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LIFE
November 3, 1958
pp 95-108

World's Most Prolific Novelist

 

'Maigret' Author Simenon has written 400 books

 

by HENRY ANATOLE GRUNWALD


An all-Simenon Library receives another volume as the author and his wife add new copy of Le Président to shelves in their chateau. Library contains only Simenon books and translations.

HIS wife is usually the first to notice the spell coming on again. She knows the signs. Her husband, the world's most prolific serious novelist, becomes irritable and wanders morosely about the house, his usually merry brown eyes slightly glazed. He shuffles aimlessly through his stacks of newspapers, and neither his TV set nor his shortwave radio receiver holds his interest. For hours he may speak to no one, not even his dog. Reading the signals, his wife does her best to keep the children out of his way, cancels all appointments and calls the doctor.

Before long her husband will state gruffly: "I'm going to write a novel next week." And so he does, provided the doctor gives his approval.

Georges Simenon is best known to American readers as the creator of that pride of the Paris police judiciaire, Inspector Maigret. Over the years, Simenon has produced the incredible total of 44 Maigret novels — but these are only a fraction of his work. All told, he has written 166 novels under his own name, a figure that does not include innumerable novels he dashed off under various pseudonyms in his younger years as a one-man pulp factory. The total is probably in excess of 400 books.

Today, at 55, Simenon turns out a book in about the time the average writer needs to draft a single chapter, and it takes him only 11 days to write a novel of about 200 pages. In the U.S. alone his books have sold millions of copies, especially in paperback editions (see box, below). He has been published in 24 countries in 28 languages. No fewer than 52 of his books have been sold to the movies. Every year, like a farmer sending his sheep to market, he sells off two or three more. His latest movie to be released in the U.S., Inspector Maigret, stars the great French actor Jean Gabin and has been applauded as "an exciting example of the author's sophisticated work."


SIMENON'S U.S. BEST-SELLERS
More than five million copies of novels by Georges Simenon have been sold in the U.S. alone. The following are the 10 best-selling books in paperback editions:
 
Snow Was Black850,000 copies
Girl in His Past430,000 copies
Act of Passion350,000 copies
I Take This Woman325,000 copies
Heart of a Man275,000 copies
Inspector Maigret and the Burglar's Wife260,000 copies
Inspector Maigret in New York's Underworld236,000 copies
Four Days in a Lifetime236,000 copies
Belle234,000 copies
Strangers in the House230,000 copies

Globally, the presses never stop for Simenon. Every year about 300 new editions of his books appear, many of them reprints, which means on a rough average a new Simenon edition every day of the year except Sundays. It is a heady game to try to estimate how many of his books have flooded the U.S. and the rest of the world in the past 30 years. Simenon and his far-flung publishers defy statistics, but the figure must be in the hundreds of millions.

Georges Simenon writes from four to six books a year and has no intention of reducing this output, provided his health holds out. He does consider writing a considerable health hazard. One reason he finishes his novels in 11 days, he says, is that he could not stand the strain longer than that. He believes each writing bout to be as strenuous as Dr. Jekyll's transformation into Mr. Hyde. As a result, Simenon watches his diet fanatically and keeps a cache of pills in his dining room. He also has his cholesterol count taken regularly. And before launching into a new book, he usually insists that the doctor check his blood pressure and general condition.

Simenon's working routine rarely varies. He writes a chapter a day, every day. (If there is some interruption that keeps him from work for as much as 48 hours, the spell is broken and he discards everything he has already written.) He spends the afternoon writing a new chapter in longhand, then types it the next morning, writes the following chapter that afternoon in longhand, and so on. On a big wall calendar, he crosses off each day with a big red pencil mark. While he works he drinks coffee, which he brews himself, or Coca-Cola, and incessantly smokes a pipe. Like many other writers he feels the need to keep his hands busy while thinking, and for that purpose his wife not long ago had Cartier's make him a monogrammed solid gold ball which Simenon fingers as he broods. He treasures a do-not-disturb sign which he lifted some years ago from New York's Hotel Plaza, but it is not needed. Under his wife's generalship the household knows enough to leave him alone while he is working.

WARNING TO FAMILY, "Do Not Disturb" sign from New York hotel, keeps Simenon's daughter Marie-Georges, 5, from bothering author at work.

Sometimes, though, his well-regulated chateau near Lausanne, Switzerland becomes too confining, and he goes off on a trip to work in some impersonal hotel suite. There he usually moves a table and his typewriter into the bathroom, to avoid interruptions. A born mimic, he is likely to act out the characters he is writing about. Once when he was writing about a particularly brutal character, he was horrified to find himself slapping his wife over some trivial disagreement. Since brutal characters are not rare in his books, Denise Simenon is lucky that she has so far escaped major injuries.

After the 11th cross has appeared on the calendar, Simenon puts the finished manuscript aside for a while, then spends a few days on revisions. These consist mostly of cutting out adjectives, since he passionately believes in a spare, almost austere style. Then, instead of having the manuscript retyped, which would force him to read it all over again, he has the whole book photostatted and sent off to the publisher. Chances are that Simenon will never look at it again.

In the meantime, of course, the doctor has been back to make a check-up. Simenon's blood pressure, which rises as he writes, is almost certainly back to normal.

Themes that sneak up

ONE of the astonishing things about Simenon's literary career is that he has never accidentally written the same book twice, and that he keeps finding new characters and situations to write about. His themes gradually sneak up on him, seize him and work inside him like a virus. A Simenon story develops by a semiconscious process of selection and free association, a process that may seem, to the outsider, more like a slight case of delirium.

As often as not, a Simenon book begins in its author's mind with a sensation of music — gay or sad, fast or slow — and a feeling of color — white or black, wintry or summery. In the case of Simenon's new novel, Le Président, his latest to be published in France, he believes the creative virus took hold when he saw a black and white seaside etching over a mantel. This reminded him of Normandy and in particular of a time many years ago he spent there with a woman friend. With such a start the novel could have turned into a love story, but something — Simenon has no idea what — propelled his memory in other directions. He remembered having seen during that stay in Normandy an old house on a cliff; and so he began to wonder who might have lived there. When his fact-filled mind supplied the information that Premier Georges Clemenceau had lived in the Vendée, Simenon began to think that he would write about some old man ending his days in an old house and looking back on a long life of past glory.

This was about as much as he knew about his book when he began to work in earnest. The first question was: what kind of an old man should it be? An artist? No. Simenon feels that books about artists are almost always bad. A financier? No again, for he feels that a money man lacks touch with the realities of life. Why not — going back to Clemenceau — a politician? Somehow this seemed right: a former président du conseil (premier) would be his hero. What to name him? Simenon spent a whole day on that problem, going through the 150 telephone books of all countries he keeps in his study. Eventually he decided that he could not give him a name at all: a fictitious name for a supposedly real politician would spoil the illusion. He would be known only as "the President."

WORKING AIDS include telephone books of many cities, from which Simenon takes names to use in books, and solid gold ball to keep hands busy.

Simenon's gradually emerging mental picture of his hero demanded that he be of peasant stock (Simenon admires peasants). Where was the President born? Simenon consulted one of the innumerable maps and atlases he keeps handy. The South of France? Too colorful. It would distract from the story's wintry mood. The Loire valley? Too harmonious. Finally he hit on Evreux, in Normandy, a fairly gray industrial town. He then went to his reference books and looked up everything he could about the town: the number of inhabitants, the amount of electricity consumed a year, the names of all the distinguished people born there.

Then he returned to the old man. What kind of a household would an old ex-premier (he filed his age at 82) live in? He would, felt Simenon, have a secretary, a cook, a maid, a chauffeur and probably a nurse. French politics being what it is, the government would want to keep an eye on the old man, and so the chauffeur would probably be a part-time spy. Each of the characters was fitted out with a complete identity — birthplace, ancestry, schooling, all jotted down on a large manila envelope — regardless of whether the information would wind up in the book or not.

Now Simenon asked himself, how does someone like the President spend his days? Writing his memoirs, of course. Simenon decided that he probably scribbles these memoirs on little slips of paper and, like a madman or a child, stashes them away in supposedly secret places all over the house. Why? Because, naturally, they contain revelations. After a long life in politics the old man is sure to know innumerable secrets about others. He is jealous of the younger, stronger men now coming to power, particularly one who once worked for him and about whom he knows some highly damaging facts ....

And so the plot gradually took shape. Sketched in Simenon's mind, however vaguely, there always is an outline of the story's movement which, when he draws it on paper, looks like a fever chart. In the case of Le Président, the temperature rose slowly, then steeply, then slowly again until it hit its peak. Simenon drew it thus:

In other books the fever chart may have a simple straight ascent, or, as in a 1954 book called Belle, a series of dizzying ups and downs:

The fever charts vary more than Simenon's themes. The secret vice beneath the outer virtue, the scandalous dream inside the respectable head, the sudden crack in the stucco of propriety — these are the things that interest him to the point of obsession. To get facts and ever more facts about the murky corners of the world — and about the soul — he befriends cops of all countries, enjoys long dinners with lawyers or doctors and talks shop with prostitutes. In his address book alongside friends, publishers and agents he keeps the names and addresses of call girls all over the world — listed under the letter "F." for filles (which means "girls" in French, but not nice girls).

Georges Simenon is sometimes criticized for the speed of his writing and the spasmodic brevity of his books. Their action usually takes place in a day or two, and into this framework Simenon invariably crams a relentless series of flashbacks through which he tries to reveal everything about a character's past. Simenon intends his books to be read at one sitting just as, in a sense, he writes them at one sitting. What he is aiming at, he says, is the immediate, stunning impact of Greek tragedy: "The novel is the tragedy of our day." That is also why Simenon deals so often with violence and sex, why he seems unalterably fascinated with the shady side of life. He uses violent themes because he feels that, if he is to reveal their true natures, he must drive his characters to their limit.

In one of his earliest successes, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, which was recently republished in the U.S., Simenon wrote about a little man who is suddenly obsessed with the desire to escape from his drab, confining surroundings and, after committing murder, lights out for Paris. The escape theme — physical or psychological flight from a familiar world and from oneself — has been one of the most frequent in Simenon's books. Sex itself Simenon regards as a kind of escape, often an escape into an innocent, primitive state of nature. Another form of escape that fascinates him is what sociologists call social mobility: people rising above or falling below their origins. But whatever the means, there is one common message in virtually all his stories: escape is really impossible.

The escape theme not only appears in Simenon's writing but is plainly stamped on his whole life. In his youth in Liège, a drab Belgian industrial town, Simenon clearly was a young man who watched the trains go by. He managed to get on a train. Since then he has taken all the trains, all the boats and all the planes, and he is still on the move. Again and again he has tried to settle down. In the last 30 years, not counting various boats on which he spent months at a time, he has had 27 different domiciles, including apartments, hunting lodges, estates, castles, farms and ranches. The longest he ever lived in any one place was five years in Lakeville, Conn., but in the spring of 1955 he got restless again and went back to Europe. He still owns the Connecticut place and until recently rented it out for what he considered a highly worthwhile purpose: as a home for unwed mothers.

The Simenons' present establishment in Switzerland has all the signs of permanence: a dog, a governess, a pretty and efficient secretary, vast and orderly stores of Simenon books, a formidable filing system superintended by Mrs. Simenon. Almost as if to subdue the restless spirit of the past, neatly dated envelopes have been provided for the stacks of photographs yielded by Simenon's far-ranging travels, including some snapshots of bare-bosomed beauties in Bali, of Dorothy Lamour at 19, and of a respectful prostitute in Cuba who autographed a picture in gratitude for help and advice Mr. and Mrs. Simenon gave her. Simenon happily drives to the village twice a week to do the marketing, he watches television, he putters in the garden. And yet all the filing systems, all the possessions, all the gardens from Lausanne to Bali, cannot really subdue his restlessness. With his quick, nervous gestures and his darting eyes, he seems hunted. He says, "One day I will took out this window and ask myself, 'What does it all have to do with me?'" Then, he feels, he will want to cut all strings and move on. He adds, "I am at home everywhere, and nowhere. I am never a stranger and I never quite belong."

Simenon was 15 when a doctor told him that his father, a gentle, unambitious insurance man, was suffering from an incurable heart disease and had only two or three more years to live. It was time for Simenon to quit school and earn a living. As a child he had hoped to enter either the army or the priesthood because he thought that, of all the occupations, these would leave him the most free time to write. Now he thought there must be easier was to become a writer. At 16 he got a reporter's job on the Gazette de Liège and before long he covered fires, fairs and even had a column of his own.

Simenon's mother, a formidable woman devoted to order, cleanliness, piety and solvency, disapproved of his newspaper career. She wanted him to become a pastry cook. The idea of running a bakeshop appealed to her: the fresh, white, appetizing atmosphere with herself enthroned behind the cash register. At one time Simenon was actually apprenticed to a pastry cook but lasted only two weeks, although he can still make pastry. In silent protest against his mother Simenon chose mostly Bohemian friends and spent his nights in Liège nightclubs.

(Today his 78-year-old mother still lives in Liège, having outlasted a second husband. She still thoroughly disapproves of her son. "Why don't you ever write a book about nice people and good Catholics," she will say, "instead of all these criminals?'")

Simenon was 19 and had written one rather amateurish novel when he decided to get out of Liège and seek his fortune in Paris. Before escaping one form of bondage, however, he had managed to enter another: he got married. His wife was the daughter of a local cabinetmaker and, as he recalls, "She was blond, very quiet. strong-minded and coldblooded, just the type of woman I don't like. The day I was married I knew I would not be happy." Not long after their marriage the Simenons began to go their separate ways.

In Paris. Simenon soon discovered the pulps. Making careful inquiries, he found that he could have a comfortable existence, including car and chauffeur, if he wrote 80 pages a day. This he proceeded to do. He wrote pulp fiction under 17 different pseudonyms. turning out about 300 novels and novelettes in a little more than four years. They ranged from sugar "for young ladies" to spice "for old gentlemen." Before long Simenon had a classy apartment which contained, he boasts, the first private bar in Paris. The bar was always well attended. He recalls. "Many times, when the place was littered with guests who were fast asleep after a night's drinking, dawn would find me stepping over the cadavers and making my way to the typewriter."

One day, restless again, he took his typewriter aboard a small motor launch and began touring the rivers and canals of France. Soon people in various river ports were startled to see Simenon sitting in his boat, his typewriter propped against the dockside, typing away furiously. Eventually he acquired a larger craft, the Ostrogoth, and off and on for 3½ years he floated through Belgium, Holland, Germany and the Mediterranean. On one of these trips Simenon, then 25, wrote his first two Maigret stories. When he brought them back to Paris, his publisher was dismayed. Maigret was all wrong for a fictional detective. For one thing he was a professional cop, not an amateur sleuth. Furthermore his methods were not scientific. He was not guided by brilliant deduction or obscure clues. There were, strictly speaking, no heroes and no villains, and there was no love interest. Maigret was corpulent and middle-aged and he was also happily married. Eventually, however, the publisher decided to take a chance. Simenon hired a Montparnasse nightclub, largely at his own expense, and gave a ball to launch Maigret. The launching required innumerable cases of champagne for more than 1,000 invited and uninvited guests. By the time the hangovers began to clear away the next day, Maigret was the talk of Paris.

SIMENON'S HERO, Inspector Maigret, is played by Jean Gabin in new movie. Here he waits for killer to betray himself during crime re-enactment.

Several times Simenon has tried to stop writing Maigret stories, but he has not been allowed to. He has even brought Maigret back out of retirement to still the clamor from publishers and public. Over the years the Maigret stories have become increasingly plotless and their hero increasingly unheroic. Undoubtedly he can handle firearms if he has to, but his pipe is more characteristic. His mind at work never displays the intricacies of a cocaine fancier like Sherlock Holmes or the deviousness of a beer and orchid addict like Nero Wolfe. Maigret patiently collects facts and more facts until he feels he fully understands the characters he is dealing with. An important "clue" is not a cigaret butt found on the rug but an insight into a girl's degree of jealousy, a hunch that a suspect may have a secret desire for a quiet life in the country, a theory about a blackmailer's hidden social ambitions. Maigret has the shrewd mind of a peasant or a petit bourgeois who has been in the big city for a long time and understands its people, their ways and their motives as he would understand his crop or his shop. Like his creator, Maigret is forever the witness who has seen everything, is astonished by nothing and does not moralize. He is a cop, not a judge, just as Simenon is a storyteller, not a thinker.

The deer that wept

AFTER the success of Maigret and while he was gradually working his way into serious novels, Simenon started buying estates. The most remarkable was a chateau in the dank, dark Forest of Orléans. The chateau, called La Cour-Dieu, came with a lot of shooting land, and Simenon eagerly decided to become a hunter. The first day he went out, he wounded a deer and had to give the animal the coup de grâce. Before it was over, he insists, both the deer and Simenon wept. He was through with hunting after that, but forestry regulations required a certain quota of animals to be shot on his land during the season, and so twice a week Simenon organized large and expensive hunting parties. It was a harrowing experience. "Many of my Paris friends," he says, "would bring their mistresses out with them. They looked adorable in their new hunting outfits, you understand, but they didn't know very much about shooting. I was always terrified that they would kill one of the beaters. My God, how much insurance I carried for those beaters!"

Before long Simenon took off for Tahiti.

By the time World War II broke out, he had used up several more houses and traveled around the world a couple of times but had never stopped writing. Cut off by the lightning German advance from returning to Belgium, Simenon lived quietly in occupied France, unmolested by the Nazis. In 1945 he journeyed to Canada and the U.S.

Soon after arriving in New York, Simenon mentioned to a publisher friend that he needed a secretary. Denise Ouimet, pretty daughter of a French Canadian Government official, applied for the job by telephone, and Simenon suggested an interview over lunch at the Brussels restaurant in Manhattan. Right from the hors d'oeuvres they felt "the thunderbolt," as the French call love at first sight. Lunch over, Simenon asked Denise to have dinner with him that same evening. Pondering the invitation and its implications. Denise started to walk back to her hotel several blocks away and decided on a private gamble with fate. If the lights on the way to the hotel were all green, she would go to dinner with Simenon. If she ran into any red ones. she would refuse. All the lights were green, and that evening Simenon proposed. (Denise claims that later she took the same walk many times without once again hitting the all-green streak.) Denise and Simenon were married sometime later, after he got a divorce from his long-estranged first wife.

One of the odd things about Simenon's serene and comfortable home is that there are virtually no books in it except those by Georges Simenon. He gave up reading other people's books long ago. His excuse is fear of unconscious plagiarism, but he also has the notion that if some other author's book is bad, it will make Simenon feel conceited, and if it is good, it will make him feel depressed.

If Simenon did read his competitors, would he have cause to be conceited or depressed? Whatever is said for or against his work, it is impossible not to admire the accuracy, the unfailing psychological insight, the unfaltering eye for the small but convincing human details that he brings to his stories of men obsessed. He has been called a master of abnormal psychology. But what makes him really remarkable is a grasp of the fact that the step from the normal to the abnormal — the step beyond the limit — can be frighteningly short in an ordinary life.

The best testimonial to Simenon's psychological insight comes not from the critics but from the thousands of readers who keep writing him for advice. Perhaps the most extraordinary among these letters came to Simenon some years ago from a rich South American alcoholic. The letterwriter told Simenon how his playboy life in Europe had destroyed him; how, despite wife and children, he could find no meaning in existence. What happened as a result of this letter might well be the plot of a Simenon book, and perhaps will be some day.

Simenon replied and asked the man to write him again. Gradually the South American unfolded his life story and Simenon urged him to put it in book form. For two years, regularly, Simenon got chapter after chapter, sent back criticisms, praised and encouraged. The man stopped drinking and his wife and children showered Simenon with letters of gratitude. He became the South American's hero, his link to life. Finally, the book nearly finished, the man decided he must meet Simenon and made arrangements to fly to the U.S. Simenon went to meet the plane, but the South American was not in it.

Weeks later Simenon learned what had happened. Just before leaving, the reformed alcoholic was overwhelmed by the thought of finally meeting his benefactor, the man who had given him a reason to live. To banish his nervousness and steady himself for the great experience, he went into the airport bar to have one drink. A few hours later he was taken to the hospital with delirium tremens and died soon afterward of a heart attack.

It was, Simenon feels wryly, just another case of a man driven to his limit.

Lighting one of his 46 pipes, Simenon ponders new Maigret book he was writing when photographed last week. By now he will have finished it.


photographs by Yves Debraine
Gabin still from "Maigret", Lopert Films, Inc.


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