Disarmingly, the first noteworthy studies of Simenon were mere partial attempts to explore the 'phenomenon'. First in the series is Thomas Narcejac's (himself an author of detective novels) Le Cas Simenon, 1950; then André Parinaud's painstaking Connaissance de Georges Simenon, 1957, Quentin Ritzen's Simenon, avocat des hommes, 1960, and Roger Stéphane's Le Dossier Simenon, 1961. Also in 1961, Bernard de Fallois, the fortunate decipherer of Proust's Jean Santeuil, made a valiant, in parts exciting, attempt to envelop the subject. The task of carrying the search a stage further fell to an Englishman. In Simenon in Court (Hamish Hamilton, 1968) John Raymond (who has engorged a truly gargantuan quantity of simenons) shows us the author's rare power of communication on a global scale.
Half a century of uninterrupted literary creation most of it on to the typewriter. There have been times when no fewer than one or two dozen novels poured out each year, and it is only during the fairly recent 'lean' years that the ratio has been reduced to four! This frightening output is at last beginning to occupy and preoccupy literary historians and critics in many parts of the world. Inevitably, Simenon's work will be sifted ever more meticulously through finer and finer analytical sieves.
More than thirty years ago no less a literary mentor than André Gide promised himself and us that he would write a study of Simenon's achievement, but for reasons that still need close investigation this never materialized. In this respect the twenty-six letters, appearing now in their entirety, may be considered not so much an important contribution to modern literature as an additional feature of this tortured moraliste, always disturbed in his own conception and practice of the art of fiction by a born storyteller, be it Conrad, Martin du Gard or, above all, Simenon.
In December 1966 at the annual Nobel Dinner in Stockholm, one of the Swedish academicians told me, with that characteristic light-hearted indiscretion that keeps literary circles so much alive in northern capitals, that the name of G.S. had been 'dropped' for the award for the last few years. No doubt the most widely read writer, everybody at the table agreed, yet the least understood and, alas, still the most difficult to classify. Suppose the prize were bestowed upon him would Simenon be any easier to place?
Whilst engaged (for the Encyclopaedia Britannica) on a lengthy perusal of his work, I wrote to Simenon. Three days later I received this reply:3
After another three weeks the following cable arrived: 'Vous attends le 6 ou le 7 février stop aime le thé anglais stop cordialement Simenon'.4
Epalinges, the twenty-first residence of this citoyen du monde5 since he came to conquer Paris in 1922, is situated near Lausanne at an altitude of 800 metres. After disposing of his château at Echandens, Simenon watched the building of a 40-room mansion which he himself has devised in accordance with the most minutely pharmaceutical conditions imaginable. It is difficult to remain unawed by the hygienic silence that reigns over the house.
As I was Simenon's personal guest for a whole working week, and as he displayed some of his most precious papers to my gaze, I saw him at close quarters, but never "en pantoufles",6 as Brousson once tried to see Anatole France. The host was perhaps waiting to be 'ambushed', ready for the battery of clichés that has become part of his public image. To this, I was soon to notice, he submits himself with a sort of compressed, almost perverse, precision and professionalism. I therefore tried to keep clear of any journalistic trappings: I was only interested in the Simenon laboratory. But how best to begin?
Monday, February 6th. Gino, the impeccably gloved Italian chauffeur, comes in a Rolls-Royce to fetch me from Vert-Bois. I am shown into the large sitting-room on the ground floor. Simenon appears almost at once, much more sprightly than I had imagined, wearing check trousers and white pullover, holding today's Daily Express the only newspaper he reads regularly, he says. First mystery! His voice is firm, slightly baritone, well cadenced. I meet Mlle Joyce Aitken, his treasured secretary, a marvel of tact and patience, ready to provide all the documents I require. A Xerox machine stands ready.... At midday I am supposed to be taken back in the car, but on insisting I am granted the wish of walking the two kilometres to the motel. The wind is freezing and nips one's face mercilessly, but after a while this too becomes a functional feature of the place. In the afternoon Simenon shows sincere surprise at seeing me installed at my desk, on time, and working. 'Ça va? Bon!'7 I then see him from the window crossing the snow-covered garden towards the power plant. Though he is supposed to be enjoying a week's spell of freedom before starting on a new novel, he is still the slave of his ferocious, self-imposed routine: getting up at six, checking up on every aspect of his household, the ovens and refrigerators, the tubes that carry the washing from every part of the house into the gigantic laundry; going out at all hours for long walks through the woods, then to bed at ten sharp. A kilometre before reaching the mansion one is already within Simenonian territory: he has bought a vast area all round his house so that no new building shall ever disturb its peace...
Tuesday, 7th.A lanky young man knocks at the door; his son Johnny, who has come to discuss departures. He is only seventeen. As a preamble to grand tours, I suggest a mixed summer diet of Glyndebourne, Cornwall and perhaps the Hebrides. He asks if he can see me again, then walks out to wash away his melancholy in the swimming-pool. Soon he telephones me to come across the lawn and see what the piscine is like: a huge antiseptic theatre, with spotlessly furnished loggias, settees, drinks...
A letter from a convict, Roger Bloom, in the Security Prison at Moberly, Missouri, Oct. 19, 1964: 'I have a friend living there in Switzerland whom I am quite sure you have heard of, George Simenon, whose many books concern a French detective Maigret in any case he does reside in Switzerland.'
Wednesday, 8th. This must be an unusually dull week. Between early morning and late afternoon, while I wrestle with the archives, nothing happens except for a few transatlantic telephone calls, and the reissue of three or four simenons in countries as far apart as Canada, Roumania, Japan and Nigeria. In the adjacent room I size up the various sets of translations nearly 15,000 volumes. After lunch, Simenon shows me the extensions of his internal 'phone directory: 'si jamais vous avez besoin de quelque chose.'8 As if one could ever lack anything in an establishment of such alarming perfection!
Thursday, 9th. A reassuring discovery among the papers: Simenon, who has often discouraged his interviewers by boasting of his total inability to write a single line of criticism, has in fact on more than one occasion jotted down notes from his reading. It would have been impossible for such a scrupulous craftsman not to have concerned himself with the tools he was using. He allows me to copy out all the drafts for three different public lectures, and a synthesis of these leads to a surprisingly revealing essay on the structure of the novel, which I can take away with me!...9 He asks me to stay for lunch to meet the family. The dining-room, smaller than I had imagined, has an English atmosphere, an elegant sideboard, ample chairs, large plates, but nothing to the point of ostentation. At one end of the table sits Simenon, at the other Marie-Jo, his 14-year-old daughter, taking the place of her mother, at the moment resting in a nearby nursing-home. Marie-Jo is a pretty girl, dreamy and sometimes sad-looking. The only truly gay member of the clan is 8-year-old Pierre, always ready to initiate his father's visitors into the warring factions of his playmates. (As my study, fortunately, is one of the few un-soundproofed rooms, I can often hear and enjoy the din of sabre-rattling!) Caviare and wine in abundance, but the host drinks water and eats little. He confounds Johnny with tales of days of near-starvation as he typed away his novels, one bar of chocolate per chapter.
Friday, 10th. By some unpredictability in casual conversation we exchange notes on illnesses and physical pain. Simenon knew intimately Professor Pautrier, who once treated me in his clinic in Strasbourg when I was a student. As I describe how one evening I scrambled over a wall six metres high to hear Albert Schweitzer playing Bach at St. Nicholas' church, Simenon also bounds from his chair in sympathetic excitement: 'Wait a minute,' he exclaims, 'it must have been in August 1929 I was also there!' Once I know that music is part of his life I naturally take the tiresome liberties of the addict. From Bach we progress to the name of Georges Enesco, whom Pautrier featured at his beloved annual festival. Like myself, Simenon attended the concert when Enesco and Menuhin played the Bach Double Concerto under Klemperer in 1947. From there, nothing more natural than his playing back, with superb histrionic gusto, a night of Roumanian plum brandy and champagne, consumed in a Bucharest tavern with an ex-minister of justice who, Simenon remembers, had an inexhaustible fund of bawdy stories; the party continued into the small hours under the table. Simenon then 'renders' some of the supreme bores he has met between the two wars. He is as good a mimic as Proust is said to have been. Who will have the persistence to film and thus preserve his impersonations?
Saturday and Sunday are days off. Simenon assures me he never reads his contemporaries, but is this altogether true? He spoke so well about Faulkner and Steinbeck, Graham Greene and Agatha Christie. Last night he told me that he would love to have met Jung, but never had the courage to write. One day he learned that the myth-misted psychologist was a voracious reader of the Maigret novels, as Keyserling was. The two had planned to meet when Jung died suddenly. It was then my turn to tell a story: Jung had a majestic oaktree outside his study window as a lifetime's companion. The moment he died, the tree split and its branches fell. Simenon made no comment, but he seemed to be brooding over it.
Monday, 13th. Simenon is 64 today. Actually he was born at ten minutes to midnight on the 12th, but his mother wanted the date to count as the 13th. I found in Lausanne a rare record which I give him as a present: all the Mozart violin sonatas played by Clara Haskil with Grumiaux; an affectionate thank-you and embrace. Alas, I leave Epalinges with a feeling of frustration the Simenon puzzle very much unsolved. Still, there were moments when we met one another: we shared experiences which bring lovers of music together. For a moment, I flattered myself that I had stumbled upon an idea, new perhaps in Simenonian research: is it because of his love for and involvement in Bach's polyphony that his characters move in such perfect counterpoint? What a subject for a thesis! Returning to John Raymond's recent study, one must salute his plea for a Simenon Repertoire on the same lines as Cerfberr's and Christophe's work on Balzac, or Charles Daudet's and P. A. Spalding's works on Proust.
When saying good-bye Simenon was still intrigued that I had not interviewed him in the usual way...; though I felt that, against my intentions, I had interrogated him all the time. I should have loved to know more about the man and about the artist, but despite his generous hospitality and exuberant conversation the man behind over five hundred novels and twenty noms de plume remained undeciphered. After all, within each one of us as Simenon's novels reveal so obsessively there are so many different people, and every 'truth' has so many different facets! What difference would one more set of hackneyed questions have made anyway? We did talk music, probably something not many people ask him about. Surely more than enough for a week in the country!
From his doorstep, Simenon added laughingly that if I thought that my spoil was insufficient, I should go and meet Professor Carvel Collins in the USA 'qui sait vraiment presque tout ce qu'on a écrit sur moi...'10 A year later, a long distance call between Rochester and Notre-Dame, Indiana, produced the startling news that to find the real expert I should have to return to Europe! As a result the sizeable bibliography on page 62 was made available by M. Claude Menguy, a commerçant11 and collector in Grenoble. One shudders at the thought of what a world Simenon bibliography will be like in the next decade. However, even if Adam's effort will eventually seem a mere beginning, I hope that it will be of help to the increasing number of simenonistes.
"translator's" Notes <ST>
(the original is in English, French phrases translated below)
1. "Simenon this unknown man"