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MD March, 1969: Chief Inspector Maigret of Paris  
MD September, 1976: The Bard from Belgium  

MD, March 1969 - pp 223-226: Personality

 

confessions
of
GEORGES SIMENON

 

Millions of people from New York to Tokyo have followed the work of Inspector Maigret of the Paris judiciary police, whose creator Georges Simenon is one of the most prolific writers in the world.
But in addition to his detective stories, Simenon has also written numerous novels that show profound psychologic insight and remarkably sensitive descriptions of sensorial perceptions.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Swiss medical journal
Medécine et Hygiène Simenon consented to being interviewed by five Swiss physicians1 on his methods of creation and himself. Here are some extracts from Simenon's answers to questions.

PERSONALITY

In my youth I was somewhat disorderly, but at the same time I felt a nostalgic need for order, for a certain solidity to which I have clung all my life. Each of the numerous houses I lived in were solidly built in order to prevent me from running away. It is a need for security, because my real temptation (I wrote it at 16) was to finish as a tramp,2 and I have deep down a sort of heady feeling for tramps. I am not far from considering that a tramp's life is the ideal. For it is evident that the real tramp is a more complete man than we are.

My favorite uncle became a tramp. He had been to the university but after his military service he married a barmaid and that cut him off from professional life. He did odd jobs, was a bartender, drank, and became an anarchist.

Every time I have decided on a site I have told myself that I would build a somewhat bohemian house that would give a feeling of freedom. Yet regularly I have built the protective structure. Before building this house at Epalinges (near Lausanne) I had fitted out 29 houses. I have done that all my life and have spent huge sums to recondition dilapidated châteaux and farms. I have always been tempted by disorder, but what I find curious is that from the age of 16 I have had this saving reaction, to compensate for myself.

It is a defense mechanism. At eight I was the first to get up and at six o'clock I served as altar boy. This discipline of rising at six I have maintained all my life. When I do not get up early I feel guilty and I no longer feel balanced and sometimes I have to call in my doctor.

When I was an adolescent I began to go out, to let myself go and neglect my studies, although I was a brilliant student, but I always caught myself at the last moment.

At seventeen I became engaged to the girl who was to be my first wife. I felt the need to get married to avoid playing the fool. I married to protect myself against myself.

What revolted me in my youth was lying. I was aware that my parents, my uncles and aunts, lived a perpetual lie. Everything presented to us, parents, fatherly love, love, respectability, all was false. I was indignant at this sort of masquerade. When I began to write it was to create real persons, to remove the facade which I had endured during my youth. The psychoanalyst Jung had the same problem. He also suffered a great deal from his father's respectability and his environment.

Here is an incident that occurred in the 1930s. I had written the first 18 Maigret books and several non-Maigret novels, notably l'Homme qui regardait passer les trains (Eng. tr. The Train). I felt myself tempted to search and use what I call my unconscious. I thought it would be one way of understanding humanity. But I became dizzy3 and I told myself that if I continued in that path I would end up like Nietzsche or Lautréamont [Isidor Ducasse, called Comte de Lautréamont, author of a weird nightmarish novel, hallucinatingly surrealist] and so I decided to be very careful, to make as it were a controlled fall. There are walls that are dangerous to scale: Gauguin is an example.

WRITING

I spend my life battling between the unconscious and reason because I do not believe in any of my work that is not done by the unconscious. I must therefore not know myself in order to write novels. If I knew myself too well I would no longer be able to write. I must open the door to reason only as much as required for social life. The day I become a reasonable being I will lose the precision of my unconscious.

I have to seize "gusts" of the unconscious and if I let the "moment" pass there is a danger that this unconscious will evaporate. For example, if I fall ill in the course of elaborating a novel and must postpone writing for several days it is highly possible that I will have to abandon the novel which by then has become totally alien to me.

I can stay "in a novel" for four or five days, but not for more than fifteen. My work must be steady and if I miss a day in writing the thread is broken.

The earliest preparation of a novel begins with a malaise, a sort of "blues" (cafard), and it is only two or three days later that I understand that I am trying to seize something, groping. At that point I suffer from spells of vertigo and my digestion is upset, symptoms that may reappear three or four weeks after finishing the novel.

If only I knew how my novels are made, if I established a plan, a methodical and clear line, I would not be afraid. I do not know if the sentence in the second line of the third page may not contain the key to the whole novel.

When I begin a novel I become its principal character, and my whole life from morning till night is conditioned by that character; I am really inside his skin. Before writing a novel, at the moment when I must enter what I call a state of grace, I must in fact empty myself of myself, empty everything that is my personality in order to become purely receptive, able to absorb other characters and other impressions. I must write as rapidly as possible to give the unconscious the maximum chance of operating. If I wrote a novel consciously it would probably be a bad one.

The start of a novel is a character rather than a theme. I know for example that such a character has suppressed his violence. I know him. I have established his family tree. I know the personality of his grandmother, his grandfather, his parents. He has a complete civil status. I know his illnesses and those of his family, which does not mean that I will use all these anamnestic details in the story.

When my characters are ripe they require only an address and a telephone number. I then consult a telephone directory and a biographic dictionary. I draw the apartment or the house schematically because I must know if the doors open to the left or to the right, if the sun shines through this window or that, if sunshine enters the bedroom in the morning or late afternoons. All that is necessary because I must move in that house as if I were at home.

The starting point of a story might be a car accident, a heart attack, an inheritance. Something is needed suddenly to change the course of a person's life. This is plausible, inasmuch that in most lives there has been a crossroads, and if one seeks the real causes of this crossroads one finds that they are trifling and are not even the real reasons. The incident I chose is a pretext to reveal or demonstrate something that is subjacent. We leap suddenly on an incident, an accident or an anecdote to change our life. In reality we desired the change since the age of 20 but had not the courage to make it. The incident is in effect a revealer. It plays the role of catalyst.

In the novel les Anneaux de Bicêtre published in 1963 (Eng. tr. The Bells of Bicêtre) Simenon told the story of the director of an influential journal, socially prominent bon vivant, who is struck by a hemiplegia. The story is a study in depth of his gradual change of moral values as he lies helpless.

This is how it all began. There was this important man, whose past I did not know. I needed to see him suddenly handicapped and at the mercy of others, unable either to eat or drink, entirely dependent. This man from glittering Paris society, accustomed to the best restaurants, private mansions, finds himself in a hospital. I wanted to see how he would look at other people, how when reduced almost to the condition of a mummy by his hemiplegia he would see what went on around him. That was how I started. The rest came as the novel proceeded.

MAIGRET

When I was 14 I had this thought: why is there not a kind of physician who would be at the same time physician of the body and physician of the intelligence, in other words a type of physician who would know an individual, his age, his physique, his possibilities, able to advise him to follow this or that path. I was almost formulating psychosomatic medicine. This was in 1917 and it is in that spirit that I created the character of Maigret. That is how he operates, and that is why it was necessary for Maigret to have two or three years of medicine, to give him at least a share of the spirit of medicine.

Maigret is for me a mender of destinies. He is the equivalent of the men who go through the streets to mend chairs or crockery. That is what I had in mind when I was 14. I considered that the profession of physician as it was then was not complete, and that the physician was not doing all he should do. He also should be a mender of destinies.

INTERVIEWERS: What we admire in Maigret is that he allows the criminal to be reintegrated into the community by giving him back his self-respect. Maigret, who represents society because he is a policeman, can identify with the criminal, understand and love him.

That is true, Maigret is paid by society to arrest a criminal whom he never judges. Do you know that when a criminal, after hours of questioning, finally confesses he suffers not humiliation but enjoys a feeling of liberation. It is as if he had a tooth extracted: he is relieved and thanks the commissaire. Links are established between the policeman and the guilty man.

I am aware that there is a bit of cheating because Maigret does not play his role to the end, namely he is never a witness in court in a case which he handled. Once I brought him into court, so that he might see what happens, but I realized immediately that this was the part of the criminal procedure that he detested the most.

INTERVIEWERS: If we medical experts are able to have access to our relationship with the criminal it is to you, M. Simenon, that we owe a great deal. Thanks to you we can understand what may go through a criminal's head and we can demystify his character. Better than any textbook of psychiatry, better than any experience, we have been able to transpose the Maigret-criminal relationship into the relationship between patient and physician, which allows us to say that the person of the physician, in your work, is Maigret.


[FELIX MARTI-IBAÑEZ, M.D.
FOUNDER OF MD]


1. Dr. Pierre Rentchnick, editor of the journal, Drs. Ch. Durand, S. Cruchand, R. Kaech, J. J. Burgermeister.
2. Clochard, also bum, hobo.
3. Vertigo also means fear of heights.

Georges Simenon's present house at Epalinges, near Lausanne. "Each of the numerous houses I lived in were solidly built in order to prevent me from running away. It is a need for security, because my real temptation was to be a hobo."


Page of a Simenon psychologic novel. The earliest preparation of a novel begins with a malaise ... and it is only two or three days later that I understand that I am trying to seize something..."


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