What do you consider to be the principal feature of your character?
I am above all a man who has worked a lot, who continues to work, and who would be lost if he were unable to do so until the end of his days.
Is your need to write in a sense a need to escape from yourself?
I sometimes still believe that, as I often say that after two or three months without a novel I start to feel uncomfortable. But I now wonder if there isn't another reason, a deeper one. I'm from a family of modest means. My grandfather was an artisan, as were my uncles. My father, the "intellectual" of the family, was an insurance agent. My mother boarded and fed four or five students who were the masters of the house.
Do you have a bitter memory of your childhood?
During my adolescence, I rebelled more or less against the taboos that imprisoned me and also against the mediocrity that surrounded me.
At what point did your rebellion find expression in literature?
Toward the age of thirteen or fourteen. I had already decided to write, but I didn't believe that I could earn a living as a novelist, and I thought about a second profession. That is why, when the doctor told me that my father had a very serious illness, I left college to become to reporter.
You have said that if you hadn't become a novelist, you would have been a physician...
Yes, I've said that, but I don't think I would have been able to pursue my studies to the end. Study suffocated me. I welcomed the discipline of journalism like a life-preserver. You see that I was far from having the qualities and self-assurance that people want to assign to me. If there are many failures and tramps in my novels, it is because I believed for a long time and I still sometimes believe that that could have been my fate.
Being neither a failure nor a tramp, do you consider yourself a complete success?
Far from it. I've written novels for forty years. When I was thirty, I announced that I needed to reach forty to write my first great book. At forty, I moved the date up ten years, at fifty, ten more. Today, at sixty-four, I ask for another reprieve.
Now at age sixty-four, do you think you will find peace?
I used to imagine that old men, among whom I have begun to count myself, had acquired a certain wisdom and, if lacking total stability, a certain self-satisfaction. I have discovered nothing of the sort. While aging, one keeps all the shortcomings of childhood and adolescence but, as one doesn't have the same spirit anymore, nor the energy, nor the same indulgence, there are fewer and fewer excuses.
What do you think of the reputation for facility that's been given you?
I write quickly, that is true, because I work on nerves. I am only capable of keeping my characters alive and maintaining the atmosphere that surrounds them for a short time. I used to be able to write for eleven days in a row. And so my novels had eleven chapters. Now I only write seven days and my latest novels have seven chapters.
People speak of a "mechanical" Simenon...
There is, indeed, a certain mechanical something even outside of my novels. Wherever I am, I automatically go to sleep at ten o'clock in the evening and wake up at six o'clock in the morning. There are certain things I do every day at the same time. For example, my four or five walks per day, which have became a necessity. If I feel an inclination to write, I merely have to prolong one of these walks, to make a very long solitary hike into the countryside, and the reflex nearly always works. A vague theme draws itself in my mind, silhouettes, a sort of melodic line.
Do you like to read contemporary authors?
Until I was twenty-eight I was crazy about reading. But the day I began to write my Maigret novels, I made the decision to no longer read contemporary fiction, whatever the temptation, in order not to be influenced. It is not only about being influenced by the style, construction or significance of a book. Suppose that at the moment of writing a novel that has the theme of relations between father and son, I read a book that treats the same topic. I risk abandoning my own project, or intentionally writing it in a different way. I keep up with what is being written, however, because I read all the reviews.
What are you currently reading?
Besides novels, there are numerous fascinating books. For my part, I never get tired of reading correspondence or memoirs, because they illustrate all the aspects of human beings. Sometimes, not because of my profession, but by taste, I happen to read works of medicine or psychiatry. That is what shows me my lack of a base, of solidity, and convinces me as I felt at the age of fifteen that if I had not had the luck to become a novelist, I would have been a failure.
Is there a novel you would like to have signed?
Not a novel. But there is an author I would like to have been: Faulkner, who was able to contain the whole of humanity in a small county in the south of the United States. Before him, Thomas Mann had achieved the same tour de force with his "Magic Mountain".
How do you consider your profession today?
For a long time, I have considered it as a craft, and I see myself gladly as a craftsman, though I would be delighted if our tools were a little heavier and a little more difficult to handle than pencils and a typewriter. In the same way, if I had the strength for it, I would write, not a certain number of days per year, but every morning, in my workshop. On the other hand, there is a certain literary life which is difficult to escape.
What about your friendships?
When I arrived in Paris, at the age of nineteen and half, it was the grand era of Montparnasse (as later there was the grand era of Saint-German-des-Près); I threw myself furiously into this furnace, passing most of my nights at the Rotonde first, then the Dôme, and finally the Coupole and the Jockey. There I made friends with people like Vlaminck, Soutine, Derain, Kissling, etc. I've maintained these friendships along with those of music hall artists and actors.
Now you that you are installed in Switzerland, do you consider ever moving again?
No, I don't envision moving any more, in fact. But when I bought my last house in America, I didn't imagine moving from there either. Yet, one evening while I was watching television I suddenly decided to move back to Europe. Why? Even to my wife I was incapable of giving an explanation.
What other quirks?
I go back upstairs to finish getting dressed. The children leave for school. At 8:10, in my office, I find my secretaries and dictate my correspondence.
How do you see your future?
I hope to write even more novels. I would like to live to be very old, for two reasons:
In his office, |
at times of stress,
he plays with this gold ball,
made to measure to his hand.
As a reader |
he prefers history to novels.