“Bonjour John, I’m Stan,” I said.
In the luxurious, old-world charm of the Métropole Hotel in Brussels I had a rendez-vous with John or “Johnny” Simenon, a former film producer and—since the early 90s— his father Georges Simenon’s literary executer.
John Simenon was 65, bald, unshaven, jeans, boots, open shirt. First thing he said, “Did you read my father’s books?”
“All of them, John,” I replied, “well, nearly all of them, two hundred titles at least, most but not all the romans durs, or psychological novels, and every Inspector Maigret. I read them at least twice in four languages.” John Simenon recorded the conversation on his iPhone.
“Congratulations,” he said, “you’ve read more of my father’s books than I did. I read a hundred of his titles at the most but… why in four languages?”
“I’ve lived four lives, John,” I said, “first in Belgium, then in Spain, in England and back in Belgium. In my home country, I polished off Simenon in Dutch and French, Maigret en zijn dode and Maigret et le corps sans tête, in Spain I learned Spanish reading Maigret y el asesino, El Gato, La Nieve Estaba Sucia and El fondo de la botella, The Bottom of the Bottle, Cuando las lluvias torrenciales de julio llenan el cauce del río… To relieve boredom and heartbreak, I plunged into Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife and Maigret’s Christmas in England and back in Belgium after seven good years and seven bad years I rediscovered De vriendin van Madame Maigret in Dutch and La pipe de Maigret in French.”
John Simenon smiled and said, “You know my father better than I do. Since I manage his estate and negotiate with publishers and film producers all over the world, I get weekly requests for translations and adaptations of Simenon titles I’d never even heard of. I thought I knew Georges Simenon, as a father and a writer. Now that I’m forced to read his ‘forgotten’ and lesser known books, a new writer and a different father is revealed to me.”
That’s renowned Belgian writer, Georges Simenon (1903-1989), on Google Images today: a well-dressed man puffing on a stemmed pipe, trilby hat, bow-tie and books, books, lots of books in over fifty languages. “I haven’t written that much,” Simenon once said, “I’ve only published a hundred novels so far.” When he said that, he was 29 years of age. Simenon was a literary machine in overdrive. In his long career, he wrote a total of 440 novels under his own name, including 75 Inspector Maigret mysteries, and another thousand short stories for French pulp magazines.
“My father was an obsédé of life and literature,” John Simenon said. “He refused to camouflage his own weaknesses, magnifying them instead. If he was weak, his characters were weak. If he felt strong, he wrote strong characters. In short, il voulait créer l’Humanité, he attempted to create the image of mankind. My father was himself his most compelling character.”
“I’ll tell you something, John,” I said. “When I wrote my first crime novel, I quoted your father on the dust jacket.”
A crime novel must be read in one go.
Well, perhaps two.
“The book was awarded a literary prize,” I said, “not for its suspense qualities, I suppose, but for the quality of your father’s quote.”
John Simenon laughed heartily. “True,” he said, “my father was convinced police and detective fiction have to be read in one sitting. That’s why the Inspector Maigret novels are so thin, 150 to 160 pages at the most, in a small format and large print. My father was prolific as a writer, but he was no Charles Dickens: he said everything he had to say in a few hundred pages and that was it, full stop, end of story.”
For Simenon, writing was a necessity of life, on a par with breathing, eating, drinking, having sex and puffing on his pipe. Later in life, on any “good” and “normal” day, he hammered his books on an electric IBM typewriter at a rate of 92 words per minute, 60 to 80 pages and three to four chapters a day and believe it or not, he only had “good” and “normal” days. He wrote a full-blown book in eight to eleven days, took a three day break, saw some prostitutes and began “a new Simenon” or “a new Maigret” in deceptively simple language while, all over the world, dozens of translators struggled for months on end—often years, a lifetime even—to translate his books into English, Russian, Japanese.
Then and there, I realized that I would never, in a million years, write as well, as quickly and as joyfully as Simenon. In order to preserve my dignity and self-esteem, I had to stop churning out mediocre crime novels, once and for all.
“I told you, John, I’m more than a fan, I’m addicted to Simenon,” I said, “and yet something is bothering me. In so many interviews, your father boasted he slept with 10,000 women and that’s no cat piss, John, it’s Herculean, larger than life...”
“My father only made a statement, Stan, you have to see it in the proper context.”
“Context or no context, John, you’re 65, did you sleep with up to 10,000 women?”
“I didn’t either and believe me, I’ve tried my best.”
“You visit whores, Stan?” John said.
“No, I don’t. Do you?”
“Me neither. But my father did. At the end of a novel, any novel, dead-tired, drenched in sweat, he was hungry for sex and roamed red light districts....” Making love three, four, five times a day, to women of all sorts: tall, short, fat, thin, white, black…
Simenon kept a book of phone numbers in the office, in which there were several pages of telephone numbers and addresses covering Paris, Cannes, Milan, Brussels and elsewhere, with just one word written at the top: “FILLES—Girls” in big block letters.
“… and yet my father was not a sex maniac,” John Simenon said. “By the way, he never said he slept with 10,000 women: he said he had 10,000 orgasms. My father saw a skirt, he ducked underneath, even if the skirt belonged to the cleaning lady or the house maid, but he certainly was not a Casanova or Don Juan.”
“Talking about sex, John,” I said, “your father had a much-publicized affair with Joséphine Baker, the American femme nègre who danced in the 1930s Folies-Bergère in Paris, her naked body shuddering violently on the savage rhythms of the spectacular new art form called le Jazz. That love story is a financial and commercial gold mine, John. You know the famous (and politically-incorrect) line, don’t you: once you go black you'll never go back? As a film producer, as your father’s literary executer, I can give you only one advice: write the book, produce the movie… ”
John Simenon sighed. “Je sais, Stan, je sais,” he said, “I know, I know. Georges Simenon and Joséphine Baker is a great, great love story, the well-dressed white bourgeois and the black half-naked vampire, that’s fireworks for sure, but granting publishing rights and sorting out copyright issues of my father’s films, TV series, novels and short stories takes up all my time. What we’ll do, you and I, we’ll write the book together, à quatre mains like a piano concerto with two performers as a piano duo at one piano.”
“I’ve got a title.”
“Simenon à quatre mains.”
“When do we start, John?”