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Georges Simenon

A Brief Biography - History

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Writing in a notebook he kept, Georges Simenon scrawled, on 25 June 1960, just after he had finished a novel, 'my hundred-eightieth-and-some', a reminiscence of his early childhood. 'From the age of seven or eight,' he wrote, 'I have always been fascinated by paper, pencils, india-rubbers, and a stationer's fascinated me more than a sweetshop or a patisserie.' There we see the very beginnings of a writer.
When he was about eleven, he tells us, he managed at last his was a poverty-bound childhood to buy himself a proper notebook, like the ones the students had, not a school exercise-book. In it he set down whatever of others' writings he thought worthy. It was only when he was 15, and on to his second fat notebook, that 'the poetry in it was mine'. At about this time, too, he described to himself a 'corrector of destinies', a figure he thought ought to exist. It was a description he was latter to apply to his Maigret. Then, via journalism he had got into big trouble at his Jesuit school in Liege for editing a mimeographed 'paper' with a caricature on the front of the Principal - he went on to the production, rather than the writing, of commercial short stories, turning them out at an enormous rate. When, at the age of 20, he married a painter he agreed to confine himself to this hack fiction so that she could devote herself to art. But every evening, almost in secret, he would write something 'for myself without any thought of publication.'
Eventually, he sent some of his more ambitious writing to the famous novelist, Colette, then fiction editor of Le Matin. She returned them, and returned them again and again, when he had revised them. Finally, she said to him, 'Look, it is too literary, always too literary.' So he cut out adjectives, adverbs and, as he told an early interviewer for the now famous Paris Review, he cut out, too, 'every word which is there just to make an effect'.
In this way, there was born that pared-down style which is the envy of all of us writers who try to put things across by splattering adjectives and adverbs on to the pages like painters splodging on the impasto. Simenon gives us, instead, pencil sketches which, miraculously, convey so much more. From that advice of Colette's, came what another Francophone crime writer, Thomas Narcejac, has called Simenon's 'nudity of style'.
At last came the day when, feeling his apprenticeship was over, and that the pseudonym of 'Sim' could be abandoned, aged 30, Simenon bought a boat, set out on a canal tour of Holland and wrote, in one sequence within a single year, the first eight Maigret novels, see Simenon bibliography. They were a tremendous success, and understandably so, gaining him an enthusiastic write-up in the 'Paris Letter' of the New Yorker and translation at once into English. Simenon himself was to say later that he dared not re-read them, since he had devoted only a single day to the revision of each of them.
Yet he always wrote his novels, which are almost all remarkably short, in days rather than weeks or months. Some two days only before he was due to begin one, he would pluck from his mind a 'small world' and with it 'a few characters'. Then, in his prime, he would have a medical check-up and, after those two days during which he had made chaotic notes on the back of a manilla envelope, he would begin to write, concentrating with such intensity that after a morning's work he would be totally exhausted, his shirt wringing wet with sweat.
At the end of some 11 or 12 days, there would be a new Maigret or a new one of his 'hard' novels, as he called them.


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