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Le Vif / L'Express
February 7-13, 2003
N° 2692, pp 40-51, 89

The Simenon Phenomenon
...100 years
Simenon ...a century!
Searcher of souls
The 10 Simenons to read
From the page to the screen
Studies on the man with the pipe
Simenon on stage
Searching for Simenon 
Original French

Searcher of souls

Ghislain Cotton

Simenon, who died in 1989, would have been 100 this February 13th. Dying pays. When he was alive, for the most part, the larger public considered him a kind of athlete of the pen, who churned out 'atmospheric' mysteries. This almost excused his having also written novels which, as opposed to the Maigrets, he himself considered 'serious'. We reflect today on this summary and lazy judgment, unshared by a number of great writers, including, among others, Colette, André Gide, Jean Cocteau and Henry Miller... not exactly small fry!


With Joséphine Baker, in 1926

It will also be remembered that, setting aside a certain number of groups that cultivated his work and his 'memory' with legitimate devotion, for this larger public, at the time of his death, he was no more than the father of Maigret, a retired writer. As for the burst of his Intimate Memoirs – his 'confessions' – people will inevitably retain his (falsely bland) boasting of a catalog that surpasses by ten times the '1003 favors' (repaid besides, for the most part) sung of by Don Juan's valet. Simenon's death at 86 restored his popularity and stimulated the pens of his interpreters, as it does today, often with happiness, on the occasion of this centenary. And this is the opportunity to recall that this child of Liège is the most-read novelist in the world, even though it is especially the calm steps of Maigret that brought him to this global success.

We also recognize that this force of nature, this ogre of life, wrote as he lived, as the sea pushes its waves one after the other, tirelessly. His production is something out of Dante, and so varied that bibliographies have difficulty encoding the tide. The one established by the Center for Georges Simenon Studies at the University of Liège, to which the writer left his archives, counts 431 titles (novels and stories, compilations of stories or articles, autobiographical writings, essays...) signed in his own name and the numerous pseudonyms that he adopted at the beginning of his career. For novels alone, the count is commonly 299, of which 193 were signed Simenon, translated into several score of languages. Their sale at the time of his death was already estimated at more than half a billion [500,000,000] copies.

Some memory aids: The life of Simenon – who lived in ten times more houses than Cadet Rousselle – spans four geographical areas. With little overlap, there was Liège until 1922, France until 1945, America until 1955 and Switzerland until his death.

Born in Liège, in a petit bourgeois environment, in February 1903 – a Friday the 13th, immediately changed to Thursday the 12th by a superstitious mother – he left school at 15, did odd jobs, entered the Gazette de Liége, where he published articles and columns, and remade the world with the young artists of the club Le Caque [The Keg]. At 17, he wrote his first novel, Au Pont des Arches, and met his future wife, Regina Renchon (called Tigy). Two years later he took the train for Paris. First an errand boy, he married, became secretary of the Marquis de Tracy, and undertook an insatiable polygraph career – news, stories, roguish narratives, and popular novels – under a good fifteen pseudonyms. A lively participant in Paris night life, he met Joséphine Baker, with whom he had a passionate two-year affair. He journeyed by boat with Tigy and his hired maid, the young 'Boule', who remained in his service (body and soul) until the end.


During a stay in Liège, in 1952, in the Outremeuse district.

Sea level

In 1931 Pietr le Letton was published, Simenon's first novel signed with his real name – a Maigret. It was the turning point of his career. Maigret was a success, and the extravagant 'Anthropometric Ball', the Parisian event created to launch it, contributed. During the pre-war years, he didn't stop writing (Maigrets, but also about thirty other novels) while traveling with Tigy through France, from house to château, and also doing some reporting (including an interview with Trotsky). In 1940, falsely alarmed by a local doctor who predicted his precocious end, he wrote Je me souviens [I Remember], a long letter intended for his one-year-old son Marc, in the shape of a novel (as suggested by Gide), which would later become Pedigree. In 1945, worried by a widespread purge (notably for having dealt with Continental Films, a German company), he moved to New York with his wife and child.

Thus began his American journey, in the course of which he met and lived with Denyse Ouimet, from Quebec. She became his second wife in 1950, and the mother of three of his children. To be sure, he continued to turn out his books. A final return to Europe five years later. A stay in the south of France before setting up in Switzerland, where he would remain. The château at Echandens, in Lausanne, by way of Epalinges. Meanwhile, Teresa Sburelin, his Italian maid, took the place of Denyse, who left the house in 1964.

In 1973, Simenon, after numerous interviews and conferences, put an end to his fiction writing, moved to Lausanne, and had the term 'novelist' replaced on his identity papers with 'no profession'. He began his Dictations – reflections on various subjects – recorded onto a tape recorder. His daughter Marie-Jo, obsessed by the love she professed for her father, committed suicide at 25. Three years later, in 1981, Simenon published his Intimate Memoirs, followed by Marie-Jo's Book. In 1984, he was operated on for a brain tumor. He died on September 4, 1989, his ashes scattered by Teresa in the garden of his house, in the same place as those of Marie-Jo.


With his son Marc, in 1942, in his château at Fontenay-le- Comte (Vendée).

There are many who study Simenon the writer, attempting to analyze his success, whether from fascination or reserve. His ardent fans support the opinion of Denis Tillinac, who sees in him "the greatest western writer of the 20th century," a successor to Montaigne, whose "anti-heroes concentrate the fatal flaws that shadow the destiny of modern man." The most severe, a dwindling group, consider his popular appeal indicative of zero-level writing, and dismiss the Maigrets and other titles pell-mell as 'station novels' (a foolish word). Zero-level writing... an involuntary and considerable compliment, insofar as it also consecrates the perfect coincidence of the content and form of Simenon's work. That he is the most-read novelist in the world is not luck. We could speak of novels written at sea level (the sea, again). And so, at the level of life, the height of the man, the height of the reader, who recognizes his counterparts there and recognizes himself – or whom he might have become. There is no mountaineering in Simenon, no haughty summits to conquer, no bits of bravery, and it is just as true for his style as for the behavior and destiny of most of his characters. This sea level is also the meeting point between the beach of daily life, on the one hand, and the ocean of secret powers, constraints and aspirations that, on the other hand, enliven, determine or provoke us. A confrontation that expresses itself in the slow and inexorable rhythm of the tides, as unspectacular as the nibbling of the froth on the sand, but which can turn as easily into a drowning. Black novels? John-Baptiste Baronian judiciously prefers the term 'gray novels', more compliant with their atmosphere, but also with human truth.


Simenon in his later years.

When a man goes to the edge

Be that as it may, the novelist is not there to hand out medals to survivors – to the extent that there can be any, which Simenon always and clearly doubted – but in fact to observe and note the risk, the stakes and the outcome of the play. As he often said, neither the situation nor the intrigue interested him, only the characters. And above all – as he notably confided to Bernard Alavoine, another analyst – he concerned himself with "the accident that reveals a man to himself, that obliges him to go to the edge..." in spite of the many fears which assail him, like not accepting the repression of instincts by society (Simenon himself!), or ending up accepting being a robot.

What is amazing about Simenon is that he succeeded in giving a perfect account of the human condition – the greatness, fears and slips – without falling into the traps and wild imaginings of psychologizing. Certainly, to read Simenon won't heal psychopaths, but it could be as valuable to those whose profession it is to help them as to aspiring writers.

Simenon's writing rituals are often cited. All of them, from the 'prenatal' walks to the preparation and arrangement of his pipes before the birth of the novel, proceed from a search for complete emptiness and perfect availability. That too, in other respects, is found at sea level. No strategy, no notes, no writing plan, no organized reference of things seen... only characters. It is about characters emerging from the shadows and following them step-by-step. They come to guide the writer on the trails of his memory... And this sponge, who absorbed myriads of pictures and moments, without the least intention, disgorges them as they must necessarily play out. As for the famous yellow envelopes, covered with annotations and sketches, they are only there for management – the choice of names, the plan of a house, etc. – because the truth of the men and women that Simenon puts on stage must also impose itself on the reader, and share his own truth, found in the places and settings where they evolve.

Maigret: practice scales

And Maigret in all this? Maigret is Simenon's singing exercises, but not his opera. As Simenon said himself, it is a pianist's practice scales that develop his hands for approaching a real work. And if popular demand and the financier's worry drove him to assure the commissioner a full career, he didn't hide his bitterness at seeing him overshadow what he considered his real work, the 'serious' novels. True, Maigret is the tree that hides the forest, but we must also recognize that Maigret fans who – by chance or curiosity – find themselves in another of Simenon's novels, feel on somewhat familiar ground. They have entered the universe of characters that Maigret meets on his rounds, but seen from the inside, with all the dimensions of their personal dramas. With the likelihood that many of them represent potential customers for the commissioner, it would seem to be Maigret again, reversing things, who supplied Simenon with the characters and novels to write.

It would be absurd to say that this explorer of the depths of the human soul hated men – using the pretext that he never tired of dissecting their disgraces or sufferings. Let's leave the last word on this subject to Henry Miller, who wrote to him – and they'd never met during Simenon's American years – "There is a tenderness in you that I don't find often enough in French writers... Is it perhaps your Belgian side?"

Ghislain Cotton

translation: Stephen Trussel
Honolulu - November 16, 2005


 

Le Vif / L'Express
February 7-13, 2003
N° 2692, pp 40-51, 89

The Simenon Phenomenon
...100 years
  Simenon ...a century!
Searcher of souls
The 10 Simenons to read
From the page to the screen
Studies on the man with the pipe
Simenon on stage
Searching for Simenon


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