"Every life is a novel"
You started very young. Was this because of some particular attraction?
Not at all. If I did journalism, it was by chance. Because I had just been shown the door of the bookstore where I'd been an assistant for a month.
I knew absolutely nothing about journalism. At that time, in the family, it was only the father who read the newspaper. The mother cut up the "ground floor," meaning the serial. Children didn't take any notice of politics or of anything at all. I had never read any newspapers I only knew the one that we received at home and I didn't even know the names of any others.
One day, in search of work, I passed near the Place Saint-Lambert, and I noticed the sign for the Gazette de Liège. I entered and presented myself to the editor-in-chief. I was wearing long pants for the first time we didn't start to wear them then until we were sixteen.
I asked if I could join the newspaper as a reporter. The editor looked at me with an amused air. He was a very dignified, bearded gentleman, with an extraordinary red nose. He asked me,
"Who are you?"
"I'm no one. I was merely working at George's bookstore, in the rue de la Cathedral, and I got myself fired."
"Do you have any references?"
"Just that one, if you can call it that."
"Yes, but what about your family, your relatives?"
I mentioned my cousin, who was also called Georges Simenon, and who was bishop of Liège. And one of my uncles was vice-president of a bank. (We had two or three wealthy members of the family, but on the whole we were rather poor, little people, craftsmen, especially on my father's side). The editor-in-chief then said, "I know your uncle very well, we are members of the board of directors of the same bank."
He made some phone calls and ended up telling me, "We're going to make a test. Tomorrow, you will act as if you were charged with the local news, which means the news briefs. Read the local chronicle, and redo it as if it were going to appear."
I was rather embarrassed. I started reading the newspaper and I learned for example that the following day there was a horse fair. So I went there, asked for the number of horses, their prices, etc.. I went to police station to ask if there were any accidents, or crimes. There were no crimes, but some swindles what one called then in the newspapers "things that shouldn't happen," the word swindle being judged unbecoming.
How long did you stay at the Gazette de Liège?
Three years. Six months after my entry, they assigned me a daily column that I wrote for two and a half years. It was called "Out of the hen house," and I signed it M. Lecoq, so that way they felt that the newspaper didn't take responsibility for it. In fact, it was not quite in the tone of the paper. Outside of this column I signed myself Georges Sim, or G. S. News items were unsigned.
What was the political leaning of the paper?
I knew so little about journalistic things that when I entered the Gazette de Liège the director then was Joseph Desmarteaux I didn't know that it was in fact the most Catholic and conservative newspaper in the city. When I realized that, it seemed to me funny to be there I was already a budding anarchist.
Didn't that cause you any problems?
No, I didn't have anything to do with the political columns. They gave me, as to all the young reporters, the most thankless work, covering conferences. And in Liège, as chance would have it, there was one every day. And they also had me do anything that the others didn't want to or couldn't do. It was the best introduction for a novelist's life, since it touched on everything.
For example, I was only sixteen and a half, but I followed the bicycle races on a great big Harley-Davidson. Newspapers could obtain motorcycles because of the advertising, so we always had the latest and biggest models, Harleys, or Excelsiors. And at that time, there were no driver's licenses. Mounted astride my motorcycle I took myself for Rouletabille.
Were you actually influenced by Gaston Leroux's young journalist detective?
You were doing well in journalism why did you leave it in December 1922?
I already wanted to become a novelist. I'd written several stories that the Gazette de Liège had published. I'd submitted three or four others to the magazine Sincere, a literary magazine with a very small circulation, directed by a professor of the University of Brussels, Fernand Désonay. It was in this magazine that my first real literary text, "le Compotier tiède"1 ("The Warm Compote"), appeared. Then in 1922 I did my military service, while continuing to write for the Gazette. But my dream was to finish with barracks life and head off to Paris. I came closer to fulfilling my ambition when I became secretary to a novelist. During a banquet, my father had spoken with his table-mate about me and my coming departure for Paris, where I hadn't yet found any work. This gentleman had proposed to recommend me to one of his writer friends who was just then looking for a secretary. It was a man quite forgotten today, a M. Binet-Valmer. At that time he published every year a serialized novel in Le Journal, one or two others in Fayard's uvres libres, and pretty much a story per week elsewhere. But he was not so much known for the value of his literary works as for his social and political activity. He was at the time it was something important president of the "League of Section Heads and War Veterans." I thought I was to become a writer's secretary. Not at all. They put me in a small office where two typists were crammed, one Binet-Valmer's secretary, the other a gentleman who was vaguely secretary of the League. He had me copy by hand great quantities of addresses, about twenty copies per day. All to gather, if the situation arose overnight, section heads and veterans. It was the time when anti-Poincaré movements were starting up, and the sky-blue Chamber was getting elected. Once more, I had wound up precisely on the side opposite my own convictions.
My actual role was that of office boy. Binet-Valmer didn't believe in the postal system. Every time the League published a communiqué in the press, I had to distribute forty-five envelopes by myself, one to each of the forty-five dailies of Paris. At that time, every sector of opinion had its own newspaper, from Tardieu and Maurras to Gustave Téry. I made the tour of the newspapers by taxicab, or rather, what went just as quickly, by carriage. I discovered Paris.
Office boy for a mediocre writer and reactionary, that was a dead end. How did you escape?
Thanks to one of backers of the League, one who represented an important enough electoral bloc. At that time Binet-Valmer was surrounded by a lot of people who gave money, whether out of conviction or to get an electoral seat, or the Legion of honor.
One of them was the Marquis de Tracy, who was a very good man. He owned five castles in France, rice fields in Italy, properties in Tunisia, and had accounts in every bank. His father had just died, leaving him all sorts of businesses to manage, of which he understood nothing, and he was looking for a secretary. It was Binet-Valmer who advised him to "take young Sim then, to unravel all that." That's what he called me then. I remained two years with him, but with still another disappointment he had a private mansion in the rue de la Boétie [Paris, 8e], but he never lived there, always moving from one chateau to another.
This taught me about the life of a rich country squire, which I would never have learned of otherwise, of the hunts and great receptions that the Marquis gave wherever he passed.
I ended up leaving the Marquis to come back in Paris. At home I had begun to write some short stories for the elegant newspapers, newspapers that would seem to us today like rose water. That was how I met an extraordinary man to whom I owe a lot of gratitude, Eugène Merle2. Frou-Frou, the most important of the elegant newspapers with which I collaborated, belonged to him. The profits of Frou-Frou were destined to fill the deficit of the large leftist daily that he had just launched, Paris-Soir. Merle also owned a satirical weekly, the Merle Blanc [White Blackbird], which published eight hundred thousand copies, leaving the Canard Enchainé [Muzzled Duck] far behind . At that time I was writing seven stories a day. At Frou-Frou I had to write under ten or twelve different pseudonyms, because the newspaper lacked funds, and I continued to accept their checks. I had found the means to cash these checks by reselling them at half price, and as Eugène Merle paid very generously, even at half price I could get by.
Eugène Merle was dreaded, and it was an honor to be invited to Sunday lunches at his château in Avrainville. A small, unpretentious château, but very pretty, where he prepared the food for his guests himself. I remember bringing Ilya Erhenbourg there, picking him up at his home on the Avenue du Maine, because he didn't have a car. At Avrainville there were always two or three cabinet ministers at the table. And since they spoke freely in front of Eugène Merle, I learned to distinguish heads from tails. Everything people told us was false. I sometimes saw newspaper directors, ministers, even prime ministers, like Edouard Herriot, who exchanged winks while speaking of all their schemes. They would laugh over the communiqués or declarations that they were going to give to the press the following day. At Avrainville I got my training in politics. It disgusted me once and for all.
Eugène Merle also encouraged my vocation as a novelist, for I had gradually started writing popular novels. The first appeared in 1924 from Ferenczi, and was called Le Roman d'une dactylo [The typist's novel]. I was also passed to the big specialized publishers, Rouff, Fayard, Tallandier, where I asked them the number of lines to provide and the prices they paid. The formulas I found on my own.
There were differences between the publishers; each had its nuances, its taboos. At Tallandier, for example, you couldn't say 'mistress,' you had to say 'friend'. Fayard allowed 'mistress'.
I wrote two kinds of popular novel. One was for boys adventure novels, especially for Tallandier's famous blue collection. The other was rather directed to concierges, shop-girls, little errand-girls, as they said, novels "to make Margot cry." It was also very good training. While earning my livelihood, I learned to construct a novel. Because as silly as a popular novel may be, it must be built even more solidly that a literary one. The characters are numerous and the action very varied. It is necessary to constantly introduce new events.
You know that the difficulty in the theater is to have the characters enter and exit. This difficulty also exists for the novelist the novel must possess a certain cohesion. I told myself that it was first necessary that I learn the novelist's profession that's why I wrote popular novels for five years. Eugène Merle had published one of them in serial in Paris-Soir in 1927, and he thought about me while preparing an extreme left morning paper that he wanted to call Paris-Matin, but which he resigned himself to calling Paris-Matinal because Bunau-Varilla, the owner of the newspaper Le Matin, had reserved all titles including the word matin [morning].
Merle proposed to pay me 50,000 francs of the time to write a novel in three days and three nights, while shut in a glass cage that would be set up on the stage of the Moulin Rouge, so that I would remain day and night under the eyes of the public.
Here are conditions of the contract: I had to write the novel with the collaboration of the public, to propose a dozen characters from which they would choose three, to give about ten titles, from which they would take one, and to write it in public view. There was one small problem I was supposed to be always on view, to avoid cheating, but even a novelist has some intimate needs. An architect found a solution and the cage of glass was ordered from a company on the rue de Paradis. But Paris-Matinal went bankrupt before the glass cage was finished.
Which didn't prevent numerous people from believing that I really had done it. Some wrote about it. Others swore to have seen me in the cage. If it had happened, I would say so myself. It would have been very easy for me, since I regularly wrote a novel in two and a half days.
I think that this legend results from the following confusion: some months earlier, there was on view, in the hall of the daily le Petit Journal, a faster, shut in a kind of glass cage. So, from the faster to the novelist...
From 1931 to 1937 you published about twenty articles. Why this return to active journalism after nine years of interruption?
I never did any reporting for the newspapers. From the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I have been curious about man, and the difference between the dressed man and the naked man. The man as he is himself, and the man as he appears in public, and even what he sees in the mirror. All my novels, all my life was only a search for that naked man.
My journalist's beginnings were already an attempt to see, not a statue of Marshal Foch on horseback, but Foch in Liège, in his bedroom where he received me in his dressing gown.
In Paris I tried also to know the naked man, and to know France. And I wanted to do it by the rivers and canals. For the very simple reason that the cities and villages were born very close to water. The true face of Paris is the banks of the Seine, that of Mâcon, the Saône, that of Lyons, the Saône and the Rhone.
I bought the Ginette, an 18-foot boat, a kind of big dinghy that must have once belonged to a yacht. I had a roof put on, and in the summer of 1927, I started my tour of France by river and canal. I took my typewriter, a folding table, my first wife, Tigy, my cook, called Boule, and finally a big Danish dog, Olaf. During this tour of France I learned a lot more than if I had traveled by car from city in city. My wife and I slept on board, while Boule slept in the tent with Olaf. In the morning, she made a fire while I, from 4:30 or 5:00, typed out chapters of popular novels. Then I wanted to see some more and go farther. I got another boat, more powerful, the Ostrogoth, a broad fishing boat from Fécamp, and had the interior redone. Before leaving for Holland I had promised to remain on board two years, without spending a night in a hotel. I made it. At Delfzijl, on the Dutch-German border, we had to stop to have the Ostrogoth re-caulked. That didn't prevent us from sleeping on board at night, but it stopped me from working there during the day. Then I found an old boat in the harbor, a completely broken down barge, full of rats and foul water. I set up three crates one for my typewriter, one to sit on, and one for my bottle of red wine. And it was there that I hit on my first Maigret, Pietr-le-Letton. And it is there that they have since erected the statue of Maigret.
From Delfzijl I went to Hamburg, then to Lapland, but on a regular boat that they called the tram, which went up the Norwegian coast, passed by the Arctic Ocean and arrived at Hammerfast. I browsed all over Lapland, about which I brought back a report3. But during those two years spent on board the Ostrogoth, I particularly learned about another kind of life, that of the sailor.
I didn't do these reports for a newspaper, but for myself. First I decided to go, then I went to propose to an editor-in-chief friend a certain number of articles. I set a price with the newspapers, but I was not their special envoy. I've never had a press card, except at the Gazette de Liège. The big report was solely a way to finance my curiosity.
I have never been tempted by exoticism. I always pursued, in my journeys, my search for the stark naked man.
Your concern to show the naked man in his sincerity, brought you to reveal truths that, in 1932, were not accepted. Thus, your report on Africa that ended with the words, "Yes, Africa tells us merde... and that's good!"
That article appeared in the weekly Voila, published by Gallimard. Citroën, to launch its tracked vehicles, had organized "The Black Cross," displayed all over Paris in a film, The Africa that speaks. I chose to subtitle my report, "Africa speaks to you... and says merde." I didn't even know if it would be published, and I didn't attach any importance to it it had merely financed my trip.
But I realized in 1936 that there was an important report that I wanted to do. I wanted to return to Africa, to review the colonized countries, to study the systems of colonization, to see their results and the degree of deterioration they had caused. I was telling this quietly to friends, on the terrace of Chez Maurice in Porquerolles, when a voice behind me said, "No, M. Simenon, you won't be leaving for Africa next week." I turned around, and saw a gentleman in shirtsleeves like myself, whom I asked, "And what will prevent me?"
"The government, which is to say, I will."
He said, "I am Pierre Cot4, Minister of the Interior. We have decided in council that this report will not be made, that it will not appear."
And indeed, all my visas were revoked. But it was not that, nor my first journey to Africa, that made me anti-colonialist. I always was. Simply because colonialism is an affront to the dignity of man.
When I read your articles, I feel like I'm reading a novel. In the same way, your novels feel like articles... slightly dramatized. As if you had abolished the border between dream and reality. Is this conscious?
Unconscious. But I can explain it very easily. Everyone's life is a novel though not necessarily a particular type. An important critic once wrote that everyone has a novel in them, but perhaps no more than one. It is only a novelist who has others. But everyone is indeed capable of describing their youth, meeting their spouse, their first month together... and making some novelistic truth of it. Afterwards, when it is no longer about themselves, but others, it becomes different.
To create characters, to hold them at arm's length, requires getting into the skin of others. The day I understood that it had become too tiresome for me to once more get in another's skin, to create more characters, I decided to stop. I was seventy years old, so that was a little more than two years ago. And as I wanted nevertheless to do something, I started being my own character. Instead of looking at man by studying others, I'm trying to do it by studying myself.
Why did you become a novelist?
I always wanted to write novels. I'm certainly not the only one. But for me it was something of a search for myself. What I call the search for man, is really the search for myself, since I am just a man like any other. While writing novels, I have the impression coming closer to man, of entering into the skin of a character. There are novels literally written by the subconscious. You get into a character's skin, we don't know at all where he is going to lead us. We follow him from day to day and it is only in the last chapter that we find out what happens to him. He must go all the way. Someone once asked Balzac, "What is a character in a novel?" He answered, "It is anyone in the street, but who lets himself go all the way. As much as we are, we never go all the way. We are afraid of going to jail or of shocking our friends... whether out of squeamishness, or good education, as they say, or for whatever other reasons."
A novel consists of creating some social group, five or six people, no matter, around a central character, and it's up to the author to get into the skin of this central character.
Did you try a kind of psychological analysis of your characters?
More or less. Which means that I tried to understand if this sort of man would react in this way or that. And believe me, it didn't help a bit. Up to the end of the very last chapter, I never knew how the novel would unravel itself, I never knew what would necessarily happen my character followed his own logic, and it was not at all mine. I lived his crisis, and it was truly exhausting. So that is why I stopped.
Let's talk about your special character, Maigret. Maybe because he ended up resembling you or vice versa he displays a certain concept of the world and human contacts that seems similar to yours.
In the beginning, Maigret was simple enough. A heavy, placid man who, like me, believed more in instinct than in intelligence, than in all the fingerprints and other forensic techniques. He used them of course, as he was obliged to, but without believing in them so much.
Gradually, we actually ended up resembling each other a little. I would be incapable of saying whether it was he who came closer to me or I to him. Certainly I picked up some of his habits and he some of mine. You know, people often wondered why Maigret never had a child, although he wanted really wanted one. It was his great disappointment. Well, it's because when I began the Maigrets I'd already written at least thirty before having a child myself my first wife didn't want any. She'd made me promise, before getting married, that I wouldn't make her have one. And I suffered a lot, because I adore children... just like Maigret.
So anyway, I was incapable of showing Maigret returning home to one or two youngsters. What was he going to tell them, how would he react to their crying, how would he handle giving them their bottle at night if Mme Maigret were a little ill? I didn't know. And so I created a couple that couldn't have a child. That's the reason. Then I advanced in age, more quickly than Maigret. Theoretically, he should have retired at fifty-five. In his last incarnation he was fifty-three and a half, and when I created him he was already forty or forty-five. Therefore, he lived fifteen years while I lived close to forty. And so, inevitably, I gave him, without wanting to, my experiences, as he gave me his.
Maigret has a way of being interested in people similar to your own. A certain faculty of sympathy, rather astonishing in a policeman.
Exactly. He may well be the only character I created with whom I have something in common. All the others, or just about all, are completely different.
What would Maigret be like if he had a new adventure?
If I wrote a new Maigret, and the commissioner were still on active duty, the next morning he would go to hand in his resignation. One of my novels shows well what he thinks of the political world, Maigret and the Minister. Maigret already reacts poorly to appointments with certain examining magistrates, pleasant enough certainly, but recruited from the middle class and claiming to pursue their profession while knowing nothing of men, simply following the bourgeois principles that had been instilled in them. What kind justice would you expect them to return under such conditions?
One has rather the impression that Maigret doesn't believe much in justice, and that for him there are no guilty, but only victims.
I don't believe that there are any guilty. Man is so poorly armed for life that to assume his guilt is like considering him a superman. I have no more wish to make a head of state into a proud Rastignac, to sacrifice all to his small vainglory, than to be angry at a tramp living under a bridge when he occasionally pinches a wallet. There are people that society pushes into crime. It is not by chance that the Mafia in America was born in the poorest sector of New York, in the streets of Brooklyn, with kids who started off life by beating each other up. When you get knifed at nine or ten, what do you want for yourself except to grow up into a gangster, it's all perfectly natural.
So a child coming from such a milieu has greater odds of becoming a criminal than the son of a provocative C.E.O.?
Yes, but sometimes the son of a C.E.O. becomes a criminal in protest against his father, his family or those around him. And I can understand that just as well.
Today there are campaigns to free animals from their cages, but don't we shut men up in cages with bars thicker than those for lions? That we can do such things to human beings makes me sick. To try to stop what we call crime and I believe that it has always existed and will continue to exist okay. But by changing tha society, and not by dumping on the youth who follow unknowingly the path that society has imposed on them. If I had been born in a public housing unit in Paris, I would certainly have become, not the "cerebral" anarchist that I am, but a real bomb-hurling anarchist, and maybe a killer.
Criminals are a little like the Negroes in Harlem, or colonized Asians. Whites go to look at them in the same way they go to the zoo.
I consider tourists the enemies of the whole world. Tourists have messed up the world, corrupted everything. Take for example the rue de Lappe that I often frequented when I lived in the Place des Vosges. At that time there were no tourists. When I went there, I was dressed like all young guys there. When I danced with one of their girls, I did like them, I slipped my hands under her coat, that was what we were supposed to do. We danced the java 20 inches apart, because the java was a very chaste dance, you could say. Two or three times, I had to use a knife. Now, the hoods and their girls have become attractions, extras, all that...
It's the same everywhere. That's why I don't travel anymore. Why travel? I see on television that all cities look the same. The great concrete buildings that I can see here, a hundred yards from my home, I can find everywhere, in Brazil, Argentina, Peru, the Indies, everywhere the same.
Your work has been criticized as being out of touch with current events for example, the war of '39 and its consequences hardly left any trace in your books.
I follow current events very closely, but it doesn't affect me. It's just curiosity, like turning on the television when I'm too tired to read I watch vaguely, but if, a half-hour later, someone were to ask me what I'd seen, I'd have a problem answering. The news is always the same the same winners, the same losers. I hope that one day the losers will be for the good of the winners, but I hope that before that, we don't go through an even more reactionary time than today.
Yes, but that's exactly what will finally trigger a true revolution.
For you, was May '68 meaningful?
Extremely. All the governments of the right started to be afraid. That's what gets the quickest attention, the squeaky wheel. As soon as they begin to feel danger, they immediately over-respond.
When Giscard noticed that Mitterrand had more or less the same number of votes as him, what did he do? He copied Mitterrand's program, and he's trying to put through a large part of it the abortion law, the pill, divorce, the vote at eighteen. And you'll see, he won't stop there.
They hope, in that way, to channel the revolution. But whatever they do, it is moving. First there will be a new fascism, as they risk in Italy where the right is very well armed and has a lot of important men in their corner, or rather in their pocket, because they give them a lot of money. In France, look at how they speak more and more of private militias, of increasing the numbers of the guardians of the peace, of the expansion of police powers, etc. It's a bad sign. But actually it's a good sign the French will react when things go too far.
If you had been eighteen in May of '68, what would have been your position?
If I were now eighteen years old, I would be a leftist. Further left than the Communists. In western countries like France or Italy, the Communists are bourgeois I was going to say capitalist. Von Darwel, who was president of the Second International, and whom I knew very well, said, "If we don't want a bloody revolution, it is necessary to give every family its house, and that we have our own cooperatives and banks." In Liège I saw them creating big cooperatives and socialist banks in the Place Saint-Lambert. On the practical side, in Belgium, socialism agrees very well with the middle class. Can one say that they are, in fact, leftist? I don't believe so. Or possibly a very pink left.
How did you feel personally in May of '68?
I was charged up. I spent my day in front of the radio and the television. My son Johnny, who now studies at Harvard, was then on the barricades of the Boulevard Saint-Michel. He received a few good thumps from the police. And he told me about it on the phone and asked, "You don't want me to do it?" I answered him, "On the contrary, go for it!" He was astonished.
Maybe where May '68 was most positive was in the liberation of morality...
All true revolution must start with morality. No progress is possible without changing the rules of life. For example, there is an outdated institution against which I will fight as much as I can, which is marriage.
Fortunately, the young generation doesn't care about it. I see it when I speak about it with my children. Except for Marc, who has a child of six, and who is still marked by the previous generation, the other three are quite free. My youngest son has his girlfriends stay overnight with him here. It doesn't bother me a bit. He's sixteen years old. The first effect of May '68 was to teach the young that they counted in society, that they had true power. And secondly, to teach the old that it was necessary to take the young into account. Before, they were content to punish them. Now, they no longer dare to. A student in his final year is already a fully-fledged citizen and as such he has rights. As a result, the teachers, principals, and education directors have lost some of theirs.
It also created a generation of young teachers that is leftist. By leftist I mean on the left, but not socialist, nor western Communist. Nor the Communism of Moscow. Russia is the country where I am the most translated of the world, where I have the best friends, from which I receive the most letters and gifts, but there is something that I have great difficulty with the lack of freedom of speech.
Your reporting taught you to suppress borders. Do you believe in nationalities?
I actually have no real nationality. My mother was half-Dutch half-German, my father half-French, half-Walloon. I married a Canadian. Several of my children were born in the United States. So what is my nationality?
What think you of the military?
I have a horror of everything military, I have a horror of uniforms. I did my military draft because it was necessary, but none of my children did theirs.
In your work are there any conscious messages?
Honestly speaking, I tried to create characters and, in creating them, tried to understand a little more about man. But most of the time, it was from the critics that I learned that I had meant such-and-such a thing. While writing, I was not conscious of it.
Besides, I was in such a state while writing! I wrote a chapter of about twenty pages in two hours or so, and afterwards, I'd lost almost two pounds. We made an experiment. Térésa weighed my clothes before giving them to me. Well, I sweated out nearly two pound per sitting.
More than 12 pounds per novel?
Yes. Which I regained in less than a month. When you write like that, you don't think about giving out ideas. You think about maintaining your character, remaining "in state of grace," which means in a state of complete emptiness of oneself to be the other. In the beginning, I stayed eleven days in this state, then ten days, then nine, then at the end seven. And if my novels were written in seven days, it was because I was incapable of holding on any longer.
Are you therefore a novelist of the subconscious?
A funny idea just occurred to me. You asked me why I wrote. After you spoke of intelligence, consciousness and the subconscious, I felt like saying that maybe I wrote because since my earliest days, I was a sleepwalker. As a child, I had bars on the window of my room, because some nights they found me in my nightshirt on the corner of the street. Sometimes during the night I'd go downstairs to redo the homework that I'd already done that evening. Still today I am somnambulant. I don't want to sleep alone. I can't sleep without being watched over.
Your characters are reluctant to communicate. They speak little, explain themselves little, understand themselves without having recourse to words. As if they were afraid of them.
That's it. Never... Words don't have the same value. That's why I use so few in my novels - hardly more than two thousand whereas I actually know a few more. Why?
According to the latest statistics I've heard, twenty years ago a French peasant used. on average, six hundred words. Then bureaucrats, small businessmen, between eight hundred and twelve hundred. The middle class, on average fifteen hundred. You had to get to men quite intellectual to find a vocabulary of two thousand to twenty-five hundred words. The more words you use in a novel, or in any text, the less likely you are of being understood, or at least being understood precisely.
There are no two people who read the same novel in the same way. The resonance of every word is different for each reader. So it is better to use as few words as possible, especially abstract words.
From the beginning I've been compelled to write, as much possible, with concrete words. A table, everybody knows that that is. A bed is a bed, a cloud a cloud. If you use a word like 'sublime,' or 'externalization,' an abstract word, the understanding will be different according to the class of the individual. That is probably why my books are translated into nearly a hundred languages. For the concrete men, who don't explain their moods, but whose actions and gestures we can see, it is the same in all countries, it can be rendered in all languages.
What were the books in your life? Writers who interested you, influenced you?
I was raised in a family pension where there were almost all Russian students. I started with Russian literature before even knowing French literature. Gogol, Chekov, Pushkin, Dostoyevski and Gorky before Balzac and Flaubert. Then, I became passionately fond of Dickens and Conrad. Finally, I read Balzac, and the French writers of the last century. But before, as a good schoolboy I had studied my classics very seriously.
Among writers who stand out in France, like Stevenson...
Oh, Stevenson, I consider him a great writer. When I lived in the United States, I went to his home at Monterey on the Pacific coast, from which he'd embarked for the islands. In primitive tribes there are storytellers. They also exist in the Pacific islands. When Stevenson, very young, went to die in Samoa he was tubercular he wrote this sentence: "the natives gave me a title which meant more to me than anything else they call me the teller of tales."
That is to say, "Tusitala."
Oh, you've read him too! On the peninsula at the end of Tahiti, in a tiny Protestant chapel, I discovered a large wine goblet the Protestant ritual includes bread and wine inscribed, "Gift of Robert Louis Stevenson."
What are your favorite books by Stevenson?
Treasure Island, of course. But also another, lesser known, a business of spying that starts in the back of a cigar store, The Dynamiter. An extraordinary book. The back of that cigar store is one of my earliest childhood memories.
Who is your favorite writer?
For the greatest writer of the last century I will answer Gogol. The greatest of this century, Faulkner.
translation: Stephen Trussel
Honolulu, October 2003
Defender of popular culture, which he made known for twenty years via "10/18" and "Boquins", Francis Lacassin notably published Conversations with Simenon (reedition, Le Rocher, 2002). To appear: an anthology of fairy tales, If the donkey's hide told me (ed. Omnibus), an illustrated album: The true birth of Maigret (ed. Horizon illimité).
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