Friday, September 4, 2009

A peasant’s mind

Georges Simenon, one of the most prolific and successful writers of the 20th century and the creator of Maigret, died 20 years ago today. He published hundreds and hundreds of works of fiction; and he also penned a few autobiographical works. One of these was based on some notebook diaries he kept in the 1960s. The New York Times said of the book that it reveals Simenon’s mind to be like a peasant’s with its emphasis on ‘the tangible - family, sex, work, health, domestic routine and bourgeois comforts minus bourgeois morality’.

Simenon was born in 1903 in Liege, Belgium, and was already working on a local newspaper by the age of 16. When his mother died in 1922, he moved to Paris and was able to make a living by writing short stories and popular novels under many different pen names. The famous fictional detective Maigret appeared in the very early 1930s in Pietr-Le-Letton (in English, The Strange Case of Peter the Lett), a novel published under Simenon’s own name. In time, he would publish around 100 novels and novellas featuring Maigret. For ten years after the war Simenon lived in the United States, then returned to France in 1955, before settling in Switzerland. He died - peacefully in his sleep - 20 years ago today on 4 September 1989 in Lausanne. More biographical information is available at Wikipedia and Famous Authors.

Simenon is almost as famous for his private life as he is for his novels. As a young man in Liege and then in Paris, he was no stranger to the seamier aspects of city night-life. He married Régine Renchon (Tigy) in 1923, but apparently was also involved with their housekeeper Henriette Liberge, who travelled and moved with them. He had many other liaisons, most famously with the American actress Josephine Baker. Simenon and Tigy had one son, Marc, born in 1939. They divorced in the late 1940s, and Simenon remarried in 1950 to Denyse Ouimet, a French Canadian he met in the US. They had three children, but Simenon’s womanising continued unabated. They separated in 1964. By then, Simenon had become involved with his housekeeper, Teresa, who stayed with him till his death. In the early 1970s, Simenon claimed to have had sex with over 20,000 women.

Simenon may be famous as a crime writer and as a womaniser, but he’s hardly known at all as a diarist. Yet in 1970, he published Quand J’étais Vieux, a collection of diary notebooks written in the early 1960s. This was translated by Helen Eustis into English and then published as When I Was Old by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in New York, and by Hamish Hamilton in London.

Paul Theroux, an American author, wrote about Simenon recently (March 2008) for The Times Literary Supplement, and mentioned his diaries. ‘Incredibly,’ Theroux wrote, ‘for such a productive soul, Simenon was at times afflicted with writer’s block, and though in him it seemed almost an affectation, it perturbed him to the extent that he used it as an occasion to keep a diary, to recapture his novel-writing mood.’ In the diary, Theroux noted, Simenon tended to write about the things that obsessed him, such as money, family, his mother, and other writers. Theroux also pointed out how Simenon wrote in his diary about his friend Henry Miller, another American author, one much preoccipied with the subject of sex, and how Miller envied Simenon’s life.

More informatively, The New York Times published a review of When I Was Old in 1971 - which is available online (though may require free registration). The review, written by by Gerald Walker, quotes from Simenon’s own preface: ‘In 1960, 1961, and 1962, for personal reasons, or for reasons I don’t know myself, I began feeling old, and I began keeping notebooks. I was nearing the age of sixty. Soon I shall be sixty-seven and I have not felt old for a long time. I no longer feel the need to write in notebooks.’

Simenon’s novels are built around passion, crimes of passion, violence, Walker says, but the Simenon in this diary abhors violence (such as in Algeria, the Congo, Vietnam) and shows himself ‘a passionately devoted family man constantly trying to clear the decks to spend time with his young children and his Canadian second wife’. Being Simenon, though, he is a family man with a difference. He may deeply love his wife, Walker explains, but he is still subject to ‘a lifelong compulsion to have sexual relations with every attractive woman he sees’. He refers to one afternoon, for example, when he called four successive women to his hotel suite while his wife packed their suitcases in the next room.

As revealed in these notebooks, Walker says, ‘Simenon’s is a shrewd, lucid mind, not a deep one; a peasant’s mind, one is tempted to say, with its emphasis on the tangible - family, sex, work, health, domestic routine and bourgeois comforts minus bourgeois morality. He has small regard for ideas.’ He quotes Simenon saying ‘a novelist must live to be an old man, as old as possible, in order to see mankind from every point of view, that of the adolescent, the old man. . . . One must have led a certain number of lives.’ And then Walker concludes: ‘There are lives enough in the man’s diary for any reader.’

Here are few extracts from When I Was Old which can be found on The Maigret Forum, a website maintained by Steve Trussel. The first three are from the start of the first of the diary notebooks, but the last three are quoted on The Maigret Forum without a date.

25 June 1960
‘Four days ago - on the 21st - I finished a novel, number hundred-eighty-something, that I had wanted to be easy. Now on the first day I started to write, towards the 9th or 10th page, I’d had the sensation that it would be futile to go on to the end, that it would never come to life.

I was alone, as always when I write, in my office with the curtains closed. I walked around the room five or six times, and if it hadn’t had a sort of humanness, I would have torn up those few pages and waited a few days to begin a different novel.

This happens two or three times a year. This particular time, I was moved to tears. Then, without too much confidence, I returned to my machine. I think it may be the best of the Maigrets. I’ll know when I start editing. Since the Cannes Festival, I’ve wanted to write a novel filled with sun and tenderness. I had one in my head, for which the characters, the setting, were ready. Of that, I’ve only written three pages. It wasn’t a Maigret. The main characters were in their 30s. I realized later that in Maigret in Society, which in a sense replaced the abandoned novel, I expressed the same tenderness. . . but with characters who were all between 65 and 85.’

27 June 1960
‘Spent yesterday, a typical Sunday, with a Match photographer. He’s here for four days, after which he will be joined by a journalist for what they call a feature story. It’s the fourth that Match has published in seven or eight years about me and my family.’

2 July 1960
‘The Match photographer, who lived four or five days in the bosom of my family, had not known me before he came but left as an old friend. The writer, theoretically more ‘cultured’, but who managed to ask hundreds of impertinent questions, came to do his work, no more, and add an article, a victim, to his collection.’

‘Psychiatry fascinates me, and perhaps as a result, so does medicine. Maigret wanted to become a doctor. And me? I never thought of it when I was young. Later, yes. But without regret, and as if by chance most of my friends have been or are still doctors.’

‘A fascinating dinner for me, yesterday, with half a dozen psychiatrists. . . Almost all of them seeking to reassure themselves, to be sure that they’re on the right track, that they’re doing something useful. . . And for me, a chance to reassure myself. I think that more and more, since the beginning, moreover, my characters are sort of heading to the point where the psychiatrists will take over. That is to say, my clients, after a few more steps, will become theirs.’

‘I ask myself if the essential characteristic of murder isn’t its being illogical, which would explain why in the Middle Ages it was blamed on demons who took possession of a human being, and why today we call more and more upon psychiatry. Now psychiatry, concerned less with lesions and trauma than with behaviour, doesn’t it also escape logic?’

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