Liège lived in Simenon until the end
Books in hand, Le Témoignage de l'enfant de choeur and Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien, a pilgrimage to the novelist's sources in Liége
|Outremeuse, where the spirit of Simenon still breathes. |
"Here, in Outremeuse, everyone still calls him 'Sim'."
A quiet, wide street, nearly new, with houses pretty much the same, two or three stories at most, as one finds in the large provincial cities.
All the district was new, without mystery, inhabited by quiet and modest people, employees, commercial travellers, retirees, peaceful widows...
The courtyard of the Institute Saint-André, where little Georges played under the severe eye of his mother.
Rue de la Loi. An unimportant street in Liège. Or, to be more precise, on the island of Outremeuse, which is not exactly Liège in the minds of its inhabitants. This district forms the setting for "Le Témoignage de l'enfant de choeur," a Maigret written in 1946. It is here that Simenon lived, at No. 53, between 1911 and 1917, when he was an altar boy, when he was a mischievous kid and his mother had refused to buy him the bicycle that he wanted so much. Nothing has changed, or very little. Of course, behind the large coach doors of the Institute Saint-André, cars are now parked. In the past, it had been the recreation yard. And from the second floor, Simenon's mother had looked out at her little genius of a son at play.
Maigret, the collar of his overcoat turned up, had stuck himself into the corner of a coach door, that of the boys' school, and he waited, watch in hand, smoking his pipe.
Quarter to six. The door opens, and Justin, the choirboy, joins Maigret.
He takes the first street on the right, also a quiet street, shorter, which opens onto a round square planted with elms, crossed diagonally by tramway tracks.
The first street on the right... Rue Pasteur, today Rue Simenon. Young Georges lived with his parents at No. 25 between 1905 and 1911. The tram doesn't pass there anymore. But you can still see on the facades the anchorage that served to support the electric cables. Once, the round Place du Congrès was planted with elms...
And Maigret noticed the minuscule details that recalled his childhood. First that the youngster didn't walk next to the houses, probably because he was afraid to see someone suddenly emerging from the shadow of a doorstep. And then, to cross the square, he even avoided trees, behind whose trunks a man could have hidden.
Rue de la Province, that Simenon named Rue Sainte-Catherine in "Le Témoignage de l'enfant de choeur".
"It was there, in the middle of the sidewalk, that the body seen by little Justin had been found," murmured Jean-Denys Boussart, of the City of Liège tourist bureau, and Mayor of the autonymous township of Outremeuse. This connoisseur of the works of Simenon organises guided tours of the city on the theme of the great writer.
The sidewalk where Justin discovered a body. Maigret repaid him for his testimony by offering him a bicycle.
The body discovered by the young choirboy on his way to the 6:00 mass... The body which young Simenon, afraid of the dark, had no doubt imagined a thousand times. The body lying, therefore, in the middle of the Rue de la Province / Sainte-Catherine, "with its perfectly straight sidewalks," so quiet that the grass grew between the paving stones.
The grass which young Simenon removed with an old knife to earn a few sous to save up money for a bike. Like Justin, the choirboy, who answered Maigret,
"Maybe I wasn't paying attention. I was talking to myself... Sometimes... often in the morning when I'm on my way, I whisper to myself... I wanted to ask my mother for something when I got home, and I was repeating to myself what I was going to say..."
"What were you going to ask for?"
"For a long time I've wanted a bike... I've saved up 300 francs..."
In the middle of the street, the child found the body, with a knife stuck in its chest. And the killer. He fled towards the end of the street...
About fifty yards down the street was a crossroads, and there the walls were pierced with the loopholes of the barracks on the left, and on the right an immense weakly illuminated doorway...
The Fonck barracks, where Sim did his military service.
The Fonck barracks, where the novelist did a part of his military service, and the Bavière Hospital.
Except for Maigret, no one believed little Justin and his story of a disappearing cadaver. Especially not the Judge, who lived at No. 61, the house in front of which the child claimed to have seen the body. Justin/Simenon didn't like this old judge, hidden like an owl behind his curtains.
"In the winter, I never see him, because his curtains are closed when I pass."
"But in the summer...?"
"I stick out my tongue at him."
"Because he looks at me like he's making fun of me, he starts laughing to himself when he sees me..."
"Have you often stuck out your tongue at him?"
"Every time I've seen him...
No doubt Simenon had stuck out his tongue at someone in that street. But No. 61 Rue de la Province no longer exists.
Thanks to the testimony of little Justin the body and the murderer were finally discovered. To reward the child, inspector Maigret gives him his business card with, hand-written on the back, "Good for one bicycle."
In writing these lines 40 years later, the child of Outremeuse become writer, offered himself the bicycle that his mother never had.
Saint-Pholien. On the knocker of the door at the right of the church of Saint-Pholien, a body was hung. It was in March, 1922. The hanged man was Joseph Kleine, painter-decorator, cocaine addict. Such was the newpaper item which put an end to the bohemian life of the quarter la Caque, in which Simenon had participated. Much later, Simenon would write Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien, which presented the atomosphere of the bohemian life of Liège in those years.
Saint-Pholien church, on the door of which they found "little Kleine" hung. A true news item from which Simenon was inspired to revive the atmosphere of "la Caque".
Arriving in front of Saint-Pholien, Maigret paid his taxi. And now he looked at the new church that stood in the middle of a vast open strip. On the left and right spread boulevards bordered with buildings of about the same age as the church. But behind it remained an old district which they had partially cleared to make room for it... On three sides, low, squalid houses leaned against walls and gave to the whole a medieval aspect.
This is la Caque. Maigret entered one of the houses...
In a corner there was a kind of couch, or rather the box-spring of a bed, covered in part with a piece of calico cloth. And just above, hung a triangular lantern, of colored glass, as you can sometimes find in a secondhand shop. Someone had thrown on the couch some bones of an incomplete skeleton, like those used by medical students. ... There were still the walls! The white walls that had been covered with drawings, or even fresco paintings!
Mme Bonvoisin knew Simenon well in the bohemian days. They were 17. She found him charming...
There is a skeleton hung on the wall of the apartment of Mme Jos Bonvoisin, 86, widow of the famous Liège painter. She lived the bohemian life of la Caque. With "Sim", as he was called then. The walls of her apartment are covered with her husband's pictures. On a table, a statue of Buddha, a rhinoceros horn...
"Ha, ha... an erotic symbol," she laughed.
"Did you know Simenon well?"
"At that time we were both 17. He was a big boy with blue eyes, wavy hair. He was very charming.
"Did you like him?"
"Me, I went with Bonvoisin. Sim wasn't interested in serious girls. He was looking for something else. We were three girls in the group. He preferred the hookers. There was a district of them near la Caque. He would tell us stories about them."
"What did you do, during those bohemian evenings?"
"We read a lot. We read Anatole France, Nietzsche... And we discussed all that. There were some who played the violin. The place had been rented by Jef Lambert. We were interested in ancient civilizations and Buddhism. Some didn't have a penny. With their big hats, their long pipes and their ideas, they were the last romantics."
In Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien, Simenon called the group "The companions of the Apocalypse".
Naturally, we rediscovered the world! We had our ideas on all the great problems! We put down the bourgeois, society and all established truths... The oddest affirmations mix well together when you've drunk several glasses and the smoke makes the air opaque... We mixed Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Moses, Confucius and Jesus Christ...
"At that time, Simenon could have become an anarchist," claimed Jean-Denys Boussart.
"But Sim wasn't really an active part of the group," replied Mme Bonvoisin. At the Academy, I remember that he drew one sheet of only mouths. Nothing but mouths! But he really wasn't interested in all that. You didn't know exactly why he came. Maybe just to watch us? Anyway, he was the first to leave la Caque. I never saw him again. And I don't like to read Simenon.
And what did Simenon think of bohemian Liège? The answer comes from the mouth of Maigret:
"What's this? Anarchists? Counterfeiters? An international gang?" asked the commissioner's assistant.
"Kids!" he replied.
To discover Simenon's Liège, read Pedigree, Je me souviens, Le témoignage de l'enfant de choeur, Les Trois Crimes de mes amis, La Danseuse du Gai-Moulin, Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien, L'Ane rouge, Crime impuni, La Rue aux trois poussins, Faubourg, Les Noces de Poitiers.
translation: Stephen Trussel
Honolulu - January 2006