The End of the Tether

Intimate Memoirs, including Marie-Jo's Book

by Georges Simenon, translated by Harold J. Salemson
Helen and Kurt Wolff/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 815 pp., $22.95

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…

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