It would be unwise to regard any of Georges Simenon’s three approaches to autobiography as factually accurate. Pedigree (1948) began with the writer drawing a genealogical tree of the Simenon family, but became a book that although obviously based on the writer’s childhood and adolescence in Liège, has a protagonist named Roger. Twenty years later Simenon called it “not really accurate…in spite of what people think and what, out of laziness, I have let them think.” When I Was Old is a notebook record kept from June 1960 until early in 1963, when Simenon was nearing sixty. It appeared in 1970, published because “I have not felt old for a long time” and “no longer feel the need to write in notebooks.” The notebook contains tender pictures of family life, Easter eggs for the children hidden in Denise Simenon’s boudoir, chocolate bunnies bought for everybody by ten-year-old Marie-Jo. It gives an affectionate picture of Denise, called “D” throughout, “who wants so much to make us all happy” but is often unwell, struggling to regain her joy in living. “What did I say to provoke a painful crisis? I don’t know at all. I search in vain…. Words are like drops of acid on a burn.” This, we are now told, is a book that should never have appeared, much of it having been written “to try to keep a woman, my wife, from slipping into the abyss” of alcoholism.
If When I Was Old is not to be trusted, what can one say about Intimate Memoirs? Three times during the building of their twenty-six-room villa in the hills outside Lausanne D took refuge in psychiatric clinics, and in 1964, soon after its completion, the couple parted. In May 1978 Marie-Jo shot herself. Her relationship with her father had been from childhood emotionally, although not physically, incestuous. In her last messages she wrote of “yearning for your arms” and asked that when she was cremated the “wedding ring” he had bought her when she was eight years old should be buried with her. Since her death Simenon, the villa abandoned, his five cars sold, living now in a small Swiss farmhouse in retreat from the world, has been working on these memoirs. They are of little interest as the account of a public life, although Simenon trudges again over ground already much covered, including his early successes, and the occasion in 1940 when he was given no more than two years to live. Famous names are mentioned, Pagnol, Duvivier, Cocteau, Gide, Vlaminck, Derain, Picasso, many others, but they have nothing interesting to say nor is their work discussed. They are merely names on pages. “A great writer, Thornton Wilder,” introduces Simenon as a lecturer at Yale, and disappears thereafter. Simenon kept no diary, but congratulates himself more than once on an “almost stereoscopic memory for events in their tiniest details, for facial expressions, gestures, and the spoken word,” yet the pages of conversation that fill much of the book read like banal fiction. A fragment, one of dozens, runs:
I phoned her, and the phone rang and rang before she answered.
Her contralto voice seemed to move me more than ever on the telephone.
“You’re lucky. I’m just washing my hair. That’s why I couldn’t go out.”
Such conversations are often effectively used in Simenon novels to show the dull course of a life. They have little place in a memoir.
Intimate Memoirs has two purposes. The first is to take revenge on D, who has already published her own scurrilous account of their marriage, the second to emphasize Simenon’s love for all his children, in particular Marie-Jo. The last 140 pages of the book are given to her letters, stories, and poems, some of the latter recorded on cassettes. They show much sensibility but little talent, and express again and again passionate love of her father. Occasionally they are unexpectedly reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s last poems, in their passion and incoherence.
The rebuttal here of D’s account of her relationship with Simenon is a succession of the “So are you’s” and “You did it first’s,” occasionally unintentionally amusing, but in the end wearisome. Did he penetrate ten thousand women as he claims, or is the number a mere twelve hundred as D asserts? When they had a joint encounter with a “little countess” on a transatlantic liner, did penetrate her at once as described here or was the progress more leisurely as in D’s account? Did he persuade D to take part in orgies, or was she keen for the experience? Is it he or she who is an alcoholic, is his indignant denial of her statement that he “worked on whiskey” accurate, and does it much matter since he never drank less than three bottles of wine a day? Did he rant and rave, did her illness include so intense a passion for disinfecting everything that her first act in any hotel was to replace the paper in drawers and closets and vacuum the furniture? What seems certain is that the hard-drinking, randomly sexual life led by these two, combined with his obsessive insistence on neatness and order, must have had an effect on the four children, the eldest born to Simenon’s first wife, the others to D. It says much for the three boys that they survived a life of constant stress. Only Marie-Jo was destroyed.
No regrets about his conduct are voiced by Simenon, who portrays himself always as driven by forces it would be pointless to try to resist. By implication he identifies himself as he has done before with the perfectly natural man, seen elsewhere as the tramp free to sleep under bridges (it was Anatole France who remarked that rich and poor are equally free to sleep under bridges, but only the poor attempt to do so) and here as “the black shiny-skinned man I was able to meet in his tribal home in the heart of the bush country, who…had no idea of what the word ‘money’ meant.” This myth of the noble savage sprang from Simenon’s early days as a reporter, foreseeing very intelligently in the Thirties the end of white rule in Africa.
On the whole one is glad that the memoirs make no apologies. Unhappily they are addressed to the children with a sentimentality that repels because it is untrue to what is revealed of the writer’s character. Each of them is apostrophized before or at birth, and in many like: “Greetings! My Johnny to be! In a month I will be advised of your existence…. Are you happy, Mario-Jo? You who already have papers that make you officially a member of the human race. Was it selfish of me to give you that name, and will you someday hold it against me?…My real life, children, revolves around you, especially you, Marie-Jo.” The treacle is spread thicker elsewhere, perhaps to cover unadmitted guilt. As the colors of Marie-Jo’s life darken and she enters a home for “difficult” children, takes up classical dancing, learns to play the guitar, has one-night stands, tries, to write poems and stories, becomes convinced of her own hopeless instability, the contrast between her agonized letters and Simenon’s conventionally affectionate responses makes painful reading.
He seems unaware of any dereliction. Did he not, after all, buy her a large Paris apartment and give her the money to furnish it? Perhaps it would have been impossible for him to have participated more closely in her life, but she seems to have understood that something not merely sexual was lacking in the relationship. In spite of her inability to make contact with other human beings, her unordered romanticism, her awareness of doom, Marie-Jo retained a certain skeptical shrewdness that made her not just one of the lost, but a distinct and interesting personality. The postscript to her last message suggests that perhaps a few of her ashes might be scattered in the open, “so as not to remain imprisoned completely in something ‘closed’ but to join with the wind and…” She breaks off and adds, surely with irony or self-contempt, “Poetry,’ no doubt!!!”
Simenon continued to write letters to Marie-Jo after her death, as he went through her papers. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the detachment of a professional confessor,” he says at one point, but this is just the quality he does possess. The self-absorption that made him unsatisfactory as a human being gave strength and character to the novels, and Intimate Memoirs has value in showing the way in which he transformed bits of life into fiction. Of course such a process is not unusual, but it is rare to see it so clearly at work. It is apparent in the “hard” at work. It is apparent in the “hard” novels, not the Maigret stories, which become more casual over the years in conception and execution, providing evident justification for their creator’s frequent assertion that they are minor works, even though Maigret is a major character.
Simenon makes a typical comparison between the Maigret stories and his “real” novels, when he says that the difference is like that between going sexually with a professional and making “real” love which “has always something serious, even dramatic, about it.” The division between the two kinds of book is less apparent in the Thirties and Forties when the best Maigrets were written, but by the Sixties Simenon’s need to express the difficulties of his life by putting them into print made the inevitable artificialities of the Maigret books irritating to him, although he continued to write them. Most of the “real” novels in his final decade as a writer of fiction (the last, The Innocents, appeared in 1972) are far more immediately linked to his life than the early stories.
Not that he would admit much of this. The Disappearance of Odile (La Disparition d’Odile, 1971) will, he says, “mistakenly be taken as a reflection of my private life,” and it is true that although Simenon’s daughter left home as Odile does in the book, she did so five months after its publication. The central character, however, is without doubt Marie-Jo, who is seen clearly in her brief bursts of enthusiasm (Odile takes up the guitar), her frequent threats of suicide, her confessional letters, her feeling that she does not belong to ordinary humanity and cannot communicate with other human beings. Odile’s father becomes a minor figure for the purposes of the fiction, her confidant being her brother Bob, but her mother shows the indifference to her daughter ascribed by Simenon to D. The book is not a success because the incestuous love that ordered Marie-Jo’s life is omitted, so that Odile lacks motivation and becomes simply a Sixties’ case history, demanding freedom without knowing what to do with it. Yet she is shown with great sympathy, and with a depth of understanding that excludes the banality and sickly sentiment of the Memoirs.
In November (Novembre, 1969) the Marie-Jo figure is named Laura, and the theme parallels the divisions within the Simenon family. Laura’s mother is an alcoholic, her father takes refuge from emotional problems in his study, her younger brother Olivier has replaced her father as lover of the Spanish maid. (Simenon apparently slept with any willing maid as a matter of course.) Laura herself is in love with a fifty-year-old professor at the hospital where she works, a man with a daughter not much younger than Laura. She speculates about her parents, as the Simenon children must have done about their father and D, who for some years seemed happy. “What went wrong? Or have things always been like this? Were my father and mother never in love, were they never a proper couple? I incline to lay the blame on Mother, who must always have been somewhat unbalanced.” These late Simenons are most convincing where they stick closest to reality, least when the plot demands invention. In November the mother, beside herself with jealousy and drink, kills the maid who is assumed to have gone home to Spain, and Laura after discovering the truth acts as her mother’s accomplice. It is a denouement that we do not believe, because nothing has prepared us for it.
Other stories in this last decade of undoubted decline insist on the connection between ordinary people and violence. Simenon said often that he was himself an ordinary man (which was true in minor matters like dress, pipe smoking, and conventional behavior in public, but is absurd when one considers his career and character) and at the same time, in the interviews with psychiatrists to which he eagerly submitted, proclaimed himself a psychopath kept within the bounds of legally permitted conduct only by the act of writing. The Man with the Little Dog (L’Homme au petit chien, 1964), The Neighbors (Le Déménagement 1967), The Cat (Le Chat, 1966), and The Glass Cage (La Cage de verre, 1971) all seem to be books by a man at the end of his emotional tether. Simenon says with unusual restraint that The Man with the Little Dog is not a happy novel. Like the others it could be called a desperate one.
The four books are uneven in quality (The Cat is the only one on the level of Simenon’s best work), but show similarities far beyond the fact that in three of them the protagonist is named Emile. All are studies in obsessional hatred and frustration. A husband and wife communicate only by notes, buy and cook their food separately, keep it in different cupboards. A man who has killed his wife’s lover and done time for manslaughter lives alone with a little dog and constantly contemplates suicide. A man who has never kissed his wife on the lips or slept in the same bed with her becomes obsessed by a sexually provocative neighbor and strangles her. Another man whose wife still locks the bedroom door after fifteen years of marriage hears through a partition wall a couple saying and doing things almost unknown to him, and tries to enter their world with fatal results.
These people are all middle-aged or old, most live by routine actions which they repeat even though they dislike them; all regard themselves as ordinary or normal but have deliberately raised barriers between themselves and the rest of humanity. The man in The Glass Cage feels secure only in the glass-partitioned office where he is shut away working on the mechanical job of proofreading; the central figure of The Neighbors moves to a new district and to a recently built block of flats, in a useless attempt to improve his relationship with wife and son. Their feelings are summed up by the man with the little dog: “We are all robbers. We all steal lives, or parts of lives, to feed our own lives with.” There are many links with Simenon’s own life in these books. Most concern his love-hate relationship with D, some reach back into his youth, there is even a “charlatan with a diploma” who tells one character, as the doctor told Simenon, that he has only two years to live. All the tales have his characteristic intensity, but it springs from the personal feelings behind them, rather than from the writer’s imagination. Only The Cat shows real inventiveness. Elsewhere a printing works, a travel agency, a new high-rise apartment house, are sketched perfunctorily where in the past they would have been vividly realized.
When one looks back at his total achievement Simenon looks like the most extraordinary literary phenomenon of the age rather than a great creator. To have produced so many books of talent (and here one would include the Maigrets) is remarkable, yet the more one reads the more apparent variety turns into repetition. All the books are short, but it frequently seems that this is not the result of insistent compression as has often been said, but springs rather from the expansion of an idea fit for a short story into a novel. Simenon’s awareness of contemporary life is remarkable, his observation of detail more exact than that of any other living writer, particularly when he deals with travel, weather, lodgings, food and drink, but this mass of detail covers large omissions. A French critic has pointed out that not merely World War II but almost all current history is absent from Simenon’s work. This might not be worth mentioning in relation to another kind of novelist, but must be a limitation in one who has often proclaimed the importance of reality, and stressed his desire “to simplify, to suppress, to make my style as natural as possible” so that the facts of a situation and truths about the people involved in it should come through unhampered by “literature.” Simenon has very little interest in any kind of history, almost none in day-to-day politics (“current events repeat themselves—the same winners, the same losers,” he said dismissively to a journalist). His vague ideas about society are embodied in frequently expressed admiration for the free life of the tramp or the savage, which he has shown no wish to live.
It is not accidental that writing about Simenon’s work so often merges into discussion of his personality, for psychological analysis offers more clues than literary criticism to the nature of his writing. He has often agreed that if he had not been a writer he might have been a criminal. We may be glad that the production of books has been not only successful therapy but a source of pleasure to millions, yet in the end they are not so much about life as about Simenon’s own life. They are what his astonishing memory has retained, often for years, and then reflected in situations which he feels that he might have experienced if…if he had not become a famous writer, Georges Simenon. Many imaginary toads inhabit these real gardens, but they all have Simenon’s face. His feelings might be expressed in a passage at the end of one of his finest novels, The Snow Was Black. Frank, a pimp who became a murderer out of disgust with his own occupation, asks to see Holst, whose daughter he first seduced and then had raped by another man. Holst’s comment is a forgiving one: “It is a difficult trade to be a man.”
July 19, 1984