MD, September, 1976 - pp 13-15: Editorial Essay
The Bard From Belgium
Midnight, On the Road to Casablanca
Several years ago I was going by train from Tangier to Casablanca. It was midnight and we had traveled what seemed like hundreds of miles across the torrid, sandy deserts of Morocco. I was quite happy to reach the next stop, where I could at least wash my face, on which sand and sweat had traced contours of fatigue, and drink some of the warm African beer that is a good substitute for the water, which is always risky to drink in Morocco. The train stood puffing on the station tracks like a restless, panting, tired beast. A crowd of Arabs and Europeans jostled one another on the platforms.
Before returning to the train I approached the newsstand, which was still open. An Arab, benumbed and drowsy from the heat of the sultry Moroccan night, blinked at me through half-closed lids, his pupils dim with apathy and sluggishness. On his pale, grayish lips a lighted cigarette butt glowed like a fallen star stuck to his mouth. I asked him for a European newspaper. He shrugged his shoulders with that splendid nonchalance that is the heritage of centuries of Islam. "Newspapers are a bore," he told me in a soft-spoken French whose words he measured out sparingly like precious gold coins that are worn out from age and use. "But here's a Simenon that will help amuse you until you get to Casablanca." That sentence, uttered by a sleepy Arab on a sweltering Moroccan night, is perhaps the best summation of the international popularity of Georges Simenon, the poet of fictional violence.
The Magic of Simenon
In Europe "a Simenon" is a best seller because its author's name is an absolute guarantee of the quality of the work, just as certain brand names of automobiles, appliances, or sports equipment are a seal of quality and service in the United States. Paradoxically, it has taken a long time for Simenon to become as popular on this side of the Atlantic as he is in Europe, even though he has visited several cities in the United States and lived for a few years following World War II in Lakeville, Connecticut. But genius will always prevail in the end. All the screens and shades in the world cannot prevent the sun from shining. This remarkable writer who some misinformed critics describe merely as "a writer of detective stories" is the same author of whom the immortal André Gide said was perhaps the best contemporary writer in the French language.
Simenon, the pride of Belgium, was born in 1903 in Liège, where he spent his childhood and received his education. An avid reader and writer from the time he was a small boy, this wizard with words had definitely decided on a literary career by age sixteen, when he began working as a reporter on a local newspaper. A year later he published his first novel, an amateurish attempt written in only ten days. With this marathon of writing, however, Simenon set for himself the phenomenal precedent of the concentrative and rapid production that were to be his hallmark throughout his life.
In 1922 Simenon moved to Paris, one of the many places around the world he was to make his home. There he spent the next several years writing literally hundreds of novels, novelettes, and short stories, most of them potboilers published under at least seventeen pseudonyms. Stories cascaded from his typewriter as fast as his fingers could form the words. These he considered as training works, mere literary exercises to learn his trade and to prepare himself for the more serious psychological studies for which his name is now synonymous.
The logbook of Simenon's literary voyages reveals his fantastic navigational technique, which has remained unchanged in more than half a century of writing. After only a few days or at most weeks of letting an idea these are generated by practically anything, a scene, a conversation, a phrase of music filter unchartered through his subconscious, Simenon carefully plans the essential facts about the setting and about each of his characters, letting them create the situations of the plot. Then in a burst of creativity, an exciting and adventurous voyage of exploration, he writes one chapter per day for a period of eight to eleven consecutive days. The manuscript is then set aside for at least a week, after which he spends an additional three or four days editing what he has written. Ruthlessly he prunes all adjectives, adverbs, and extraneous words in order to bare the noun totally, the real strength and essence of his sparse, staccato style (you must write only in nouns, as the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno has said). Simenon is remarkable proof that a man of imagination need not minutely plan his story, since this will inevitably begin to evolve as the reel of the plot starts to unroll.
In 1931 Simenon launched a character who was to become one of the most famous and admired heroes in contemporary fiction, Inspector Maigret of the Paris Sûreté. A tall, heavyset, pipe-smoking, middle-aged Parisian, who is more interested in finding out what motivated a crime than what happened, Maigret is hardly the prototype of the twentieth-century detective. Yet, his popularity was instantaneous, and he is destined to live as long as there are readers of detective fiction. For Simenon these extraordinary adventures of Inspector Maigret have been a mere stepping-stone into the entangled psychological jungle of the human mind, where he explores, in his more serious works, the silent and tragic crimes of which each individual, is guilty.
Simenon is the Balzac of our day. Using the recurring motifs of violence, death, and unique psychological insight, his works form a vast mosaic of twentieth-century man and his conflicts with himself, his past, his fellowmen, his family, his loves, and his own life. Each of his novels is like a somber strain in some monumental dark symphony that delineates modern man's tragic condition, his loneliness and inability to communicate with himself or others, and the disastrous solutions he seeks as a means of resolving his situation. A detective of man's emotions, Simenon charts those still unexplored dark areas of the human psyche.
Simenon's characters proceed through the pages of his books like heroes in a Greek drama, driven by the winds of tragedy. From the outset we know that they are headed for self-destruction and in the process will destroy others along with themselves. On the first page of a Simenon novel there rustles a gentle breeze, which by the last page of the book will become a gale of tempestuous force. His heroes never attempt to struggle against their destiny, but faithfully and submissively obey the call with amor fati. And the forlorn summons of destiny's hunting horn leads them always to the same end: death.
For Simenon, that inevitable last crossroad where the pathways of all lives converge is always the result of an act of violence murder, suicide, or accident which in most cases is triggered by some emotional crisis. His heroes move through the pages of his novels as though under a spell, their livid countenances constrained in contours of shock. As the final step of his phantasmal course through time and place, the Simenon hero is either slain or slays. Violent death is his inseparable companion whom he never casts aside, accepting her as if the warm arms of a bride and the nuptial bed were awaiting him, rather than the icy arms of death and the eternal cold of the grave. To die or to slay physically or mentally is for Simenon the only way the human being confronts his tremendous conflicts. The emotional catharsis by which other novelists save a hero, either through confession, an act of heroism, or repentance, is here turned into self-immolation, not compulsory but voluntary. All of Simenon's protagonists, even those who seem to clutch a covey of white doves to their breasts, are goaded into the dark windings of the subconscious by the frightful stirring of an invisible nest of scorpions.
A Mirror of Man
If we go from the sublime to the ridiculous in modern suspense fiction, from a work oŁ art, like a Simenon novel, to any commonplace thriller about professional criminals and hundreds of sensationalistic works are published each year we can begin to see to what soaring heights this literary genre has risen. A reader of a crime thriller enjoys peeping into a world that is not his own, out of which he emerges with the psychological satisfaction and the hypocritical puritanism of feeling himself clean, unsullied, honest, and high above that literary cesspool. But in Simenon's novels the protagonist who robs, cheats, betrays, kills, trembles, lies, who is a total slave to a driving inner demon is a man like the reader himself, making the tales all the more realistic and startling in their emotional impact. Outwardly, the hero may be an ordinary postal clerk, a struggling professional man, a distinguished physician, or a famous lawyer. Inwardly the protagonist is practically a mirror image of the reader himself, and the women he deceives or who deceive him are too similar to his own fiancée, wife, sister, or daughter for him to read about them without experiencing deep emotion. These nagging similarities which constitute the greatness of Simenon both entice and repel the reader, creating in him a sense of reality that haunts his peace of mind.
Because of this deeper psychological level of Simenon's novels, they cannot wholly entertain or make the reader forget his own problems. On the contrary, such novels serve to remind him that man is marked for suffering, pain, and death from the time he is born, and that only by a miracle of divine mercy is he, the reader, seated in his easy chair with a Simenon instead of shivering with cold as he cowers in a ditch along some highway fleeing from the consequences of an act of criminal violence.
Simenon's mot juste, which makes Stendhal and Flaubert look rhetorical in comparison, and his brilliant use of atmosphere to delineate his characters and illuminate their situation (skies murky or burning with heat, the silent mantle of snow falling, the melancholy weeping of rain, the diaphanous crests of mist) make him one of the most readable and exciting writers of our age. With desperate anguish his tormented protagonists advance spellbound toward their violently tragic fate. Alienation, lack of communication, loneliness, the cyclical pattern of certain recurring incidents, the disintegration of the family, and dramatic change are some of the basic, everyday situations to which all men are constantly exposed. But these can, given the right moment and circumstance, drive an individual to the limit of his endurance, even to some act of violence. Crime in Simenon ceases to be a strange and incomprehensible, isolated, morbid act and becomes the action of a human being like ourselves, a prisoner caged behind the invisible bars of his own destiny.
It was during a professional journey to Europe that I bought a copy of Simenon's superb and exciting book Quand j'étais vieux (When I Was Old), a puzzling and thought-provoking title, to say the least.
Unlike his hundreds of other books, this is a long work, and, contrary to Simenon's usual technique and schedule, it was written by hand in notebooks over a period of several years. A spiritual and intellectual autobiography, the book covers the period between 1960, when Simenon had reached the age of fifty-seven and, as he states in his preface, began "feeling old," and 1963, when he no longer felt old or the need to write in notebooks.
This is an extraordinary book for loyal readers of Simenon. Rarely does a famous writer let his guard down completely and lay bare his innermost thoughts, ideas, and conflicts as Simenon has done on each page of this work. Written in diary form as if he were holding an intimate conversation with himself, Simenon recorded not only the trivial, mundane things he did each day, but, more importantly, everything he thought and his recollections of the past as they were conjured up at various moments.
The book has as many facets as a literary prism. First of all, it is a very valuable record of Simenon's creativity, of those famous intense days he devotes to writing one novel after another sandwiched between periods of meditation and musing on his next book. Secondly, it is a paean of love with formidable ambivalencies of hostility and of great psychological interest to his wife. Thirdly, it is a story of his life as a loving father and family man who enjoys and respects his children and is always anxious for their well-being.
Simenon also takes advantage of the cathartic aspects of such a book to explain his countless and fleeting sexual relations with all kinds of hetaerae and prostitutes everywhere, in candid admission of purely sexual never amorous conjugal infidelity, of erotic passions as fleeting as the golden leaves in autumn.
Of special interest are his biological ideas, highly original and of wonderful scientific organization, and his interminable love affair with the medical world and physicians, particularly those in psychiatric and forensic medicine. Among the many indelible impressions left on us by this marvelous book of intimate confessions are Simenon's meetings and conversations with psychiatrists his favorite company criminologists, and forensic physicians.
Despite many flashes of humor throughout, this is a serious and profound book, revealing to us as much about the author as does the perusal of all his novels. Here is both Simenon the extrovert, recording his keen observations of the world in his characteristic conversationalist style, and Simenon the introvert, laboring through the lonely pains of the precreation and creation of his literary works. He presents a picture of a plain, understanding, affable, and good man, whose well-deserved success has never gone to his head and who now leads the life of a millionaire writer in almost as simple a fashion as he did more than fifty years ago when he opened the faucets of his mind to release through the barrel of his pen the flow of a torrent of crime stories just in order to keep alive.
Simenon, who shares with the famous British author John Creasey the honor of being the most prolific writer of our time (the list of works for each runs into several hundreds), is a born psychologist who learned how to reinforce his talent for observing the mores of our age by a constant study of medical journals and talks with physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists. His monumental mosaic of works will always serve as a magnificent magnifying glass for studying the intricacy with which people and passions are interwoven and the incessant conflicts that result.
FELIX MARTI-IBAÑEZ, M.D.
FOUNDER OF MD