Three brief encounters with SimenonTestimony
All my life, I will remember Georges Simenon, arriving one humid evening in May, 1952, at the Hotel Sweden, in the heart of Liège. Pipe in his mouth, with a light felt hat, he was supervising a porter encumbered with luxurious suitcases. He was there, right before me, while since his arrival at Le Havre the press had been looking for him in vain. He was there, although he wasn't expected in his native city for another two days. How to approach him? He had granted exclusive rights for his first interview to the Gazette de Liège, his old boss, Joseph Demarteau. The child of Coronmeuse that I was, now a journalist, had dreamed about Simenon, the son of Outremeuse. And I who dreamed of becoming a novelist while manhandling the round keys of my Remington, I was there, on this Sunday evening, two steps away from Simenon, the father of Maigret, the Balzac of the century, returned to Europe after a long stay in the United States...
All my life, I will hear his nasal voice with the reassuring Liège accent that I heard for the first time saying, "Sure, just give me time to change my shoes and I'm yours ..." I thought I was dreaming... which didn't stop me from calling our photographer. He was there at the instant Simenon came back and we began our interview. He immediately started talking about Liège, his childhood, his friends. I gave him some news of his old colleagues, my seniors Victor Moremans, Georges Dupont, Georges Rem and Henri Moers, whose name he used for the forensic scientist at the Quai des Orfèvres. We talked about Je me souviens, the first version of Pedigree. I told him that a young lawyer among my friends had gotten me the passages put in question by the finicky readers who had brought a suit against him. We spoke of this butcher's son who had sold hams to go to the Astoria movies to flirt with the high school girls. In my high school days I had for a schoolmate the son of one of protagonists of Les Trois crimes de mes amis. He pricked up his ears: how was the class with little Deblauw? He also inquired about his old pals from "Le Caque" from the days of Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien. This one was a famous artist, another a decorator, another professor. I had enough for a good piece, when a young brunette appeared, braided like a schoolmistress, flat heels, austere blouse, face rather pleasant. It was Denise Simenon, his second wife.
"Where were you? And who is this gentleman? A journalist! Oh, no! We have an agreement with M. Demarteau... "
I understood. My interview was over. And no question, according to the untimely Canadian, of a possible article appearing for three days.
"Give me your word of honor!"
I gave it with no illusions. Already the photographer had left for the paper where my article was awaited for the 11:00 final edition. I wondered how a man like Simenon, so easy-going, could have married his secretary... Was he lacking in imagination?
I had twenty minutes to finish the write-up for La Meuse, and my word of honor didn't carry much weight. The lead was in the tub, and the title in bold type across eight columns on the press read, "Exclusive!". I gave myself a pipe for reflection, and then a sentence came onto the white paper: I gave my word to Denise Simenon that this article would not appear, and that is why...
The rest was easy. I did it as Simenon in the past tense... It was raining in Liège. The big clock of the newspaper La Meuse showed a little before 9:00 p.m.... The man in the light felt hat, the photographer hidden in the palms, it was all there, including and especially Denise Simenon. Word of honor, there was not a word of my interview with Simenon! The following day, Joseph Demarteau would blow his stack.
* * * * * *
Did Simenon recognize me? As for me, I didn't recognize Denise! No more braids, no more flat heels, a true Parisian. Was Maigret a Pygmalion? I chatted with her for a long time, and in her eyes, dilated by the alcohol but made up perfectly, it seemed to me I detected something nervous. It couldn't be easy to be Simenon's wife. A friend, who had dined at their home in Lakeville, in the States, had related to me this remark of hers at dinner: "Georges, it's almost time for la grande rousse!"
Denise was a perfect wife-secretary.
* * * * *
Later, on a bet, I wrote a lampoon of Maigret in eleven days, La Mort d'lrma (The Death of lrma), Simenon was greatly amused by it and encouraged me to pursue this vein, but without the parody, which I did with Le Libraire de la place Saint-Paul (The Bookstore in the Place Saint-Paul) and Les Vieux Fusils (The Old Rifles). He laughed at my inspector Léchalote who was Lognon in the Maigrets, and my assassin, the heavy Jolivet, who has many of his commissioner's mannerisms. It was his last letter, because he had to undergo a serious operation.
And now I've reread a confidential letter that I received in 1980, sent by an elderly lady living in Brussels and calling herself Mia J... from Liège. She wrote:
Georges Simenon was my first love. I was 19, he was 17 ... very brief and very pure, because I was not one of the "10,000". On the other hand, he had written for me some rhymes that I've enclosed for you, while telling me that he would never write them for anyone else. From him I received my first love letter. ...To this letter was attached this poem reconstructed from memory, dated 1920, and signed Georges Simenon. It was Simenon-Lamartine:
As for me, I respected the wishes of Mia J... Can that repay a certain Sunday evening in May 1952, in Liège, when a young journalist betrayed Denise Simenon?
Who said, "It is difficult to become a man!" and, "to understand, not to judge"?
A certain Georges Simenon, born in Liège in 1903, in Outremeuse, on the other side of the Pont des Arches.
translation: Stephen Trussel
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