Houses with a view of deathSpecial dispatch
Stuck between two houses in the "Neo-Vaud" style, at the end of a dead end street, a small house without character and almost no front. Two tall buildings, the "Vidy Towers", crush this residential district of Lausanne that resists an oppressive urbanization badly. A garden, like a small park, tries to add breath to these three aligned houses. A somewhat moth-eaten lawn survives poorly, in the shade of an enormous cedar set precisely in the middle of this scant greenery.
This tree is the last shelter of Georges Simenon. His ashes were scattered at the foot of this giant, as were those of his daughter, Marie-Georges, in May 1978.
The writer's last days ended in this small house with a view of death. He who had possessed, he said, some 33 homes all over the world, died in this suburban Lausanne residence, living in the modest universe that forms the horizon of most his characters. He had gotten rid of all "the outward signs of wealth" that he had spent such laborious years to accumulate.
There remains on the heights that dominate Lausanne, in Epalinges, an enormous structure that testifies to a sumptuous time. This enormous concrete ship, for which the novelist himself drew up the plans, is now only a ghost vessel.
The luxury cars, numerous domestics... all disappeared overnight, the universe of a writer who stopped writing. The last tax declaration that he wrote cites a fortune of 3.5 million Swiss francs (2.1 million dollars) and an income of 214,000 FS ($130,000). These sums, very modest in light of all he possessed, seem to indicate that Georges Simenon was anxious to adjust a part of his estate himself.
Shortly before his death the author responded to an interview with Pierre-Pascal Rossi on French-language Swiss television. He specified his relationship with money, declaring notably: "it was important when I didn't have any... I consider that every human being should have the right to whatever is necessary for a certain dignity of life... To have more money than is necessary, is of no interest..."
It was in 1957 that Georges Simenon set down his suitcases definitively in Switzerland. Maintaining his old habit of avoiding contracts, he changed domicile often. He ended up settling into the château at Echandens from which, for once against his will, he had to move. The owner of the manor wanted to occupy it himself.
It was at that moment that the perpetual traveler decided to have a house built. He chose land at Epalinges, a few miles from Lausanne. It is a small village in the process of being caught up by the city. This agricultural borough has become a small suburb planted with concrete blocks. As often in Switzerland, this (nearly) populous facade conceals a very different background... of incredible homes scattered across the "noble" part of the landscape. Agriculturists yielded their lands to rich purchasers, thus ensuring themselves a golden retirement. Alexander Pasche, the guardian of "Bunker Simenon", preserves the memories of a rural and happy epoch. He had watched this enormous block, just opposite him, emerge from an open field.
Georges Simenon decided on the site and the number of rooms, and had walls built around it. It's a building that looks like a school, with its tarred courtyard giving onto the road, or a clinic, if seen from the rear. It is enormous, imposing and glacial.
The construction of the bunker was completed in 1963. Less than ten years later, Georges Simenon, fleeing this house, sold in one day everything that he couldn't or didn't want to take with him.
The Epalinges "house" was a pyramid crowning a social success. A decade later, it was the symbol of ten years of disputes, hatred, and misfortune.
Visiting the Bunker today, you are struck by the impersonal, sterilized nature of each of the 26 rooms. This home without a soul functions like a factory, revealing several circuits that allowed each of its occupants to live almost self-sufficiently... including individual heating for every "module" of the building.
In the kitchen at Epalinges, larger than that of a big hotel, everything is in duplicate. Two ovens, two dishwashing machines, two refrigerators, etc. This idea of "spares" is carried very far. There are two complete electrical systems.
An incredible network of intercoms assures a communication that would otherwise seem very difficult to establish. There was also a real pharmacy in the bunker, more complete, they said, than the one in the district. As for the operating room that some thought they had seen, it was actually the children's play room, as cold in its conception and materials as the other rooms.
It was in this icy ship that the couple Denise-Georges would know their most violent storms. It is here that the small Marie-Georges would learn anguish. The writer told it all, or nearly, in his "Intimate Memoirs". Today again, his "bunker" seems like an "anti-home", destined more to isolate than to unite.
Leaving here, you understand better the small house on the Avenue Figuiers. Georges Simenon first saw it from above. After leaving Epalinges, he indeed perched at the summit of one of the "Vidy Towers" that dominate the small dead end. But a newspaper item about a fire in a building and the death of children stuck in the elevator, traumatized him. For the security of his own children he decided to leave this tower where he occupied a vast duplex.
The opportunity to acquire one of the small houses at the foot of the building presented itself. Henceforth, behind the Vichy curtains of this "maisonnette" of the Swiss alder, Simenon joined his own characters. The snug heat of this last domicile, the nostalgic atmosphere, slightly insular, of a district that survives modernity, lets us understand that we are very far from Epalinges. It is tranquility recovered. A kind of serenity that you feel when a cycle is completed.
At the corner of Figuiers is an Italian restaurant, "Il Gambero". Franco Rossi, the owner, has been there ten years. He was in attendance, as an attentive and discreet neighbor, in the last days of the writer's life.
Some months ago, George Simenon came, as was his habit, to drink "a couple of glasses" of Lavau, a very drinkable wine white of the Montreux region. He took long walks, on Teresa's arm, then was pushed by her in a wheelchair. The last few times, the restaurant delivered trays meals to No. 12. Even after his death... they didn't want to display it.
The chef employed all his talents for this customer unlike the others. Monday, September 4, no one touched the trays of Il Gambero. Georges Simenon had just died. He had fallen out of bed and broken his hip. This accident triggered a heart attack. The physician who immediately came to his bedside could only assist in his last few moments. "He fell asleep like a baby, smiling", he said.
Alain Van Der Eecken
translation: Stephen Trussel
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