Entering the beautiful sunny garden of the villa 'Golden Gate', in the posh California district of Cannes, where Georges Simenon, creator of the legendary Commissioner Maigret, has found, at 53, a comfortable haven for his activities as an ultra-prolific novelist, we couldn't help thinking about the somber atmosphere of Liège that the Belgian author had evoked in his memories of childhood and his parents' constant struggle against financial hardship and misery.
It was, indeed, a long path, marked by more than three hundred published works, of which forty have already been adapted for the screen, and some for the stage, from the humble domicile of Georges's father, an insurance accountant, to this splendid property on the French Riviera. But the one who wrote in I Remember, "...at the Simenon's they had a horror of pride," doesn't disown that life, any more than his own efforts that raised him to the summit of his career.
The apparent ease with which Georges Simenon embroiders the many characters of his novels, always alive, results especially from his infallible memory and profound powers of observation that allow him to faithfully retain the physique and character of everyone he has ever met. So it is not surprising that his childhood memories, fictionalized in 'Pedigree', 'The three crimes of my friends' and 'Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets', come out again in no less striking relief, in spite of the time long past, when, under the German occupation of World War I, little Georges, doing his studies with the Brothers, surveyed the long gloomy street with its pale blue lamps, in a sad Liège, populated with foreign soldiers and poorly fed youngsters.
He evokes the pathetic picture of his mother (née Henriette Schoof) dividing her day between her household and work as a sales clerk in a notions shop, always with a backache "from doing the laundry or having to carry water and buckets of coal." We make the acquaintance of his uncle Leopold, who drank, of Georges's brother, his school friends. Everyone received his due. Too sensitive, one of his old friends who became a physician, sued him for 'defamation' in 1951, for Simenon had had the carelessness to present him under his true name, with some features of his character less than flattering.
Simenon has also the power to create, always with some evocative features, the profoundly authentic settings in which his characters evolve. Here, for example, the ambiance of his parents' lodging, described with the thoroughness of a Flemish painter: "Four walls painted in oil, a well polished stove, a sparkling bowl, and a clock that beats like a heart on the chimney; a wooden table, washed with sand, a wicker armchair, and a view of a yard where the linen was drying. A sad house, plunged in the drizzle and fog of winter ... "
On leaving the Jesuit school, Georges wanted to become a confectioner...
"Instead," he says, "I became a clerk in a bookstore. But when customers came in, I was always engrossed in reading behind a pile of books. The boss ended up firing me. Then I became a trainee journalist for the Gazette de Liège. As a test, I had to report on a horse show. Unfortunately, the editor-in-chief found a spelling mistake in my 'paper'. I had put a 'd' at the end of the word bazaar. And that was the end of our collaboration."
"For spite, I wrote a book, Le Pont des Arches, that was dedicated to Liège, and had some success. I decided to earn my livelihood as a man of letters, come what may, and I went to Paris, where I was immediately hired by the publisher Arthème Fayard, who had just launched his popular low-priced book series."
SprintBy his extraordinary dynamism, the young writer quickly became one of the favorite colts of the house stable, publishing his narratives in a continuous stream, under the varied signatures of Georges Sim or Christian Brulls... If you needed a romance or a mystery, you called Simenon:
"For next Monday... okay!"
Provided with a supply of strong coffee (the only stimulant used by Balzac), installed before his typewriter, Simenon would construct a novel in three days, promised a certain sale. In spite of his uncommon efforts, the novelist's popularity only spread after the 1930s with his Maigret series. Material success finally allowed the creator of the popular policeman to settle, with a certain ease, in Charente, always pursuing his abundant production, but deeper and sparer, reduced in form while increased in character. Little by little, he moved away from the strict formula detective novel, and arrived, through economical means, at creating characters full of life, acting with striking realism.
The acquired ease allowed Simenon to roam the world in those pre-war years, enriching his fertile observations. At the end of the war, he was in the United States, where he bought a 60-acre property in Connecticut. It was in America, in 1950, that he divorced his first wife, Regina, with whom he has two children, to immediately remarry with a Canadian, Denise Quimet, his present wife, who also gave him a child.
Simenon never had the idea of making himself a gentleman farmer he just wanted to live within nature. The only animals on his Connecticut farm were snakes, for which his eldest son, Marc (now 17) had a passion. Marc is currently teaching sailing in Cannes. Johnny, his 7-year old second son, thinks his father refuses his wants too often, so he calls him 'Papa No' or 'Daddy No' the children speak both English and French with ease. Since the beginning of 1955, Simenon has reinstalled himself in France, first at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and now in the beautiful sunny villa at Cannes.
Harmonious life in the villa 'Golden Gate'Simenon's great international popularity came without his ever receiving a literary prize. A certain jealousy towards him seemed to exist in 'intellectual' literary circles, bothered by the stupendous success of this essentially 'uncommitted' novelist, devoid of any physical or moral abnormality. Fortunately, the crowd of readers was as indifferent to "these outward signs of spiritual wealth," as those in high government spheres, to which Simenon owes his election to the Royal Academy of Belgium (in 1951) and his rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor (1955).
Although his production has slowed down, Simenon still publishes three to six novels a year. The most rercent are Maigret s'amuse (Maigret's Little Joke), Le petit homme d'Arkhangelsk (The Little Man of Archangel), and En cas de malheur (In Case of Emergency). But there are more and more requests for movie scripts.
"I've just finished one for Clouzot," he tells us. "It is a study of feminine desire. There won't be any violent death in the film, whose temporary title is Strip-tease. I'll soon finish my second script."
"Don't make too much of my 'extraordinary production'," he says, reminding us of the 822 works of Lope de Vega, and the important works of Dickens and Balzac.
Indeed, the danger of overwork doesn't threaten Georges Simenon, who rarely works more than three or four hours a day. He passes the major part of the day in the garden or at the swimming pool of the villa, watching his children swim, or amusing them by appearing as a frog-man in the window of the swimming pool. His other favorite pastime is feeding his goldfish.
"I don't really have any particular affection for them, but they were here when we arrived and we became friends," he confides to us. What he doesn't mention, is that the fish are tame, and have the habit of taking their food from a spoon offered by the novelist. If another person approaches them, they swim away. The faithful dog of Maigret's creator, a beautiful gray poodle, answers to the name 'Mister'. If the author's friends ask, "Mister who?" he answers, "That's the Mister-y!" And the joke is reversible.
The staff of the villa comprises the valet, Michel, the young maid Anna, and a stout gardener who cares for the children, good-humoredly accepting his role as the constant target of the jokes of Jean and Marie-Georges. The household has two cars. Mme Simenon is the only one who knows anything about mechanics. Any breakdown, repair, tinkering or arrangement in the house is in her personal domain. On the other hand, she accepts her spouse's sartorial advice gladly. Mme Simenon is also her husband's perfect secretary. It is she who answers all the letters the author receives about hundred per week, messages for the most part sent to the novelist's publishers, by readers of all countries. There is also a pound of newspaper clippings weekly, to be classified and filed. We have to believe that with his police commissioner's temperament, Simenon likes this meticulous order, which doesn't exclude fantasy, since some of the readers' questions are extremely unexpected or ludicrous.
Simenon's cerebral faculties are characterized by his work system.
"I seek, often for ten or twelve days, the characters who are going to emerge in my next narrative. An odor, the color of a cloud, or a sound, is sometimes sufficient to awaken in my memory a place where I lived some ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. In the same way, my characters, coming from the synthesis of several people met in this place or that, appear progressively in their life setting, and their history begins to crystallize in my mind. When I have determined their age, physical appearance and moral character, it only remains for me to give them a name and the story can begin..."
It must be noted that from that moment, no one can interrupt the author during his work. He puts a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on his office door, and his isolation, for several hours a day, is sacrosanct, even for his wife and children.
So that the names of his characters suit their 'type', Simenon, who possesses a collection of telephone directories of nearly all the world, copies names onto a yellow envelope (the color indispensable for his inspiration), and writes down their age, profession, appearance, family, relationships, etc... He even draws a floor plan of the house, to enable him to enter it in his imagination while composing the story. Once the character list is ready, on the following day, Simenon sits at his machine and types, quickly and nearly without error, in one go, the first chapter of the book. He has sketched a setting, painted his characters, started the action. He looks now for the first three sentences of the second chapter, then leaves his work and doesn't think about it again until the following day. The rate of work remains the same: a chapter a day, and the author can no more foresee the end of his novel than the readers who will move through it. Coffee is his only stimulant. He takes it in thick china 'Mazagran' goblets, as they used to serve it at the café 'Procope'.
translation by Stephen Trussel
Honolulu, October 7, 2005.
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