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(N° 2070)
September 16-22
p 16-17

original French

Simenon's pipe has gone out

Monique Lefebvre

Tons of grey novels, drowned in rain, which slide in time without reference. Signed Georges Simenon, the saga of his hopes, interrupted when the father of Maigret lost interest in himself... his abandoned Chief Inspector henceforth an orphan.


Simenon : "I've never been interested in myself, but in fact, I'm not interested in anything else."

He could no longer walk, nor move, could but still sign his name. Yet he never gave up drawing on his famous pipe. And to a young French-speaking Swiss TV journalist to whom he'd granted a rare and final interview, he affirmed that he still had feelings...

"When I see a seagull installed on a parapet, regarding the passers-by who toss him a crust of bread, I ask myself, 'what is he thinking?'"

Simenon at 86, still curious. Curious but with a pure curiosity. Like an entomologist classifying people and their drives onto index cards. Curious like the crime-news journalist he'd been at 15 for the Gazette de Liège, in his home town... from which he learned to relate the sordid without emotion, and without indignation.

To write... he thought of nothing but that. Even if he couldn't remember at what age he'd been able to complete his first novel. 16? 18? But from the time he started, Georges Simenon wouldn't stop. In three hours or three days, he put out his stories... 400 in a few years under pseudonyms as eccentric as Germain d'Antibes, Plick et Rock, Gom Gut. He officially used 17. Which is to say, we aren't talking great literature!

Recently, in their series "Les Introuvables" [the 'unfindables'], Presses de la Cité republished a number of his novels signed Georges Sim. Hastily written in the cause of a camembert per day. Young Georges Simenon is in Paris, but he is poor, living in an awful garret, and camembert, that swells as it runs, his ideal nourishment. Perhaps later this famous rich man's avarice will try to erase these malodorous memories.

His first piece of luck came to him from Colette. She was then Literary Director of the Matin, and noticed one of his stories. She gave him work with one sole counsel: Suppress all the literary.

Simenon would take her advice. But not immediately... in 1928... He was relatively well off, and bought himself an old boat, The Ostrogoth, in which he left with his wife, Tigy, for Holland. A breakdown immobilized them there, which Simenon took advantage of to write. His first "semi-literary" novel, as he put it. To avoid falling into the meaningless language of the potboilers, he chose the rigor of a police story. With his slow and heavy step, here is Jules Maigret, in his forties, established, a pensive lip and a sharp eye. Chief Inspector at the Quai des Orfèvres, surrounded by his faithful team. But no more in Pietr le Letton than in any of his 84 [NB 103] investigations, does Maigret commit the least mischief. Good husband, calm boss, "the crime interests him less than the criminal, " note Boileau and Narcejac, two experts in the matter. As opposed to his American colleagues, Maigret is not hard-boiled. Not a softy, either. Indulgent or even indifferent, he shows compassion for the depravities he unveils. But no passion. No anger. He turns, he wanders, he sniffs, he feels, follows the trail, 'more intuitive than intelligent', as his author says himself.

What he likes, what he savors, is not so much the capture as the moment of admission, the confession of the guilty. Moreover, these grey novels, drowned in rain and fog, with grey, neutral writing, and a slow, good-natured Chief Inspector for a hero, have traveled around the world, and are translated into 55 languages.

The minute attention to detail, the sense of ellipsis, the inimitable manner of description, this Simenon atmosphere, in certainly not enough. There is humanity. Maigret doesn't judge... he casts his solemn regard on what we are, what we can be. Universal banality. Finally, Maigret lives outside of history, in a vague time, never clearly dated, without particularity. A time – it too – universal.

But there are more than the Maigrets... the 132 other "hard" novels. Harder, more severe, nastier. From the Yellow Dog [NB a Maigret] to the Cat, from Magnet of Doom to In Case of Emergency... there, truly, everyone is not so nice, not so pretty.

If Maigret is a homebody, Simenon was not... he was always on the move. From the North Pole, he enters Poland, crosses the Mediterranean, goes around the world by ship. The crazy years before the war, the somber wartime years, made all the more somber by a doctor's misdiagnosis of a grave heart condition... giving him but two years to live. And so he wrote his memoirs: Pedigree.

But he survived, would pass 10 years in New York. On his return to France, he chose the Côte d'Azur. He was famous, he presided over the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. He was very rich... immensely. Switzerland, fiscal paradise, was imperative. He would build there a megalomaniac house with a bomb shelter and an operating room. There he tracked down dust and germs, sharpened his pencils meticulously, but wrote more to explain himself... When I was Old, Intimate Memoirs. Later, he would write no more... he would dictate. His thoughts, memories, reflections... He only talked about himself. And it wasn't always favorable, nor endearing. Sometimes complacent to the point of shamelessness.

"I've never been interested in myself, but actually, I've never been interested in anything else. Even with the women I've known, I've only asked one question... 'Who am I?'"

This question, how many times had he asked it? George Simenon affirmed that he couldn't do without a woman three times a day, and he boasted of having had 10,000...

On the other hand, what made him angry was when people spoke of his "case", his incredible fecundity (literary – he had but two [NB four] children).

"I'm not a case, and I have a horror of being one. I'm a writer." And he even adds... "I'm the one who's normal." If André Gide saw in him the equivalent of a Balzac, Simenon himself refused the comparison... "I only resemble him in quantity of output..."

Simenon saw himself as unique. He wasn't wrong. His complex ruthless structures are uniquely his. We can criticize him, or regret his dislike for his characters. Above all the women! Big, fat, flabby or dry, shrewish, abusive... Madame Maigret is the exception, except for cooking up her tasty dishes. What interests Simenon, is when things suddenly jam up, topple over, raise up the mediocre reality. Hope, for him, doesn't exist. You're a victim or a failure. "Everyone's a failure," he explains, "since we all finish in death."

A failure who's sold 500 million editions...


Simenon's complete works have been republished by Presses de la Cité.
To read as well: Portraits-Souvenirs de Georges Simenon by Stéphane. Ed. Quai Voltaire. 181 p, 95 F. Album de famille de Tigy, presented by P. Chastenet. Presses de la Cité. 125 p, 100 F.



Jean Richard must have felt sad Wednesday evening, watching an antique black-and-white Maigret which A2 had had the excellent idea to schedule in homage to Simenon... just before the rebroadcast of a famous Apostrophes broadcast dedicated to the writer in 1981. If the famous Chief Inspector has had hundreds of millions of readers around the world, his viewers number in the billions, on film and on television. For 24 years, Jean Richard has presented the taciturn bulk of Maigret on the small screen, but in the cinema, how many have portrayed him, from Pierre Renoir to Charles Laughton, Michel Simon to Jean Gabin, Albert Préjean to Harry Baur and Gino Cervi... If at least we knew which of these actors had been the most convincing, but the Talmudists of Simenon's work continue to compare merits!

And then there are the innumerable adaptations of his straight novelistic work, from Strangers in the House by Decoin in 1942, to Monsieur Hire from Patrice Leconte, the most recent. Some forty in all, by Dréville, Autant-Lara, Verneuil, Granier-Deferre (Le Chat and La Veuve Couderc, reshown recently), Melville, Molinaro, Camé, Duvivier, La Patellière and Hathaway... "I never watch the adaptations of my work, neither on film nor on television," stated Simenon. He wasn't far off, for few directors have succeeded in rendering the famous "Simenon atmosphere", so essential and so difficult to translate to images.


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