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the match of the week
Paris Match   (N° 346)
November 26, 1955, p 90-95

 

Simenon Confesses

André Parinaud

Photographic Report:
Jean-Paul Ollivier
Edward Quinn

original French

In six reels of radio confessions
the author of 164 novels reveals
the secrets of his creation


"Interviews with Georges Simenon," a series of Friday broadcasts on the National Chain, are the major literary radio event of the season, just as were, three years ago, the confidences of Paul Léautaud collected by Robert Mallet. Here, André Parinaud, who recorded this broadcast and interviewed the most fertile novelist of our time, gives you a preview.

 

FOR the second time, the operator shouted from the terrace: "Rolling!"

Seated on the other side of his small work table, Georges Simenon had arranged before the microphone his white enamel tobacco pot, two bottles of Coca-Cola, and five pipes, while he methodically lit the sixth. It is only when he had blown out the match that the countdown could begin: five, four, three...

It was 8:30 on a radiant French Riviera morning. The interview took place in the top room of the villa "Gatounière," on the Cannes-Mougins road, where the Simenon family had been ensconced for months of a long vacation.

...two, one, zero! The marathon had begun. It would last eight hours and forty minutes. Simenon, the man of 164 novels and 250 popular works translated in twenty-seven countries — each with a printing of 2 million — had a new record to set: the story of his life and work in twelve interviews encompassing 400 questions, recorded in a single day!

Legend has it that Simenon once wrote a novel in three days in a glass cage. As with all myths, this one has a basis in fact. Around 1930, the director of an evening newspaper had hired Simenon as an advertising attraction. He'd had a cage constructed in the hall of his newspaper where Simenon, under eyes of the public, was to write a serial, non-stop. But on the eve of the big day, the newspaper went bankrupt. Simenon wrote the book in his room.

The investigation attempted by the radio show had as its main goal the revelation of the prodigious mechanics of Simenon's creation.

"It all begins," says the novelist, "when I feel ill at ease in my skin." One day he becomes grouchy, "discontent" with himself, "like a cat who meows while rubbing against the walls; then there is no mistake: I need to write."

For those near him, for himself — and the symptoms appear every month — the indication is clear. And so begins a series of very precise operations, ten in all, that are the obligatory stages of all his novels.

First of all Simenon unburdens himself of all cares for about ten days — no appointments, no visits, no important mail. His wife mounts a vigilant guard. Simenon never answers the phone himself, doesn't open a letter. He has a physician come, who examines the novelist and his family. If one of his children happened to fall sick while he was "in novel," the father would be unable to continue, and would bear "the remorse of characters perpetually in purgatory, something like a healer who could not achieve a cure." The physician must calm the author... or counsel him to wait a few days, if he considers that the physical state of a family member is not satisfactory. And Simenon will champ at the bit, anxious because his eldest suffers from a cold or the youngest has an earache. His affection for his family borders on hypersensitivity.

"If all goes well the night before getting to work," Simenon takes a solitary walk in a remote place. He is trying "to put himself on track, to create in himself an emptiness that permits anything at all to enter." Because he knows that he must write, but doesn't have any idea of the topic yet, nor the characters. Only a powerful instinct is awakened in him, demanding and nearly fatal, that will trigger his subconscious strengths.

Every hour a ritual, every day a chapter

The fourth point of "operation creation" consists of "letting memories emerge and bloom." The slightest impression has in his memory an extraordinary resonance. The movement of a branch, an image of a wheat field, a flight of birds, a drawing of a cloud, an odor... often awakens the abrupt association of ideas and plunges him "into the old states," evoking episodes of his past life. This is the key. He has succeeded. Because it is in these treasures of his childhood memory that Simenon has accumulated the stupendous reserve of his talent, an entire universe of sounds and odors, of life and beings that wait to emerge, a sign, a state of trance having as its goal the search for Ariadne's thread. Sometimes hours are sufficient, sometimes two or three days are necessary. During this time, Simenon works.

He doesn't remember names or numbers

A curious phenomenon occurs then. The hours which precede the discovery of the memory key will constitute an indelible movie that Simenon cannot forget, and every day he will be obliged to walk the same paths, to repeat the same gestures, to view the same landscapes "like obeying a sacred ritual." The novel finished, the obsession ends.

As soon as he can penetrate into the universe of his memories, the cortege of characters that he knew in the evoked situation presents itself. His refuses all abstraction. He doesn't remember names or numbers. But the least detail — a patch of sun, an odor, a sound, a color, an accent — is present in his mind. For some hours he will relive such and such of the most precious moments of his life, and "as a matter of course" the tics of one, the hair of another, clothes of the third, one's certain way of walking, will detach themselves, become appreciable, will interest him anew. The central character of the novel-to-be, often composed of the superimposition of six or eight real characters, has just been born.

Simenon uses "the residual of details revealed" to create the secondary characters "useful to the first chapter." He will invent others by the same process as the action progresses.

It is now about choosing a civil condition for these unknowns. Simenon arranges his complete collection of phone directories from around the world. He will search for some three hundred names that he will copy out. For one hour, while walking in his office, he reads names aloud, "verifying them against the character's picture. Suddenly one of them appears definitive."

On a yellow commercial format envelope— the color and shape were decided superstitiously once and for all — Simenon will write down the name, age, telephone number and address of the main character, his wife's name, the age of this one, the name and the age of the children, if there are any, a medical diagnosis (whether he has a liver ailment, for example). He will proceed more summarily for associates.

Finally, he will draw the plan of the house where the action will take place, "because I must know, when my hero goes in, whether he pushes the door to the left or the right, and what view there is from the windows."

At this stage of the operation, the novelist poses himself a question that would have enchanted Balzac: "Given this man, where he is, his profession, his family, what can happen which will push him to his limit?" It is about playing Destiny, to give to a life the bit of help that creates the drama. Two or three hours are sufficient to construct the situation.

From that moment, Simenon is his character, embodies him and even ends up resembling him: if he walks bent over with his hands behind the back, and draws out certain words, Simenon will do the same.

The first chapter will be written in three hours; the next in two, at the rate of a chapter per day.

Simenon's day begins at 6 o'clock. He rises first, prepares his coffee and works until about 9:00. Then, according to the meticulous ritual of the first day, he takes a walk until noon, eats lunch with his family, takes a catnap for an hour, and goes out for a walk with his wife. They will converse on the way, of "insignificant things," but absolutely not of the novel. They will go in for dinner. If it is not a "hard novel" — a Maigret for example — Simenon will watch television with the family and will read the papers. If it is a "hard novel," since Letter to my judge, the novelist, before going to bed, will write in pencil three or four pages of the next chapter. But he won't even reread them the following day, and will work directly on his machine.

When he is "in novel," Simenon sleeps perfectly, generally without dreaming, but his tension grows from day to day until it is hypertension. Robert Brasillach asked him "when the inventor of Maigret would write the great novel that we can hope for." "Never," answered Simenon. "My novels will always have nine or ten chapters, written in nine or ten days, because I am incapable of coping longer."

"I am only a craftsman," he says again, "I need the machine to feel if life is there. I envy painters because they fight with matter. If I could engrave my novels in stone, I would be even happier." There is no doubt that without the typewriter we would not have the same Simenon, not just the style but for the inspiration. Simenon wielding a pen would confess more intimately. Tapping at his machine, he paints. The keys have in their operation the role of a filter. They even impose on him a rhythm of sentences. Simenon forged his style and his fortune according to cadences of the sounds of his "keyboard factory," from which in forty years have emerged two hundred fifty works representing more than a million dollars.

Simenon is perfectly conscious of the medium-like powers on which he draws. At the same time "all new desire to write — every time — triggers a real panic, a terrible stage fright. The miracle has occurred one hundred sixty-four times. But it is finished, I won't be able to do it anymore..." It is only by the third chapter that the confidence comes back. It will disappear again when the book is finished. "My God, this is bad! This one has missed. But the book is sent to the publisher; it is published. I am not yet reassured and cannot accept my novel until about two years later when it has been translated into two or three languages and it comes back to me through the public."

Simenon had just finished his last pipe and cast some expressive looks toward his tobacco pot. It is the moment that the operator chooses to protest from outside: "Hey! This reel is finished, aren't you thirsty?"

Suddenly the small room is filled with shade. Simenon had risen and all his breadth obstructed the unique porthole which served as a window. Then he opened the door and his silhouette splashed by the sun broke up on the doorstep. He blinked his eyes. His face contracted and for an instant, with his pipe screwed in his mouth, his large neck, his look a little heavy through filtered lids, a sudden certain attitude of his massive body: "It was Maigret... " such as he had probably dreamed him and succeeded in imposing his image on the imagination of millions.

At 12, he had wanted to be a priest or an officer

BECAUSE the great ambition of this calm man who has "dedicated" himself to the novel since the age of twelve— he wanted then to be a priest or an officer, imagining that these two professions alone would grant him enough leisure to write — is "to be read by the whole world," every book has the same resonance, whether in New York, Chicago, London, Paris or Tokyo. Purists who accuse him of writing badly should study the astonishing technique that he brings to bear and which permits him, for example, to juxtapose in the same sentence the present, past and future tenses, giving the sensation of permanent life, and losing no more than 2% in translation where most authors lose 30%. But he is unconcerned about the literary preoccupations of writers of yesterday and today: the search for style, moral intentions, the beauty of the rare word, bring but a shrug of his shoulders! "Style," he says, "is above all movement. Word order has an importance not in relation to syntax, to the elegance of vocabulary, to poetic rhythm, but to the life that it is must translate, make happen... I only use word-material that has the same meaning in twenty-five cities of ten different countries."

And contrary to the principle that a writer must constantly enrich his vocabulary (as school teachers regularly admonish their students) Simenon constantly simplifies his, reducing it, purifying it "in order to soften the instrument that constitutes the writing and to succeed more efficiently in establishing communication with the public."

Simenon had left France in 1940 for the USA, accompanied by this prediction of Gide's: "You are the first universal popular novelist and you will be recognized one day as the greatest of all, the most real novelist we have..." He lived ten years in the United States, changing his residence eleven times, and there "found happiness," and hope entered into his novels from the date of his marriage, which would also be eventful for his work, marking the turning point envisaged by Gide.

The secret hero of his work: his father

BUT Simenon is unconcerned. He has no desire to found a school, doesn't subscribe to any movement. He is alone and works obscurely. So for a year he has been in France "to recover some memories and to give birth to some others" while seeking silently, like Maigret. "I have only one wish," he says, "to live long enough to reach the end of the cycle of novelistic characters that I have created."

It was already a little past noon and the dialogue had continued almost without interruption since morning. Simenon spoke in a somewhat serious voice, slowly, quietly, without hesitation, occasionally with a slight Belgian inflection, but not betraying any weariness. Then, suddenly, to the question, "Isn't there some event in your life that explains why the same characters always reappear in your work years later and under different names?" "I don't know," he said, and asked to take a break. For the first time Simenon didn't answer, whereas one had just touched on the very subject of these interviews: "The secret of Simenon," the key that explains neither his talent nor his gifts, but without the knowledge of which the unity of his 164 novels cannot appear... an old and terrifying memory that was delivered to the microphone scrap by scrap in a polite but obstinate game of question and answer.

There is a dream of conquest in the ambition of Simenon, in his wish "to make himself read all over the world," but this is not a dream of strength, it is a will of love, a vow that he accomplishes.

On a certain day in 1916, the Simenon family physician summoned young Georges to tell him solemnly and movingly, that his father had less than a year to live, and that he needed to go to work. This revelation turned Simenon's life upside down.

We can imagine the year that followed, the so-short following of days of which each marked the approach of an irretrievable end, and with what ecstatic eyes young Georges regarded the acts and gestures of his adored father, to engrave in his memory the pictures of a life that fled.

The shock caused by this disappearance must have been significant, because it was from this instant that his dead father began to live in the mind of Georges Simenon, that this silent, good, chaste father, nearly unknown during his lifetime — exactly because of the gentleness and strength of his virtues — became then the ideal example in the mind of the teenage Georges and the man he became, and has never diminished his tutelary prestige.

Several times in the life of Georges Simenon, his father's memory, the idea that it was his father who guided him, was his inspiration. "It is to his memory," he says, "that I owe not to have turned out badly in certain serious periods." But there is more. It is not chance that Simenon always comes back to the heart of his childhood, as if this passed universe obsesses him! It is not chance that his novels are always a sort of quest where the same characters constantly return, but at different ages, under other names, in various situations, as if Simenon could not detach himself from the six or seven shades that revolved around his father, who knew him, beloved, alive! It is not chance that Simenon's characters are always ready to flee, to see their sentimental universe collapse while judging that all is absurd, but that it is about — like young Georges the day the physician revealed the tragic news — finding at the bottom of despair the simple courage to remain standing! It was the sacred respect for his father's memory that, through mysteries of the subconscious, drove Simenon on to paths of glory.

At the end the last reel, the 165th novel

A psychoanalyst could explain how each of Simenon's novels is an homage to his father, following particular rituals. Perhaps Georges Simenon hasn't defeated his ghosts, but he has learned how to make of his bewitchment a charm for the pleasure of us all.

Evening had fallen when the last reel of the tape recorder was sealed in its metal case. The operator put his hand on the overheated machine and gave a small cry. Simenon seemed to interest himself in the stages of the disassembly of the device, but his eyes remained stationary with a curious gleam in the pupil.

Mme Simenon came toward her husband, a small lucid silhouette in the gathering darkness, and leaned tenderly on his arm.

"Are you happy, Georges?" she asks.

He didn't answer, then: "Tomorrow, I believe I will begin another novel..."

translated by Stephen Trussel



His recipe for clear thinking in the morning: three minutes of abdominal exercise on a specially conceived rack.


The first cup of coffee. Awake at 6:00, he prepares it himself and drinks it installed at his machine. He gives himself until 9:00 to write a whole chapter. He works only by electric light.


9:30 a.m.  He goes for a walk in the patio of his Cannes house. Nobody else has access.


10:30 a.m.  He caresses an amber necklace, received as a gift 20 years ago, sesame of his inspiration.


11:30 a.m.  He goes shopping with his cart, or his wife's 4CV, according to day.


2:00 p.m.   After lunch, he joins in the living room his wife Denise, Canadian of origin, his three children, Marie-Jo, two, Jean, six, Marc, sixteen (from left to right) and his poodle Mister. After smoking a pipe, he will take a catnap for an hour. In the evening, after dinner, the family will meet again around the television.


4:30 p.m.  While waiting for dinner, he goes for a walk with his wife. She is his first reader. He submits his daily chapter to her in the morning. For the afternoon, they have a pact: it is forbidden to speak of the novel.


9:00 p.m.  Before going to bed, he writes in pencil the beginning of the chapter that he will type the following day without rereading.


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