In the damp dust two children played, their fleeting laughter hardly disturbing the overriding tranquility of the northern Sunday. In this old district of Liège, in the little Place du Congrès, a heavy gray Buick, spattered with the mud of a long journey, had stopped silently. The man jumped from the car and advanced to the middle of the square, where he seemed to hesitate a moment. Then he smiled and headed suddenly toward a bench. The woman who came with him leaned toward him.
"It was here?"
He kept the silence a long time, as if lost in a dream.
At the same moment, throughout the city, journalists searching for him were running from hotel to hotel, harassing desk clerks. Since the day before, the newspapers had headlined his arrival.
For Belgium, the return of Georges Simenon was like a national holiday. For the novelist it was a pilgrimage to the places of his youth, after fifteen years of exile.
By a thousand ruses he had stolen some minutes from the official time-table, to come and sit on the bench of the peaceful square where the young Simenon had come to play after school.
To this silent examination of his past there was only one witness, his wife Denise, whom he had married in America. She was his companion on this 3,600-mile trek in search of his memories.
In a short while, Simenon will be recognized. The crowd will enlarge, will accompany him from alley to alley in his hunt for the settings of his youth.
The Belgian Academy awaits him. In the Free Republic of Outre-meuse, they are finishing enormous pies for the solemn banquet. The police contingent is already in place around the memorial monument where Simenon is to lay down a wreath. In a few moments he will be trapped in the pitiless vise of celebrity.
But there still remain for him two important acts to accomplish: to buy an ice cream from the itinerant merchant on the Boulevard of the Constitution, and to secretly devour, on a porch, a small cone of French fries. His wife does the same. Almost devoutly. They are the same ices and the same fries that constituted, twenty-five years earlier, the bulk of meals of the young messenger boy of the Liège Gazette.
A farce of a lawsuit
And now Simenon will deliver himself up to Belgium, which welcomes him with an enormous farce, as colorful as a Breughel. Before even sitting down to his first banquet, Simenon has met the shade of Commissioner Maigret. On Monday morning he was summoned to the courthouse of Verviers, close to Liège. And there again, it was childhood memories that were called to witness. In his book Pedigree, where Simenon tells of his youth, there is mention of a young student named Chaumont, described as a lady's man, who was particularly taken with a maid, a certain Cora.
"Cora cries out," wrote Simenon, "it is Chaumont who pursues her..." And yet the young man was the son of traders in cloth for the clergy. Simenon tells further that the rascal Chaumont had once slipped a skeleton into a damsel's bed, frightening her. The student Chaumont is today the respectable Doctor Chaumont, practicing in Verviers. He considers himself to have attained honor and moral integrity to the extent of asking for 500,000 Belgian francs (more than 4 million French francs) in damages and interest from the author of Pedigree.
For such a serious affair, Simenon had enlisted M. Maurice Garçon, an attorney specializing in literary suits. Seizing the subpoena of Doctor Chaumont, M. Garçon read this strange sentence in court:
"Simenon presented me as a womanizer and skirt unlifter."
M. Garçon raised his arms to mark his astonishment.
"Gramatically," he exclaimed, "unlifter" expresses the opposite of "lifter". The one that unlifts, puts back what was lifted. M. Chaumont has thus accomplished a highly moral action that continues to honor him forty years later. Of what then does he complain?"
The business has been postponed until May 15, but it is unlikely that Doctor Chaumont will prevail. [note: Chaumont did, in fact, win the suit. See the section from Marnham.]
Pedigree is the only one of Simenon's 400 novels that has brought him judicial problems. He had written this book of memories in 1941, like a will. His physician had given him less five years to live, on the condition however, that he abstain from drinking, smoking and practically from eating. This regimen nearly did him in, until a vigorous whiskey cure saved him at the last moment. On the advice of another physician he recently tried to give up his pipe, but he became so belligerent that his wife implored him to go back to it.
Another "drug" is painfully missing today for Simenon. For the three months since he left America, where he established himself at the end of the war, he hasn't written a line. He has confessed to his friends that it makes him terribly uncomfortable.
Not only hasn't he written, but during his three months in Europe, he has had to endlessly discuss literature, an activity which he abhors.
"It is good for me in America," he says, "because there are no literary cafés over there where intellectuals sit and talk of the novels they will never write."
For two years the American novelist Erskine Caldwell was his neighbor. They merely shouted "Hello" two or three times when passing in the street.
"You are mad," Pagnol wrote to him one day, "you will surely die of boredom. You are living in a documentary."
"Here, my milkman calls me George," Simenon replied simply.
It is nearly incredible to suggest that the world's most prolific novelist (he writes a novel in eleven days) hardly writes at all. Neighbors of his farm in Connecticut see him diving into his pool, fishing in the river, riding on horseback over fields or tramping the countryside with his eldest son Marc, whose passion is catching snakes. (For his fourteenth birthday Simenon has decided to give him a boa constrictor.) He apparently leads the life of the father of a "sporting" family. The Simenon factory doesn't function during business hours. It operates at dawn.
It is an infant, his son Johnny, age two, that awakens him. In the nursery, a microphone is installed close to the child's bed. In the parents' room an amplifier transforms Johnny's smallest sighs into growls. At 6:00 in the morning he is hungry, and he howls. In Simenon's room a roar swells. His wife rises hurriedly to warm a bottle. Simenon will shut in himself into his sound-proof office. He closes all the curtains in order to isolate himself more completely: "If I saw that it was beautiful outside, I couldn't describe a rainy landscape," he asserts.
His worktable is an enormous piece of Renaissance furniture with sculpted feet, that he has carried with him for twenty years in his 26 successive residences. He gets to his machine at 6:30 and stops at 8:30. He is finished; he has written a chapter. This phenomenon had, before the war, so struck the director of a big Parisian newspaper, that he had proposed to Simenon to write under the eyes of the public, in a shop window on the boulevard.
During these two frantic hours, he literally enters a trance. He claims that he participates in the life of his characters to the point of mimicking their gestures. When they drink, he drinks. When they are sick, he stuffs himself with pills. It is not rare that he breaks his typewriter while composing scenes of violence.
"My wife," he says, "knows the rhythm of my novel pretty much according to the noise of my machine. It sometimes happens that I come out of my workroom completely naked because, as I write, I become so hot that I remove my clothes piece by piece."
One clean shirt per novel
Mlle Boulle, his maid, who has been in his service for thirty years and who is the first reader of all his novels, for her opinion, revealed a strange mania of Simenon's. He cannot proceed with a novel unless attired precisely like the day he began it. During the ten or fifteen days of creation, he wears the same shirt, the same trousers. Mlle Boulle oversees this scrupulously. If his shirt were accidentally sent to the laundry, the novel would be compromised.
During his seven years in America he wrote 35 books. Some reached 500,000 copies in the English translation. Simenon texts are often suggested to students of French in American universities.
Simenon is now approaching the last stage of his career, the one that must logically lead to the Nobel prize in literature. "I will have it at forty-five", he declared in 1938 to a journalist. Today he is forty-nine. But the war years, explains his publisher, don't count.
At sixteen, he had already decided that he would write. He even considered joining the clergy, thinking that such a career would be filled with ample leisure time for writing. He gave up the idea following a love affair. After beginnings in journalism Simenon launched himself boldly into the serial industry.
He first began to write with the exclusive goal of making money. At twenty, he put out two popular novels a week at the rate of 80 pages per day. His first 250 books were signed with multiple pseudonyms, from the noble "Georges d'Isly" to the more familiar "Gom Gutt" and "Poum and Zette". He has retained something from this period: most characters in his novels have a single objective, to gain money, as those of Stendhal are driven by ambition.
250 novels, 10,000 stories, such is the balance sheet of this assembly-line production period. Simenon possessed at 25 a white car with a black driver and a castle in the Vendée with an oyster park and a greenhouse of orchids. He had a truly enormous funerary stone brought there, with the intention of building himself a mausoleum. At night he prowled the beach with two Turkish wolves in leash, proudly playing the bagpipes. He even had a 100-foot yacht.
To launch the Maigrets, the first books that he signed with his own name, he organized the famous Anthropometric Ball, at the entrance of which they took the fingerprints of each of the guests.
His publishers were doubtful of success.
"These are not," they said, "detective novels. They aren't scientific. There is no handsome leading man, no heroine. There are no attractive characters and they finish badly since no one ever gets married. You won't have a thousand readers."
Today, there is a Maigret program on American television. And they say that President Roosevelt once distributed a collection of Maigrets to his bodyguards, advising them to learn from the methods of the famous commissioner.
Simenon now has on sale under his own name 150 novels in all the languages of the civilized world.
He gains more in royalties than any other author (only Peter Cheney beat him on this score). 38 movies have been based on his works. At the moment five are being shown in America, France and England.
Critics discuss the place that literary history will reserve for him: "He is a fool of genius," declared the philosopher Keyserling. And Simenon comments modestly: "I am unintelligent. I don't imagine. I only have an excellent memory."
"Simenon is a novelist of genius and the only true novelist we have in literature today." These last words are André Gide's.
translation: Stephen Trussel
Photos: Daniel Filipacchi