New York Times Magazine
April 22, 1984, p.20
Simenon's Last Case
by Leslie Garis
The Belgian writer Georges Simenon is well known for mystery novels, but nothing could have prepared his readers for the devastating personal tragedy in his 'Intimate Memoires,' which is now being published in the United States.
"Between novels I have three or four weeks of exuberant life, and then, little by little, I have a feeling of emptiness. That's why I have had 33 homes in my life. Each time, it's the same. One day, I look around and I say, 'Why am I here?' And I don't know the answer. I am a stranger."
Georges Simenon sits in his living room in Lausanne, Switzerland, and puffs on a pipe. At 80 years of age, this renowned Belgian novelist has some perspective with which to make sense of his remarkable life. In fact, prompted by the shock of his only daughter's suicide, Simenon recently wrote his first full autobiography, "Mémoires Intimes," which, in English translation, will be in the bookstores here next month.
He brings to our conversations the passionate attention of his profession in probing his most compelling character himself. Emboldened by the utter candor with which he scrutinizes himself in his "Mémoires" a deeply personal book that will surprise readers who know him only as a mystery writer I ask him how he has coped, through the years, with his feeling of emptiness.
"When my doctor sees me unhappy," Simenon answers, his thin, astute mouth curling at the corners with amusement, "he asks me when I finished my last book. And when I say, 'Six weeks ago,' he says, 'Then I have one thing only to prescribe: Start a novel.'"
He laughs in a light, youthful voice and leans back into his chair with an air of contentment.
Since 1957, his home has been in this medieval university town on the shores of Lake Geneva. He lived here first in a 16th-century chateau, then in a gigantic modern house of his own design, then in a luxurious high-rise building and finally, now, in a small, pink, 18th-century farmhouse. In almost total seclusion, his numerous valuable possessions in storage, he lives with Teresa, a Venetian woman who joined his household staff 23 years ago as his wife's personal maid and became the woman Simenon loves.
"Look," he says brightly, "I'll show you something." He strides over to a modern desk that is cleared except for a red leather folder and a slender gold vase holding three yellow roses. He takes down two volumes from shelves packed with reference books and critical studies of his work. No Simenon novels are in evidence.
"These are the kinds of books they keep writing about me," he says. "And I hate it! I call it micropsychoanalysis."
He holds them out. Both in French, one is called "The Mechanism of Genius," and the other "Georges Simenon: From the Human to the Void."
"Do they say anything true about you? " I ask.
"They never understand."
"Because the truth is too simple for intellectuals."
What is the truth about Georges Simenon? There are so many that they defy reduction.
He is, for example, reportedly second only to Lenin in being the most widely translated author in the world, having edged out the Bible some years ago. His total worldwide sales are impossible to tally.
Then there is his output: 220 novels written under his own name, including 84 Inspector Maigret mysteries, another 200 early novellas signed with pseudonyms, and more than 1,000 short stories and articles. These statistics would suggest that he has been tossing off books in a carefree mockery of the usual literary toil. Not to mention that he writes them in 10 days!
Yet what do we make of the fact that upon finishing a novel, he is in a state of physical and emotional collapse? And the books themselves are hardly blithe trifles. Although Simenon's fame and wealth primarily derive from his Maigret mysteries, his literary reputation rests on his less well known journals and straight novels. According to the literary critic James Atlas, for example, "When I think of Simenon, I don't think of his mysteries. 'When I Was Old' is one of the most poignant autobiographies I know, and the novellas that make up his African trilogy are more vivid to me than Graham Greene's 'Journey Without Maps.'"
These "non-Maigrets," as their author calls them, are taut, intense close-ups of a character under extreme stress, and they are almost invariably tragic. "One always puts down a Simenon novel," says Alfred Kazin, "feeling that one has seen humanity at its saddest." Still, Simenon sympathizes with even his most villainous characters, and he relishes each small atmospheric detail. He is excited by, in Kazin's words, "the sheer nature of life itself." Simenon, who was friendly with many painters in his early Paris days, says, "I consider myself an impressionist, because I work by little touches. I believe a ray of sun on a nose is as important as a deep thought."
"At his best," says the critic Francis Steegmuller, "Simenon is an all-round master craftsman ironic, disciplined, highly intelligent, with fine descriptive power. His themes are timeless in their preoccupation with the interrelation of evil, guilt and good; contemporary in their fidelity to the modern context and Gallic in precision, logic and a certain emanation of pain or disquiet. His fluency is of course astonishing. His life is itself a work by Simenon."
Contradictory, fictionally oversized, driven by inexhaustible energy, Simenon's personality has always been marked by an epic restlessness, lived on a grand scale, including his legendary sexual appetite his conquests reputedly number in the thousands. Everything he does is done more times than ordinary mortals can manage. Once, when he was separated from his son Marc for 103 days, Simenon wrote him 133 letters.
It was in 1980, seven years after he had formally retired from writing novels, that Simenon wrote his 753-page "Mémoires Intimes," to be published here by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, translated by Harold J. Salemson, as "Intimate Memoirs." He had previously published other autobiographical works, including "Pedigree" in 1948, "When I Was Old" in 1970 and a series of "Dictées," impromptu thoughts dictated into a tape recorder and published as books. But this time, it was different. There was much more at stake.
Devastated by the suicide of his 25-year-old daughter; Marie-Jo, in May 1978, Simenon, using the insightful probing into human character and clear-eyed equilibrium that have always distinguished his best work, applied his skills to unraveling the causes of her death. The book opens like a mystery: Marie-Jo's apartment door is locked from inside, but no life stirs within. Marc arrives with the police. They find the girl in bed, shot through the chest, a .22 pistol by her side.
Who is the murderer? Not the girl who pulled the trigger. As the French newspaper L'Express wrote, the question posed by the "Mémoires" is "Not who is to blame for her death, but who is really innocent of it?" In his quest to understand the ever-elusive "truth," Simenon meticulously records his private life from birth, his two marriages particularly his disastrous second marriage to Marie-Jo's mother and the lives of his four children. The last 100 pages, called "The Book of Marie-Jo," comprise her own writings from age 9 until her last tormented words, spoken into a tape recorder. The cassettes found after her death sent Simenon into a tailspin.
"Mémoires Intimes" continues to be the best seller of Simenon's career. In 1982, his energy sapped by the publicity generated by the "Mémoires," Simenon decided that he would henceforth make no public statements. His only exception has been this series of interviews, which took place last September, and which he said would be the last of his life.
"You once said," I continue, "that writing is a vocation of unhappiness."
"No, " he answers slowly, "there is happiness. I'm happy when I've finished." He laughs. "But during the time I am writing...it's something awful." His voice, only a moment ago light and high, has become low and serious.
"Many of your characters experience uncontrollable panic. Does that happen to you?" I ask.
"Oh, yes. Unfortunately. While I'm writing...each time..."
Teresa, who is sitting across from us, flashes him a look of support. She is a small, dignified woman in her mid-60's, whose round, dark eyes and gleaming, shoulder-length black hair give her a youthful demeanor. Her somewhat homely face looks kind. "Anguish," she says quietly, as if to herself, "anguish..."
"Yes." He acknowledges her words without needing to look at her. "Each time I was always afraid I would not be able to finish. It's why it was such torturous work."
In this serene, airy room of almost monkish simplicity, Simenon's turbulent and lavishly appointed past seems far away. There are no rugs, no antique furniture, no signs of affluence anywhere, although Simenon is expensively dressed in elegant tan slacks and a monogrammed shirt. One rakish note: Instead of a traditional necktie he wears a scarlet cord tied in a bow, in the manner of an American cowboy dressed for a spree.
A huge bed, a desk and two comfortable white leather chairs set before the fireplace indicate that he lives almost entirely in this one room. On the gray marble mantel is an array of pipes that one suspects is but a fraction of a former collection. Wide glass doors look out on a small garden.
(At his request, I address Simenon in French but, to accommodate me, he answers as much as possible in English. Teresa communicates in a faltering French, accented by her native Italian.)
"In your 'Mémoires,"' I say, "you write that you put yourself into a state of grace before beginning a novel. What does that mean?"
"When I was very young, in Catholic school, we always spoke of 'état de grace.'" He intones the words with a dramatic ecclesiastical tremor. Teresa laughs. "I didn't believe in it then the idea of being without sin but I did believe in a sort of vacuum. To me, 'state of grace' means being free to receive any message. To be completely receptive, you must be full of emptiness." He grins. His eyes, at once innocent and shrewd, gleam with merriment behind his tortoise-shell glasses.
"Do you become empty so that the characters may inhabit you?"
"Yes. I am no longer in my own skin. I become the characters. I suffer for them."
Teresa says softly, "A slave..."
"Yes," he says. "I am a slave of my characters. But not of myself."
"The reason my father wrote his books in seven or nine days is that he would have collapsed from the physical effort if he went on longer. Because he doesn't write with his brain, you see, he writes with his whole self. He lost four pounds of sweat every day. I could see he was in a trance."
JOHN SIMENON, OCTOBER 1983
Before Simenon began a novel, his doctor examined him to make sure his health would bear up during the strenuous days ahead. The doctor also checked Simenon's children to see that they wouldn't need his attention, because if he had to stop writing for any reason, he abandoned that book forever. He wrote his "hard novels" by hand as distinguished from his Maigrets and his early potboilers, which he always typed. In the mid-1960's he began to type all his books, but until then he wrote several novels a year with pencil, in a neat, minuscule hand. Since he composed in a frenzy, he used to have lined up on his desk four dozen freshly sharpened pencils. He discarded each one when the point wore down. A "Do Not Disturb" sign, filched from New York's Plaza Hotel, would be hung on his doorknob each day that he was, as he put it, "with novel."
"You know what I still have somewhere?" he says with enthusiasm. "My telephone books from every town in America and every big city in the world. Because when I need a name for a character, I take the book from the region Boston, for example, or Salzburg, and I write the name on a manila envelope. Then I put down everything about him; his teachers, his grandmother, his telephone number, and so on. I won't use these details in my novel, but I need to know everything about the man or woman who will be my character."
The big manila envelope, covered with vital statistics, is a prop Simenon has used for writing every one of his novels.
"Then I pick up my envelope, and I look at it, and I walk, repeating the name to myself." He stands, clasps his hands behind his back and paces the floor. Simenon's medium-sized, compact frame is no longer as trim as it used to be, but the years of constant exercise are still in evidence in his confident, purposeful movements. His head is bent.
"I say the name over and over. Shakespeare says, 'What's in a name?'" He laughs and looks into space. His profile, against the background of the outside garden, is strong and expressive. His long, straight nose looks proud, almost arrogant, and his high forehead and smooth, slightly graying hair suggest intellectual distinction.
"I ask myself, what would happen that would change this character's life? It's what I have to find. And when I do, I have the first chapter. And then I start. I write a chapter a day. From then on, it's the character who commands, not me. I know the end only when I finish. But during the time I'm writing, I concentrate, concentrate on my characters I don't say 'story' because I am not interested in the story. My stories are sometimes very poor. Only the characters matter."
In fact, it is through the character's actions that he is defined, and since most Simenon characters are driven and obsessive, their actions are outside the constraints of ordinary life and, as such, are of striking ethical and psychological interest.
In "The Snow Was Black," the young son of a brothel-keeper commits a series of increasingly reprehensible crimes, culminating in the brutal deflowering of the daughter of a man the boy admires. His admiration for the man is barely conscious until at the end, captured by the occupying forces in this wartime European country, the boy finally realizes that he was "raging at destiny," putting himself outside salvation in order to be forgiven against all odds by this man, who the boy wishes were his father. The boy is executed, but not before receiving the forgiveness he sought. The first of his life is his last, a typical Simenon irony.
What Anais Nin once called Simenon's "mastery in exploring relationships" has often led him to focus on a single family, or only two or three characters in a novel. "The Cat," for example, opens as the late marriage of an elderly couple has deteriorated into such hatred that they no longer speak to each other, but communicate by venomous, oblique notes. There is a question of dead pets, a parrot and a cat, and accusations of deliberate poisoning. But the real deaths are the spirits of these two persons, suffocated by their mortal combat. The reader turns the pages in mounting horror, unable to do other than read on. "The gift of narration is the rarest of all gifts in the 20th century," Thornton Wilder wrote. "Georges Simenon has that to the tips of his fingers."
Many critics consider "The Bells of Bicêtre" to be Simenon's finest novel. It is perhaps his most scientific and acute psychological study. And it alone took him dare I say? almost a month to write.
"The Bells of Bicêtre" has virtually no plot. A prominent Parisian newspaper publisher is felled by a stroke, but he does not rail against his fate. Instead, he makes use of the convalescent's isolation, reinforced by his inability to speak, to review his life and try to come to terms with himself. The unsentimental replication of helplessness and the honesty of the character's self-evaluation inspired François Mauriac to say about this book when it was published in 1984: "Simenon pierces through to a truth which no other novelist before him has flooded with such naked, almost unbearable light."
Since the number of occupations Simenon writes about rivals even Balzac and Dickens, one would assume he has taken some time for research. To my astonishment, he tells me that he researched only two of his novels "The Little Saint" (1965) and "The Bells of Bicêtre," and that these are his two favorites. The former a semiautobiographical account of an impoverished boy who becomes a famous painter takes place in a teeming, working-class street in Paris. Simenon wanted to use a certain house he had last seen 30 years before. Returning, he found it, and walked up the stairs to the top floor. Confident now that his memory was accurate, he walked back down and left, his research done. It took one hour.
For "The Bells of Bicêtre," which is set in a large city hospital, he spent a little more time.
"I would say about two hours for that one. I asked a nurse if it was possible to hear the clock bells from the rooms. And then I asked, 'At what time do they come for the garbage?' She asked me why, and I said it was important for the man who is in bed, immobile, to hear the garbage man coming. Then I asked what time the ambulatory patients eat. She answered, and said that the chief doctor would like to meet me. I told her it wasn't necessary. I had everything I needed." He takes his pipe out of his mouth and laughs heartily.
"I don't see any of your novels here," I observe.
"You can't find one of my books here. I hate to see them, and I never read them. Never, never."
"Because it's out of me. It's finished."
"Do you read other novels?"
"A pastry cook doesn't eat pastry. " His eyes flash. "When I started to write, I stopped reading novels. Before that, I read everything I could. Especially Russian literature. My mother had many lodgers and most of them were Russian students. I read Dostoyevsky before Balzac."
Simenon has often been compared to Dostoyevsky because of their tragic vision and their themes of guilt and alienation. But no Russian would write the terse sentences of Simenon. I ask him why he never wrote a long novel.
"Because my style is short, cryptic. And I can't bear the weight of my characters for more than 10 days."
"When I came to Paris, and was very poor, I remember living on just a herring a day. I understood that I was not ready to write true novels, but had to make my apprenticeship. People think that anybody can write a novel. It's absolutely false. It's a technique, a very complicated technique."
SIMENON, SEPTEMBER 1983
On Feb. 13, 1903, Simenon, the first of two boys, was born into genteel poverty in Liège, Belgium. His father, the son of a Walloon hatmaker, was a clerk for an insurance company. At 15, Simenon was apprenticed to a baker. Finding the work odious, he lasted just a few days. He became a book salesman and, soon after, a cub reporter for The Gazette de Liège. At 16, he wrote his first novel, "Au Pont des Arches." (it has never been translated).
In 1922, Simenon moved to Paris and soon after was joined by his Belgian wife, Régine Renchon, whom he called Tigy. Determined to learn the craft of fiction, he started writing lurid stories for weeklies sometimes as many as eight a day under a comical variety of pseudonyms: Gom Gut, Plick and Plock, Aramis and Sim. By then, he had met Colette, who was literary editor of the newspaper Le Matin and, taking her advice, had begun to strip his prose of all descriptive and metaphysical flourishes.
One spring day in 1924, Simenon and Tigy, who was a painter, went to a street in Montmartre where young artists sold their canvases. She asked her husband to sit in a cafe be cause his anxiety was driving away customers. So he took a table, ordered coffee, and in four hours wrote "The Story of a Secretary," his first pulp novel. Over the next 10 years, still using pseudonyms, he turned out more than 200 potboilers, mainly about adventure or sex, with titles like "The White Monster of Tierra del Fuego," and "The Fiancée With Icy Hands." Taking his environmental details from the Grand Larousse encyclopedia, he even wrote American westerns.
During this period, Simenon was writing 80 pages a day for six different publishers and the proceeds were beginning to make him rich. It was then he began his travels.
In 1929, he left Paris on the Ostrogoth, a custom-made boat with cashew colored sails. With Tigy, Olaf (a Great Dane) and Boule, their housekeeper (with whom he made furtive love when Tigy wasn't looking), he toured the canals of Europe for two years. It was during a stopover in the Netherlands, while waiting for the boat to be recaulked, that Inspector Maigret was born. Sitting on wooden crates in a waterlogged abandoned boat while rats swam merrily below his feet, his typewriter propped on the highest box, he banged out "Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett." He wrote three more in quick succession and the series was launched at a ball in Paris, which cost the entire advertising budget (Simenon's idea), but was such a success that Maigret was, overnight, the talk of Europe. Within months Maigret was translated into eight languages.
Sitting in his home today, puffing on his pipe, Simenon reminds me of his most famous character, although perhaps I'm thinking of Jean Gabin, who was the most memorable movie Maigret. But there is something about Simenon that I always imagined was true of Maigret. Simenon's gaze is powerful, direct, yet not intimidating. His eyes penetrate without prying, and I am struck by the notion that I am looking into the depths of a person who has nothing to hide.
I wonder if Teresa has modeled herself on Madame Maigret a woman of infinite patience who spends her days cooking for her busy husband and listening to his cases.
"Is Madame Maigret your ideal woman?" I ask. Teresa remains impassive.
"Not necessarily. I would not ask a woman to stay home for hours waiting for her husband. Teresa never waits for me because we are always together." He smiles calmly.
"What was your primary interest in writing police novels?"
"I have no idea," he answers lightly. "I wrote Maigret just by... by blue sky. It came naturally."
Maigret's motto is "to understand and not to judge," and indeed what elevates him in the genre is his passion to know the human heart. His interest in solving crimes is not morality, it is curiosity.. He's curious about the extremes of human behavior, and what is more extreme than murder? Often, he sympathizes more with the criminal than the victim. Sometimes, he even lets the murderer go. "One of the great revolutionists of the detective story," wrote Anthony Boucher, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, Simenon was "one of the first to turn away from the well-shaped plot and the devious gimmick...to enable the detective story to achieve novelistic stature."
"Do you know why Maigret has no children? " Simenon says gaily. "Because when I began the Maigrets I didn't have children. So I was unable to write the sentiments of a father. It was the only reason."
Maigret has bracketed Simenon's entire career. It was two years after Maigret's first appearance that Simenon wrote "The Man From Everywhere," the first non-Maigret to appear under his own name. And the last novel of his life was "Maigret and Mr. Charles."
"Why," I ask him, "was your last novel a Maigret?"
"Because, the Maigret stories became the same as my other novels. The question of mystery disappeared. In the last 20, there was almost no story, and people knew from the first chapter who the killer was and what would happen."
He taps the contents of his pipe into an ashtray and politely offers me a glass of champagne. It's the only alcoholic drink he allows himself, he explains with a grin.
During the 1930's, Simenon wrote 62 novels, as well as long articles on crime, hunger and colonialism, and traveled to more than 30 countries.
In 1945, with Tigy and their son, Marc, Simenon moved to America, where he would spend 10 years living in Florida, Arizona, California and Connecticut. He met Denise Ouimet in New York during his first months in the United States, and in 1950 he divorced Tigy and married Denise, already the mother of their son, John.
But there was a cloud over their life. Even before they met Denise had shown symptoms of manic depression, and by the time they moved back to Europe (by then, Marie-Jo, their second child, was born) the marriage was spiraling toward disaster. Denise suffered from paranoid delusions and was obsessively preoccupied with illness and death. She had a pathological need to dominate, but periodically she would collapse from exhaustion and overwhelming feelings of self-hatred. Those around her were both sorry for her and afraid of her. Simenon's obsessive need for strict schedules and his own driving energy put an added strain on matters, so that at the time of their separation in 1963, they were both on the brink of disintegration: Denise moved into a mental hospital and Simenon suffered from a variety of ailments, including constant dizziness.
Teresa, since 1982, has been as much nurse as lover to Simenon. When Simenon's health began to fail, Teresa never left his side and actually, one winter night at a resort in the Alps, held him back from throwing himself off a cliff. Through all this time, he never wrote fewer than three novels a year, and usually it was five or six. When I ask him how he managed it, he says, "If you are possessed by your subject, it comes easily."
Apparently business details came easily, too, for he has never had an agent. He wrote his own contracts, and they were simple: He leased rights to publish one edition for a limited number of years usually 10 or 12, regardless of whether the book remained in print.. When the time was up, he issued a new contract and more money changed hands. He also retained all subsidiary rights, and since 50 movies have been made from his books and at least 12 countries have run Maigret television series, this clause has made his fortune.
When Denise had her final breakdown in 1963, Joyce Aitken, the Simenons' secretary, took over the files and correspondence from her. "Denise was so jealous that Simenon had appointed me to go through the files when she left," she says. "She was much madder at me than she would have been at a woman who was her husband's mistress."
"She wasn't jealous of his mistresses?" I ask in surprise.
"No! She said that 'a woman could take my husband to have fun with, but if one touches my office, I'll strangle her!'"
"In the book of phone numbers that D. keeps in the office, there are, among other headings, several pages of numbers and addresses, covering Paris, Cannes, Milan, Brussels and elsewhere, with just one word written at the top in big block letters of D.'s hand: 'GIRLS.'
"When I notice this, I get angry, because I don't like terms which demean women, and the French 'filles,' while it means 'girls,' does just that. D. gives in and replaces that word by 'FRIVOLITIES.' "
SIMENON, "MÉMOIRES INTIMES"
Denise Simenon's face is thin and angular, with cavernous cheeks and a pointed, prominent chin. Her black hair is short, worn in a severe geometrical cut, her lips are painted dark red, but most of all one notices her eyes. Huge, dark, they dart about, both fearful and dull, in a glazed sort of way. Her voice is as low as a man's and, hauntingly, has no animation.
Perched on a couch in her living room in Begnins, a town near Geneva, she chainsmokes from a tortoise-shell cigarette holder. Her furniture is all of black leather.
She talks nonstop about her life with Simenon. Although she sees her departure from their house to a clinic as a deep conspiracy between Simenon and the psychiatrist to get rid of her Simenon and his family deny this she keeps coming back to the love that she and Simenon once shared. I ask her if she was jealous of his other women.
"I was afraid the first time, but then he came back to me," she answers in a smoker's rough tones, "so I was never jealous again. When people asked me, I'd say, 'Look, I'm a good cook. But I couldn't know all the cuisines in the world. Would I be jealous of anybody going to a Chinese restaurant?' My husband was a genius and a novelist. He was curious about everything. So why not women? I didn't mind. Why should I? He always came back to me."
"By way of answer, incidentally, to certain legends that make me out a sex maniac, I take the liberty of pointing out that I have very normal tastes and am not alone in being driven, from earliest adolescence and still today, by urgent sexual needs.
"I have spoken of my taste for fine materials...is there any material more splendid than a woman's skin, a woman's flesh? Can there be a more intimate communication between two beings than copulation?"
SIMENON, "MÉMOIRES INTIMES"
We speak of his libido.
"Since the age of 13, when a girl made me a man," he says, his voice trembling with emotion, "I have been hungry for all women. I consider that if I can't have a woman, I lose something. Because you know a woman only when you have slept with her."
"Were you often refused?"
"Sure. Many times. It happens to everybody. But I never insist. Never."
"In Fenton Bresler's recent biography of you he claims you had sex with almost everyone who ever worked for you."
"That's not true! Fenton Bresler understood nothing. It happened. Sometimes. But I never asked them. I knew, by some little sign the eyes, the face if someone was ready or not. If she was willing, O.K. If not, no."
"While you were writing a novel, did you abstain from sex?"
"She is asking," says Teresa slowly, "if you had sexual needs when you wrote a book."
"You can tell me better," he says to her, smiling broadly.
"Sometimes, yes." Teresa answers.
"Yes," he says, continuing to look at her. "Sometimes." He turns to me. "It depends on the novel." He laughs. "But at the end of a novel, of any novel, I am hungry for sex!"
During these exchanges tension has been steadily mounting in the room. In the safety of my profession, his age and Teresa's presence, I can enjoy, with this still seductive man, a sexual episode as indeed it is played out entirely in words. And he knows it. All three of us know it.
"Is there any particular type of women who attracts you?"
"Oh, no, no! All women tall, short, fat, thin. It's not a question of esthetics. Nor of the skin. One of my great loves was Josephine Baker, who was black. We were ready to marry, but I was very poor at this time. She was a great star in Paris, and I did not want to be Mr. Baker. So I went for six months to a small island near Morocco to forget. She was like a beautiful animal, completely spontaneous. She was so tantalizing."
"I don't think I've ever known a man who's made love to as many women as you," I say.
Teresa, who is taking a keen interest in the turn of our conversation, holds up her hand and counts her fingers. "Three, four... sometimes five a day!" She smiles proudly.
"Five a day!"
"It's not so much." His voice lilts upward.
"But surely most men..."
He has been laughing through my words. "But it was five different women."
I wonder where he found them all.
"Well, mostly they were prostitutes what I call professionals."
"Did you feel passion for these lovers?"
"No, it was a question of contact," Simenon says, his voice high and youthful. "Carnal contact. You know, to have the skin of a woman in my hands, to caress her...I never made love cynically or cold-bloodedly. Even when I did the same thing five times a day, with five different women, it was always..." He touches his chest. "'La chair.' How do you say '1a chair?'"
"Flesh. It's a feeling that exists in your hands, in your body, in everything."
"Then what is passion?" I ask. "And what is love?"
"Passion is a malady. It's possession, something dark. You are jealous of everything. There's no lightness, no harmony. Love, that's completely different. It is beautiful. Love is being two in one. It is being so close that when one opens his mouth to speak, the other says exactly what you meant to say. Love is a quiet understanding and fusion. People don't kill for love, they kill for passion. But I had to wait..." he looks at Teresa tenderly "...58 years for love. It was a long time."
We are silent for a few moments, then I ask, "Are you still hungry for women?"
"Yes, still. But not for other females, because now I've found my female. And for 20 years I haven't needed others."
Teresa speaks. "Before he felt empty, he lacked...a feeling of wholeness."
"Yes, that's true. But I still make love, like when I was young. At 80!" He stretches his arms and looks radiant.
"I'm not saying my father is an easy man. But he's a wonderful man. He was a good father, a very good father. "
"He's been the most incredible father. That's really what's so sad about Marie-Jo; he wanted to be the perfect father, and on top of it he had a certain crush on her. She was his only girl. He wanted to bring her through life, he wanted to show her everything. And she needed him."
"I have no hobby, but I have one passion. It's to be a father. I know more about my children than 1 know about myself. In fact, I was more a father than a novelist."
SIMENON, SEPTEMBER 1983
Although Simenon's public has been treated through the years to a steady array of sensational details about his books, his sex life, his social life and his fortune, for sheer scandal nothing compared to the publication of his "Mémoires." Not only did he bare his soul with alarmingly un-Gallic candor, but Denise sued him for invasion of privacy. By appealing to the Tribunal de Grande Instance of Paris a judicial body that hands down rulings in 24 hours she caused court-appointed functionaries to be dispatched to every bookstore in France and Switzerland to paste black paper over some 30 lines. But she didn't commence her suit until five days after publication, and by that time it was too late: The book was virtually sold out. However, all subsequent editions including the American edition deleted the lines, leaving blank spaces, and the first page carried an apology by Simenon, citing his wife's action. Generally, periodicals observed the embargo as well.
The suppressed passages were primarily transcriptions of some of the cassettes dictated by Marie-Jo and found after her death. Only six lines were from Simenon's pen, and those were paraphrases of his daughter's words. The cassette containing the revelation in question so shocked Simenon, when he listened to it in the days following the suicide, that he turned to Dr. Charles Durand, Marie-Jo's Swiss psychiatrist, for verification. Dr. Durand admitted to Simenon that Marie-Jo had confessed the secret to him years before. (Subsequently, Denise Simenon sued Dr. Durand for revelation of professional secrets, but lost the suit. His defense: "I only did my duty.")
But what, one wonders, could be so damaging about 30 lines in a book of 753 pages, much of which is critical of Denise and reveals the most intimate details of their marriage?
Obviously, the causes of Marie-Jo's suicide are too complex to be unraveled, and it is impossible to parcel out blame. She was deeply affected by a novel called "A Bird for the Cat," written by her mother and published not long before Marie-Jo's death. It was a thinly disguised, scathing portrait of Simenon, and both Marc and John Simenon say that Marie-Jo was so outraged by it that she plunged into her final depression.
But Marie-Jo's problems began during her childhood. She loved her father in a way he himself characterized as unbalanced. And perhaps his intense love for her, and his own romantic nature, were dangerously confusing to the awe-stricken child. When she was 8, she begged him to buy her a wedding ring and he eventually complied. She had the ring enlarged four times, and one of her last requests was that she be cremated wearing it. Certainly her father's unconventional sex life, her mother's stormy nature and the constant warring between her parents must have all taken a toll on the sensitive, intelligent little girl. She was, from infancy, a fragile, fearful child whose expectations were perhaps unrealistic and whose self-image was tenuous. But, according to her censored testament as quoted in the court decision, and her psychiatrist's statements, one incident apparently contributed to impeding her development into a normal woman.
When she was 11, she and her mother went to a retreat at Villars, in the Swiss Alps. Denise had just been released from a psychiatric clinic and the child looked pale, so it was determined that the two would go off together for their health. One day, in the bedroom of their rented suite, the mother approached her daughter and suggested, in a way that would prove especially traumatic, that women don't need others for sexual pleasure.
According to John and Marc Simenon, Joyce Aitken, members of the household staff, and Simenon himself, the child returned home drastically altered. She began washing her hands every half-hour, sent cutlery and glassware back to the kitchen saying they were dirty, and insisted on changes of bedlinen every night. She was obsessed by dirt and terrified of darkness. It was less than three years later that she was committed to a psychiatric hospital for the first time.
At the end of Marie-Jo's life, this moment with her mother was one of the things that she spoke about into the cassette her words interrupted by sobs as she contemplated her incompleteness. And it was this moment only that her mother had excised from the "Mémoires."
Denise denied to me that anything untoward happened at Villars. Then, as I was leaving her house, she added, "I must have done some things wrong, but, thank God, I don't know what they were." When I asked John Simenon to clarify her statements, he said, "My mother is psychologically sick and she doesn't realize that she blocks facts."
Simenon has stated his willingness to discuss any topic, and so I say, "You have always maintained that men are seldom responsible for their actions, yet, in the 'Mémoires,' you have cast Denise as the villain of the piece."
"Yes." He sounds stricken. "Because..." He pauses and looks at Teresa. "I had to defend the memory of Marie-Jo. And I can't let her go without telling what happened. That is why..." His voice is shaking. "...I don't hate anybody, but I can't absolve D. I never pronounce her name."
I ask him why he wrote the "Mémoires."
"I wrote them because there are so many books about me which analyze me, claim to tell the truth about me, and they are all wrong. So I said I was 77 I said I would write the truth. Simply the truth. But the crude truth. When someone asked me if I wasn't afraid I'd be disliked, I answered that I prefer to be hated as the man I am than to be loved for a false image."
He relights his pipe and crosses his legs. His long, barely lined face is turned toward the garden where, according to her wishes, Marie-Jo's ashes are consigned. He looks back from the window and continues. "And it was because of the death of Marie-Jo. Because I knew that she..." his voice trembles "...very much wanted to have her writing published, and it was impossible to just publish her letters. It's why it says on the cover 'Mémoires Intimes,' followed by the Book of Marie-Jo.' So there were two names. It was an Oedipal love she had for me. The last day, she called me on the phone and she said, 'Dad?'" He is practically overcome. "'Tell me that you love me.'
I said, 'Sure, I love you, Marie-Jo.' She said, 'No, no, say 'I love you.' It was so strange. I said, 'I love you.'" His voice breaks. "Then she cut...and it was...the last I heard from Marie-Jo."
We wait for a moment while he composes himself. Teresa, at the edge of her chair, seems on the verge of rushing to his side.
"There is a haunting similarity," I begin tentatively, "between Marie-Jo and the characters in your novels. Marie-Jo went beyond the limit, as you so often describe."
"Yes. Everybody is a character in one of my novels." He manages a small laugh. He has recovered himself. "I am not proud of it, but it seems to be obvious. If you are true in your novels, everybody is in. Otherwise, they wouldn't print books I wrote 60 years ago. They print and print."
"You have lived your life, naturally, with the perception of a novelist. You see through-lines, you make sense of random occurrences. Do you think your perception affected events?"
"It's difficult to know. Which is life and which is the conception? Which is the conception and which is life? It's a question that I can't even ask myself."
"What was it like for you to relive your entire life as you wrote the 'Mémoires'?"
"I was not sure I could finish it. I would sit at that little desk, six hours at a time, and my legs were... It was..."
"It was so hard..." Teresa says in her broken French. "The memories came and came...Then there would be silence..."
"She was sitting there." Simenon gestures toward the chair where she now sits.
"I was here..." Teresa whispers. "I couldn't see how he could go on..."
"You know," he says, "I had thousands of letters, many from young girls who said, 'I was ready to do the same thing as Marie-Jo,'" His voice cracks. "'But reading your book, I know that I must live.' These children..." He sounds infinitely sad. "They can't find their way in this new, very cruel world. I have three boys and one girl and fortunately my boys are now past this age, and no one took drugs or anything. I was very happy."
(Marc is a film maker, living outside Paris with his actress wife and numerous beloved animals. His two children are grown. John, unmarried, is vice president of 20th-Century Fox, in charge of distribution for Europe and the Middle East. Pierre, whom I didn't meet, is studying in Geneva to be an investment banker.)
"Did you understand more about your life when you finished the Mémoires?" I ask Simenon.
"Yes. Something. Certainly."
"Did you understand yourself?"
"Myself? No. Nobody knows himself. It's impossible, mathematically. We are just a little part of the cosmos, and a part can't know the entirety. A period, a comma, can't understand the sentence."
"Did you understand your daughter better?"
"No. I always understood her. Unfortunately. You know," he looks toward the garden again "I bought her a big apartment in Paris, above the Lido on the Champs-Elysées. I gave her money to furnish it, and she did it all. I wanted to reassure her...to reassure her. And now... the apartment... since the day of her death, is sealed. Because her mother..." He stops talking for a long while, then continues. "...wants to inherit it from Marie-Jo. And it's wrong. I want her brothers to be her beneficiaries. So the apartment is sealed."
"It's still sealed? Is everything still there?"
"It's still there with the blood on the bed! Yes! Yes! After five years!" He is shouting, his voice is anguished.
(On Feb. 13, 1984, Denise agreed to give up her legal claim to half her daughter's property in exchange for copies of Marie-Jo's cassettes and letters and possession of certain small items in the apartment. On that day, the apartment was turned over to Marie-Jo's brothers.)
"How," I ask finally, "did it benefit you to write the 'Mémoires'?"
"I was so troubled at this time," he says softly, "and writing it discharged me of many problems. Now I am at peace with myself."
"I was never ambitious when I was young. My idea was to have a little house like this one, but in a very populous street, looking through my window to see people coming and going. It was the ideal in my life when I was 16."
SIMENON, SEPTEMBER 1983
One wonders how a man who has always lived to write came to the decision that he would no longer write novels.
"I was 70," he explains. "Yesterday, when you came, was the 10-year anniversary of the day I stopped writing novels. That day, I went up to my office and I started writing on my manila envelope. I wrote the title 'Victor.' Then I generally spend one hour and a half thinking. Teresa was upstairs waiting. And two hours went by, three hours..."
"Whew!" says Teresa, shaking one hand in the air.
"She was very worried for me. And then she saw me come, and I said, 'That's all. I will not create anymore.'"
"But what happened?" I ask. "What went wrong?"
"I had the feeling that I was not able anymore to create living people."
"And do you know why?"
"I don't know. Maybe age."
"Were you sad?"
In a low, soft voice he murmurs, "No. I was...I was..." He heaves a sigh of relief.
Never a man to be indecisive, the day after he told Teresa he was finished writing novels, he instructed Joyce Aitken to change the designation on his passport from "novelist" to "without profession." He also sold his five cars in one day. And a few months later, he put all his belongings into storage except for a few necessities, and moved into the little pink house where he still lives. He has come full circle. The grandson of a master hatter lives with the granddaughter of a blacksmith in absolute simplicity. His many great friends Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Henry Miller, Charlie Chaplin, Marcel Pagnol, André Gide, Maurice de Vlaminck are all dead. And so these days, he sees almost no one besides Teresa and his family.
I decide to ask him a question that many of his characters pose: What is the meaning of life?
"We don't know. We live, faking what comes naturally. There's a song by Gershwin that I love." He sings, sounding like a tired child: " 'I am just a little boy, looking for a little girl...' We live because we live. That's all."
"Do you mind being old?" I ask.
"I think everybody who is old has a sense of humiliation," he answers sadly "There are so many things you can't do anymore, like walking 10 kilometers in an afternoon, or jumping into the sea."
"Are you afraid of death?"
"Oh, not at all," he says pleasantly. "We go back to the cosmos. If we are buried, we are eaten by worms, and if we are incinerated, we go into flowers." He motions toward the garden. "Marie-Jo makes flowers there. It is only because I am so happy now that I prefer that it will be long, long before I die. But I am not afraid."
I ask him if he is still writing.
"Yes, but not for publication. They are just personal things. For Teresa. But I can't say what they are. That's mysterious."
"Have you said, in your work, all you wanted to say?"
"There's always something more to say, but we don't have time. Life is short, short, it's so short. I've lived 80 years now and I have the impression that it was yesterday that I was a child."
His face takes on an expression of delight and he adds, "I always say that we lead two lives one daily life and one nightly life. In the night, we don't have any age. As soon as I close my eyes, I am no longer old, and it is always something new. My dreams... my dreams are simply marvelous!"