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Paris Match   (N° 2104)
September 21, 1989

The Simenon Enigma

original French

 


The final mystery


 

The father of Maigret joins, at age eighty-six, the immortality of his hero.
He bequeaths to us more than three hundred books, and to his children a huge fortune.


At the foot of this 300-year-old cedar, his ashes have been secretly reunited with those of his daughter, Marie-Jo.

He had put Maigret into retirement and chosen the tree at the foot of which his ashes are now scattered. Twenty-five years ago Georges Simenon, the most fecund novelist, author of a human comedy of a thousand characters, had stopped inventing the lives of his heroes to put his own in order. Every day, Commissioner Simenon submitted himself to question. After having tasted all the liquors of existence, all the women, all the wealth, he had withdrawn again to Teresa. He died on Monday, September 4. Secretly and without trembling. As he had predicted.


The mysteries of creation

 

Every morning, he chose one of these twelve pipes and sharpened his twenty pencils.

This simple work table is, of itself, a true literary factory. It is indeed here that Simenon gets settled when he "is in a novel," here that he deploys his formidable creative forces. All the objects of which he has need, his tools, are within reach of his hand. Before every work day he meticulously sharpens about twenty pencils, enough to write a complete chapter at a stretch. As soon as the lead of one is worn down, he picks up another. In the same way, he never smokes the same pipe twice in succession while working. He possesses more than two hundred, and always chooses several in advance, stuffing them with a blond tobacco mixture that the house of Dunhill prepares especially for him. Route guides and railway timetables help him to never mistake reality, to sprinkle his texts with the "true details" that confer on them a matchless credibility. The remainder, that is the essential, is a business of inspiration and talent. Simenon is never short of that. With more than three hundred volumes (to which are added the "little novels" signed in pseudonyms at the beginning of his career), he is — without having ever had recourse to collaborators — one of the most prolific authors in the entire history of literature.


Archives and geological survey maps in hand, he fed his fictions on the strictest reality.

An ordinary filing cabinet is sufficient for the titan of writing to archive the working material of his novels: notes scribbled on scraps of paper, on which he has established the detailed identities of his characters, having selected their names from a telephone directory. He then writes without any established plan, inventing, with the flow of the pages, the intrigue that he situates precisely on a map: these are not classic detective novels he is writing, but atmospheric novels where psychological observation counts much more than investigation. It takes him three to eleven days to come to end of a book. In an afternoon, he pencils about forty sheets. The following morning, he recopies them on the typewriter, cutting what he considers flourishes: "I have a horror of that. I want everything to be necessary, that the sentence is completely at the service of the story. I have no virtuosity, my style is drab; but I've put years and years into not having any brio, and to dulling my style." Because they go right to the essence, Simenon's novels — translated into fifty-five languages, with more than 550 million copies sold worldwide — are, as underlined admiringly by André Gide, "the height of the art".


Quai des Orfèvres, he embodies the character born of his imagination.

It is between these powerful hands, against this obstinate forehead that, book after book, Maigret acquired his pedigree. In all, Simenon dedicates 76 novels and 26 short stories to his favorite hero. The two men live together for 44 years, from Pietr-le-Leton, [Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett] which appeared in 1928, until Maigret and M. Charles in 1972. The commissioner's adventures were the subject of 14 movies and 44 television serials. A journalist for ten years, author of a number impressive popular novels that he signed under about fifteen different pseudonyms, it was at twenty-six that Simenon decided to begin a more serious genre. His idea was clear: "his" cop would be a plain man, "someone who, on the outside, wasn't particularly shrewd, of average intelligence and culture, but who knew how to get inside people." In spite of the reticence of his publisher, Arthème Fayard, who doubted that a hero with such a low profile could seduce readers of the time, it was an immediate triumph. Even today, when tourist boats pass before the Quai des Orfèvres, guides continue to show, on the third floor of the famous building... Maigret's office.


Georges Simenon (in French)
by Bernard de Fallois

"The ten commandments of a best-seller artist" (in French)
interview by Paul Giannoli (1981 F.r.3)

"Last stay at the Hotel Beau-Rivage" (in French)
by Noëlle Namia


The Women in his life

 

He had his wife Tigy and Boule, the maid, for his pleasures

Picnic on the banks of a canal during the summer of 1929. Simenon (l.), his wife, Tigy (c.) and their servant, Henriette, nicknamed "Boule" (r.) reach the Netherlands aboard the Ostrogoth, the yacht which the novelist had bought in Paris.

Simenon had met Regina Renchon, called "Tigy," on Christmas night 1920, in Liège. This young artist painter, three years his senior, pleased the Gazette de Liège journalist immediately. It was not love at first sight but, he says more temperately, "I liked her company." He married her three years later. For better — with her, he could talk of Schopenhauer or Rembrandt — and for worse: Tigy didn't like the carnal act, and furthermore, displayed a ferocious jealousy. Two major shortcomings in the eyes of this insatiable Don Juan who will confess, in the twilight of his life, to having had ten thousand women... His faithful Boule won't escape his furious appetites and, for twenty years, will be his "regular" mistress. With the agreement — forced — of Tigy who, for love, managed to extinguish the fires of her jealousy.


In love with Josephine Baker, he leaves his wife in public.

"We traveled a lot. We left suddenly. We came back suddenly," says Tigy, dressed as a cabin boy beside Boule, on the bridge of the Ostrogoth, the 10-meter cutter that had taken them to Holland in 1929. Six years later, a new journey around the world takes them on the grand ships, successively to New York, South America, Tahiti, India... Simenon escapes a world that is not anymore his, the Paris of the mad years when he had been one of the great nocturnal faces. He is seen here in 1925 at La Coupole, surrounded by Tigy (on the left), Josephine Baker and her first husband, the count Pepito Abbitano. The star of the famous "Negro Revue" didn't hesitate to become the novelist's mistress. "I would have married her if I had not refused, unknown as I was, to become Mr. Baker," he will write in 1981, recalling with nostalgia one with whom he had had a brief, clandestine but passionate link. "I even went with Tigy to take refuge on the island of Aix, across from La Rochelle, to try to forget her. We didn't meet again until thirty years later in New York, still just as in love with each other."


With Denyse, the Canadian, he tried the calm happiness of family life.

Denyse Ouimet, whom he met in New York and hired as his secretary, became his wife in June 1950, in Reno, two days after the dissolution of his first marriage. With the young Canadian he nicknamed D., came a time of passion; stormy, destructive, "a real fever," said Simenon. She brought two half-brothers and a half-sister to Marc, the son of Tigy: Johnny, born in Arizona in 1949, Marie-Jo, born in 1953 in Connecticut, and Pierre, born in Lausanne in 1959. The family settled into the castle at Echandens, in the canton of Vaud, in Switzerland (photo on right). But the storms the couple underwent reached the bursting point in 1965. Denyse dedicated two venomous books, "A bird for the cat" and "The phallus of gold" to their history. Domineering, Georges Simenon always knew how to live out his fantasies. And he imposed his own universe on the women of his life. His mother, Henriette (left page with him and Denyse) occupied a place of honor there. Having become rich, he had wanted to spoil her and had regularly sent her money. In 1965, she paid him a visit, worried about whether he had finished paying off his big home at Epalinges. She carried a small crocheted bag filled with gold pieces bought with her son's grants. "It is for your children," she said in offering it to him. "For our grandchildren!"


Marie-Jo, his only daughter, will remain the smile and the drama of his life.

With Marie-Jo, his adored daughter, the writer Simenon doesn't exist anymore. It is only "the same man as everywhere," the one that he depicts at length in his novels. He is also a push-over dad who gives up on the field to his child's whims. Including the most incongruous: at eight, she asks him for a gold wedding ring — and not just any ring. She will never separate herself from it. Marie-Jo is a fragile being. In Paris, having tried in vain at singing and the movies, she is dark with melancholy. "Must I heal, say I?" she writes to her father while throwing her last hopes into psychoanalysis. But "Mme. Anguish" as she nicknames her chronic depression — is strongest. At twenty-five, May 20, 1978, Marie-Jo commits suicide with a .22 caliber bullet to the heart. She leaves "Old Dad" a letter which indicates her last wishes — the gold ring must come with her in death and her ashes should be scattered at the foot of the cedar in the garden of their small pink house in Lausanne. It is also there that the old man decides to rest, when the time comes. Yet, in his ultimate work (Intimate Memoirs, followed by Marie-Jo's Book), the father of Maigret wants to believe: "You are living in me... Until tomorrow, my darling," he writes.


After his final operation, he chose this last photo taken by his grandson.

This is the last photo of one who wanted to die without witness, taken by his grandson. Serge. He chose it himself, in a way like a will, after the final operation that he underwent, on his head and brain. Close to him is Teresa, his companion of the last years. After thirty-three sumptuous homes, Georges Simenon chose to settle in an old stable in Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva. He is retired. He has asked the authorities to remove the designation "novelist" from his passport. The writer who browsed the world in search of "the naked man" has stripped himself of all the attributes of wealth. His collection of paintings — Picassos, Vlamincks... — rests in crates in a bank. With Teresa, he lives in an immaculate room. Some functional pieces of white furniture; a radio-cassette, some pipes on the mantle. No books, no trinkets. A French window gives out on the 300-year-old cedar, on the small garden where Marie-Jo's ashes were scattered. Birds nest there. He knows how to distinguish families and generations, as he had with humans. He waits for death, and has no fear of it.


An honor guard of his Maigrets, just as he penetrates into the night.

He refused a normal death ceremony to disappear alone into the night. And in our memories, he rejoins his heroes who form the line to give him the true honors of immortality, those of creation. This photo, done by Paris Match almost twenty years ago, appears like a monument, where the only animate character is frozen henceforth by destiny. Clothed, as Maigret, in a beige trenchcoat, he enters into the legend that he had himself woven of the threads of pages and which movies have put into unforgettable images.

On the sides of the road are regrouped the Maigrets of the movies and television. From left to right, Charles Laughton : "L'homme de la tour Eiffel" (1949) ; Ian Teuling : twelve adaptations on Dutch television from 1965 to 1968 ; Jean Richard : ninety adaptations for TV since 1967; Heinz Rühmann, "Maigret fait mouche" (1966) ; Albert Préjean : "Signé Picpus" (1942), "Cécile est morte" (1943), "Les caves du Majestic" (1944) ; Jean Gabin : "Maigret tend un piège" (1958), "Maigret et l'affaire Saint-Fiacre" (1959), "Maigret voit rouge" (1963) ; Gino Cervi : "Maigret à Pigalle" and nineteen adaptations on Italian TV from 1965 to 1968 ; Abel Tarride : "Le chien jaune" (1932) ; Rupert Davis : fifty-two episodes on English televison from 1959 to 1963 ; Boris Tenine, adaptation on Soviet TV in 1969 ; Harry Baur : "La tête d'un homme" (1933) ; Pierre Renoir : "La nuit du carrefour" (1932) ; Michel Simon : "Le brelan d'as" (1952).


A ten-step stroll through a monumental work

Dennis Tillinac, Roger Nimier prize1983, knows the work of Simenon well. He is the author of a "Simenon Mystery" where he puts Maigret on stage leading an investigation of his creator. In ten titles, he leads us through the work of the great writer, a journey in the shape of a world tour.

"PIETR-LE-LETTON" (1931)

"COUP DE LUNE" (1933)

"LES GENS D'EN FACE" (1933)

"LA MARIE DU PORT" (1938)

"TROIS CHAMBRES A MANHATTAN" (1947)

"LA JUMENT PERDUE" (1947)

"LE PASSAGER CLANDESTIN" (1947)

"PEDIGREE" (1948)

"LES FANTÔMES DU CHAPELIER" (1949)

"LES MÉMOIRES DE MAIGRET" (1951)


 

His last unpublished work

THE BRIEF WILLS FOR HIS SONS

Georges Simenon had warned his three sons that they would be informed of his death by the newspapers. Marc, fifty, French, married to Mylène Demongeot, John, forty, Belgian, living in London, Pierre, thirty, Swiss, living in Boston, in the United States, learned of the death of their father as they had expected, by radio. "We weren't taken by surprise," said John. "Our father had told us, at least ten years ago," remembered Marc, "that he would not submit to the hypocritical exercise of funerals nor their production." "Everybody speculates mistakenly on the inheritance that's going to befall us. We don't know anything," says the youngest of the three brothers, Pierre, preparing for his doctorate in law. "We don't try to know." "Dad," explains John, a Harvard alumnus, "had prepared us. It's his executor, his secretary, Mrs. Aitken, that will inform us by letter of his will. As usual, it will be short and precise. It is difficult to believe, but he prepared us so well for all this that we're taking it very calmly.

CHARLES VILLENEUVE

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