Compulsion

The Iron Staircase

by Georges Simenon, translated by Eileen Ellenbogen
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 176 pp., $7.95

The Girl with the Squint

by Georges Simenon, translated by Helen Thomson
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 163 pp., $7.95

The Family Lie

by Georges Simenon, translated by Isabel Quigly
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 146 pp., $7.95

Maigret’s Pipe

by Georges Simenon, translated by Jean Stewart
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 320 pp., $8.95

His life is obsessional, far beyond that of most people or most writers. Everything is arranged in advance and happens on time. He is bothered by a pencil out of place in his study, looks for the known reflection of light in a particular place on a piece of furniture, and is disturbed if it has moved. And he withdraws from the outside world into his house and his family, just as within the house he withdraws into his study. His wife D, the three children living at home, what more does one want? The nurse, maids, secretaries in the house are necessary, but they are also an irritant if they intrude at the wrong times. The children are loved, but still he is disturbed “if they burst in when I’m alone with my wife,…for instance when we’re having coffee after lunch.” Food is taken at exact hours, give or take five minutes. D, his wife, has her occupations too, or perhaps they should be called her duties. “The least slip-up, the least whim, spoils everybody’s schedule.”

This obsessive need for organization extends to the work. The “Do Not Disturb” signs, the four dozen newly sharpened pencils, pad of yellowish paper, envelope giving the names, ages, and addresses of characters, these are all necessary preliminaries to beginning a book. Another disagreeable necessity is physical sickness, expressive of his deep anxiety about the work to be undertaken. Then eight or ten days of total absorption in the book until it is done. Or perhaps no luck. “A little shame, I admit, at D, the children, the staff, seeing me come out of my office before time.”

With the book finished, celebration. An urgent, and again obviously obsessional, need for sex. After completing one book he goes to a night club with D, and there takes the telephone numbers of four performers. The need for them is not emotional, but “a necessary hygienic measure” purging those “dreams and vague urges…which I believe poison most marriages.” Emotion is reserved for D, this routine sex is “a kind of inoculation.” It is indeed only a faint echo of the sexual activity of his youth when he was at times “like a dog in rut.” This need is, he thinks, perhaps not for the mere act of sex, it is part of a desire to “penetrate humanity….”

This account of Georges Simenon’s activities when he was still writing novels (he has now given up fiction, but dictates book after book of journals) comes from When I Was Old, the notebooks he kept between 1960 and 1962. He was nearing sixty, and suffering traumatic fears and doubts, which left him after this period. The novel Pedigree, written twenty years earlier, is generally taken to reflect the reality of Simenon’s early life, although he has said himself that it may be much too literary, and also that it is not really accurate. Pedigree is an essay in concealment rather than …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.