LUC SANTE: The legend of Georges Simenon expresses itself in statistics: four hundred books, ten thousand women, half a million pencils, some exalted quantity of pipes. The books have gone through staggering numbers of editions, have been translated into every possible language, made into some sixty movies and innumerable items for television. The Simenon legend is industrial, like one of those nineteenth-century literary factories, of which Balzac and Dumas come most readily to mind. Unlike Dumas, however, Simenon could never be accused of running an atelier in which underlings came up with plots and undertook the less glamorous portions of the labor. He may have relied upon typists and secretaries, some of them cleverly disguised as wives, but every word he wrote originated in the fevered recesses of his own mind.
The first thing I ever knew about Simenon was that he’d written an entire novel while enclosed in a glass booth in full view of the public. I heard this from my father, and for some reason I was persuaded that he himself had witnessed the stunt, which did not seem implausible since our town was only ten or fifteen miles from Simenon’s native city of Liège in southern Belgium. The feat never actually occurred, although a Parisian publicist nearly talked Simenon into pulling it off in the mid 1930s. My father was not the only person who believed it had really happened. By that point, Simenon was publishing three to twelve books a year, which must have seemed leisurely to him after the frantic pace of his first professional decade. In 1929, he had achieved his peak of annual production: forty books under an assortment of pseudonyms.
Perhaps because he wished to dispel the notion that he employed subcontractors, Simenon allowed his method to be known. On the other hand, maybe he told interviewers about it just because the method itself was so prodigious. On a large yellow envelope, he would, over the course of a week or two, write the names of his characters and whatever else he knew about their lives or backgrounds, their ages, where they’d gone to school, their parents’ professions. The envelope might additionally contain street maps of the novel’s setting, although it would never say a word about the book’s eventual plot. Once he was satisfied with these notes, he would enter the hermitage of his study and knock off the book at the rate of a chapter every morning, optimally in a week or ten days. After finishing, he would be drained, battered by violent psychological storms and concurrent physical symptoms. It was a bit as if he’d given birth. It should be noted though that he could write books this way even when he was ostensibly on vacation.
Not all his books were written so quickly, although the majority of them were. In this and many other countries, Simenon is best known for his detective novels featuring the agreeable and placable, slow-moving, intuitive, preternaturally observant Inspector Maigret. But among the novels he published under his own name, the Maigret books are outnumbered nearly two to one by the titles he called romans durs, hard novels—hard in the sense that they are uncomfortable. In nearly all these books, a character, generally someone who’s been leading a humdrum, predictable existence, is confronted by an unexpected occurrence, setting in motion a series of events that will test his limits, an experience he may not survive. These books feature a broad range of characters who are subjected to an apparently unlimited inventory of psychological torments. You imagine Simenon selecting a pedestrian seen in passing somewhere near one of his homes or on one of his many travels, speculating as to what that person’s internal and external life must be like, and then devising a suitable chamber of horrors in which to release his captive specimen. Because Simenon was so prolific and so various, it is difficult to render a concise account of his work and impossible to cite any one book as typical of him. His early, pseudonymous output is pretty crude; and several of the earliest Maigrets feature plot turns that would not seem out of place in a Philo Vance mystery. But even then, in the early 1930s, he was capable of writing emotionally demanding novels that drive the knife deep into the reader’s heart.
Simenon, the son of first-generation petit-bourgeois parents who took in lodgers to supplement the family income and whose idea of higher education was limited to secondary school with the Christian Brothers, entered his literary career with a distinctly working-class idea of the trade. It was a means of living by one’s wits, related to showbiz and not too far from simple hustling, and it required a constant output with no pretensions and no looking back. Somewhere along the line, though, he made a signal discovery: Much of what passes for literature merely consists of studies of people in their clothing—that is, people operating within the rigid confines of social codes. He, on the other hand, wanted to write about the naked human, who is forced by circumstances to confront life without the usual protections. Those same social codes made him an outsider and kept him one, even at the height of his fame. He had served his apprenticeship writing pulp fiction and had cemented his reputation with detective novels. Furthermore, he was Belgian. He also lacked a writing style detectable by the belletristic apparatus of the prewar era. Therefore, he was forever barred from being accepted as a man of letters by the people in Paris who decided such things. André Gide was his great admirer and sponsor. At first Simenon chafed at this restriction, the first symptom of his discontent being that he packed Inspector Maigret off to rural retirement in 1934. Although he bowed to popular demand and brought him back eight years later and spent the last quarter century of his career alternating metronomically between the Maigret and the hard novels, which he also called romans-romans, novel novels.
The latter are so numerous—there are 117 of them—that I confess to not having read even half, but they include many that should be better known. Dirty Snow is a supremely bleak evocation of the horrors of the Second World War and the chaos of its aftermath and an existential endgame that can be usefully compared with the works that Sartre and Camus were issuing at the same time. Almost immediately after the publication of Dirty Snow, he came out with Pedigree, an autobiographical novel of his youth before and during the First World War, a massive book three or four times the size of most of his others, which achieves an epic grandeur of thought and a beaverish accumulation of mundane details. It may be his masterpiece, or one of them, although it’s never been published in the United States. And those two books merely represent his output for the fourth quarter of the year 1948.
Simenon’s work, when you begin to delve into it, is unlike that of any other author except perhaps Balzac. It seems less like the labor of one person than the entire hitherto unsuspected national literature, not just in its size, but in the range of its approaches and preoccupations. He may be the most famous unknown writer of the twentieth century.
From Leonardo’s Bicycle by Paco Ignaio Taibo (translated by Martin Michael Roberts)
He deceived the concierge by telling her he was fifty-two on the day he turned fifty-three. A pickup truck with loudspeakers passed by below his apartment window, beginning the election campaign. He left the faucets open so that the water would run for some time while he was shaving himself, as if the year he had pilfered would go down the drain along with the dirty shaving foam. Throughout the morning he had listened to dire old and scratched records by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, pretending to work on a new novel. He ate canned tuna fish with mayonnaise, and some whole wheat bread that was slightly moldy.
It was only when, alone, he switched on the TV to see a ladies’ basketball game from the U.S. college league that José Daniel Fierro found the peace he had lost and felt he had discovered a worthwhile way to celebrate the ominous birthday that was bringing him closer to old age.
His liking for American lady basketball players was the result of a succession of accidents, all with marked soap-opera-like overtones, admissible in the case of people unlike him, those who always emerged unscathed from harsh reality. If he had not broken his ankle while walking down the steps in the National Film Theater one night after a film lecture . . . If he had not installed cable television in his apartment in order to keep his plaster cast company . . . If he had not spent three months struggling with the writing of a novel that, frankly, did not exist. If it were not for these twists of fate, he would never have discovered his latest sexual perversion. Because faithfully following women’s basketball games from the American college league—or the ladies, as the commentators preferred to call them—was not a sporting passion, much as José Daniel tried to fool his puritan subconscious, saying that if some liked boxing, horse racing, or sumo wrestling, then he . . .
It was sex pure and simple and, moreover, it was sporting sex, platonic, long-distance, and minority sex. In a country where there are so many majority sports obsessions, being in love with a lady American basketball player was a minority sporting passion, a tacky one really, without any allies to call on the phone to comment on the games, and that seemed to reduce everything to a masturbation substitute. . . .
“And you can see Jackie O’Brien’s D-cup when she reaches out to catch the rebound . . . And you can even see her pubic hairs when she makes that tremeeeeendous leap in the air.”
It was sex-at-a-distance. Three weeks previously, the commentators in Houston, who José Daniel admired at a distance, had picked the Texas Longhorns as their favorite team, and he had followed them intently from that moment on.
“And slipping as she loses her balance, we see twenty-year-old Ludmilla Washington landing with her ass against the basket uprights . . . And she likes it! Ladies and gentlemen, she likes it!”
Thanks to the discovery of the Texas Longhorns, José Daniel began to write down the times of all the games on TV and, faithful as could be, while buses went by on the street with their exhaust pipes open and the sweet-potato sellers’ carts whistled past, he would drag his broken leg over to the brown chair his ex-wife left behind, put a six pack of Tecate to one side, and begin to watch the American college girls.
“And just as Eloisa Waterfront throws the ball while she closes in on the enemy’s turf, she sets up a terrible wobbling in her crotch, with her vaginal fluids lubricating the fabulous pace that brings her up to the basket, alternately lifting her buns up, one-two, one-two, bringing her to the edge of orgasm, and making her give the ball away, while she concentrates on coming, ladies and gentlemen, but she takes no notice, she does not care . . . That’s how you get to heaven, baby. Thirty-six to twenty-nine, you stupid bitch.”
The Texas Longhorns were a marvel of extramural and (José Daniel added in his spoken journal) uterine fury. Passion, pure and simple. They fought for each ball as if their lives depended on it, they argued with referees as if they were permanently suffering from premenstrual tension, they celebrated each basket with howls of enthusiasm, made fun of their opponents, blew kisses to their acne-faced adolescent fans in the front rows, missed easy shots, and scored impossible ones.
He adored them.
But that day, his damned birthday, with fifty-three years weighing him down, he was about to see a sight that would change the next few months of his life and, to a certain extent, his whole life (as José Daniel would like to have said in a novel, writing like Victoria Holt). First, the phone rang. Then Karen Turner entered the fray, and the cameras gave the writer, who rose hobbling from his chair, a big close-up of her freckled face.
And then, as Jose Daniel Fierro hesitated between answering the phone and sitting down again, drawn by the electromagnetic pull of the new player’s face, the writer, condemned to the loneliness of his room by a broken foot, watched the girl smiling at him, and went completely crazy. As an old soap opera had once said: “He lost his powers of reason over an illusion.”