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Paris Match   (N° 594)
August 27, 1960, p 52-55

 

Simenon:

Millions flow from his pen

Reporter: Michel Clerc

Photos:   Izis

original French


In the beginning she told herself, "That's it, he must be coming down with the flu."

It would happen most unexpectedly. In the living room, in a car, at the table... suddenly Simenon would turn gray. He wouldn't open his mouth. He'd grow fidgety. Denise Simenon would no longer recognize her husband.

Two or three times she had called the doctor. But today, after fifteen years of marriage, she no longer worries. A single symptom – Simenon's tension soars. It's an unmistakable sign: he is going to write a novel. Then begins a set of phenomena at once mysterious and precise. You see him leaving at night, at the wheel of his BMW. Or going for a walk at dawn, through the countryside. The brim of his black hat pulled low over his eyes, he stays out late in the streets, nostrils flaring, taking in the odors. He turns to look at a passer-by whose mustache reminds him of something. The things most important in his life don't count anymore, whereas the most fleeting impressions acquire an extraordinary importance. Anything can "raise" a character.


For Simenon's children, for Boule, the faithful housekeeper, for the poodle Mister, it's the beginning of a difficult period. Visitors are forbidden, the telephone suspended. The curtains are drawn, the lights lit in the middle of the day. There are no more friends. If Simenon's mother arrives, Denise tells her, "Mama, forgive him, he's in a novel." All these precautions are for a single purpose: protecting the fragile phantom – the character – that too strong a light or the ringing of a telephone could shatter in an instant.

One day, little Pierre, the youngest of the Simenons, fell sick as Georges was attacking the fourth chapter of a novel. Simenon had to interrupt his work. He put aside the manuscript and never took up the topic again.


The shutters closed, his forty pipes aligned before him, Simenon is going to get acquainted with his hero. First, his name. To find it, Simenon copies from the telephone directory at least three hundred surnames. These he repeats aloud until the moment when one of them comes to the fore. He writes it down on the back of a commercial format envelope, always of the same color: yellow. After the name he notes the age, the address, the telephone number. He wants to know everything about his character, even things he'll never use. His father's age, and whether he's still alive, his mother, his children, his friends. If he has a bad liver or a strong heart. Simenon wants to have the plan of his house, to know the style of his furniture and what street the windows look out on. These elements united, Simenon opens a map of the city where the action will take place. He adds to the yellow envelope the names of streets, distances. Everything is weighed, measured, timed.

The following day, the writer will start to work. At 6:20 his wife touches his shoulder "Jo, it's time." He washes with cold water. Alone in the kitchen he prepares his coffee which he carries to his office. He hangs on the door knob the placard from a luxury hotel that has gone around the world with him, "Do not disturb". No daylight penetrates the room. Simenon doesn't want to know if it's raining or beautiful outside. The only important thing is the weather he will create in his novel.

Everything is ready. In a red leather box, fifty carefully sharpened pencils which will each be used but once; the yellow leaflet block; his typewriter. Then Simenon lights his first pipe. It is a little before 6:30.


If Georges Simenon is writing a Maigret, he types it directly. He needs the machine "to feel the keys like a painter touches his canvas." But if it's a "non-Maigret," he devotes two sittings instead of one to the writing of a chapter.

At 9:30 at the latest, the first chapter is finished. His work day is over. He has smoked eight pipes and drunk half a gallon of coffee.

His creation is a race against the clock. A chapter takes three hours. A book – eight times three hours. "When" asked Brasillach, "will Simenon give us his great novel?" Simenon answered, "Never. I can't last longer than eight days."

Often, when he has covered the back of the yellow envelope with the description of his character, he gathers up his city maps and cards, and packs them into a case with his typewriter. He travels to the airfield with his wife and buys a ticket at random for Milan, Amsterdam, Venice or Paris. In all these cities the Simenons are regulars. Their apartment is reserved in a luxury hotel all year long. To avoid all distraction he gets settled in the bathroom.

On the morning of the tenth day, a taxicab stops in front of the hotel – the Simenons return home. Nearly three hundred works in slightly more than forty years have come out of this stupendous factory that is called Georges Simenon.


He started at sixteen reporting the "news briefs" at the Gazette de Liège. His father worked at an insurance company. His mother, to supplement their income, took in foreign students.

One day, like all young writers-to-be, Simenon went up by train to Paris. He started by writing 75-centime popular novels. "I practiced my scales," he says. In 1925, Simenon, at twenty-two, was already the king of the serial. He could write you a complete novel in twenty-four hours. His list of sixteen pseudonyms – Georges Sim, Christian Brülls, Jean du Perry, Gom-Gut, Luc Dorsan, Georges Martin-Georges... is as impressive as the list of his works – Miss Baby, Mysterious Marie, The Fiancée with Hands of Ice, Lost Hearts, Nichon-nette, Lili Sadness, Lili Smiles, Alas! I love you, The Virgin of Bénouville, Shirts in the wind...

He has a car, a cook, a boat. It's the grand life.


At the beginning of the summer of 1928, Simenon was camped on a beach in Holland. While a few steps away sailors caulked his yacht, the Ostrogoth, he wrote his first Maigret.

Fayard, his publisher, having read this police story that wasn't one, summoned Simenon to his office.

"My dear Sim," he said, "are you mad? Where did you get this Maigret? He's neither a good guy nor a bad guy. There's no police intrigue. No love, no happy ending. No one will read it!"

But this time, Fayard, the great veteran publisher himself, was mistaken.

Maigret was a star.

The turnover of his enterprises are valued today in the billions of francs. Every novel is translated into twenty-eight languages, published in twenty-three countries (there are some countries where several languages are spoken). Every book being republished indefinitely every year, a Simenon appears in the world every three days, and, according to U.N.E.S.C.O., on average eighty-seven translations per year. Simenon, in 1948, passed Karl Marx. He is beaten by Jules Verne, but on the other hand places higher than Balzac.

It is Mme Simenon who receives publishers on the first floor, between a Vlaminck and a Buffet. It is she who has them approve the contract she has written, a contract like no author in the world ever had, not even Hemingway.

Everything has been calculated. The typography, the binding, the shipping and the part that Simenon, reversing roles, agrees to leave for the publisher. It's the same with the movies. This tall Canadian with the black chignon, manages with ferocity and rigor.

Simenon met her in New York shortly after the war. They took a romantic walk along the sidewalks of Central Park. She had told him, "You know, I read very little. Only one book touched me in my childhood, but I've forgotten the title and author." She told him the story. Simenon smiled. He had recognized one of his first works. He asked her to come for tea in his hotel. She had an appointment at four o'clock. "But if all the lights are green from the Waldorf to the Drake," she thought, "I'll go." The miracle occurred. She learned, five years later, that the traffic lights of New York had been broken that day.

Simenon works only sixty-five days a year. The remainder of the time, he leads, close to Lausanne, the life of a prosperous man of means of the canton of Vaud. British television has just contracted Commissioner Maigret for thirty-nine 1,500-meter films.


His royalties are fabulous. One speaks of one and a half billion francs. But this no longer interests Simenon. If for ten years he refused contracts offered to him by American television, it was because he feared for his character, who millions of readers have known for thirty years down to the smallest gesture.

Does Simenon want to change Maigret's post, buy him a house in the country, put him into retirement? Immediately it's a scandal. If Mme Maigret doesn't appear in a novel, everyone worries. Who will take care of the household? In Maigret's Memoirs, Simenon surrendered his pen to Maigret, who corrected the supposed mistakes committed by the author. Several letters arrived – "Well, he shut you up! Writers just say whatever they want."

All these reasons make Simenon keep a jealous guard over any changes to his character. If he has leased him for seven years to the British (leased, not sold), it is because the B.B.C. reassured him by sending him for the role the actor Rupert Davies.

A big, strong, heavy-footed Welshman, Rupert Davies, at the Simenon's, is settled into an armchair. He draws on his pipe. He scrutinizes the writer with that discreet understanding, that mute commiseration which belongs only to Maigret. Simenon put him to the test by asking, "How would the commissioner, returning home, kiss his wife?" Simenon had Boule, the cook, come to play the role. Rupert Davies acted it out while patting her behind gently. "That's Maigret!" thought Simenon. This small, good-natured Parisian gesture will tour the British empire on screen.

 

translation: Stephen Trussel
October 2003


With the family at Echandens (Vaud canton).

On his lap: Pierre, the youngest.

Simenon Orchestra: Mama, Marie-Jo (7) and Johnny (10) on drums.

Paris-Match / Izis photos from the same session

published in Simenon's When I was Old, © 1970, 1971, HBJ


As always, when I am writing, I am alone in my study

In my study, with Johnny

I like towns in the morning

The children are playing in the garden

I am taking my traditional walk


My wife and I

Music in the playroom

In town with Johnny and Marie-Jo

With Pierre
This is the article Simenon mentions at the beginning of "When I was Old":

/Monday, June 27, 1960
Spent yesterday, a typical Sunday, with a Match photographer. He's here for four days, after which he will be joined by a journalist for what they call a feature story. It's the fourth that Match has published in seven or eight years about me and my family.

The other three Match articles he refers to are apparently May 10-17, 1952, November 26, 1955, and October 19, 1957; about one every three years, not counting minor articles.

Simenon was much more impressed with the photographer, Izis, than the writer, Michel Clerc:

/Saturday, July 2, 1960
The Match photographer, who lived four or five days in the bosom of my family, had not known me before he came but left as an old friend. The writer, theoretically more "cultured," but who managed to ask hundreds of impertinent questions, came to do his work, no more, and add an article, a victim, to his collection.

Clerc's article is, in fact, everything Simenon said he disliked about magazine articles written about him. The title is about his earnings, which always irked him, and the bulk of the story is dedicated to fostering "the myth," as Simenon calls it, the formulaic set of clichés that journalists seem to love about Simenon – his making coffee alone in the kitchen, the yellow envelope... No real interest, nothing new, just "look at this weird writer who makes all this money."

He liked Izis and his work enough to include these Match interview photos (above) to illustrate "When I was Old," published ten years later.


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