Georges Simenon will always be the man with the pipe, the prolific writer among the most read in the world, the French-speaking novelist the most adapted to the screen. He is a true phenomenon, who made of literature more than a career — a way of life. With the centenary of his birth, February 13, 1903, in Liège, this controversial author, as much adulated as decried, comes back into the light. A necessarily nebulous light, that doesn't always succeed in illuminating all aspects of this life that ended discreetly one night in September 1989. His unclassifiable work corresponds in all points to the man's legend mysterious, sometimes troubling, iconoclastic and much too calm to be just the reflection of a simple writer, past master of the art of muted atmosphere...
The son of an insurance company accountant, Georges Simenon stops his studies in 1918 to provide for his family's needs. He works for a time at the Gazette de Liège 784 columns and about 1,500 articles! Yet it is not the talent of a Liégeois journalist that will explode onto the world, but that of the creator of Commissioner Maigret. He launches his career like a marketing and public relations pro, in advance by inviting all who counted in the literary world to an "anthropometric" ball, as he calls it. The phenomenon is derided in the press but a hit with the public. Maigret becomes a hero, a product snatched up by readers. Simenon never stops adding to the adventures of his pipe-smoking policeman. In 1931, between March and December, he writes eight Maigrets and another novel!
Love is an illness that is not good to catch, according to the sly philosophy that Simenon maintains in his novels. And yet, the passion comes to Simenon the man extensively. If he gets engaged precociously to Regina Renchon, nicknamed Tigy, his appetite for assignation is far from abated, especially after settling in Paris! Like everyone, he falls under the spell of Joséphine Baker.... but not content to look, he charms her, takes her, loves her like a madman! He is 23, the American 20. After a passionate relationship of two years, Simenon will escape, "so as not to become Mr. Baker" he says, not to let himself be eaten by the tigress... It is late on that he will know such a deep love again Teresa, an Italian in his service since 1962 will become the salt of his life. It is while holding her hand that he dies on September 4, 1989, at 3:30 in the morning.
At 36, family life will catch up Simenon with the birth of his first son, Marc. Followed by that of John, Marie-Jo and then Pierre, with Denyse Ouimet, his second wife. In May 1978, a terrifying drama will shatter the family. His daughter commits suicide at twenty-five. Dead of wanting too much to deserve her father's love. He shuts himself away in Lausanne. He scatters her ashes in his garden and speaks to her in his heart. Until the day he decides to take up his pen to apply to her story. His "Intimate Memoirs" tells it in a shattering manner. He joins to this last book some of Marie-Jo's texts, letters and poems. And fulfills thus the promise that he had made to her, that one day their signatures would be side by side, on the cover of a book.
Arriving in Paris, Simenon rents a room in the small Hotel Berthe. It is December 11, 1922. Under its mansard roof, an iron bed, a bamboo sink with a chipped pan, two chairs, no carpet. All for 25 francs. On the first morning, he discovers croissants and eats twelve! It will take but a short time to transform this young beginner of life into an elegant man hardened to manners, who will constantly rub shoulders with the personalities of the in-crowd of Paris. Acquiring money and recognition very quickly, Georges Simenon will be everywhere, between plans for career and acceptance...
by Jean-Baptiste Baronian
The story is well known. Not only because Georges Simenon told it in his memoirs, but also because the press, at the time, echoed it abundantly...
It is Sunday, September 18, 1972, Epalinges, seventeen kilometers from Lausanne, in an enormous building, a deluxe villa/mansion, that has been Simenon's home for close to nine years where he has produced some thirty novels, including the famous Cat, adapted to the cinema in 1971 by director Pierre Granier-Deferre, with Simone Signoret and Jean Gabin in the lead roles.
When he gets to his office and shuts in himself in, Simenon feels full of energy. As every time he is about to begin a new novel, he follows a small ritual, from which he has almost never varied, whose special rules he had long ago established: to sit down at his worktable, sharpen his pencils always the same brand and to write on a large yellow envelope the identities of the main protagonists of the story, including, if necessary, their ages and what they do in life, if not physical details or character features.
This is the title that Simenon has just chosen, which he immediately writes on a corner of the envelope.
From that point, in principle, all should flow. For him, in the immense majority of cases, the beginning of a book is bound to a sensory memory. It could be a noise or an odor, but as easily the uncontrolled, uncontrollable evocation of a face, the profile of a someone glimpsed one day from afar. Or an expression, a vague gesture, a woman's imperceptible swaying walk down the middle of the street, or exiting with a lustful air her bedroom door. But that Sunday, queerly, no such thing occurs. Nothing. Emptiness. A total blank. An awful, terrifying sensation of impotence. What some critics call, rightly or wrongly, the dizziness of the white page. In any case, something that in fifty years of uninterrupted writing Simenon has never known, and which he has never considered for a second. And which represents suddenly to his eyes a circumstance so singular, so disconcerting and so serious, that he immediately makes the decision, without worrying or temporizing, to never more write novels.
At the end of some months, he realizes nevertheless that his need to express himself is always there. There are things, many things, that he wants to say. Ideas he would like to defend or attack. Images that don't stop crossing his mind. Which come mostly from his past, from his event-filled childhood in Liège, the city where he first saw the light of day, on February 13, 1903. Or from the less distant past. For example, his stay in the United States, from 1945 to 1955, on which it would not displease to him to express his feelings.
Resolved to not change his mind and go back on his decision, he buys himself a tape recorder and he makes it his confidant. "A small tape recorder replaced my typewriter on my work bench," he says. "It is a lot less impressive and, as I had never dictated up to now, it is for me rather a toy than an instrument of work." These sentences represent the first pages of Un homme comme un autre (A man like any other), the first of Simenon's twenty-one Dictées (Dictations) that will appear in bookstores from 1975 to 1981, and which each constitute subject compilations of a mélange of topics: travel, men of letters, couples, women, the education of children, honors, anarchy, ecology, the military draft, solitude, television, the Tour de France...
A man like any other.
Curious, very curious, that he should choose this title to begin with, isn't it?
Probably because at the outset, Simenon's pace was that of an individual having reached old age, anxious to live out the balance of his life quietly. In his case, to explain where he comes from, about his parents, Désiré and Henriette Simenon, as well as his numerous family in his "rainy" native city, where he wished to go after having started at sixteen at the Gazette de Liège... Under what circumstances he then settled in Paris, soon turned himself toward the popular novel and from there arrived, at the end of the 1920s, to give birth to the character of Commissioner Maigret.
Before establishing him throughout the world.
Before establishing himself, Georges Simenon. His name and his image. Isn't that why he was almost always photographed with his hat, his pipe and overcoat? Making sure that that image was always reproduced on the jackets of his books. Before becoming one of the rare superstars of 20th century literature. Someone as famous, as glorious, as Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso or Winston Churchill.
As if all that were nothing special.
As if the fabulous route that he followed could have been that of any other person, if he had some ambition, a bit of talent and some nerve. And not forgetting a little luck. Just when it is necessary to have some. Just at the right moment. Just when your horoscope is at its zenith.
Except that that is absolutely not the case.
Wouldn't we be dreaming?
Because, to be sure, it is impossible, unthinkable, that a man like any other could do everything that Simenon did during his long existence and live it all, everything that he lived. Impossible, unthinkable, that a writer like any other could have inked as many pages and published as many books in the more than fifty years of his career: some two hundred novels published under the name of Georges Simenon, close to a hundred and sixty under about forty pseudonyms, like Christian Brulls, Germain d'Antibes, Georges-Martin Georges, Georges Sim, Lue Dorsan or Jean du Perry, twenty-five autobiographical works (including the voluminous Intimate Memoirs in 1981), articles, essays...
To which is added a multitude of columns of mood and humor. Like the hundreds he wrote for the Gazette de Liège, when he was still but a very young journalist, running the streets of Liège, disguised as an adult, a bowler on his head and a cigarette glued to the corner of his lips, who felt as keen a pleasure in frequenting swindlers, grafters, cabaret-men or prostitutes as vicars, booksellers, policemen or street vendors a multi-colored and composite fauna that Simenon first set out in Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien (Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets) of 1931, and then especially, in Les Trois Crimes de mes amis (The three crimes of my friends), a novel stuffed with keys and autobiographical references, that appeared from Gallimard in 1938.
Thousands and thousands of pages.
And not dedicating himself exclusively to writing. He was constantly traveling, from one country or continent to another, sometimes by boat, sometimes by car. All the while, until he approached about sixty, on the alert, ready to go, always tossed between two domiciles. Insatiable in his thirst to know the world, to discover new latitudes, new faces. Insatiable also in his sexual appetites and not hesitating besides, to boast about them at the least opportunity, with no restraint, never mincing words.
And to say that Simenon would be confronted with doubt, live in empty or difficult periods, know decreases of speed or literary failures, setbacks and painful reverses of fortune, come up against the indifference of the public after having had success and after having gained a lot of money!
Which is the lot, alas, of innumerable creators and innumerable artists whose beginnings were triumphal! And which would have banished Simenon exactly to a novelist's rank like any other. Of a man like any other.
But is he a man like any other, with a pedigree like his?
Is he a writer like any other when he invents his own novelistic color? When he creates all the pieces of his own style a style that we recognize after just a few lines and that we identify with incredible ease, so striking, so much his voice, a fascinating mixture of spoken language, poetic language and realism, simple and clear?
Is he a writer like any other when he revolutionizes the art of the detective novel with the character of Maigret, and succeeds in conferring on him universal status? When this Maigret, so lumpish, so slow to spring, so inactive, so taciturn and passing so much time sitting in a café before a beer or a glass of liqueur, when this Maigret becomes a myth, one of most prominent of his kind, along with the unmanageable Sherlock Holmes and the ridiculous Hercules Poirot?
Is he a writer like any other when he has sold close to five hundred and sixty million books in the four corners of the planet and has been translated in several score of languages?
Is he a writer like any other when the novels that he published inspired sixty feature films and hundreds of television movies, in Europe, America and Asia? When these novels have been adapted by such talented film-makers as Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carné, Henri Decoin, Henry Hathaway, Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Chabrol, Bertrand Tavernier and Patrice Leconte? When some of their titles have become film classics even if they are not all masterpieces notably La Nuit du carrefour, Panique, La Vérité sur Bébé Donge, La neige était sale, En cas de malheur, Maigret tend un piège, Maigret et l'Affaire Saint-Fiacre, Le Fond de la bouteille, L'Aîné des Ferchaux, Le Chat, Les Fantômes du chapelier, L'Horloger de Saint-Paul and Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, that mysterious and pathetically impossible love story? When the actors who played them include, among others, Pierre Renoir, Raimu, Michel Simon, Viviane Romance, Albert Préjean, Fernandel, Françoise Arnoul, Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Alain Delon, Annie Girardot, Romy Schneider, Philippe Noiret, Jean Rochefort, Sandrine Bonnaire, Michel Blanc, Michel Serrault, Charles Aznavour and Carole Bouquet? And Bruno Crémer, naturally, the excellent Maigret in all his television appearances? Is he a writer like any other when examinations and studies of his works never cease, when he is constantly the subject of symposia, seminars, proceedings, meetings, exhibitions, festivals, commemorative days, special issues of magazines, large and small, commercial and limited, and magazine supplements?
Is he a writer like any other when he enters the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade and one fine day takes his place next to some of his most important equals, Marcel Proust, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, François Mauriac, William Faulkner and Vladimir Nabokov? When for decades he has been disparaged, called a pen-pusher, trash-producer, dauber, scribbler and a writer who uses French "like touching the strings of a violin with a broom handle"? When he has long been viewed as the paragon of station literature? Is he a writer like any other, when he is spoken of at all times with formulas like "the Simenon case," "the Simenon mystery," "the Simenon enigma," "the Simenon phenomenon," "the Simenon miracle"?
Is he a writer like any other when, for the celebration of the centenary of his birth he receives such great homage and so much interest?
No, by titling the first of his Dictations, A man like any other, Simenon was obviously playing with his readers.
Or possibly, irritated to hear and read cartloads of silliness about himself, unhappy to constantly be held up as a curious beast, he allowed himself a joke.
Because there is no doubt that very early, very young, Simenon realized that he had a genius for fiction and incredible assets an outstanding power for work, and an extraordinary ability to concentrate completely on a novel, to the point of writing one in a week...
There is no question that Simenon always took care of his business in the manner of the most efficient company manager. Leaving nothing to chance. Without signing anything carelessly. We can believe that, since the release of his first books in Paris, in the middle of 1920s, he programmed himself to become a literary star.
It is an old family photo as exists almost everywhere, some thousands and thousands on the five continents: the four Simenons in Liège, around 1908. On the left the father, Désiré, and on the right the mother, Henriette. They are seated on a bench and they frame their two sons, Christian, the youngest, two, and Georges, the eldest, age five.
Georges, the future creator of Maigret, is standing, right in the middle of the image. He is wearing boots, short pants, a kind of padded jacket and an enormous scarf around his neck like an ornate pendant. He has his arms crossed and his eyes seem to challenge the lens, the photographer, the world. Far-seeing.
Sure of himself and very determined.
The very opposite of a fragile child you could laugh at, or easily fool.
The air of already setting an appointment with fame and glory.
The air of perfectly knowing what he should do or shouldn't to get there the most quickly, by the best routes.
All of Simenon is in this photo.
With the passing of time, it cries out its significance.
by Jérôme Bègle
wrote more than 1,000 books, and used 40 pseudonyms
When did you meet Georges Simenon?
In 1959. Gallimard had proposed that I write a small book presenting the life and work of a 20th century author. I immediately thought of Simenon, who seemd to me one of the unrecognized greats of our time. I wrote to ask him if he could give me the titles of the books he had written under pseudonym. He invited me to visit his Swiss property of Echandens, where I stayed several days. And we drew up an inventory of all his books. There were already several hundred of them, not including stories.
Personally, since 1959, did you consider him a great writer?
There were few of us who thought so, but I was not the only one. André Gide considered him to be a literary giant, but at the time it was kept a secret.
Why is Georges Simenon a great author?
The word style doesn't have the same meaning for him as for a writer like Saint-Simon, Flaubert, Voltaire, Anatole France or Proust. Yet, Simenon's style is exceptional. When an author succeeds in creating, in less than a page, a sensation that only he knows how to make you feel, it is certainly to his style, and not to his philosophy of life or opinions on society that he owes it. With him it is obvious that you are in the presence of an artist, and not a simple workman. Like Balzac, also a visionary, who was treated during his life as a serialist or writer who didn't know how to write. Simenon expressed like noone else the anguish of being alone, the uneasiness of what has been called the incommunicability of human life. Only today do we perceive that it was a constant character of our century, while Simenon made it a dominant feature since the beginning of his work.
He's not the only...
Of course. There are some close similarities between "La veuve Couderc" (Ticket of Leave) and "L'étranger" (The Stranger), so that some have long wondered whether Camus had not been influenced by Simenon.
Which of Simenon's books would you recommend to someone who had never read him?
The first answer that comes to the mind is "Any!" With the Maigrets the tragedy is seen and lived from the outside. Those novels are less "hard" than the others. The commissioner is not a hero, he is more spectator than actor. But one might also read "Lettre à mon juge" (Letter to My Judge), "La fuite de monsieur Monde" (Monsieur Monde Vanishes), "L'ainé des Ferchaux" (The First-Born) or "Le testament Donadieu" (The Shadow Falls). All are admirable.
Simenon's life is peppered with a thousand anecdotes...
Most are false...
Was there an operating theater in the basement of his Swiss house, in Epalinges?
No. There was only a playroom for his children. It was immense, and one day Simenon said that if he were to sell his house, the purchaser could turn it into anything he wanted, for example, to make it an operating room. From this whimsical remark, someone deduced that the room indeed existed. In the same way, someone proposed to Simenon to write a novel in twelve hours shut in a glass cage so that the public could attend the event. It didn't take place, but some still swear to have been there...
What did he read?
Very few novels. He read a lot of newspapers and devoured The Lancet, the English language medical journal. He was fascinated by medicine. Moreover, Maigret's friend is a physician with a very meaningful name, Dr. Pardon.
Was he very rich?
He wrote an enormous number of books, that he published the same year in ten countries. Later, these became movies or a television series for his Maigret. In the worse of cases his novels sold 30,000 copies, but some passed 100,000. Obviously, this production assured him of a large income. As a child, Simenon was very poor. He suffered from it, and later took advantage of his ease. The house that he had constructed at Epalinges, above Lausanne, was spacious and comfortable, but it was not the Xanadu of Citizen Kane.
The sexual escapades attributed to him, are they truth or legend?
He liked to make love several times a day. But he was not obsessed nor an exhibitionist. Very quickly, he became a character for magazines, and newspapers from all over the world come to look at the phenomenon. Simenon put on a little act to serve his character. He clashed with the literary world. He was not upper middle class, not Parisian, not a professor. But very young he became a living legend, and that is the stuff that newspapers and television seek by preference.
Did Georges Simenon suffer from a lack of literary recognition?
In the beginning, yes. Then he found himself a reason. But he always held a grudge against Paris and the literary environment.
Did he change after his daughter's death?
It was certainly the major drama of his life. When he wrote his Intimate Memoirs in 1981, it was to get to the end of his pain, and to try to answer the questions that he put to himself. When Marie-Georges's mother spent several months in a mental hospital, Simenon went to see her every day. I was a witness to his great suffering. To such a point that he was obliged to ask for a divorce, because the situation threatened to break up the family. For Marie-Georges the separation of her parents didn't solve anything. After her suicide Simenon withdrew into himself, not going out and not receiving company.
What was his relationship with his publishers?
He defended his royalties fiercely and distrusted all publishers. He was careful to keep his distance. When Gallimard tried to attract him, Simenon discussed the contract, and then, after having signed, told him, "M. Gallimard, there are two things you must know. The first is that I will never have lunch with you, and the second is that I will never call you Gaston." He was anxious to show that it was the publisher who needed him, and not the opposite. He had the pride, sometimes a bit aggressive, of those who had drooled some in the beginning of their life.
Translation: Stephen Trussel
Honolulu, June 23, 2005
Bernard de Fallois: Simenon. Paris, Gallimard, 1961. 305 pp, plates, collection La Bibliothèque Idéale. revised edition, 1971.
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