, his mentality. I search in phone books, and sometimes it takes me several hours to find it. Once discovered, I write the name on a big yellow envelope, on which I always note all my information. Why an envelope? By habit, nothing more! Then I develop his house and the place where it is located. For that I have recourse to my city plans, which I always have with me, even when I travel. And so at last I know all the details, all the particularities of this house, of the street, the surroundings. I have some kind of need to plant a decor, to know everything, including elements that, perhaps won't be used. I invest my character with a past – the continuation is only a math problem: considering the situation, the character of the individual, I look then for the event that will oblige him to go to his limit... and with me along! Once the first chapter is in order, the drama set up, I begin to write. I become this man or this woman. I don't see anything else, the curtains are closed, I no longer show my face. And when I go back into reality, I have the impression that the world which surrounds me isn't real, rather that it is my own which is the true one."

If Simenon can enter into the imaginary with such an intensity, and at the same time such clarity, it is because he takes for his own the definition of the main character of a novel as conceived by Balzac: "It can be anyone, pushed to his limits."

"We have in ourselves," he explains, "all possibilities, all passions, all instincts, from those of the criminal to those of the hero. It has a little to do with our will, but it also has a lot to do with circumstances."

In his books, Simenon wants to restore to us the genesis of these poor dramas that we sometimes look down on, or often ignore... news items of no importance. He relives them to make us understand that they concern us, we the passive, thieves, rebels in power, as they concern him, the child of the crowded streets of Liège, the feverish teenager and tormented roamer along the oily canals on which passed slow and nostalgic barges.

Simenon, starting a story of nothing at all, knows how to tell it, and drawing on his own experience, can "live," and to the limit, feelings of which he may sometimes possess but a trace. As soon as he describes a character, he describes himself; what he has observed and what he knows are indistinguishable. One has the impression that he is remembering in front of us, that he is having us share his emotions, his sensations: he doesn't compose, he plays with his heart. He is at once Maigret and the murderer, Frank Friedmaier and Holst, the respectable old man of "The Snow was Black," in an imperious necessity of total sincerity, of absolute asceticism, but also of crudity, because that too is a part of life.


Preparing for a book, setting up the foundations, he cannot keep his hands still. To replace a Turkish rosary with amber beads that he manipulated nervously, his wife gave him a golden ball. He often plays with it for hours, tossing it from hand to hand, pacing the room feverishly, prey to the agonies of literary gestation.

"If someone were to ask me my profession, I'd say I was a man of means!"

Simenon writes very little, if one figures the time he spends in his office. "I work 59 days a year – that makes five novels, at the rate of a dozen days each, including editing. You see this beautiful work table... I rarely use it. It is more often on a trip, in a hotel room, that the pain to write occurs. The book finished, I become a normal creature once again, a husband, father, a man of means. I always have three novels in press, but not intentionally. My publisher publishes, without having the right to edit my manuscripts... I use three dozen pencils for book. I don't follow any sect, am a member of no church, nor the Society of Belles Lettres. I know very few colleagues. Of what would we speak? Literature! I don't go to receptions or cocktail parties. Nor do I go to see my own movies. Three times was enough – I felt uncomfortable. So I sell my rights... If I'm nomadic, it's like a snail – I carry my house with me. One of my friends calls me a 'stay-at-home nomad'."

At the chateau of Echandens there is a perpetual coming and going in which Simenon does not participate. His wife takes care of everything. She has a secretary, because the mail never stops. It's a true administrative challenge, considering that Simenon's books are translated into 22 languages, that there are eight or ten contracts to sign per week; that somewhere in the world, one of his books is published every day; that 50 newspapers publish his serials; that he has 168 titles to his name, and many others under pseudonyms; that next year seven movies will be made based on his novels, and that 48 have already been produced...

Simenon is a happy man

Most people would think that the fortune that smiles on Simenon in so many ways, would be enough to make him happy. But that is not really the key to the happiness of this writer, who is in fact a very simple man, without caprice and without ostentation.

"So I am a happy man," he concludes with his light, slightly lilting Liégeois accent. "You see, if an apple tree bears or wants to bear pears, how would you have it achieve its function, its authenticity as an apple tree? But if it accepts its load of fruit, then what else could it want? It is the defect of our time: men no longer do what they want, what they like... It's a question of simplicity!"

Every year, following the example of his apple tree, Simenon parts with his ripened load.

At sixteen, he had known what he was going to do; he knew that he would advance in small steps. Before thirty, he hadn't wanted to write large novels, with drafts and redrafts, he says, putting off the one that he has projected for years: his great novel. He knows the theme, that of ancient tragedy, of man facing neither himself, nor another, but facing his destiny. But why wait for this promised work to decide whether Simenon is a great writer, a judgment that time will decide better than we and more wisely proclaim?

Simenon's gift is the ability to seize life in motion, to surprise it in what it has of the tragic and the mundane. He is not an author, he is a man who writes; nothing of what is human escapes him, because he knows his limits of the moment, because he is set in the concrete, in a reality that the intellectual most often misses. He goes straight on his path, regarding his goal patiently. It is for this reason that he defends no thesis, espouses no cause.

Simenon is the novelist of the gushing presence, of unreasoned, spontaneous creation, unsusceptible to analysis, because nothing is deliberate.

Writer, trailblazer, escape novelist? Why should we judge? Simenon and his work resemble each other: they evolve, they interact, they exist. It is enough.

M. M. B.

Simenon, his wife Denise – who is for him most precious of collaborators – and their two children, Johnnie and Marie-Georges: a happy family. From a first marriage Simenon has another son, currently studying in France. (Photo François Martin)

translation by Stephen Trussel
5/16/04


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