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Life magazine
May 9, 1969
pp 43-49

 

In Maigret's Paris
with the man who invented it

Michael Mok

photos by Hubert Le Campion

 

Moments before, un panier à salade, brakes squealing, had lurched up over the curbstone on the Quai des Orfèvres. Its prisoners, a young man with a weedy beard and a girl clutching an outsized bag which had lost some of its Pris-unic shine and whose mouth appeared bruised, had been hustled unceremoniously out of the van. Currency smugglers, perhaps, thought the observer, a little trip to Geneva, couchette paid in advance, false bottom in the deceptively shabby suitcase crammed with overvalued francs; smooth-talking contact man, merest hint of a Yugoslav accent, how long has it been since you tasted pease porridge and Eisbein? Not a word, of course, about those comic-opera Swiss policemen who ask ludicrous questions to stall travelers for the benefit of unfunny plainclothesmen mingling with the relatives behind the barriers of the arrival gates, nor about the little room with the battered table and a single chair, empty your wallet please and take off your clothes.

The observer shrugged and stepped into the bistro facing the Palais de Justice. Lunch was over, the chairs were on top of the tables, not what you'd call a place to relax, but he thirstily swallowed the beer she brought him. Hands fit for driving home wedges, high coloring. Brittany? More than likely, he thought. They say a Breton girl can't find work in Paris, unless as a barmaid or prostitute, which probably accounts for the explosions in Brest and Quimper. The priests are in it too, one supposes. Black-and-white flags in the belfry, plastique in the rectory. Plastique has a sweetish smell, like the marzipan fish his grandmother gave him on the first of every April. He drained the last of his beer and strolled across to the P.J.

His entry into the Palais de Justice was impressive by the nature of its very casualness: hands clasped loosely behind his back, pipe set in the center of his mouth, he shouldered past the black-robed lawyers clogging the corridors. Two uniformed policemen were loitering in the stairwell. At his approach, one ground out his Gauloise and the other jerked his hands from his pockets and pressed them along the seams of his trousers. They didn't know who he was, but they could sense he felt absolutely at home. A commissaire from Bordeaux? An inspector from Lyons? Doesn't pay to take chances.

Someone came out of the chief's office and recognized him immediately. "Georges Simenon, my dear fellow! Are you all right?" The detective had a heel-shaped scar on his cheek and the airy walk which marks both the ballet dancer and the man who fights with his feet. (Have you ever seen one of these types in action? They bounce off the deck like an India rubber ball and drive both pointed shoes into some unfortunate's face.) "Perhaps you'd like a nap, or a little lie-down on my couch. In any case, we were just sending out for aperitifs...."

"You know how it is, my friend, I think. . . Well, in short, there's another novel coming on."

"Why didn't you say so? Good God, we should understand if anyone — " He snapped his fingers and a misshapen messenger appeared. "Bring the commissaire a beer," he told the hunchback, "and a sandwich while you're at it. The pâté at the Trois Marchés is not so bad, and tell them he'll want cornichons as well...." Then to Simenon, who was scribbling something on the back of an envelope: "Another novel. You must have written 400 at least."

"Four hundred and eight," said Simenon.

Georges Simenon comes down with a novel four times a year. The delivery never lasts more than eight days and, while the book-producing labor pains are less discomforting than a severe bout of flu, they leave him considerably more debilitated. Simenon has had to live with his creative fevers for a long time. He has written 200 books under his own name, 208 more under a raft of noms de plume, not to mention 1,073 contes, or long short stories. Even so, the creator of the internationally renowned Inspector Maigret is at a loss to tell you how he does it: when an oyster feels peckish, voilà, a pearl; when a whale gets liverish, ambergris — with Simenon the upshot is a simenon (as his books are often called in the 31 countries where they are sold). When one grasps the notion that the literature of Simenon results from a kind of benevolent indisposition, it instantly becomes obvious why the novelist lives the way he does.

Simenon's home, in the hills above Lausanne, Switzerland, is surrounded by enough fenced land to ensure absolute privacy. Its 26 rooms are soundproofed and each room is equipped with a hospital door of heavy steel with rubber facing for silent closing. Simenon's working space, consisting of his libraries, secretaries' offices and the small study in which he writes, can be sealed off from the rest of the house like the reactor room on an atomic submarine. Within his private world, everything has been arranged meticulously for Simenon's comfort. A room humidifier keeps the moisture content of the air in his study at precisely 55%; his swimming pool, a few yards away in a separate building, is heated to 81° in summer and 75° in winter with an air temperature of 86° and 81° respectively. On tables within the working area, tobacco tins containing "Coupe Maigret," his special mixture, are readily to hand and the 278 pipes of his collection are arranged in racks. Twenty-two of the house's 26 rooms have telephones, against the possibility that Simenon might want a quick word with a secretary or one of his seven-member household staff.

Certain critics have said, somewhat uncharitably, that Simenon is weak on plot, and even his enthusiastic partisans (who number in the hundreds of thousands) might admit that in many of his books nothing much seems to happen. This state of affairs bothers Simenon not one whit.

"If I knew how a story was going to end I wouldn't write it because I would have lost all interest in it," says the novelist. "Before I start, I have nothing in mind except two or three main characters. I jot down everything about them on a piece of paper, the back of an envelope, it doesn't matter: their names, birthdays, addresses, telephone numbers, what have you. When these characters are so real to me that they are jumping under my skin, then I am ready to write." At this juncture, Simenon dips into another collection consisting of do-not-disturb signs he has lifted from hotels all over the world and hangs them on the doorknobs that mark the periphery of his private kingdom. His favorite sign is one he stole from New York's Plaza Hotel. (While the author has admitted no such thing, a visitor gets the impression that Simenon is so fastidious that he habitually hangs a specific sign on each different doorknob.) Seated at last behind his electric typewriter, Simenon mentally puts his characters in a situation of stress ("It could be an illness, a car accident, death in the family") and then lets his subconscious take charge.

His production is always the same: a chapter a day for seven days and then a day or two for minor revisions. He never attempts to write for more extended periods because he feels that a week is as long as he can sustain his creative fever, or fury. On several occasions in the past, illness or family crisis has broken into his regimen. Rather than attempt to pick up the threads, he simply abandoned the book.

Once he has finished a novel, Simenon has Xerox copies made which are air-expressed to publishing houses in a dozen different countries, and it is not unusual for a new novel to go on sale in Moscow or New York in translation before appearing in Paris in the original French. (Simenon is extremely popular in the U.S.S.R. In addition to the Russian editions, his books there are translated into the Armenian, Byelorussian, Kirgiz, Lithuanian, Moldavian, Ukrainian, Uzbek and Tatar languages.)

Simenon admits that before he starts writing he is in such a state of tension that he has to take tranquilizers — "by just small amounts; If I were too tranquil I couldn't work, either" — and at the end of a day's work, "I'm drenched with sweat, like a football player, and have to change all my clothes." Though the need for a clear head keeps Simenon abstemious, he sometimes finds himself so nervous and bushed after a book that he lets himself go and has three or four cold glasses of beer to relax. "And then, as you Americans put it, I climb up on the next wagon."

Not long ago, a commission of five doctors studying the creative process quizzed him for seven hours. Simenon didn't mind the exhausting session at all, since he is interested in medicine and psychology himself. What he did mind was that when it was all over the doctors began trying to explain to him how he is able to create novels.

"I don't want to know," roared Simenon, ordinarily the mildest of men. "If I knew how I did it maybe I wouldn't be able to do it anymore!"

He is, however, superlatively open concerning any other aspect of his life — how he passes the time between books, for example. Simenon employs neither agent nor lawyers and personally drafts between six and 12 contracts every week. Since 46 of his novels have been made into motion pictures and 150 other stories have formed the basis of original television plays and since literally millions of copies of his books are circulating globally in various editions that are issued and reissued on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Simenon knows a thing or two about contracts.

He mischievously describes a certain Hollywood bunch who flew to Switzerland to sign papers for a movie. They were so high-powered they had offensive lawyers and defensive lawyers. Their leader suggested that, in all fairness to himself, Simenon ought to call in a lawyer of his own. "Don't worry about me," the author said. "I think I can take care of myself."

Many Simenon fans esteem him most of all as a superb travel writer, a kind of super Michelin guide with an incredibly detailed knowledge of Europe, West Africa and the back alleys of Istanbul and Fairfield, Conn. This is simultaneously true and untrue. "I would be physically incapable of writing five lines about some place I did not know at first hand," says Simenon, "but my craft is not a photographic one — I am what you might consider an impressionist novelist." The truth of this self-evaluation comes clear when you realize that Simenon doesn't get around much anymore. With a lovely wife, four children, four novels a year, six or more contracts to negotiate per week, with a delicately balanced creative impulse to nurture and a house designed exquisitely to nurture it — why should he gad about the world? He doesn't. Just going to Paris nowadays involves a sundering of the web of his life that Simenon would passionately prefer to avoid and, in fact, has avoided as much as possible for two years.

Then how does he do it? Reproduce the smell of the railroad station at Lille on a rainy morning, the deep-throated sound cowbells make only in the Cantal, the eye-stinging dust of Ankara in winter, the excitement of the Antwerp diamond markets — and, above all, Paris in every mood and aspect?

All these scenes and countless more are preserved in Simenon's extraordinary memory like flies held prisoner in amber. Simenon did travel widely for 30 years and more, solely for pleasure, and never, so he says, with a thought to collecting material for his stories. To refresh his memory he will, now and then, dip into a phone book, a road map or a city directory (he has a collection of these things Interpol would envy). But phone books and maps don't give the taste and smell and texture of things, and these are the areas in which Simenon excels. To many readers, Simenon evokes nostalgia, though perhaps they would be hard put to explain why. Very likely it is because the novelist's memory calls forth a reality resembling a coin kept mint-fresh from one's father's day. "I try to create a reality which is realer than the real thing." says Simenon.

Simenon made a trip to Paris the other day to visit a son who is studying zoology at the Sorbonne. He was clearly uncomfortable on the grand boulevards — Etoile, the Rond Point of the Champs Elysées and even Avenue Foch are being torn up in a convulsive effort to provide underground parking for the cars which are strangling France.

"This is not it," he said with a shudder, pocketing his pipe with the coal still glowing in the bowl. "I don't remember it this way." We passed the new Aérogare at the Invalides and he looked the other way. "It is not the same, not real...." (Is he thinking of his own private Paris, preserved in amber for all time?) Then we went to the Place des Vosges ("I lived here for 10 years, the second window on the third floor, you could ask the concierge . . ."), and the dreadful area around the Place de la Bastille was just the way he remembers it. The fishermen on the Canal St. Martin knew him, that is to say, they didn't freeze up when he drifted near, his pipe burbling between his teeth. "The wind is from the west," he said, and they agreed. So at last we came to the Faubourg St.-Denis, which has not changed in centuries. The peddlers selling chestnuts, the sharp onion smell of the leeks, the brassy whores soliciting where they may. "Well," says Simenon-Maigret, "I guess there is a certain frame of reference which — " He is scribbling on an envelope. His face is slick with sweat. "I don't know, I've got to get back. I think I'm about to — " (he looks about to see if anyone is listening) "I think I'm going to have a novel."


With inevitable fedora and pipe, Simenon stands before his home in Epalinges.


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