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Paris Match   (N° 1661)
March 27, 1981, p 56-59

 

Simenon

"I've chosen to be poor"

by Paul Giannoli

original French

On his identity card he had replaced "writer" with "no profession". For more than ten years Georges Simenon had no longer written, but dictated into his tape recorder. Now, at seventy-eight, the father of Maigret, who lives entrenched in a minuscule house in Lausanne, has once more taken up his pen, for a work of over 2,400 pages baptized "Intimate Memoirs". It is the story of his conjugal disappointments, the suicide of his daughter Marie-Jo, his decision to return to the poverty of his beginnings, and his love for Teresa, the grand passion of the autumn of his life. Especially for Paris Match and Fr 3 which devotes a broadcast to him at 20h30, Sunday, March 22, he opened the door to Paul Giannoli of what he already calls "his final resting place".


He is going to publish a 2,400-page book, "Intimate Memoirs," written at a schoolchild's desk.
In this small garden he has scattered the ashes of his daughter, Marie-Jo.
Georges Simenon in his small house in Lausanne, bought eight years ago when he decided to give up writing novels. In the garden he has scattered the ashes of his daugther, Marie-Jo, who comitted suicide in 1978 at the age of 25.


Marie-Jo had all the gifts: she composed poetry and songs, had appeared in a film directed by her step-brother Marc.

At first view it is just a man looking out at his garden, smoking a pipe. It is comfortably warm in the salmon-pink room, while outside the window, winter has blackened the grass. At the foot of the 200-year-old cedar there is a green bench for two. A bird darts past. The man draws the curtain, as on the last act of a play that he sees every day.

What is it that keeps this scene from being peaceful and banal? Somewhere within there lurks a mystery, a scent of drama: a movie-goer would feel it quickly. A Georges Simenon novel, in its opening lines, would be able to establish the decor and distill his famous atmosphere. But it is as true as truth: it is a moment in the life of Simenon. We are in Lausanne, an afternoon in March. He looks out at his garden and can see flowers that no one else can see: flowers of grief.

In this ground is the body of his daughter Marie-Jo, a suicide in the month of May, 1978, at only twenty-five. His son Marc had called him in Paris to tell him, in the middle of the night. So as to never again be separated from Marie-Jo, Simenon had her body cremated, scattered her ashes in this garden. With the gesture of a sower who wouldn't wait for spring, but who loved the immaculate winter. Then he sat down before his tape recorder with the built-in microphone and spoke: "Hello, my little girl. From now you will share our existence in which you will have your part. Today I was anxious to tell you my joy — yes, my joy — because I know that you are happy also, having finally arrived at your goal."

Facing me, caught in the crossfire of two cameras, will Georges Simenon be willing to speak of the death of Marie-Jo? Will his whispered confidences bear exhibit under spotlights? "You can ask me anything at all," he told me, "for me no subject is taboo."

For nearly two hours he will indeed speak to me of everything, including the most intimate. We shoot him at his window, looking out at his garden, and he cannot help but guess the picture that we seek; he is too much the novelist.

He tells of Marie-Jo (who was actually named after him, as Marie-Georges) and even when upset he controls himself as he controls the style of his writing.

I saw, written with his pen, the title of the enormous work that he has just finished, "Intimate Memoirs". It is a follow-up to "Pedigree", published more than thirty years ago: "A radiologist who didn't know his business had told me that I had an incurable illness and had at best two more years to live. I was forty years old then and I started writing the story of my life through age sixteen, which I called 'Pedigree'. So in these 'Intimate Memoirs', I've taken up the story from age sixteen to today."

Simenon speaks of Marie-Jo, and on the other side of the lights, Teresa cries softly, silently. She is the reverse shot that one won't see on the screen. Later, Georges Simenon will say: "Teresa loved her very much, and Marie-Jo loved Teresa". This companion made her entrance into his life on December 14, 1961 and he pays homage to her: "I waited fifty-eight years without believing too strongly in this kind of love — at once soothing and enriching — and I had given up hope for it." Without Teresa's love, the loss of his daughter might have irreparably broken Simenon: When he watches this garden bloom or fall asleep, he can take her hand and hold it. Would he have been able to live alone near the ashes in this grass...

Hundreds of birds make a stopover in the garden. He buys pounds of seed for them every week. They are his only visitors. They squawk, peck, and flutter about; they go and return, always on this earth sown with ashes that they sometimes carry away skywards, at the corners of their beaks. But Simenon refuses this kind of literature. He told me he won't write "The Death of Marie-Jo", as he wrote "A Mother's Death" — in 1974 — one of his most beautiful books. Later maybe, much later. Marie-Jo is present in his "Intimate Memoirs", this enormous book of two thousand four hundred pages that he will publish in May. Her suicide didn't surprise him; he had awaited it. Similarly, her psychiatrist had declared, "She found the only possible solution". Novelists are inventors of characters and events that happen to these characters. They organize destinies and put chance on the stage. Sometimes destiny, the truth, takes vengeance on this competition, and that is what happened to Georges Simenon, for the suicide of Marie-Jo resembles a script. First, the setting: she lived alone an alley apartment in Lido, very cinematographic, strange and troubling as soon as the crowds left and the red signs of the night-time establishments began to glow. And then, the circumstances: she bought a gun, some bullets, ate a croissant in a bar, went home, locked the door with the key on the inside and shot herself. In his last "Dictation" Simenon says, "Most people who decide to kill themselves with the help of a gun, fire in the temple or the mouth. You must have studied the exact position of the heart you aimed for, needing but a single shot."

Those who choose death for themselves sometimes leave a letter. Behind Marie-Jo there was an overwhelming wake of documents: hundreds of photographs, notebooks filled with pages of reflection, books with annotated margins, and above all, cassettes. Cassettes with her voice telling of her fight, desperate and lost in advance against her interior enemy whom she had nicknamed "My Lady Anguish". She escaped her in eternal serenity. Over several days Simenon read notebooks and letters, listened to cassettes where Marie-Jo spoke and where she sang, accompanying herself on the guitar, because she also had that gift; he had interminable tête-à-têtes with her photos, and today again he evokes her while adding, "She was so beautiful..."

This lawn sown with ashes is certainly the reason why Simenon can assert so strongly that he will never leave the Lausanne cottage where he has lived for over ten years. It will mark his last move of a series of thirty-three. "I won't go farther."

Later, when Simenon's considerable works are studied, they will recall that it was in this very modest home that he wrote this monument, his "Intimate Memoirs". His workbench (a word he uses readily) was a schoolchild's desk with three drawers on the right side, facing the wall. He took his place there every day for more than a year, covering hundreds of sheets with his hard-to-decipher writing. His pen had not touched paper for eight years; since 1973 he has dictated into a tape recorder and a secretary has transcribed. Seventeen volumes, plus three still to come when he adds this year, and Simenon will have finished with this technique that corresponds to a period of his life.

In the same way as the alternation of his modes of expression (typewriter, writing by hand, dictation), his choice of dwelling place often corresponds to his internal evolution. Of the one in which he now lives in Lausanne he says, without a trace of funeral humor, that it is really "his final resting place". Speaking of it to me he has, moreover, used two or three times the term "shell", which incorporates both birth and death.

The cottage in the Allée des Figuiers doesn't have the elegance of those ranches or manors possessed by best-selling authors, with swimming pools and vast lawns surrounded by white walls. Simenon has already had all that, he has passed the stage of completely material enjoyment. The day when he pushed open the single door of his new haven he made a philosophical and sentimental choice. "I came back to my origins, which were extremely modest. I was poor and even poorer than poor. In Paris, I lived in an attic room whose ceiling was so low that at night I banged my head when I got up. I am therefore very happy to be back among those that live modestly."


Teresa shares his life twenty-four hours a day.
He declares, "I've never been as happy as with her. She is my intimate friend."

In the Simenon house, "living-room" takes on its full sense of "room-for-living", as almost everything is united into a single space: in a corner, the bed where he sleeps with Teresa, with no bedside lamps. During the day the pillows are slipped in drawers. Between the bed and the French windows giving onto the garden, the small office where he writes. Some books on medicine and liberal arts arranged on shelves, numerous classical music cassettes (that he never listens to). No canvases, no objects except a few functional instruments: a pendulum clock, barometer, hygrometer, thermometer. A transistor radio and a television face his armchair and that of Teresa. On the floor, no carpet: he hates "to walk on softness". His telephone practically never rings; there are but a dozen people who know his number. He had spotted this house of his final dream from a neighboring tenth floor tower where he had an apartment which now serves as furniture storeroom and warehouse: canvases of the masters rest there, face to the wall. At the other end of Lausanne ("as far as possible") he has a secretary with whom he has no relations except by telephone. Not one of his books is in the house, not one of the translations into more than hundred foreign languages (all the dialects of the Soviet Union) which filled the walls in his houses at Epalinges or Echandens.

The day Simenon put aside his pen to limit himself to speaking into a tape recorder, he also annulled his past. "I went to the town hall and had them remove the designation "writer" from all my official papers. I had it replaced by "without profession". Was he really a multi-multimillionaire? "In any case, I am not one anymore, because I've spent fortunes. I bought whatever and at any price. Houses, property, Rolls Royces... And I always resold at a loss."

Today, the "room-for-living" in his Swiss cottage is too small to welcome all the family: On Christmas day, Simenon, his children and Teresa dined in a Lausanne restaurant.

Always going further in his asceticism, Simenon will soon get rid of his television: he has just decided to add this renouncement to all those that preceded it. Without this window on the movements of the world, his life will focus even more intensely around Teresa. He flatters himself not to have any regrets but that of not having met her fifty or sixty years earlier. Which is why he doesn't want to divert even an hour from their life.

He speaks of her as his love and as a physical love. "Since I've known Teresa, no woman I meet is able to excite me. If the most beautiful woman in the world came to offer herself to me, I would be unable to make love with her. Our union is complete and total, because there is between us tenderness, passion, and sexuality. We are a true couple: a male and a female. When I qualify her as 'female' it is, for me, a compliment".

The love that binds them is truly out of the ordinary, to the extent that it drove them to conclude a pact whose contents makes one shiver: If Georges Simenon were to be reduced irreparably in his mental faculties or if an illness damaged him hopelessly, Teresa would end his life with an injection. She accepts this mission. "She will do it very well", he says with a soft smile, very mildly, while kissing him. Then she will mix his ashes with those of Marie-Jo in the grass of the small garden.

translated from the French by Stephen Trussel, June, 2002


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