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Reminiscences

By Helen Wolff


Much has been said, by literary critics and fellow writers, of Simenon as a phenomenon, stupendously talented and prolific. I will attempt to testify to what is the source that feeds his creativity: his intuitive sense of the sorrows, needs, and compulsions of fellow human beings.

In July, 1963, my husband, Kurt Wolff, who knew Simenon from earlier meetings, went to see him in Lausanne, Switzerland, in order to negotiate taking over his U.S. publishing rights for our joint imprint with Harcourt Brace & World (later to become Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).

Three months later my husband was killed in an accident.

How well I remember my first visit, alone, to the Simenons. I actually felt that fate had cheated a great writer who had anticipated working with an internationally noted publisher-editor, and now had to deal with Kurt Wolff's widow, an unknown quantity as far as he was concerned. At stake was developing a new publishing strategy that would create, in the U.S., a much needed perception of Simenon as the writer of psychological novels rather than the Maigret-centered mysteries for which he was mainly known.

I had come for two purposes: to settle with Madame Simenon, at the time in charge of all business matters, some minor points in our publishing agreement. More important to me, however, was to be given access to Simenon's personal files. I had planned to prepare a publicity folder with quotes from letters by fellow writers — not the usual "solicited" quotes but personal, spontaneous reactions to his work from such eminent, authoritative practitioners of the writer's art as T.S. Eliot, André Gide, Thornton Wilder, Henry Miller.

Madame Simenon received me first in her office. There was no mention of my recent loss. With an alarming lack of concision and clarity presaging her eventual nervous breakdown she meandered on and on about some insignificant paragraphs she insisted on changing. After two exhausting and unproductive hours Simenon cautiously opened the door. He took in the situation at a glance and rushed forward with an intuitive grasp of what was needed. He hugged me with a warmth going beyond conventional compassion, said the crucial words, "Je vous fais pleine confiance" — "I trust you completely," and took me to his files where I was allowed to read without supervision, as long as I wished, finding, incidentally, all that I looked for.

Then and there I felt I had touched the secret of his worldwide effect, going beyond borders of language and culture to central human emotions. Here was a boundless capacity for response to those crises in lives when, as at the turn of a switch, the tune goes false, life is thrown off its rails. In his novels, there is no remedy, no retrieval. In real life, Simenon's understanding touch is stabilizing, the healer's hand. (He knows this, too, and carries on a voluminous correspondence with his readers from around the world.)

Subsequently I visited Simenon virtually every year. He always sent his car — a Rolls Royce — to bring and return me to wherever I was staying, which sometimes meant long rides. His chauffeurs (there were several over the decades) all told the same story: that their employer was a paragon of consideration. It was not the comfort of their quarters, or the size of their salaries that they stressed, it was the way they were treated. A punctilious care to spare them long hours. A daily check by Simenon in person, whether the meals had been satisfactory. "We get the same menu as the family, separately prepared, no leftovers. If they have champagne in the dining room, there is champagne in staff quarters." Their personal problems they took to Simenon for his ready ear: "Monsieur comprend tout" — he understands everything. This is all the more remarkable since great wealth based on limitless earning power tends to have an isolating effect.

As the years went by, I came to admire another facet of Simenon's personality: The down-to-earth acceptance of the limitations imposed by age. Lavishness of houses and grounds was changed, virtually overnight, to compactness for easy surveillance. The cars were sold, the staff drastically reduced. He now works, sleeps, receives in one large room, with everything under his eye. His physical strength varies, he underwent serious operations, but there are never complaints. He always receives you with characteristic enveloping warmth, with his devoted companion, Teresa, by his side. (The devotion is mutual.) His mental acuteness appears unfailing. As he sits, facing you, by the fireplace, a bottle of champagne on a side table ready to celebrate another working reunion, there is an intensity in his eyes that would make you quake had you failed his trust in any way. And once again you realize: you cannot fool Simenon. "No one should be praised for his kindness if he lacked the strength to be unkind," a French moraliste wrote.

Simenon's measureless understanding of man's humanity and inhumanity is backed by his toughness that accounts for the implacability of his vison. He goes straight back to the Greeks, his unerring eye fixed on fate.

Helen Wolff

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