After 500 Novels and 10,000 Women, Georges Simenon Has Earned His Retirement
For all of his awesome feats as writer, sexual athlete and world traveler, Simenon claims, "I am humble, and humble I shall remain." To the charge that he is an antifeminist womanizer—an accusation based not only on his bedroom indulgences, but on the character of the thoroughly bourgeois Madame Maigret—he points out that he has written about nearly every kind of female imaginable, and that very few of them have been submissive or downtrodden. "A call girl is worthy of just as much respect as a princess," he maintains, "and I certainly think of myself as a feminist." As for the illustrious 10,000, he points out, "All those women were not necessarily seduced by me. I never sought records or anything like that. A journalist came up with that figure by multiplication, figuring on the basis of two or three women a week, and I suppose it's about right. I am insatiable for contact with women."
Simenon's liaisons were counterbalanced, for more than 50 years, by consuming assignations with his typewriter. Whenever he felt a novel coming on (sometimes as often as 12 times a year) he exhibited symptoms that were eerily like pregnancy. Friends swear that he experienced strange cravings and morning sickness, and he admits that when he once turned up with a mysterious malaise, a doctor prescribed "Write a book." Simenon did, and immediately felt better.
His routine for producing a book never varied. First, Simenon would write the names of the characters, plus descriptions, addresses, sometimes even telephone numbers, on a large manila envelope. (The envelope had to be large and manila, which sometimes posed problems, as when Simenon was living among Pygmies in the Congo.) His notes rarely mentioned a plot line; that came to Simenon by revelation, as he wrote. The night before he was ready to begin, he would clean the keys and change the ribbon of his IBM electric typewriter and lay out a selection of pipes, a supply of his special "Coupe Maigret" tobacco, a coffeepot and a large cup, and two folders—one for typescript, the other for carbons. The telephone would be disconnected, the doors to his study closed and hung with "Do Not Disturb" signs filched from New York's Plaza Hotel. His family and servants were accustomed to walking on tiptoe while the Maestro was at his typewriter.
The next morning Simenon would be up at dawn, wearing one of his checked Abercrombie & Fitch sport shirts, ready to work. He poured his popular novels onto the pages in torrents, at the rate of 92 words a minute, never going back, never consulting a dictionary, hardly even pausing to ruminate. By about 10:30 a.m. he would be finished for the day, with a complete 80-page installment ready for his secretary and his sweat-drenched shirt ready to be laundered. The ritual demanded that he wear the same shirt until the novel was finished. After eight or 10 days (the Maigret stories took up to a month), another Simenon would be off to the publisher, written in the crisp prose that marks his work. Afterward Simenon would not so much as glance at page proofs or even at the books that bore his name, just as he has never seen any of the scores of films and TV dramas that have been spun from his stories.
Eight years ago, as he approached his 70th birthday, suffering from vertigo and no longer able to bear the strain, Simenon abruptly stopped writing. He unplugged his typewriter, announced he had retired and changed the designation on his passport from homme de lettres to sans profession. At about the same time, he vacated his 24-room mansion near Lausanne, Switzerland, leaving behind five automobiles, nine servants and all the impedimenta of a multimillionaire's life. He and Teresa, his steady companion since 1968, and Pierre, his youngest son, moved into a duplex in a nearby high-rise, but even that was too pretentious for the simple retirement Simenon had in mind. In 1974, for the 33rd and, he says, last time, Simenon moved again, to a 230-year-old stone house at the foot of the high-rise. The ground floor is a studio where Simenon and Teresa live and sleep; upstairs is the weekend preserve of Pierre, now 20 and a political economy student at the University of Geneva. The studio's French doors open onto a small patch of lawn, with a garden and a gigantic 300-year-old cedar of Lebanon that has been designated a municipal monument.
"Everything began at age 13," says Simenon, who will be 77 next month. "That's when I started writing, started smoking the pipe and lost my chastity. I had been a choirboy until then, but I never went back to church after that." His fall from grace came unexpectedly, during a summer vacation in the Belgian countryside near Liège, Simenon's home. "This older lady—she was 16 at the time—was from a school nearby, and was staying in the same peasant's house as me. One day we went out to play in the woods, and she asked me to pick her a bouquet of holly. Naturally, the best branches were the highest up. I scrambled up the tree in my shorts, and got scratched all over. When I came down I was covered with blood, but I had some beautiful branches of holly. 'Oh, you're all bloody,' she said. 'Lie down.' She went to the river with her handkerchief and began to caress me all over as she wiped off the blood. Then she got on top of me. I didn't know what was happening to me, but I couldn't be a Christian after that. That night I went past her bedroom and it started again. We spent the whole vacation like that."
Little Georges was equally precocious academically. To supplement her husband's meager income as an insurance agent, Mother Henriette Simenon turned her house into a pension for Liège university students. Most were Russians and Poles, who cordially despised each other but adopted Georges as a kind of mascot. At an age when most children would be struggling with their first readers, young Simenon was leafing through Gogol, Gorky and Dostoevski. In grade school, and later at St. Servais, a Jesuit secondary school, he was always at the head of the class. Only once did he receive less than a perfect grade for a composition. On that occasion, he ghosted a paper for a classmate and was awarded a zero, an experience that forced him to two conclusions: (1) a good writer's style always shows through, and (2) never try to fool the Jesuit fathers.
When he was 16, Georges' studies, and his childhood, came to a sudden end when the family doctor took him aside and told him his father had no more than two or three years to live. He suggested that young Simenon start learning a trade to help support his mother and younger brother, Christian. Henriette apprenticed Georges to a baker, but that lasted only a week. "I walked out," Simenon recalls, "and started around the city to see what I could do. I had always wanted to be a writer, so I went in and presented myself at a newspaper called the Gazette de Liège. I was wearing my first pair of long pants." The teenager was an instant success, though his developing anti-Establishment views clashed with the conservative, Catholic policies of the Gazette. He wrote most of his stories in bars and nightclubs. Even so, he soon had his own column and, before abandoning journalism, interviewed Emperor Hirohito, Leon Trotsky, Winston Churchill and other world figures.
At 17, Simenon wrote his first novel, Au Pont des Arches, and published it privately under a pseudonym. It would be another nine years and 16 pen names before he would finish a novel that he considered worthy of bearing his name. Meanwhile he pursued girls, served a brief mandatory hitch in the Belgian army, and became engaged to Tigy (née Régine) Renchon, a painter who was the daughter of a furniture manufacturer. When Georges was 19, his father fulfilled the doctor's bleak prophecy, and Simenon went off to Paris, where he found a part-time job as secretary to a French writer. He returned to Liège only long enough to marry Tigy, who announced, to his chagrin, that she had no intention of tying herself down by bearing his children. She clung to her resolution for nearly 20 years before she finally relented and brought forth a son, Marc, now 40 and a French film director.
In Paris the young couple haunted the cafes with other artists and writers, and took endless walks around the city. "All my books have come to me while I was walking," says Simenon, who has never forsaken his daily strolls. He discovered he could easily make a living as a hack writer, and began churning out Niagaras of prose—serialized novelettes, short stories, novels—at a rate that bewildered editors and publishers. He worked constantly to sharpen his direct, spare style, always bearing in mind the dictum of one of his earliest editors, Colette: "No literature!" In 1928 alone he wrote 40 books, but he does not consider them a part of his oeuvre. "Before you learn to sing," he once said, "you must first learn the scales."
By the time he was 24, Simenon was wealthy enough to indulge his passion for travel. He and Tigy set off on a tour of the canals of France and the Low Countries, with their Great Dane and their maid, a Norman girl named Boule. Georges' typewriter went along, too, and Inspector Maigret was born in 1929, in the Dutch seaport of Delfzijl. (The great event is commemorated there today by a six-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of the famous policeman, looking every bit like Simenon's brother.) The Maigret books were a new kind of crime fiction, presenting a policeman as a human being, with wits and weaknesses, and his adversaries as ordinary people, not black-hearted villains. "The professional criminal doesn't interest me," says Simenon. "What I look for is a man—a good father, a good husband—who from one day to the next becomes a criminal. Why? What happened? That's the question that Maigret asks himself with each case." Simenon did not give his famous commissaire a Christian name, Jules, until the 30th novel, Maigret a New York. It marked the inspector's first venture across the Atlantic.
The Simenons themselves journeyed to the U.S. and Canada in 1945, and stayed for a decade. In 1949 Georges fathered a second son, Jean, but the mother was not Tigy. She was Denise Ouimet, a pretty French-Canadian woman who came into the family circle as a secretary and remained as a mistress. Tigy tolerated the ménage à trois for a while, but Simenon eventually obtained a divorce. In the course of their own stormy 20-year marriage, Denise and Georges had two more children, Marie-Georges and Pierre. Their relationship ended (although they never officially divorced) after the gentle Teresa, 23 years younger than Georges, was hired as a housekeeper, and wound up in her employer's arms like her predecessor. Denise did not go quietly, however; she wrote a vengeful memoir, Un Oiseau pour le Chat (A Bird for the Cat), in which she described Simenon's infidelities in lubricious detail. Not long afterward their fragile daughter, Marie-Georges, then 25, committed suicide. Today, forever embittered, Georges Simenon will not pronounce his second wife's name.
Otherwise, life with Teresa appears serene. They are inseparable. They take a daily promenade together and eat their meals on a precise schedule. Then, every afternoon at five, they sit down in the studio over a cassette recorder while Georges begins another dictée—a rambling memoir. The writer has never been able to abandon storytelling, and the dictées have already been turned into 21 semi-autobiographical books, with no end in sight. "This is the hardest part of the day," sighs Teresa, for she is not allowed to speak after the recitation begins. "Maybe you should start running after the girls again," she suggests teasingly. "Ah, no!" Simenon replies, patting her affectionately. "Now I have found one who replaces them all. That's enough for me."