by DENISE SIMENON
(as told to Frederick Sands)
'Sometimes, when I look at my husband, I see not Georges Simenon the writer, but Maigret, the fascinating, world-famous detective he created'
MADAME SIMENON blew a kiss on the telephone to her husband on the floor above at their 16th-century Swiss chateau overlooking Lake Geneva, then told me: "It's a ritual with us." Upstairs 58-year-old Georges Simenon, a short and stocky man who draws all day on a pipe, took a cardboard sign from his antique writing desk and hung it outside the heavy oak door of his office. It read: Please Do Not Disturb. To his wife and children and their staff of 10 the little blue sign is sacred.
It goes up daily for one whole week, in which time Simenon writes a complete novel. This happens four to six times a year.
Mystery behind closed doorsTHIS was the fourth day of work on his 62nd book in his famous Inspector Maigret series to be called Maigret and the Lazy Robber and his 169th novel in all.
The other 168 have already earned him an estimated £4,000,000 ($10,000,000) in 29 currencies as the world's fastest-selling author with more than 100 million copies sold, and one of his books either published or re-printed in one country or another each day of the year.
Madame Simenon, her husband's business manager and former secretary "the job hasn't changed much since," she says admitted to me frankly: "We were married legally 10 years ago, but have been man and wife since 1945."
"When I met Jo in 1945, he was the first novelist I had known. Hemingway, I had heard, worked on a book three years; Simenon,for one week. That took some figuring out.
"Then I was frightened by having to handle the business side of his work, about which I knew nothing."
Today Madame Simenon still does not know what goes on in her husband's office after he puts the Do Not Disturb sign on his door.
"I can only guess," she says. "You see, no one is allowed into his room while he writes. The one thing that does affect me when he is writing a new novel is his habit of living the life of the people he creates."
She recalled how Simenon slapped her face unsuspectingly one day while writing Act of Passion a love story of a 40-year-old man and a girl of 25.
"He looked pale when he came out of his office that night after the fourth day's work on the book."
"So I kept quiet during dinner and afterwards sat next to him in the living room looking at television. It was a terribly bad play, and I said: 'I can't stand this.' Suddenly he turned round and slapped my face.
"I was so stunned I could not even put up my hand. Then he looked at me, and said: 'What have I done?'
"'The poor woman in his book must have been having a terrible time today,' I thought..."
Why the staff all leftIN another book the central character was a cantankerous old drunk, and after three days' work Simenon began to behave like him. When it was finished, his wife told him that most of the staff had given notice to quit.
"When he writes, he puts himself in the skin of others so completely, that he speaks, walks differently," his wife says. "Once on a week day he was writing about Sunday. He asked me why the children were not at home, and at first would not believe me when I said they were at school."
'Suddenly my husband is stranger'SUCH is the strain on Simenon in trying to be someone else during his brief writing spells, that each book is preceded by what his wife describes as 'the incubation period.'
Madame Simenon explains: "There was another facet of the man which I could not grasp during the first 18 months of our life together, although we were already lovers. It happened just before each new book.
"Normally a gay person, full of vitality and strength, Jo would suddenly look and act strange, become short-tempered and even morose. I used to think that I had done something to hurt him.
"The answer usually came three or four days later when he would announce to me: 'Ha: I am going to start a new book.'
"Later, when I spoke to him about his strange behaviour before each new novel, he admitted that for years he has felt 'sort of badly inside my skin' a few days before he felt the urge to write.
"I used to call up a doctor friend whenever Jo went through this stage to satisfy myself there was nothing really wrong with him. I have kept this up ever since. You see, my husband knows he has to finish a book in one stretch and that missing one day, thus breaking the terrific strain of his concentration, could result in his having to throw away all the work he has done."
During his 'incubation period' Simenon first calls together the entire household andd asks them if they have any immediate problems. There may be cheques to be signed, household questions or matters concerning the children, visits to friends, or personal problems.
He deals patiently with each, but after that speaks to nobody, and nobody speaks to him.
Next Madame Simenon cleans every one of his 75 pipes and has his typewriter overhauled. Then she sends for the doctor. Only when he has been pronounced fit does Simenon go to work. It always follows the same pattern, and begins with a long walk in the country to rid himself of all other thoughts.
"He may walk for four hours or even longer," Madame Simenon says. "He is as likely to find his inspiration in the smell of hay as in the singing of a bird. Suddenly he may say to himself 'Holland' and he has the background. Then he looks for people, always choosing those he knows.
Inspiration in the bathroom
"I AM allowed one kiss. By the time he goes to his office he is already 'inhabited' by his characters.
"After putting up the Do Not Disturb sign on his door, he lines up a dozen pipes and fills them with tobacco, so that he will not have to interrupt his work ...
"Next he switches on a hot-plate to keep coffee permanently simmering at his side. Then for two and a half hours he punches his typewriter, with few corrections or revisions, and writes a complete chapter his self-imposed quota for one day.
"He hands me the pages an old sentimental habit and I read them while he takes a bath, shaves and dresses. Then we go out for a walk. We spend the rest of the day quietly, with lights out at 10, ready to repeat the same routine for one whole week."
It becomes clear that Simenon is as odd in his ways as some of the oddest characters he has created. For instance, he apparently considers hotel bathrooms the ideal place to write.
Often he shuns the comfort of his luxury chateau to seek the cold, impersonal atmosphere which he says he can best find in hotel bathrooms.
"He has written many more novels there than in his office," Madame Simenon said. "He writes best when cut off from the life around him. He does not want to see the sun shining outside when he is writing about a rainy day, or snow on his window-ledge when in his book it's mid-summer.
"He seeks hotels with large bathrooms where he can put up a small table for his typewriter and pipes, and not be disturbed by any noise, or distracted by the personality of a room."
Around the world with a double bedAFTER years of non-stop globe-trotting, with homes in many countries the Simenons have lived in Belgium, France, a South Sea island, Canada, Mexico, and the United States Georges Simenon brought his family to Switzerland in 1956 for what begins to look like a permanent stay.
"His polyglot family comprises Belgian-born, 21-year-old Marc by his first marriage, and three children by his second wife Johnny (11) who was born in Arizona, Marie-Jo (eight) born in Lakeville, Connecticut, and baby Pierre, their Swiss-born latest addition to the household of 16.
The only item of furniture they brought when they moved to Switzerland from the United States is an outsize double bed, which has already accompanied them more than 50,000 miles. Madame Simenon explains her husband had it specially made because he is a fretful sleeper, and had often pushed her out of an ordinary bed in his sleep.
Describing their home life, in which Madame Simenon combines the functions of business manager, wife, mother and chief of a household. of 16, she says she and her husband have less and less time together. "You see, we are two old, foolish lovers! Devoted as we are to our children, we cannot only be mother and father. So we go away as often as we can, just to be completely by ourselves."
'Women like to tell lies'TAKING care of her husband's work, says Madame Simenon, is "a way of being closest to him."
"As I cannot share with him the conception of his books, my contact is after they are published ... rather as if he bred and bore the children alone, then left me to look after them."
On the success of their marriage, she says : "A happy marriage is created anew each day, and is not something that just happens. For me, there are no fixed rules to the game."
For a woman who plays the marriage game so well, her theories are worth noting. She says : "It is part of being a woman to be devoted to the man she loves, whether married or not."
"A woman should always love her man the way he wants to be loved, and not the way she thinks is best."
Madame Simenon makes the formula for ideal marriage sound simple enough, when she says: "I try constantly to discover the things which please my husband. One feels these things quickly enough if two people are attuned to one another."
And she gives this advice : "Never marry a man except one you love thoroughly ... and never stay married to a man you don't love."
"My husband underlines each word of this, and adds that what kills most marriages is not infidelity, but jealousy. A jealous woman is automatically the loser. A man will never forgive a woman for the lies she makes him tell."
"If the same does not apply to women, it is because women like to tell lies. "
After writing a book in a week, Simenon spends another three days on it for revision. Altogether it adds up to only 50 or 60 days' work a year. How, one may wonder, does he spend the other 300 or so? He rarely writes a business letter and never answers the telephone. His wife deals with all that. He takes long walks, and spends a great deal of time with his children. Riding and fishing are his favourite sports.
But most of his time, when at home, is spent in reading historical, biographical and scientific books. He is interested in palaeontology and woodworking. Apart from studying the works of leading psychiatrists like Jung and Freud, he has also gained a wide knowledge of medicine, physics and mechanics. But reports on criminology along with a daily. batch of newspapers dominate his reading.
With more time to devote to his children in a month than most fathers can find in a year, Simenon has turned his house into a children's paradise.
And nothing, even while he is at work on a book, stops him from taking his meals with them twice a day, though it means having dinner at 6:30 because of young Pierre.
"After all-too-many years of apparent inability to have children of our own, I was thrown off a horse and broke my back, Madame Simenon told me. "Then I was hardly off my crutches when I found myself expecting."
Since then she has had two more children. She shocked her doctors and nurses at the Lausanne Mont-Choisi maternity clinic, when she moved in with a case full of business files and had a dictaphone at her bedside.
"I was dictating about 50 letters a day, and 20 minutes after Pierre was born I had a lawyer on the telephone from New York to discuss a contract, she said.
'The way we look at love'SIMENON was present at the birth of their last child. Ever since then, he has taken an even greater interest in the children and it has brought them closer together.
"Love grows as it goes along, not only in depth, but also in scope; and parenthood provides a great added source of happiness," she said.
With such abundance of happiness, health and wealth, there remained for me only one question : "What have the extraordinary Simenons not got?"
It was the only question which neither one of them could answer!
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