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Il Lunario
in Italian
January, 2003

Giulio Nascimbeni

Interview with Georges Simenon, May 1985

 
A rather unusual event marked the beginning of Georges Simenon's life: he was born in Liège on 13 February 1903, but his mother dated his birth notification 12 February, to ward off ill-luck. Apart from this oddity, the dates are clear: this is Simenon's centenary; it will be Simenon's year. The crucial event will take place in May, with the release of two volumes as part of the prestigious Pléiade series.

Other events are also scheduled. The world will be celebrating a writer who, when alive, had already become a myth, with his ninety-three novels (seventy-six of which with Inspector Maigret as the protagonist), plus twenty-one books of "dictations" and memoirs and an indefinite number of novels and short stories written under 16 different pen-names (Georges Sim, Jean du Perry, Georges d'Isly, Luc Dorsan, Gaston Viallis, Germain d'Antibes…): Georges Simenon is the most widely translated author in the world after Lenin, and on an equal footing with Marx.

I personally met with Georges Simenon and interviewed him in May 1985.

Having earlier been very generous in giving interviews, in his eighties the writer had become rather difficult for journalists to approach. I required the mediation of his great friend Federico Fellini to obtain the interview. I went to Lausanne, to meet him at number 12, Avenue des Figuiers. I was welcomed by an elderly gentleman wearing a white shirt without jacket, and some sort of red lace instead of a tie. Together with him was Madame Teresa, the woman of Venetian extraction who had been his life-companion for many years.

As all the countless Simenon readers know, the writer had decided to put an end to the Maigret stories in February 1972, after completing "Maigret and Monsieur Charles". However, when I was invited to take a chair in a room with pink walls, I instinctively looked around for some sign from the Inspector's world. It looked as if only the pipe symbol had been left: I counted twenty pipes lined up on the shelf above the fireplace. Simenon was also holding an unlit pipe in his mouth. Yet, the pipes were not the only sign. Before I started asking questions, Simenon opened a bottle of fresh white wine. He handed a glass to me and added: "This wine is from the Loire, from the part of the country where Maigret was born".

Indeed, the Inspector's identity card says that Jules François Amédée Maigret was born in Saint-Fiacre par Matignon, 25 kilometres from Moulins, the capital of the Department of Allier, which is named after a left-hand side tributary of the Loire River. The bouquet was slightly smoked, as confirmed by the words printed on the label itself, which I wrote down in my notebook: "Vin de Ladoucelle — Poully — Fumé".

The first question was almost inevitable: "Mr. Simenon, even though you have said goodbye to Maigret, have you ever empathized with the Inspector?"

Simenon replied: "From my own essence, I have given Maigret a basic rule that governs my life: understanding and not judging, because there are no culprits: only victims. Of course, I also gave him the ineffable pleasures of pipe smoking. And no children, because when this character was created I did not yet have the four children I later had. I must add I also gave him a certain taste for food. The recipes of Inspector Maigret and of his wife Louise have travelled round the world, and I know that both in Japan and in South America gourmets don't neglect to add a few drops of Alsace sloe to their Coq au vin".

I asked him another question: "You are also referred to as Monsieur Atmosphère. Does this definition suit you?" "The word 'atmosphere' — Simenon replied — was attached as some sort of special label to my first books, and I don't know why. What's special about it? If a novel lacked atmosphere, what would be left? Critics are really a mysterious body of people. There is atmosphere all around us, and therefore also around the characters in a novel. Let us not forget that a change in atmosphere can change the mood and even the very life of a human being."

We also talked about many other issues: justice, youth, old age, love, friendship and working methods. I asked Simenon: "Is it true that you have not used more than two thousand words?" "That's too many — he replied — I did not reach that figure. Besides, Racine only used eight hundred. I have always tried to write in a simple way, using down-to-earth and not abstract words. Boileau used to say that, if it's raining, it is sufficient to say that it's raining: we don't need to say that the sky is shedding tears. This is one of the reasons why my books have been translated into one hundred thirty-one different languages". One more question: is it true that for years you kept having the same dream?

Simenon replied: "It's true. It was night and I could see a large and calm lake, reflecting the moon. Black mountains rose around it. I arrived from between two of these mountains, I looked at the lake and the moon, and that was it, nothing else happened." I objected: "Isn't it strange that you have come to live in Lausanne, by a lake." He replied: "Ever since I've lived here I have never had that dream again. The lake and the mountains have become my landscape, my real world".

The interview was drawing to a close.

I asked Simenon why yellow was his favourite colour. He replied: "Because it is children's colour when they draw the sun". And he immediately added: "Would you like to see my self-portrait? I don't need much: a felt tip and a sheet of paper." He drew it under my very eyes: a curve line portraying the top of a hill, the sun and a little man with open arms. He laughed and said: "The little man c'est moi, it's me, Georges Simenon".

Upon saying goodbye, I asked Simenon for a dedication on one of his books. I'm translating it from French: "To my colleague (because I have been a journalist too) Giulio Nascimbeni, to whom I have given my first interview in over two years — and no doubt the last one — thanking him for having gracefully put his deep questions to me, with nothing sensational about them. Affectionately. Georges Simenon. May 1985".

But there is more than that: as per the correspondence entitled "Carissimo Simenon, Mon cher Fellini", published in 1998 by Edizioni Adelphi", the day after that meeting, Simenon wrote to his friend the director a letter that starts with the following words: "Dear Fellini, yesterday I received a visit by Giulio Nascimbeni, a very nice person I enjoyed speaking to."

I hope that the "Lunario" readers will not think I am a vain person. In the many years I have worked as a journalist, I have interviewed dozens and dozens of writers.

But no other interview ever conveyed to me the sensational feelings I got that day with Simenon. My memory of that day has not faded over the years. I am still counting those pipes. I am still tasting Maigret's wine…

Translated by interpres sas

 

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