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Paris Match   (N° 939)
April 8 1967, p 104-107

 

Simenon on Simenon

Interview: Gilbert Graziani

Photos: Philippe Le Tellier

original French

"If I hadn't been lucky enough to become a novelist,
I would have been one of the failures in my books."


 

What do you consider to be the principal feature of your character?

I am above all a man who has worked a lot, who continues to work, and who would be lost if he were unable to do so until the end of his days.

Is your need to write in a sense a need to escape from yourself?

I sometimes still believe that, as I often say that after two or three months without a novel I start to feel uncomfortable. But I now wonder if there isn't another reason, a deeper one. I'm from a family of modest means. My grandfather was an artisan, as were my uncles. My father, the "intellectual" of the family, was an insurance agent. My mother boarded and fed four or five students who were the masters of the house.
The first principle that was instilled in me was, if you don't work, you don't have the right to your daily bread.
I have maintained this spirit, whether I've wanted to or not. When I go without working, I unconsciously feel a kind of guilt, which unbalances me.
In the same way, I've retained from my childhood an instinctive humility. For example, if someone bumps into me in the street, my reaction is, rather than to get angry, to apologize.

Do you have a bitter memory of your childhood?

During my adolescence, I rebelled more or less against the taboos that imprisoned me and also against the mediocrity that surrounded me.
Furthermore, as a teacher's pet, I had to be first in my class at any cost. However, it is true that that changed when, as a schoolboy, I discovered girls.

At what point did your rebellion find expression in literature?

Toward the age of thirteen or fourteen. I had already decided to write, but I didn't believe that I could earn a living as a novelist, and I thought about a second profession. That is why, when the doctor told me that my father had a very serious illness, I left college to become to reporter.

You have said that if you hadn't become a novelist, you would have been a physician...

Yes, I've said that, but I don't think I would have been able to pursue my studies to the end. Study suffocated me. I welcomed the discipline of journalism like a life-preserver. You see that I was far from having the qualities and self-assurance that people want to assign to me. If there are many failures and tramps in my novels, it is because I believed for a long time — and I still sometimes believe — that that could have been my fate.

Being neither a failure nor a tramp, do you consider yourself a complete success?

Far from it. I've written novels for forty years. When I was thirty, I announced that I needed to reach forty to write my first great book. At forty, I moved the date up ten years, at fifty, ten more. Today, at sixty-four, I ask for another reprieve.
From the literary point of view, firstly, I don't have the impression of having gone as deeply into a man as I would like. And on the personal side, I'm far from being at peace with myself. In my simple role as father of a family, every day I feel guilty of clumsiness and lack of understanding.

Now at age sixty-four, do you think you will find peace?

I used to imagine that old men, among whom I have begun to count myself, had acquired a certain wisdom and, if lacking total stability, a certain self-satisfaction. I have discovered nothing of the sort. While aging, one keeps all the shortcomings of childhood and adolescence but, as one doesn't have the same spirit anymore, nor the energy, nor the same indulgence, there are fewer and fewer excuses.

What do you think of the reputation for facility that's been given you?

I write quickly, that is true, because I work on nerves. I am only capable of keeping my characters alive and maintaining the atmosphere that surrounds them for a short time. I used to be able to write for eleven days in a row. And so my novels had eleven chapters. Now I only write seven days and my latest novels have seven chapters.

People speak of a "mechanical" Simenon...

There is, indeed, a certain mechanical something even outside of my novels. Wherever I am, I automatically go to sleep at ten o'clock in the evening and wake up at six o'clock in the morning. There are certain things I do every day at the same time. For example, my four or five walks per day, which have became a necessity. If I feel an inclination to write, I merely have to prolong one of these walks, to make a very long solitary hike into the countryside, and the reflex nearly always works. A vague theme draws itself in my mind, silhouettes, a sort of melodic line.
Which means that two or three days later I will be able to look for names for my characters, give them identities, families, professions, habits...
From that point, I am "in novel" and, seven days later, this one will be finished. Not without pain, however. The first day of writing, my stage fright is so bad that I have to stuff myself with tranquilizers.

Do you like to read contemporary authors?

Until I was twenty-eight I was crazy about reading. But the day I began to write my Maigret novels, I made the decision to no longer read contemporary fiction, whatever the temptation, in order not to be influenced. It is not only about being influenced by the style, construction or significance of a book. Suppose that at the moment of writing a novel that has the theme of relations between father and son, I read a book that treats the same topic. I risk abandoning my own project, or intentionally writing it in a different way. I keep up with what is being written, however, because I read all the reviews.

What are you currently reading?

Besides novels, there are numerous fascinating books. For my part, I never get tired of reading correspondence or memoirs, because they illustrate all the aspects of human beings. Sometimes, not because of my profession, but by taste, I happen to read works of medicine or psychiatry. That is what shows me my lack of a base, of solidity, and convinces me — as I felt at the age of fifteen — that if I had not had the luck to become a novelist, I would have been a failure.

Is there a novel you would like to have signed?

Not a novel. But there is an author I would like to have been: Faulkner, who was able to contain the whole of humanity in a small county in the south of the United States. Before him, Thomas Mann had achieved the same tour de force with his "Magic Mountain".

How do you consider your profession today?

For a long time, I have considered it as a craft, and I see myself gladly as a craftsman, though I would be delighted if our tools were a little heavier and a little more difficult to handle than pencils and a typewriter. In the same way, if I had the strength for it, I would write, not a certain number of days per year, but every morning, in my workshop. On the other hand, there is a certain literary life which is difficult to escape.
I've never participated in the literary life. I'm not a member of The Society of Lettered Men. It is furthermore a label that I refuse; I'm not a man of letters, but a novelist, which is different.
I don't give conferences, I don't sign my books in bookstores or elsewhere, I don't write articles. I attend neither cocktail parties nor the more literary dinners. And, thinking about it carefully, there are no more than eight or nine writers I have met personally.

What about your friendships?

When I arrived in Paris, at the age of nineteen and half, it was the grand era of Montparnasse (as later there was the grand era of Saint-German-des-Près); I threw myself furiously into this furnace, passing most of my nights at the Rotonde first, then the Dôme, and finally the Coupole and the Jockey. There I made friends with people like Vlaminck, Soutine, Derain, Kissling, etc. I've maintained these friendships along with those of music hall artists and actors.
Since I live far from Paris, I especially meet physicians. It is with them that I feel most at ease, maybe because they have pretty much the same point of view of man as the novelist.
I don't enjoy going out in the evening. It would deprive me of putting my children to bed at the different times each of them goes to sleep. Furthermore, when I'm away from home, I feel a real uneasiness.

Now you that you are installed in Switzerland, do you consider ever moving again?

No, I don't envision moving any more, in fact. But when I bought my last house in America, I didn't imagine moving from there either. Yet, one evening while I was watching television I suddenly decided to move back to Europe. Why? Even to my wife I was incapable of giving an explanation.
I've had twenty-nine residences before this one. I rarely remained more than three years in any of them.
As for my schedule outside of my novels, it varies, naturally, according to the seasons, according to the days. In the morning after having awakened the children, I go down to glance at the mail that has just arrived, but without opening the envelopes. I have a number of little quirks like this.

What other quirks?

I go back upstairs to finish getting dressed. The children leave for school. At 8:10, in my office, I find my secretaries and dictate my correspondence.
Often, I go window shopping in town. I love city streets, especially those of small cities, in the morning, when they are setting up.
When I come back, I sign the letters, and read the newspaper for half an hour. Then lunch with the family, of course. A catnap for an hour. And in the summer, golf. For me this is not a sport, it is a vice. You spend a lifetime trying to improve the position of your feet, legs, shoulders, hands, fingers, your head, etc. You hurry because there are players behind. You lose patience because there are some ahead. You miss unmissable shots. And in the evening, instead of falling asleep, you redo all your strokes, trying to correct them.
Of course there are days when journalists, radio, television, or publishers replace golf. I don't hold it against any of them. On the contrary, in general, while they're interviewing me, I'm interviewing them from my side without seeming to.

How do you see your future?

I hope to write even more novels. I would like to live to be very old, for two reasons:
The first is that it is the only way to make life's complete tour. The second, more personal, is that I would like to see all my children grown up, and to see the directions their lives will take. However, the youngest is now only eight years old.


translated by Stephen Trussel

Georges Simenon, in his new domain, in Epalinges (7 kilometers from Lausanne). He doesn't know yet the exact number of rooms in this immense house.

In his office,
at times of stress,
he plays with this gold ball,
made to measure to his hand.

Two dozen pipes on his desk, another forty in the pipe-rack, tranquilizers against stage fright. Simenon is now "in novel". Seven days, seven chapters later, the final period.

As a reader
he prefers history to novels.

"I haven't yet written the book of which I dream."

"I confess, I have a vice: golf."

The true profile of Maigret.


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