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Réalités
No. 137, April 1962, p 22-29

the
MYSTERY
man

In its series on Europe's best-selling authors, Réalités presents an exclusive interview with Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, followed by a short story, Mélie's Husband, which was written specially for Réalités.

WHO IS GEORGES SIMENON?

America and Britain are beginning to be familiar with the name of Inspector Maigret, the French criminal investigator who always gets his man. But the Anglo-Saxon public in general has been fed little information about the man who created the character, which is why we have interviewed him this month. His name is Georges Simenon, he is fifty-eight and the most widely read author in the French language. It was a distaste for the parochial life of Liège, in Belgium, where his father was an insurance company accountant, that brought him to Paris in 1922, at the age of nineteen. He arrived at the busy Gare du Nord with two ambitions: one, to become rich, and two, to become famous. He achieved the first by giving himself some fifteen pseudonyms and turning out novelettes at the rate of eighty pages a day. Fame, however, did not materialize until Maigret did, in 1931, which was when Simenon first signed his own name. The feverish activity became more feverish, with the result that this author turned out 165 books in twenty years-that is, four or five a year, each one with a printing of more than 150,000 copies. Who is this man who has written three times as many best-sellers as Agatha Christie? The answers, on these pages, come from Simenon himself, and they are followed by Mélie's Husband, a short story written specially for Réalités readers.


The sheer volume of your literary output, as well as its quality, makes you a phenomenal figure in the history of literature, as it did Balzac. Are you aware of any other affinities — literary or not — between Balzac and yourself?

Well, I've had to make quite a study of Balzac — particularly for a television programme — and I must admit that having read his letters, which interested me specially and which seemed to reveal the real Balzac, I don't feel that I have the slightest thing in common with him. Everything which interested him in life fails to interest me at all. Balzac, for instance, is terribly preoccupied with questions of ambition, honour, money, social success and whatnot — questions that simply do not concern me. His line of country [sic] is utterly different from mine. For example, I couldn't possibly write a novel about a man who spends his time climbing the social scale.

As for Balzac's character and mine, I can see no link whatever between them, except perhaps that we both have felt an absolute necessity to write. But there again Balzac, at least until he was about twenty-five or twenty-six, never stopped saying that if he could only make a good marriage, he would never write another line in his life. "If only I didn't have to write...." he would say. And "If only I had a big enough fixed income from investments...." But I need to write. If someone gave me the biggest fortune in the world tomorrow, it would make me miserable and physically sick if it served to prevent me from writing. This doesn't mean that I'm particularly pleased to have this form of illness endemic in me — for a form of illness is what it really is. You see, if I am due to begin a novel next week, for instance, it's not to meet a deadline, or oblige a publisher, or because I need the money: it's simply because it's now two months since I wrote my last book, and that is starting to make me ill.

Your capacity for work is really staggering. I believe that you've written no fewer than 165 books under your own name since 1929, and this takes no account of a whole lot of novels that you had written earlier under fifteen or sixteen different pseudonyms. How does this colossal output work out in terms of schedule or rhythm?

The clue lies in the fact that I really work very little, in terms of total working time; but, then, I don't do anything else but be a novelist. Take a look at the lives of my literary colleagues: they live in Paris, they lead quite worldly lives, and they pursue the manifold activities of men of letters. They give lectures, they write articles, they give innumerable interviews.... But I don't do any of those things. I live tucked away with my family. Five or six times a year, at the very most, I retire into my own shell for eight days and, at the end of that time, a novel emerges. So much so that, although my activity looks as if it must be very great, it really isn't like that at all. I suppose I work for about fifty days a year, not more. If I worked like a working-man, that is to say, if I was capable of it (and that's really my dream) and could set myself down at my desk every single morning of the year, in the same way as a workman goes to his bench... well, then, I dread to think how big my output would be. Don't you?

How much time do you allow for writing a novel?

Between seven and nine days, on the average. Then, say, a further three days to a week for revising: that is to say, for trimming phrases, taking out all superfluous words and phrases that are too slick. And, of course, for simplifying and shortening.

In practical terms, one hears it said that you shut yourself up, "go into retreat," for the period when you're actually writing a novel. Is that true?

Perfectly true. Though "shut myself up" is a somewhat metaphorical way of putting it. Let's say that I'm due to start a novel next week. My wife accordingly arranges our engagements, both hers and mine, in such a way that from Monday on there will be no visitors coming to the house. If, after Monday, my mother happened to arrive from Liège, she would not come near me until the novel was finished. We just don't see anyone during all that time. I see only my wife and my children. In the mornings I go for a fairly long walk. In the afternoons I may possibly go for a drive with my wife... always in the country, and never talking very much. My wife keeps all mail and telegrams well away from me.

It's the children who are liable to give rise to the trickiest problems. If one of them gets a cold or a nasty-looking bruise, my wife has to conceal it from me. Otherwise I'd start to worry and to say to myself: Heavens, the doctor will be here in a few minutes, and maybe this is the start of measles or something. And once I start to do that, the new novel is only fit for the wastepaper basket. In other words, until I get down to the last chapter, I can never be sure that I'm going to be able to finish a novel. If I get a bad bout of neuralgia or catch flu or anything, just when I'm on to Chapter VI, it means that I tear up and throw away everything I've written and never touch the subject again. From all this there springs a kind of anguish; and what people call my "shutting myself in" or "going into retreat" is in fact a process of the household turning in on itself, and my family striving to spare me any worry at all. I must add that, while I'm actually writing a novel, I have to live inside the skin of my characters. This is not an exaggeration. I realize that the phrase has a rather romantic-sounding tang, but that's the way it is. If one of my characters behaves in a certain way, then, during the whole time that I'm writing the novel, I behave in the selfsame way; so much so that my household staff, as well as my children, start saying as soon as I begin a new book: "There you are, you see, the hero of his book is going to be a person of such a kind, he's going to be old (or, as the case may be, young); he's going to be an invalid," and so on and so on. For the fact is that my actual deportment, even my way of walking, changes completely. Maybe that's the explanation of why I work so quickly. If I took longer to write a novel, I might lose the knack of getting inside the skin of my characters. Clearly; one can get inside someone else's skin for about a week, but one could hardly remain inside there for three months or so.

Once this process gets under way and you are shut in by yourself in your study or in your hotel room about to embark on the first chapter, are you then like the actor who finds himself out there on the stage and who, knowing the whole of his performance in advance, gives it at one go? Or do you live with your characters in your study and narrate their inner adventures, stage by stage, to the reader?

Let me try to elucidate. To begin with, there is an atmosphere, a setting, one that I know well and which I have brought carefully into focus, complete with a house, a street and a town which I also know well. I usually even do a little sketch-plan, so as to be clear in my own mind whether a door opens to the left or the right. Then there is a character, who has a family, friends, acquaintances.

I proceed to get inside the skin of this character, and I find that he has come to such and such a point in his life. Now an incident occurs which is destined to have a disturbing effect on his existence, which is going to make him get out of his usual rut; but I don't know as yet quite how he is going to react, or indeed what is going to happen. So I write the first chapter, and from then on I make a day-by-day discovery of how he is reacting. There is no set plan. I would be absolutely incapable of writing a novel if I knew how it was going to end. I swear that, right up to the last chapter, I don't know how my character is ultimately going to act, but all his reactions are inevitably in the novel, for better or worse; I never pass over any of his reactions simply because they don't seem to be all of a piece with the rest of the book, or because they don't fit in with my preconceptions or with some moral or philosophical code. Wherever my character leads me... I follow.

Where do you get your ideas for settings and for characters?

I get them out of the storeroom of my memories. But I never use a setting, a country, a town or a character unless it's been at least five years in the memory storeroom. There must be an incubation period of at least five years. For instance, when I got to the United States, where I lived for almost eleven years, I let five or six years go by before writing my first novel dealing with American characters. The very first year I did write a novel with a New York setting, Three Rooms in Manhattan, but the main characters were European: it was all about the drama of a foreigner lost in that overwhelming city. But in order to write about Americans I simply had to have lived in America. I know England well. I go there often, almost every year. I am just as much at home in London as I am in Paris. My English friends are always saying to me: "Why don't you write a novel with an English setting?" My answer is: "Because I have never lived, really lived, in England." I've been there often as a tourist, but I've never had a house there, I've never taken my children along to school there, and I've never been an English taxpayer. It takes a long, a very long time before a memory becomes sufficiently malleable to be serviceable. In other words, a novelist's work is something that is mixed up with the subconscious, and which takes quite a time to come to fruition.

What are the really basic elements that you need in order to get started on a novel: a character, a setting, or a plot?

First of all I need something to trigger the whole thing off. It may sound awful, but I can't think of any other way of putting it. Next week, say, I'm going to begin a novel and I don't know what on earth it will be about. So, on Monday morning I shall take a long walk in the country, and I shall try to make myself as empty as possible, as available as possible. I am pretty certain that, after an hour or two, or maybe the following day or the day after that — sometimes it takes three days, sometimes even four — a smell of damp hay, a smell of cows, or a passing cyclist or a little girl playing in the meadow, one of these will bring me back a memory, a confused one though, like a sort of pipe dream. This will set up a kind of nostalgia inside me. I shall say to myself: Where was that, anyhow? And I'll remember that it was twenty years ago, at a certain place. There was that house there, with the sun shining on the wall, and that woman on the doorstep; and the people who lived there were people of a certain kind.

Little by little, I shall begin to visualize the whole thing, a bit like a symphony. And, as soon as I get back home to my study, I shall say to myself: All right then, who would be likely to live there, in that sort of climate? Logically, it would be such and such a sort of person, and that person would probably have such and such a family, with so many children. I shall then write their names, their ages and so on, on a yellow envelope. That's my only little superstition; I have a supply of those envelopes, all the same colour and shape. The family in its own setting now starts to possess my mind. The next question I have to put to myself is this: What sort of thing could happen to these people that would really extend them, that would drive them to the end of their rope? This is the only artificial part of the whole business, the point at which chance or providence begins to intervene. So now I contrive to have something happen to these people: a death in the family, perhaps, or a legacy, or an accident, something that is at any rate quite unexpected. Then, having placed this crucial piece of sand in their gear-box, I wait to see how they are going to react, while being, myself, if I may so put it, as much inside their skins as possible.

In all your novels there is a very detailed, very delicate and very real analysis of a variety of social milieus. How do you come to have such a deep insight into so many different milieus?

Because I've actually lived in each of them. I've spent my life travelling, not the superficial kind of tourist travel. I've really lived a series of different lives in a series of different milieus. I've lived by the seaside and the waterfront, I've lived on board ship (I've been a sailor, you see), I've tried all kinds of existence and I've tried to mix with all kinds of people. But not with the idea of writing novels about them; simply because that's how I've wanted to live. I've never said to myself: That'll come in very handy for some future novel. So, when I start thinking about this milieu or that, significant little details come back to me automatically. I don't take notes. I don't keep files or card-indexes — I wouldn't be able to make any use of them if I did. It's necessary to have lived these things without any ulterior motive if one's going to be able to turn them ultimately into literature. A novel must never be a piece of reporting. In fact, it's the opposite of reporting.

If I've understood you correctly, you put your trust primarily in the inspiration of your subconscious?

That's right. I call it, in my own private code-language, "putting myself into a state of grace." To put myself into a state of grace means to empty myself of all preoccupations that personally affect me, the man called Simenon, so as to become a sort of sponge which can absorb other people's personalities, live through other people's memories, and finally bring them out again — breathe them out — in the form of literature. It's for just this reason that I am never quite sure, not even on the morning when I sit down to start the last chapter, that the novel can, in fact, be finished. Each time, I say to myself: This time, the miracle is not going to happen.

You'll appreciate that I have no formula, that the whole thing is a sort of involuntary process. I couldn't possibly tell you why I compose a story in a particular way, why one sentence is written in the past tense and the next written in the present.... I just don't know why. When I reread what I've been writing, I realize that it's just that which has given life to the chapter, but, at the moment when I'm actually writing, I'm not aware of it. Suddenly I abandon my central character at a certain point, and I go back three days or a fortnight to pick up the thread of the story at the point which it had reached at that earlier date. This is not a matter of contrivance. I don't say to myself: Now I'm going to do a flashback. It just happens that way... unconsciously.

That raises a question. I know writers who only do a book a year and who yet are absolutely obsessed by the subject of their work. You write three or four novels each year, so how is it that you manage, once you've finished your novel, to step out of its atmosphere and disengage yourself?

It's the most difficult thing of all. When I've finished a novel, I first of all give a little shout of triumph. I say to myself, No more anguish, for the time being. I don't have to say to myself, Shall I ever get to the end of this? So I'm in a pretty good humour. But, a bit later, I find it difficult to resume my place in the life of the household. I find I've lost track of my normal habits and, indeed, my life-routine. There's a sort of void in front of me. It takes me a very great deal of trouble to get my own personality back. This can last a fortnight. On top of that, after the minute or the hour of triumph which follows the writing of the word "End," I usually get four or five days of a kind of depression. I feel empty inside, rather as if I'd just got back from a holiday; it's a bit the same kind of feeling. One asks oneself what's going to happen next. Is home really like this? one says to oneself. I really do have a lot of difficulty taking my ordinary life seriously. That is to say, for a time the character that I have assumed for the purposes of my novel seems much more real than the life I now see going on around me.

If you had suddenly to get away from it all and were allowed to take with you just one of your books, which one would it be?

If I took with me any one of my books, it would simply be for sentimental reasons, and for reasons which I could not really explain: not out of modesty, but just because I couldn't make the reasons articulate. The book I'd take with me would be my first love story, Three Rooms in Manhattan, which was, I think, my hundredth novel, chronologically speaking. I don't think it's any better than the others, nor do I believe that it gives expression to any more of myself, but it's one of those rare novels in which I have spoken of love, and I get the impression that, in it, I succeeded in what I set out to do.

It's true that in eveything you wrote before Three Rooms in Manhattan all your couples seemed to be foredoomed to tragedy. It's in Three Rooms in Manhattan that for the first time one encounters a couple who arrive at a fairly satisfactory conclusion. Is this a version of some personal development in your own life?

I think it probably is. The book coincided with a turning point in my own life, the start of a new existence on a new continent, the founding of a new family. You may perhaps have noticed that, from the time of Three Rooms in Manhattan onwards, my female characters have become less two-dimensional, less hard and less ruthless than before. I have the impression that at the age of forty — heavens! — I was suddenly seized with a wish to understand women; till then I had only wanted to make use of them. In my novels, I mean. I made use of them as companions for the male character and to round off a story, but basically I suppose that, up to that time, I had known only one kind of woman. Suddenly, I discovered that there were other kinds.

If you were a journalist in my place now, what question would you most want to put to the famous writer called Georges Simenon?

That's very difficult indeed. I don't quite know. But I think I'd say simply: "Are you happy about yourself?" That's the question I always want to put to people. And the answer, in my own case, would be No. I would go on to tell you that I always carry with me the feeling that I have not really done what I set out to do, that I just haven't done enough, that I would still need years of effort (I'm entirely sincere about this) to arrive at my true contribution; and also that it would still take me years of effort to become the balanced and "fit" person — in the sense in which I use that word — that I would like to be.

*   *   *

 

Centre of Inspector Maigret's sleuthing activities is also the centre of Paris — the Ile de la Cité, seen in the eerie light of dawn, looking from the Pont des Arts. This detective, hero of sixty-one of Simenon's 165 best-sellers, has his headquarters on the Quai des Orfèvres (beyond the next bridge, the Pont-Neuf, in this photo), which is France's counterpart of Scotland Yard. It is here, within the gaunt pile of the Palais de Justice, that Maigret chews on his pipe and watches his victim's trials.


 

MÉLIE'S HUSBAND

A short story written specially for Réalités*

by Georges Simenon

 

"Don't go fiddling about with those sole, my little sweet. You know perfectly well that you'll finish up with a couple of middling-sized mackerel or half a pound of skate...."

"My little sweet" is the aged housekeeper of the vicar of Saint-Jean. But Mélie is on such familiar terms with everyone that no one ever thinks to take offence. She grabs a piece of blood-streaked skate from the marble slab and as she does so, she can't help glancing into the street.

"I'll give you this bit...."

The needles on the scales wave to and fro. Mélie wraps the fish in paper. The old housekeeper scratches about, like an old hen, in the innards of her purse.

This was the third time within the hour that Mélie had been dragged away from her supper table. It was nine o'clock. A violet-blue twilight was suffusing the narrow street called Saint-Jean. Quite a while ago the Fleurissons, who sold umbrellas across the way, had put up their shutters and set up their chairs on the sidewalk. It was always a puzzle to know how they could bear to stay there motionless, all evening long, staring straight ahead of them. All right, perhaps, for the old man: he was almost completely paralyzed, so much so that some people had christened him "the wooden-headed invalid." But what about his daughter, who was a mere forty-five?...

"Au revoir, Madame Mélie..."

"Au revoir, ma vieille."

Automatically, Mélie escorts the vicar's housekeeper to the door.

"Oh, please don't bother...."

And now it happened, exactly as she had been expecting it to happen ever since five o'clock, when he had first shown up in the street. This was his fourth time round. Did he really suppose that he hadn't been noticed? A bit earlier on, Mme Josse at the vegetable shop had put her own theory to Mélie: "Looks as if he's got something to do with the police...."

Now he evidently could no longer wait till it got really dark. He comes rushing forward and puts his foot in the door. Over the way, the face of the blockhead Fleurisson and the face of his daughter, which seem to contain nothing except a pair of black plums, look as if they are gaping at a Punch-and-Judy show.

"Come in!" In a whisper, Mélie said again: "Come inside, you idiot!"

For, in his anxiety to appear natural, even offhand, Nicolas feels it necessary to assume a mysterious air. He gazes at the half-open kitchen door and then at the ceiling of the fish shop, and Mélie proceeds to answer the question that he has not asked, but which she understands so well.

"No, mon vieux, no...."

She's no sooner said it than she regrets saying it. Of course, she ought to have let him think there is someone there: a man, for instance. But the heads of the Fleurisson man and woman, with their eyes probing into the shop, exasperate her.

"Come on in!"

He has always been pretty tall and he now goes through the motions of having to stoop in order to get through the kitchen door. There is some stew congealing in its own sauce. And there is a cat that promptly flees.

"I'm so sorry.... You were in the middle of supper.... " He is not feeling reassured; he keeps looking around to try to spot traces of some successor or other.

"You did get my postal order?"

Mélie who feels a bit more relaxed once she has closed the lace curtains above the door and shut out the sight of the two mummies, says with a sigh as she sits down again: "You know perfectly well that you never sent me a postal order. Have you eaten anything? You'd better sit down. Go on, eat...."

He hasn't changed a bit. That exasperates her, and she proceeds to take from him the stick and the leather brief case, that he has always carried around with him.

For the last twenty-six years!

At the time when he was calling himself a journalist, on the strength of an occasional short piece which he used to write for the local paper, he used to wear a beard, and his clothes were not a bit like anyone else's; he walked up and down the town's streets with a kind of majestic gait which he had patented. After they got married, when he took Mélie to Paris — my God! how hungry she got in those days! — he affected a musketeer's beard and moustache; then, one evening, he reappeared with a clean-shaven chin and only the fine brown moustache surviving.

Now, he has neither beard nor moustache any more. Evidently he's got false teeth these days, for his mouth seems to have a weird crease in it. His clothes still have nothing in common with the clothes of other people.

"I swear to you, Amélie, I sent you a postal order from Saint-Moritz in Switzerland, about... well, it must be at least two years ago. I didn't know your exact address, but I thought that surely the Rue Saint-Jean would be good enough...."

She doesn't go on about it because she is pretty sure that he is famished and that he doesn't want her to realize it. Mélie's kitchen is the spickest in the street. A spotless white enamel stove. The walls hung with crockery and copper pots and pans. Now the shop-bell sounds again. She dashes out, serves the customer, and takes the opportunity to hook up the shutters and turn the door-key in the lock.

She is not afraid. Distressed, a bit, that is all.... She goes back to the kitchen, and finds him wiping his mouth. She takes a look at the table drawer where the cash is kept. Either he hasn't dared to touch it or else he doesn't know that that is where it is. Once upon a time, when there had been only 310 francs in the house, or rather in their hotel-room, down on the Place de la République, he had not hesitated to lift the 310 francs, so that when she came in there was only one two-sou piece at the back of the drawer. With a letter in his unmistakable handwriting.

One of those letters of which he was a past master:

"My dear Amélie,

"An exceedingly important business deal, which is going to bring us a fortune, has compelled me to leave without waiting for you to come back. You can trust me completely; I'll be back, and I'll be back rich. Meanwhile..."

That was twenty-six years ago, and he had never come back. Next day, she learned that he had set sail for Algeria with a little darkie singer who had the room below them, and whose stockings Mélie, like a good-natured fool, had been in the habit of mending.

"How maddening that you never got it...." He's still on about the postal order. He can't leave it alone.

"What were you up to at Saint-Moritz?"

"I was in a smart hotel there."

"Manager?"

"Well... I was the manager's right-hand man."

Or dish-washer! That's Nicolas all over....

"You're passing through now?"

He becomes restive, starts rummaging in his pocket for the cigarettes he knows aren't there, and Mélie throws a packet on the table in front of him.

"That depends...."

"Have you spoken to anyone here in the Rue Saint-Jean?"

"No... why?"

Mélie who knows Nicolas' passion for coffee, starts to get a cup ready for him. This keeps her busy. As she moves around, she remarks casually:

"Because you're dead, see?"

"What did you say?"

"I decided to tell people you're dead.... It wasn't worth the business of explaining that..."

"I see."

"What do you see?"

His gaze goes wandering up again towards the ceiling, as if he still suspects there's another man up there, in the bedroom above. Mélie shrugs. That's not it, at all.

"Well, how are your business schemes?"

"Can't complain. I'm just on the verge of making a big killing, and it's just because of that that..."

The kitchen is by now full of the intimate smell of coffee. Mélie turns off the electric switch and goes and gets a decanter and some little glasses from the cupboard.

"Tell me, Nicolas, you wouldn't by any chance be considering the possibility of staying in this house, would you?"

"Well, I mean... I hadn't really thought about it."

"You're absolutely broke this time, aren't you? Don't lie." He tries not to get flustered, but the hand which holds the cup starts trembling. Old age creeping on, no doubt. He was nearly fifty-five, and maybe he'd taken to the bottle.

"Answer me. Are you broke?"

"Well, right now, I couldn't say that..."

At this point she takes his brief case and opens it, while he watches her with a hangdog look.

"I see."

The bag contains just one dirty shirt, an old pair of slippers, a piece of soap and a toothbrush wrapped in a piece of old newspaper.

"Let's have a look at your watch...."

In the old days, whenever he came back home without his watch...

"Eh bien, mon vieux!"

"Listen, Amélie... I've just had a very tough knock. My partner has upped and skipped with..."

"With the cash-box that never was."

"You say that as if..."

"As if I knew you very well. Right?"

She says all this without anger, without bitterness; and for him that is the most humiliating thing of all.

In the old days, she had admired him. She herself had been something not far removed from a street urchin, an urchin who worked in the fish-market. He, on the other hand, was a gentleman, the son of the manager of a gas company; and it was she who turned round when he walked down the street.

Later on, she still tended to believe anything he told her. When they were living in Paris it was at his dictation that she used to write to his mother begging for small sums of money on a wide variety of pretexts. Since that time, she had received letters of the same sort herself. On two occasions. The first time was four years after Nicolas' departure; and it had a London postmark.

"My poor Amélie,

"If I didn't know you so well, I wouldn't dare to write to you today because you must think that I abandoned you in a most cowardly fashion. Soon, when I'm in a position to come back to you again, I'll explain the whole thing to you and you'll understand. What is really urgent now is that I've got to get out of this country or I'm in for trouble. If I can't lay hands on at least two thousand francs within five days at the latest, there will be nothing for me to do but blow my brains out, which maybe would be the best for everybody...."

She had sent off the 2,000 francs. Then there had been an interval of ten years. The second letter was a short note in an unknown hand. The envelope had an Italian stamp.

"Madame,

"Your husband is at my house and he is dying. He needs to be operated on immediately. If you have any jot of pity left for a man who has always loved you, send a money order by telegram to the following address. It is his life that is at stake...."

Then, a postscriptum:

"Your husband, who is as proud as ever, does not know that I am writing you this letter."

"Yes, Nicolas," she said now, "I'm listening."

She is ten years younger than he. She has got a bit plump. Her reddish-brown hair has silver streaks in it. Her cheeks are getting blotchy. But in her white pinafore she looks as fresh as a daisy. Her clogs make a clattering sound on the stone flooring. He is drinking his marc in little gulps and looking like a whipped dog.

"Admit that you are at the end of your tether and that you can hardly manage to put one foot in front of the other any more...."

He puts a hand to his chest and starts to stammer: "It's the old heart beginning to falter. The doctor says..."

"So you had the idea that you could come and live here?"

"My God, I..."

"Well, my friend, it's just not possible. I've already told you that you are dead as far as everyone here is concerned."

The kitchen feels so clean, so warm, so welcoming! Is there really nothing for it but for him to pick up the bag that Mélie has put on a chair and get out?

Nicolas, with his eyes fixed on his empty cup, digs into his pocket and comes up with a forty-sou piece, which he puts on the table.

She gets the point. That's all he has left. All the same...

"So what?" she says.

"Nothing! I just thought..."

"And you only had one worry, admit it: that you might find another man in the house! That's why you've been prowling around since five o'clock. Get on with you, I saw you.... I knew you'd be here this evening. D'you want some more coffee?"

"I'm not really allowed it, because of my heart, but..."

"Idiot!"

She is no more inclined to believe that stuff about his heart-trouble than she believes any of the rest of it, and his hand clawing at his chest does not help to convince her.

"I swear..."

"Have a cigarette. Listen..."

He has a feeling that, this time, she's going to say something definite. Her need to go and poke the fire seems to him proof of it. When she comes back, a lock of hair has fallen forward over her forehead.

"I can hardly tell the neighbours that you've risen from the dead, d'you see.... Besides, there's no room in this house for a man who has nothing to do during the day."

"I'm ready to..."

"To work? Then that's settled! You can replace old man Loiseau."

He scowls. So there has been a man in his wife's life? Oddly enough, this disturbs him considerably. He feels vexed, almost hurt. She smiles.

"Old man Loiseau, who died last autumn, was seventy-two... He used to sleep up there, on the half-landing. It was he who did the barrow-work...."

She elaborates: "He sold fish from door to door, on the handcart. It's no more tiring than anything else."

He keeps staring at his bag where his almost delicate, well-groomed hands rest.

"Well?"

"I accept. I'll do anything that's required."

"You will sleep on the half-landing.... At six in the morning you will come and open the shutters, and tomorrow I'll show you how to put the fish out on the barrow."

He nods silently, not daring to ask for another glass of marc, though his hand is fidgeting out towards the bottle.

"You can't do barrow-work in that get-up. You look like a broken-down count. Tomorrow morning I'll give you old Loiseau's overalls."

And then, with a catch in her throat, because this is the most difficult moment of all, she says:

"Pour yourself another glass and then go to bed. I get up at five...."

There was no key for the lock of the bedroom door. Mélie was never worried about burglars and there was always money about the house. Nicolas was on the half-landing and from time to time he would turn over and sigh.

Supposing he got up without making a sound? Supposing...?

Then the whole household was asleep, and Mélie woke up to the sound of a courtyard cock. Still in her curlers, she put on her working clothes.

"Nicolas!"

When she opened the door on the half-landing, he hid under the coverlet, but she had time to see the pale and wasted chest, covered with grey hair.

"Time to get up?" he muttered resignedly, and still half-asleep.

He had dentures, sure enough. He'd taken them out when he went to sleep and his mouth was now the flabby mouth of an old man.

"Look! Here are Loiseau's old working togs. Come down to the kitchen when you're ready. I'll make breakfast."

She lights the fire, puts the water on to boil, grinds the coffee beans in a coffee mill with a picture of the Dutch countryside on it. Downstairs he comes, stumbling, in his clogs. He just doesn't know where to put himself. He's no longer her husband; he's just old Loiseau's successor.

"What do I do?"

"Wait till you've had your coffee..."

"You know, Amélie... that postal order I sent from Switzerland..."

"Yes, Yes.... "

"I swear it's true. I was all right at the time. And every day I said to myself..."

"Get the bread from the cupboard.... The butter is in the ice-box in the shop, on the left...."

Loiseau's clothes are too broad for him, and too short. He looks as if he were in disguise. He drags his clogs along for fear of losing them.

"Sit down. What are you waiting for? Old Loiseau always ate with me in the kitchen."

Now that it is daylight they can see through the window of the courtyard, where there are two handcarts and a lot of empty packing cases.

"Eat!"

That poor mouth, which...

"Don't try to eat the crust, get on with it!" The sun was up. The morning was crisp.

"No! Not that packing case! Hey! Look out for the door...."

The street was coming to life, and the vegetable man was already opening his shutters.

"On your first round, I'm going to send a little girl with you who knows all the customers...."

Mélie who is not one to overlook any detail, adds, after a moment's thought:

"Since you have to have a name, you're to say your name is Jules. People will call you Papa Jules."

There were moments — such was his clumsiness — when she wanted to burst out laughing; but there were other moments as well...

"You're not to call me Amélie, but Mélie like everyone else.... Here's the child coming.... Push the barrow to the street."

He got inside the shafts. Was it intentionally that he put his hand once again to his chest? He was up to all the monkey tricks. That was him. He'd lie for the sake of lying, cheat for the sake of cheating. Some unknown force drove him to do everything that he oughtn't to do, and that was why, at the age of fifty-five...

"Lift those shafts higher...."

He smiled, the monster! That was another trick he'd discovered. He knew perfectly well that that smile, what with his dentures and the chin that she was seeing for the first time without a beard, was the most pitiable thing of all.

"Stop..."

He looks astonished, turns back, still smiling.

"I tell you to leave the barrow."

"But ..."

"Go and get into your other clothes."

"But I..."

"In five minutes all my fish would be on the floor. Go and get changed...."

Nevertheless, as he crosses the kitchen to get to the halfway landing where his clothes are, Mélie murmurs: "Stringy old fool!"

She goes out and undoes the shutters. The light streams into the fish shop. The fish take their places on the marble slabs. The ice truck draws up in front of the house, and the man in blue, with the sack on his shoulder, delivers two rainbow-coloured blocks of ice.

Up above, Nicolas is walking to and fro. Léontine, the girl who has been selling from the barrow since Loiseau's death, comes to start work.

"You've already loaded the barrow, Madame Mélie?"

"Have I asked you to do anything, snotty-nose? You'd just better not forget the soles for the Hôtel du Commerce."

Léontine has heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps on the floor above. She is probably thinking that Mélie...

"What are you waiting for?"

"Nothing.... You've forgotten the mussels."

"All right, take the sack under the staircase!"

It is just before Léontine has quite gone that Nicolas makes his entry, and the girl can't stop herself looking him over from head to toe, convinced that her employer...

"Are you ever going to get out and get on?" He, the great oaf, with his brief case and his stick, has put on his dignity once more.

"I'm off," he announces, wearing his melancholy with a smile. "Goodbye, Amélie..."

And she, hardly able to stop herself from laughing, says: "Going to jump in the river?"

"Don't worry, I won't cause any trouble."

"Come here, you debauched old thing ..."

He hesitates, he really does! With his hand on the doorknob, he seems on the point of leaving. She waits. Finally he comes up to her.

"You remember the Valabelle's place?" He frowns.

"That's not the café next to the market?"

"Valabelle is dead. His daughter married a young butcher, Piquet's son, and it's she who runs the inn nowadays. Tell her I've sent you and that she's to give you the room on the second floor."

He shakes his head in the manner of a man who wouldn't dream of accepting. At the same time his hand is fingering the pocket where, as she knows, the forty-sou piece is all on its own.

"They'll give you special boarder's terms. All you've got to say is that you're a cousin of mine, and that I shall do the paying."

God! He's got two francs, one dirty shirt and one toothbrush in his bag, and he behaves as if his pride has been wounded!

Footsteps sound in the Rue Saint-Jean. Old Mlle. Fleurisson has just opened the venetian blinds of her room on the mezzanine floor, above the huge umbrella which acts as their shop sign.

Customers start to arrive. Mélie opens her till and takes out first one 100-franc note, then another, and then puts one of them back.

"Listen, you're to give them that, on account. And every week..."

He understands. But he still hesitates.

"Now, clear out! I've got work to do!"

And, with her puddingy but muscular arms, she heaves up a case of fish piled high with ice. She looks sideways at Nicolas, who is getting ready to take the 100-franc note off the counter. He is not exactly taking it, he is conjuring it away; then he coughs, puts his hand over his heart and manages a grimace.

"It's a loan that I'll certainly pay back, Amélie.

"Yes, yes. Now go."

"As soon as that deal of mine..."

Heavens! His deal, indeed! Meanwhile, let him keep quiet at the Valabelle's place, let him appear from time to time to pass the time of day, if he feels like it. It's much better like this.

"You know, Amélie, about that postal order, I give you my word of honour..."

Oh God, let him just go! Otherwise he may even get her to believe him.

"Well, my girl, what'll you have today? I've got some whiting. Just the way you like them. A dozen, eh?"

Nicolas moves backwards to the door a step at a time. On the doorstep he stammers like a travelling salesman: "I'll be back."

O.K., O.K. Right now, Mélie has other things to do.

"Just over a kilo, my pretty one... Is that all right?" And, on the piece of crinkly paper which creaks under the weight of her pencil, she adds it all up.

END

© Copyright 1961 by Georges Simenon. All rights reserved.


*NOTE: Although this story is headed "A short story written specially for Réalités", that is apparently not the case. The original French version, "Le mari de Mélie", appears in Volume 12 of the Presses de la Cité Tout Simenen, pp 124-133. The index states that it was first published in 'Tout la vie' August 14, 1941, and then in La rue aux trois poussins, Presses de la Cité, 1963. Possibly the translation (copyright 1961) was done especially for Réalités. (An Italian translation, "Un marito disastroso", appeared in 1962.)
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