Arriving at 2:30 in Lakeville (Connecticut), by car from New York, we ask for Shadow Rock Farm or Mr. Simenon no one knows. But when we specify "the French writer", a smile illuminates their faces. For the people of Lakeville, since Simenon speaks French, he is French.
Shadow Rock Farm (the name is from an old Indian legend) is a white house of the style that they call "rambling" in America, meaning that wings have been added, during various enlargements, but without worrying about symmetry, as branches grow on a tree. The main part was constructed in 1760, and Simenon's big living room has an immense fireplace of rough-hewn gray stone, as is only found in very old dwellings.
The house is at the bottom of a valley, without close neighbors. Behind is a rocky and wooded hill, and at the foot of this hill, a stream that at certain times must easily become a torrent.
When we arrived, Simenon was removing the boards which cover the swimming pool during the winter. He was wearing a bright red shirt and pair of gray flannel trousers. Naturally, he had his eternal pipe in his mouth.
He immediately showed us around the house. He is so proud of it that he insists you admire it all, including the bathrooms and storage rooms. The house, built on several levels, is big, with 18 rooms, including 8 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms. Everything is lacquered, varnished, sunny, bright-colored very American: the furniture is Early American or of no style, simply comfortable. The only hints of a European past are the books and the immense dining room table, Italian Renaissance, which Simenon used for years as a worktable.
His 26th houseBut if the setting is American, the human atmosphere is a curious mixture. Simenon himself, in spite of his years in America, speaks a fanciful English with a heavy accent. Mrs. Denise Simenon, a Canadian whose family is from Quebec, speaks French with the rolled "r" as in Normandy, and English a lot softer than that of America. Marc, the son of Simenon's first marriage, now fourteen, at first sight doesn't appear at all different from any of the American high school boys who are his friends. Johnny, four, is completely bilingual, and Marie-Georges (called Marie-Jo), one month, is a baby with abundant brown hair, indifferent to all questions of nationality. Besides the family there is the staff: the children's nurse is American, the cook (twenty-seven years in Simenon's service) and the maid are French, and the secretary is Hungarian.
Simenon has lived in Lakeville for three years. Before that, for five years, he lived successively in California, Florida and Arizona, covering by car the breadth of the United States. His last domicile before coming to Connecticut was in Arizona. But the torrid heat of that state and the lack of good schools for Marc decided him to come East. A friend had him visit Shadow Rock Farm, which he immediately fell in love with and bought. "Now," he says, "I've decided to stay here. It's my twenty-sixth house. It's time to stop."
Simenon's life in Lakeville is divided into two very clear periods. The one when, as his wife says, "he is in a novel", and the other when he is "between novels".
When he is "in a novel", Simenon gets up at 6:00 in the morning, the rest of the household still asleep. He makes his coffee and goes down to his office in the basement, a small sound-proof room, with a gray metal desk as classic and sober as that of an American businessman, a couch, an armchair, a file cabinet, and some bookshelves. Simenon closes the door, draws the curtains, and lights the lamp. Next to his chair is a low table on which are set two bottles of Coca-Cola and the big yellow cup for his coffee. On the desk, some white paper (always the same. "It's a mania," he says), a Manila envelope on the back of which is scribbled in pencil the plan of the current novel, and an arsenal of pipes, cleaned and ready. And he sets to work.
Two hours a day for a MaigretHe types with machine-gun speed, hardly ever stopping, not even for correction, making two copies of every page with carbon paper. He only pauses to consult a telephone book (of which he has a collection), a city map, or a dictionary Larousse or Webster. These are his only work tools. And then... about two hours for a Maigret, three for another novel.
During this time the household is supposed to sleep. Simenon cannot work when he feels the house awake around him. Mrs. Simenon says that before Johnny was born, when they lived in a smaller house, she would stay in bed until her husband had finished his daily chapter.
When he has finished, Simenon brings the chapter that he has just written, up to his wife. While she reads it he washes up. Then, the work day of the master of the house finished, the family's life begins. "Simenon," says his wife, "is not just a father, he's a patriarch." After breakfast Simenon goes to town. When he is "in a novel" he goes alone and on foot, to be able to think and dream his story. When he is "between novels" he goes by jeep, and his wife or Johnny goes with him. He starts at the post office to pick up his mail. This consists mainly of newspaper clippings from Argus that Simenon, most the time, stuffs into a big case in his living-room without reading. Then there are the business letters that he gives his wife, and fan mail, which he always answers immediately. The mail taken care of, he crosses the street and buys his newspapers, three dailies and some magazines. Then he mays pick something up at the supermarket for his wife. Back home, he works a little in the garden. This winter, he and Marc cleared a part of the hill that goes down from the house to the stream. After lunch he has a nap until 3:00. From 3:00 to 5:00 is the children's hour. Before dinner, the children go up to their rooms (each has his own), and he works with his wife. Unlike most American writers, Simenon doesn't have a manager, nor a press agent, nor legal counsel. All of these functions are assumed by Mrs. Simenon. "She puts in work hours as regular as those of an office," says Simenon with pride. All contracts for editions, television, movies, and radio, are negotiated by her.
His publishers can't keep up with himSimenon is currently finishing up negotiations for a weekly Maigret television series. The films will be shot in France and the actor who will embody the famous inspector will live a large part of the year in Paris. Simenon is also about to sign a book contract with an American publisher the most important of its kind that he has ever signed in this country. "This is again my wife's work," says Simenon. "She negotiated this contract by phone from the hospital, where she had just given birth to my daughter."
After dinner, a little television, a little reading. Not too much, because Simenon doesn't like to read contemporary authors: "If they are good, they depress me," he says, "but if they are bad they make me conceited." At 10:30, Simenon, as a proper householder, makes the tour of the house. He checks that all the doors are shut, that everything is in its place.
Once a month, Mr. and Mrs. Simenon go to New York. They stay two days at a hotel, eating in restaurants. During office hours they make their business calls. Evenings they go to a concert or the theater. But one rigid rule applies: they never go to see Simenon movies.
Simenon explains that the reason he came to live in America was because he wanted his son Marc to have an American education. He had come up with this plan in 1939, on the eve of the war, and the war delayed its implementation until 1945. Today, Marc, after eight years in America, rides a horse like a cowboy, shoots a rifle, swims, drives the jeep, and plays all the usual sports of young Americans.
Simenon's present work schedule comprises six novels a year, of which two are Maigrets. When he hasn't worked for a while (as at the moment, because of the birth of his daughter, contracts to consider, etc.), he writes a Maigret to get his hand back in. The one that he will begin on the 19th of this month will be called Maigret a peur (Maigret Afraid).
Currently, Simenon is in the paradoxical situation of being the only writer who writes more quickly than his publisher can publish. He estimates that he is ahead of his American publisher by two novels a year. Although three English translators work almost solely for him, only 45 novels of the 155 that he has written under his own name have been published in English.
When Mrs. Simenon is asked how many novels he has written in America, she answers, "A novel every two months, six novels a year, seven years... do the calculation."
The principal characteristic of Shadow Rock Farm and its inhabitants is that everything there is determined by the personality of Simenon himself. His work, his tastes, his temperament, his vitality are at the center. The property, like all American properties, has neither walls nor hedges, but the outside world stops at the border as if repelled by the density of the Simenon atmosphere with which it collides.
And yet Simenon himself hates to speak of his work, of his literary life. He does it from time to time as a necessity, but escapes as soon as he can, and it is his wife who answers the questions. He is the one who drags you through the house, into the garden or the village, extolling the beauty of the skies profusely... all to avoid speaking of Simenon the writer.
But in conclusion there is this statement he made to an American journalist: "I am happy. I've taken root."
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