The Simenon Phenomenon
HE WRITES A BOOK IN 33 HOURS
Critics acclaim his novels in 18 languages
and the public reads them by the millions
Produced by MARGERY DARRELL
WHEN Georges Simenon was barely out of his teens, he crippled a typewriter by writing a novel on it at one sitting. In his mid-twenties, he needed six publishers and 16 pen names to take care of his output. Today, at 50, he takes it easy. He holds himself to six novels a year, written at what is, for him, the leisurely pace of 33 hours per novel.
Born in Liège, Belgium, in 1903, Simenon was a disappointment to his mother, who had hoped he would become a baker. When he was 17, Georges chose Paris, where he learned to write by the simple expedient of writing all the time. "I wrote trash," he says. He regarded these years as a training period.
At the age of 27, he considered himself ready for an advanced project, his Inspector Maigret series of whodunits. Maigret, a rotund Parisian sleuth, was a success all over Europe and soon the books were being translated into 18 languages. Occasionally, since Maigret's debut, Simenon has tried to ditch him. But public outcry saved the detective every time. With the Inspector Maigret series, what was to be a major Simenon characteristic emerged: preoccupation with the motivation rather than the identity or method of a criminal. This theme has reached its peak in the novels Simenon writes today what he calls "pure" novels or novels of crime without a detective device (The Snow Was Black, The Girl in His Past, The Heart of a Man, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By). In these, which Simenon regards as his best, he probes the minds of prostitutes, actors, harried bookkeepers, resentful wives, looking for buried feelings that burst out in acts of violence. To refine his understanding, Simenon traveled many times around the world, talking to all types of people. "Everyone," says his wife, "tells him everything. He guesses a little, they think he already understands, and soon even fortunetellers and clergymen forget themselves,"
"We Are Not So Much Good as Lucky"
From his searchings, Simenon draws one conclusion: The difference between the law-abiding citizen and the criminal is simply that the criminal has been driven past the point of endurance and loses control of himself. "You and I," says Simenon, "we are not so much good as we are lucky."
Simenon's psychological insight, which electrifies his tales of rape, murder and extortion, is the secret of his success, both with the critics and the public. The late French novelist and critic André Gide considered him perhaps the greatest living novelist in French literature, for his deft handling of psychological intangibles. Another Simenon admirer is the famous poet T.S. Eliot. As for the public's attitude, the New American Library, publishers of his paperback books, can count on selling 1,200,000 "simenons" annually.
During Simenon's writing stints, he rises at six and types steadily for three hours. For 11 days, he follows this regime rigidly. At the end of that time, he has produced a novel.
It irritates Simenon that he does not know how many novels he has written. When he wrote under 16 names in Paris, no one kept count. Some maintain that the total figure is near 450, but Simenon will say only that he has written about 155 books since 1932. "I write fast, because I have not the brains to write slow," he explains.
"Of the Good Novels, I Am Jealous"
To accommodate such speed, Doubleday & Company, his hard-cover publishers, have just signed a history-making contract with him which provides for the delivery of 20 Simenon novels in the next two years. (Some of these will be works which have appeared abroad but have never been distributed in the U.S.) This small library of simenons will be published in multiple volumes, several novels in each. Scheduled to lead off the new program next March is a volume entitled Tidal Wave, which contains three novels.
Simenon has moved to the United States and now lives quietly with his family in Lakeville, Conn. For relaxation, he reads biography and history. He admires William Faulkner and occasionally rereads Balzac, but he avoids contemporary fiction. "Of the good novels," he says, "I am jealous." He believes the most vital fiction today is being written in the hinterland of the U.S., not in the cultural meccas of Paris, Rome and New York. "I like plain people, people who are not all the time thinking about the impression they make and taking notes on them-selves. The best thing is for the writer to know the garbage collector."
Simenon leads the life of a plain man himself. He dandles baby Marie-Georges, teases his French-Canadian wife Denise, amuses his four-year-old son Jean. His older son. Marc, 14, admits readily that he has never read any of his famous father's works. "Haven't got time," Marc says, "have to read the comics." His father grins broadly. "Started at the Hotchkiss School this year, you know," he says, "and he's taking French literature. You know what they may use for supplementary reading? My novels."
At home in rural Connecticut, Simenon leads a quiet life far removed from the hectic existence of his fictional characters.
December 15, 1953, pp 62, 64