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Lui   (N° 42)
June 1967. p 7-34

 

Tête-à-Tête with Simenon

A rambling conversation
with the father of Maigret

interview : Jacques Lanzmann

original French


 

Everybody knows snails, those snails from Burgundy or Czechoslovakia that carry a house on their back glued to their skin. Georges Simenon, however, is the opposite of a literary snail, he would be rather a hare, a publishing greyhound — but there was never a house so well glued to a writer's skin as his.
This house, that some say is cold and inhuman, that others compare to a hospital or a psychiatric clinic, or — let's say it out loud — to a madhouse, is actually the house of a sage. It is as clean as he is clean, as vast as he is big, as organized as he is compartmentalized. It is a house of rest where one works, a house of work where one takes a rest, a troubling house because it is too quiet, inhabited by a man whose calmness is worrisome. This house, when you reconsider it, which means when you leave it, this sacred house stays with you a long time, a very long time in your head.
Now in front of me I have Georges Simenon, très élégant, in a cashmere sweater, gray flannel trousers, ocher shoes made to the foot, which is to say, hand-made. But I didn't come to see Simenon to speak of his shoemaker. Although his shoe-racks and wardrobe are very impressive – something like sixty pairs of shoes, a hundred fifty outfits of all types, so many shirts and shoes that on the first floor of the house there's a large room especially fitted out as at tailor's, with a dressing room and sets of mirrors that allow you to verify the drape of a jacket on your back.


Jacques Lanzmann:   I'd like to ask you some questions and hear your answers. Would it be all right if we improvise?

Georges Simenon:   Whatever you wish, you're the boss.

Lanzmann:   No, no, you are... And you are a valued, esteemed writer. Do you have the feeling of being esteemed by the major contemporary writers?

Simenon:   I haven't the slightest idea. I associate with very few writers. I think that they probably don't read me. As for myself, I don't read other writers. I haven't read a novel since 1928. That's the truth.

Lanzmann:   What do you read?

Simenon:   I read newspapers, the most important ones published around the world, and then also historical, philosophical works, scientific, artistic. To read others would influence me too much. And then if by chance I ever met another Simenon in my readings... well... I'd have to challenge him to a duel or give it all up. No, I prefer not to read anything. I leave literature in peace, and it does the same with me.

Lanzmann:   You know very well there's no other Simenon. You're the only one who does the society... the society of the lodge, of the office, of the little people.

Simenon:   I paint the milieu of the little people. I was born among them and I'll remain one all my life, I know, and besides, it satisfies me. I'm much more comfortable there than among people more highly evolved. For centuries, writers avoided speaking of the workers, and then Zola arrived, like Zorro, and then Jules Vallès and then others. Suddenly, there was a big wave of novels about workers, populist and supportive. But no one had ever spoken of the little people. Balzac wrote on the lower middle class. Everybody had been treated by literature, but no one, I must say it, had been interested before me in what I call the little people. If I've dedicated most of my books to them, it's because they're the people that I know best and who know me best. They're the people among whom I feel at ease, and from whom we have more to learn.
Imagine some tragedy, some romance, some serious problem... between parents and children... between two brothers... whatever. To the intellectual, cultivated, refined echelon, it proceeds very artificially, because there is an idea of good taste which limits how far one can let oneself go in any display of emotion. It is a milieu where people, whether from reading the moralists or whatever, end up watching themselves in a mirror. To put it another way, they're acting out a second-rate drama. They're all happy to live in the novel and watch themselves acting it out at the same time. But if you descend to the level of people directly, like the farmer or the fisherman, who are all their life head to head with nature, it is obvious that this novel takes on qualities all of a sudden a lot more resonant, a lot truer. That's why I prefer, when I have a novel in my head, that is, at the starting point of this novel... to make it live by the more authentic people, the little people.

Lanzmann:   Just what exactly is it that you mean by "the little people"?

Simenon:   Oh, well, a real definition would be difficult to give, but the little people are located, if you will, between the true working class, that is to say between the factory workers — who succeeded in making themselves respected by the strongest in the world — and the petit bourgeoisie. Furthermore, the worker has acquired his papers of nobility and the arms that he has emblazoned on his blue work clothes, which is, of course, the right of strike. Therefore, my little people, for me, are located between the worker and the lower middle class, those minor employees, craftsmen, traveling salesmen, cleaning women, concierges... people, let's say, who are not yet unionized, despised from above and below, and who have very little defense. That's who I'm calling the little people.
I remember when I was small, my mother told me: "Above all, don't play with workers." However, we were a lot poorer than they were. My father was a minor employee who earned less than a worker, but who had to be dressed — and we all had to be — as well as the bourgeoisie, but with no line of credit at the tailor. Physically, materially, we were unhappier in our family than in a family of workers, and yet, yes, for reasons of appropriateness, my mother, submissive to a class superior to her own, prohibited me from playing with the children of workers. But as for me, I found the workers a lot more attractive. There is no question but that a factory exit has a certain allure; you can paint a factory exit — but you can't paint the exit of an office or a bank, it doesn't have anything to it. Do you see what I mean? And that's why I say that these little people are, in general, the curators of the bourgeois tradition; these people, because of their education, tended to say yes to power, to say yes to religion, to say yes to all dogma, to every conceivable etiquette.
They have some unlikely taboos. For example, I was prohibited from going out in clogs. However, in those days, people wore clogs when they went out. I had friends who, in winter, had good wooden clogs in which their feet were not cold, while I had fine leather shoes which left my feet wet when it rained. Obviously that hardly pleased me; I would have preferred clogs. But no! That wouldn't do. Me, I didn't have the right to wear clogs, I had to display, had to represent. Those people, I adore them. I've passed my life defending them, exactly because they are stuck between two worlds, much too strong, much stronger than they are, who choke them. And then, they acquired a quality that is extraordinary because it forms their base. It is resignation. These are the people who have succeed by being resigned.

Lanzmann:   Therefore it is these people that you inspire, who inspired you and who read you.

Simenon:   Yes, many of them read me.

Lanzmann:   And they're also the ones from whom you earn your money...

Simenon:   Yes, when you come down to it... But that is secondary, because I would write in precisely the same way, and would have as much pleasure at being read by a large number of people had it brought back nothing. I say that in all honesty. Besides, when I began to write, I was very young, I was sixteen years old... I swear to you that I had no idea that you could earn a living by writing. It is not necessary to think about money when you write; that's what I answer all the young people who send me manuscripts and ask for advice. I tell them: Listen, if you want to write, do it without any hope... because actually, out of a hundred writers who start, there is probably only one who manages to earn a living from it. I believe that in France ten writers earn their livelihood solely by literature. Not more. And in addition, some do conferences, write magazine articles, short stories, etc.

Lanzmann:   Ten writers. Let's try to count them. Sartre, that is sure... Simone de Beauvoir, surely. Let's try, you and me, Sagan, yes, certainly... that makes three... Christiane Rochefort, maybe?

Simenon:   Yes, though only for the past three or four years...

Lanzmann:   That makes four. This is really not many...

Simenon:   And there's not a young one among them!

Lanzmann:   Aragon... yes, in any event.

Simenon:   Certainly. You know, it's sad. Maurois has a slave's life. Maybe Mauriac also. As for Pagnol he is no longer only a writer, he is a film-maker, he is himself a producer and also a theater man. We might as well stop — we won't find ten of them. There are very few.

Lanzmann:   You told me a little while ago that young people sent you manuscripts and asked you for advice. But I don't have the impression that you've influenced the youth — you bring them neither revolution nor philosophy. I think that the switched-off generation can't connect with Georges Simenon.

Simenon:   I believe that there are two kinds of youth. There are those who ask writers to bring them certainties, if I can say that, as well as well-worked-out philosophical or social concepts... but I believe that most of them aren't necessarily looking for that, if I can judge from the letters and manuscripts that I receive and the number of foreign theses written about my work, and which are done by the young.

Lanzmann:   What do you mean by foreign?

Simenon:   I have to say foreign, because in France you are prohibited from writing a thesis on someone who hasn't died. And so I should add that I'm very happy that there are no theses written about me in France at this time.

Lanzmann:   If you believe in the consecration of the thesis, one could write a thesis about Simenon on the financial consequences of being the biggest draw in contemporary literature.

Simenon:   Let's drop the questions about money. I'm rich... so? Do we condemn the wealth of newspaper owners? No, of course not. But as soon as a writer gains some money, everyone is there, searching for the money in his head.

Lanzmann:   I agree with you completely, but you must confess that you are a unique case in literature. No writer has ever earned as much money as you with his books.

Simenon:   You know, there is a lot of exaggeration, and this is untrue. Victor Hugo earned a thousand times more money than I. Balzac earned much more, but he put it into business ventures that failed regularly. He began too early. For example, it was he that created "La Pléiade," but he did it too early, a century too early, otherwise he would have gained a fabulous sum. Balzac earned a lot more money than any writer in the world today.

Lanzmann:   You see me very surprised. Balzac, I know, was always in search of money.

Simenon:   He looked for it and he found it. I tell you that he had a lot more than me. But I don't like to talk about money. We're wasting our time.

Lanzmann:   If you would be so kind, let's continue to waste our time. Answer if you want, and if you don't want to, don't. But what I'm interested in is the financial progress of one of your books. You've just finished a novel. It is there on your work table. What happens next?

Simenon:   First, I reread it and revise it. That takes me three days. I remove all the useless words, all the sentences that are too smooth. I trim it.

Lanzmann:   Is that called "trimming it"?

Simenon:   I call it that. Just like you do your mustache once a week, or once a day. Then, I do the photostats. I make about twenty copies and I arrange them carefully. One copy goes to my French publisher, another to my American publisher, one to the English, sometimes one to my German publisher, another for my Dutch, Italian or even Japanese publishers. It is a question of demand, of rhythm.

Lanzmann:   And so you don't have, as I do, a publisher-producer who distributes to the other publishers?

Simenon:   No, and that is exactly the difference that exists between you and me, because I am the world owner of all my rights. I sell them abroad, I sell them to the movies, I sell them to radio and the television, all without paying the least royalties to my publisher.

Lanzmann:   Bravo, you are very strong, even unique in the world.

Simenon:   That's why I work so hard, why I need secretaries and an office. It is solely because I defend myself.

Lanzmann:   That's also why you earn a hundred times more than I do, considering that you have already written, if my memory serves me, 192 novels whose average printing was between seven hundred thousand and a million copies. How did you get your main publishers to go along with your ideas, your system?

Simenon:   That's exactly where my secret lies. I don't have a main publisher and since you're dwelling on it, here is some advice. When you go to renew your contract with yours, tell him that you won't agree to give away what they call your subsidiary rights, that you intend to keep them. He will answer you yes or no. He will say yes if he values you.

Lanzmann:   If he said yes, I'd be finished, because I don't have your fame and when my books sell thirty thousand copies, that's the maximum. So I'd have to peddle myself to the foreign publishers. I would have had to do it right at the beginning.

Simenon:   Probably. For me it began long before the war, since my first contract. I kept the rights to my foreign publishers, the foreign rights. In following contracts I excluded movies, then radio, then television, so that, progressively, broadly speaking everything is excluded except the publication of the book in its classic form. Paperbacks are also excluded. My publisher doesn't have the right to publish my books in paperback or in this form or that. If he wants to put out a three-franc edition, he has to ask me. If he wants to make it twenty-five francs, he must get my opinion and offer a new contract. Of course, you will say that all that is a question of what I will call "shop". But I believe that Balzac worried about this, besides making a name for himself as president of the Literary Society, of which he is one of founders. He coped, I believe, a year or two. Then the other men of letters put him out. He had too many ideas. He made them uncomfortable.

Lanzmann:   But how do you manage? And what is the reaction of your best-selling colleagues? Why don't they do the same as you?

Simenon:   Ah, that, I don't know anything about. I don't know them. I've never met them. You know, I live folded in on myself, very close to my little people. I am never in town. You never see me at gatherings, soirees — I don't have an existence as a man of letters at all.

Lanzmann:   Now let's put literature and money aside, and speak of pipes... since you are a famous pipe smoker!

Simenon:   Okay, that's infinitely more relaxing!

Lanzmann:   Can you try to define the feeling for me a little? If you ask me what I get from a cigar, I can answer you, but what do you really feel while smoking what you call "a good pipe"...

Simenon:   Oh, well, it gives you a certain relaxation, and at the same time a certain confidence. In the morning, for example, when I get up, the first thing I do is brush my teeth, and then I stuff a pipe. At the same time as I take my first sip of tea, well, I take my first puff of tobacco. The fact of putting the pipe to the teeth in the morning means that the day begins, that I am awake, and that I am on an equal footing with life. And even in the evening, when it's time to go to bed, I always linger a little to finish the pipe that I have between my teeth. I always find a means to cheat, to tell myself: "Wait, I forgot to wind that clock, or I didn't close the shutters," and I gain five minutes to finish my pipe. I have pipes everywhere here, you saw them. There are pretty much some on all the desks. I extend my hand automatically towards a pipe, as towards my vice. I think that I smoke from when I get up until I go to sleep, except at the table! I began to smoke very early, around thirteen. Did it come from a certain shyness, a need to believe myself a man? It is very possible, but nevertheless I'm delighted!

Lanzmann:   Did you hide your smoking from your parents?

Simenon:   No, no. My father didn't say anything. He was too intelligent to try to stop me from doing whatever it was, he knew that I'd have done it all the same. It's the same with my daughter, you saw her, she's over there smoking a cigarette, but she doesn't hide it. The first time that I saw her smoking in a corner, hiding more or less, I told her "But Marie-Laure [sic], if you want cigarettes, there are some on the table, you don't have to hide." She understood very well.

Lanzmann:   Are there people who steal your pipes and put them in a display case, as say, long ago, they stole the czar's cigarette butts?

Simenon:   Yes, that often happens and it annoys me. Each of my pipes has more or less a history. For some, it was my wife who chose them for me, for my birthday, usually. There are more than three hundred pipes here and I know who gave me each of them, or where I bought them and on what occasion. So there are nearly sentimental ties between me and my pipes! I also have some heavy pipes that I find very beautiful but which I rarely smoke, because you have to smoke them in an armchair, you have to hold them in your hand. I'm not collector. You won't see any pipe in meerschaum or anything but briar, only normal briar pipes. I'm just an ordinary consumer.

Lanzmann:   Now, if you don't mind, let's leave pipes and speak of women. I think I can safely say that women interest you a lot.

Simenon:   Of course, and I consider besides that sexuality is an extremely important thing that has been very badly regarded until our time, but which is beginning to enter into our reality, and, if I can say so, our social life. It is part of the culture. Before, it was a shameful thing. You had to hide, you didn't speak of it, or those who did, did it in a way that made it seem dirty. I hate that. I don't like sexual humor. Sexuality is not the topic of joke. It is a marvelous thing and something that, I believe, exalts men and women, in an admirable way. I also believe that it is one of the major elements of our balance. It seems to me that the man or woman who doesn't have a harmonious and intense enough sex life, is obliged to make up for it elsewhere. They will probably have other vices or faults.

Lanzmann:   Okay, but a sex life can be intense without being harmonious.

Simenon:   That depends. I believe that you can make it harmonious and with any woman you can manage to agree sexually, if you have some experience and a certain cleverness, and also, if you have defeated the fear, the fear of making children every time.

Lanzmann:   What you do think about birth control?

Simenon:   I believe that it is a necessity and I find it admirable. It is a lot better than the processes employed in my childhood and youth. Furthermore, you have seen that the Vatican is coming, in a way, to ratify it. And, besides, it gives the woman a freedom she didn't have before, in my opinion. The true freedom that she was denied was that one. A woman was not equal to a man, because, when they coupled, no matter what, she was afraid. She was at the mercy of the man. Now, she is no longer at the mercy of the man and they both say thank you. Henceforth we will find a true partner, instead of finding someone who was a little constrained in front of us. And who felt herself more or less a victim most the time.

Lanzmann:   So, if I understand you correctly, you are for a sexual answer based on the equality and fraternity of the sexes?

Simenon:   I believe in any case that marriage as it is currently, is an outmoded institution which will gradually disappear. In certain countries they already speak of a marriage preceded by two trial years and that would be renewed like a lease.

Lanzmann:   Which countries?

Simenon:   They're talking about it some in Sweden, in Holland, and in certain states of the United States. I spoke the other day with a Jesuit father. They no longer accept perpetual vows from the good sisters, because they consider that a woman, whether at eighteen or thirty, cannot say what her ideas will be at fifty or sixty. Therefore they stop her from dedicating herself to God for life; they accepts vows of three, then five, then ten years. Is it possible that you could, yourself, at eighteen or twenty, say that you were going to be able to live all your life, until death, with the same woman? It's impossible. You don't know what this woman will be ten or twenty years later. Innumerable events could render her intolerable to you, or you to her. Then this marriage, that had only been instituted for pecuniary reasons, for children, for patrimony, for perpetuating a name, is indeed a scandal. I believe that soon, let's say in fifty or hundred years, marriage will appear absolutely ridiculous, just as crinolines currently appear ridiculous to us.

Lanzmann:   But then, if the stages of life in common are renewed by lease, we will have all over again the flourishing of engagements, of engagements that could last...

Simenon:   Of course, and in a certain milieu, that is already the case, and the public doesn't complain at all. We read every day in the romance magazines how this star now lives with that star, fiancée with another, of two or three year engagements... Then a big drama, the break-up, and they start all over.

Lanzmann:   And so, you would accept that one day your own daughter would come to you and say, "Dad, I've met a charming young man who I'm going to introduce to you. I intend to live with him, but first I want to find out if he suits me."

Simenon:   But of course, of course!

Lanzmann:   And would you even accept him here, in your own house?

Simenon:   Of course!

Lanzmann:   That's going to surprise or even astonish some people who are going to read this.

Simenon:   But no, it's normal. We actually live under false assumptions, and it is necessary to create some that are true.

Lanzmann:   Still, I think that it will be very hard.

Simenon:   It will no doubt be hard, but you know there are other things that were very hard to do, to admit, and they passed like a letter in the mail. Nudity, at the present time, is even an advertising thing. One can hardly praise a beer or a brand of stockings without a nude. In my childhood they would have gone to jail for that! Look at topless bathing – oh yes, they still stop them sometimes, but a few hundred years ago, they would have been burned at the stake! Now, there are even restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles where the customer is served by waitresses with bare breasts. There's no more of reason to hide a breast than a foot. It's all a question of tradition, of poetry, almost a question of systematic exaltation. To make us really love a woman and to create marriage, it was necessary to make a woman an extraordinary being, almost an alien.

Lanzmann:   At any rate, I'm certain that if you took a survey among beautiful women asking whether they'd prefer to go bare-breasted or covered this summer, 90% would answer that they'd prefer to have them bared.

Simenon:   Nearly all the beautiful women, of course. It's the others who would moan.

Lanzmann:   This sexual liberation, Georges Simenon, is it going to result in a modification of love, of what one calls love today?

Simenon:   I don't think so. I believe rather that it will lead to a distinction between love and adventure, the minor passions of a few days, and the other. Because everything that is sex appeal, the appeal of one hour or ten days, will be free – the rest will be true love. Of all the couples that you know, how many do you believe are true couples, happy to live together?

Lanzmann:   I prefer not to count. No more than writers who earn their living.

Simenon:   And I believe on the other hand, individualist that I am, that the human unit is not the individual, but the couple, provided that one doesn't require that they be a perpetual couple. One can be a couple for five years, ten years and then reform a couple with another person and, both times, know love. No one said that love is necessarily eternal.

Lanzmann:   So for you the duration of a couple is inevitably limited in time?

Simenon:   Not necessarily. It is possible that there exist couples who are capable of living fifty, sixty years together, without growing stale, while continuing to have for each other the same affection and indulgence. But it is rare enough. I don't want to count either. The old couples that I meet and who appear smiling and beatific when one sees them in public, are not always so when one surprises them at home. That is also a bit of a legend. It is very rare!

Lanzmann:   And so couples would have to form and reform whenever the spirit moved them, and then stop pairing off when they reached a certain age, let's say fifty-five or sixty, at which time they would form a true couple, beyond all sexual problems.

Simenon:   Why do you say beyond all sexual problems? Thank you very much – I am sixty-four years old and I have as many sexual problems as you and I wish to have them for a long time still. I have the same instincts and precisely the same possibilities of love, indeed of love, in the true sense of the word, as I had at forty, or at thirty.

Lanzmann:   But surely there comes a time when one throws in the sponge, to use the language of boxers.

Simenon:   I'm not so sure, and it will become less and less so, thanks to the current state of medicine that permits us – women, in particular – to pass a difficult age. And I believe that women will prolong their love life very far. In fact this already exists, notably in the United States. There is a school of love medicine that, for a long time, has given estrogen to women, and succeeded in preserving them in fine shape until the age of seventy, or even eighty.

Lanzmann:   You seem to be very well documented on the question.

Simenon:   I am not only well documented on that question, but as I set aside a certain number of free hours… I can't write every day, you see, because if I wrote every day... I calculated, since I write twenty pages a day, at the end of a year, that would make forty volumes... So, I have to stop from time to time. And then besides, I'd be sick with fatigue. So, since I have a lot of available hours, I am passionately fond of a certain number of questions. Not only this one... I receive technical magazines from France, England, the United States... from Switzerland, and even Italy. And a lot of questions like this fascinate me, fascinate me personally, not at all as a writer, but simply as man.

Lanzmann:   To come back to our conversation, do you think that sexual freedom will lead to the separation of desire and love, which are so often confused?

Simenon:   Yes, which isn't to say that love doesn't play a big role in sexuality... Actual love is not solely sexual. There are two things, the desire that one calls love and which is actually only sexuality, and another that demands a certain real exaltation with regard to the partner, a certain deep knowledge, a certain indulgence.

Lanzmann:   Could that be called tenderness?

Simenon:   That's the word, a great tenderness, isn't it? While there is also a certain tenderness in sexuality, I believe that true sexuality is never far from another kind of tenderness, not as personal, that addresses less, shall we say, a precise object, than women in general. It's an emotional tenderness. Through our senses we receive an extraordinary emotion.
But there is another problem that I want to submit, if you will permit me, seeing as we're right in the middle of this conversation, which is that of sexual weariness. Indeed, when this lassitude appears, I believe that the only thing to do is to separate, because the relationship becomes laborious, and this leads to all sorts of dramas. Overcome the obligation to remain with a specific individual, which is to say, suppress the marriage, as we spoke of a little while ago, and you know, I believe that the newspaper columns would be reduced by eighty percent. Many daily dramas would no longer occur, and furthermore, most sexual news items would disappear, and that, to be sure, is very important. Consider that if this tenderness, of which we just spoke, exists, then there is no reason why one of the two who feels this state of weariness can't have a sexual life outside. With this system there is no more jealousy. The jealousy stops. But once again, I must apologize to your readers, for I am speaking as if I were known for this, as if I had a right to speak of these things. I told you a little while ago that I am not a moralist, and the opinions that I formulate, I offer neither as a writer, nor a moralist. I give them to you simply as the man on the street, as anyone could. 

translated by Stephen Trussel
July 2003


This interview was reprinted in Lui N° 24, October 1989, shortly after Simenon's death.


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