The Pouncer

Julian Barnes

  • The Mystery of Georges Simenon by Fenton Bresler
    Heinemann, 259 pp, £8.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 434 98033 1

I’ve been having these bad dreams about David Plante recently. Sometimes, I am slumped on the lavatory, glued there by gin and self-pity; sometimes, I am watching The Sound of Music on television and bawling shameful tears; sometimes, I am driving bad-temperedly through the Tuscan countryside, railing foolishly at the world’s treatment of me. Always Mr Plante is at my side: on his face a winning smile, and behind his back a betraying notebook.

Writers are dangerous. They are also, frequently, not very nice. When they become famous, they can be not very nice in the manner of other famous people – vain, tyrannical, inflexible, and so on. But they can also be not very nice in a way specific to writers: by exploiting the one skill which sets them apart from others, by making clear that it is they who fix the historical record. Those who live close to writers sooner or later inevitably strike against this discouraging truth:

Whatever happens,
They have got
The typewriter
And we have not.

Georges Simenon did three things compulsively in his life: he wrote fiction (about 220 novels under his own name, plus 200 pseudonymous novellas); he went to bed with women (ten thousand at his first public estimate, later amended to ‘tens of thousands’); and he dictated his memoirs (20 volumes were published, with fans repeatedly begging him to stop). The first two compulsions are easier to understand than the third. Simenon has little obvious justification for leaving more words of autobiography than Chateaubriand: his 20 volumes are little concerned with public events, foreign travel, or the society around him. They are made up instead of relentless self-explanation, guilty confession and cocky boasting – the testimony of a man incapable of being bored so long as he remains the topic of conversation. Though cast as restless seekings after truth, they amount to an obsessive seizing of the historical record.

Simenon’s life – and memoirs – have been dominated by women (Fenton Bresler’s book confirms the paucity of close male friends). There has been a mother, two wives, a last-lap companion, a daughter, and the ten thousand-plus others, of whom perhaps four-fifths were prostitutes (the sums are not that improbable – certainly less so than the verifiable sum of 420 novels). But the joyful bacchanal, encouraged by complaisant companions, has more often turned into a large farce of male sexual vanity, a cautionary tale of the perils of patriarchy. As you toil through Simenon’s self-justifying lives, you notice how those he has relied upon, or placed his love with, have always somehow let him down. His first wife, he chivalrously informs us, was sexually cold (that’s to say, she was sexually cold with him), and compounded the offence by proving jealous when his eye strayed the first few thousand times. His second wife failed him by indulging in severe breakdowns. His mother failed him by refusing to be impressed by his fame and wealth. His daughter failed him by committing suicide. Now he lives in octogenarian fidelity with his housekeeper and announces himself in a state of ‘absolute contentment’; he also announces that he never really loved either of his wives, and hadn’t wanted to marry them.

Apart from his present companion, the only women who didn’t fail Simenon seem to have been the fleeting ten thousand. Nor did he fail them. Bubbling with pride, he once told John Mortimer in a Sunday Times interview about the prostitutes he had known: ‘I treated them with consideration and like a gentleman. I always let them have their pleasure first. And of course I was enough of a connoisseur to know if their pleasure was faked.’ The connoisseur, the gentleman: elsewhere he becomes the big-game hunter, and the tourist among women. Naturally, though, Simenon didn’t exceed the number of Casanova’s conquests merely out of sport, out of a pure love of sex. As he told Fellini in interview: ‘It wasn’t at all a vice. I have not the slightest sexual vice, but I have the need to communicate.’ Later, he elaborated: he did it ‘because I wanted to learn the truth ... I do not know these women any longer, I have forgotten them ... but with these 10,000 women I am beginning to know “the” woman.’

Here is a typical sexual encounter from the Twenties, at the time of the writer’s engagement to his first wife:

With Simenon, early one morning, lying awake in the Hotel Berthe, the need was so great that when he heard a chambermaid outside in the hallway cleaning the guests’ shoes, he got up, opened the door, lifted the girl’s skirt and possessed her on the spot – while she was brushing away. She did not even stop what she was doing but merely said: ‘Oh Monsieur!’

Now skip two marriages, 40 years and nine thousand-odd other women, and catch the truth-seeker’s first sexual encounter with Teresa, his present housekeeper-companion:

A month after she started work at Echandens, I unexpectedly walked into a room and found her bending over a table that she was polishing. The sight was too much for me. I advanced upon her, feverishly pulled down her knickers and penetrated her ... Teresa did not play the coquette. She had an orgasm as violent as mine, still bent over the table, with a duster or chamois leather in her hand ... We did not even look at each other. I just walked out of the room and locked myself in my office.

Simenon doesn’t elaborate on which particular truth he was confirming on this latter occasion – perhaps it was that the conscientiousness of domestic staff had not declined over a period of 40 years. But the encounters are typical of Simenon’s vaunted manner: the sudden pounce, the rapid penetration, the unfailing female orgasm, and the retreat into the study (where his technique, of course, was not all that different: literature’s pouncer, he wrote each novel in a swift, uninterruptible burst).

Simenon’s second wife once tried to reply to his 20 volumes with her own pointedly-titled Un Oiseau pour le Chat: but the novelist quickly clubbed her down again with the 250,000-word Mémoires Intimes – like using neutron bomb in a cod war. The only unclubbable, unsubduable woman in his life was his mother, who obstinately declined to be impressed by her son. When she visited him at his Swiss mansion she cried poor, daring him to be ashamed of her. She took his servants aside and asked them worriedly if the house had been paid for. She returned to her son all the money he had dutifully sent her over the previous 40 years. When his brother died in Indochina, his mother commented: ‘What a pity, Georges, that it’s Christian who had to die.’ She emerges without question as the heroine, the villain and the enigma of Simenon’s life. Perhaps her unfailing disapproval sparked both his frenetic fiction-writing (each book saying to her: ‘Like me! Like me!’) and his frenetic philandering (each conquest saying to him: ‘She likes me! She likes me!’). Mr Bresler adduces some psychiatric evidence, though of the sort which doesn’t get beyond initial labelling of behaviour (‘obsessive compulsive’ – look at all those sharpened pencils he lined up before starting a book). Simenon himself says, in one of his more engaging moments: ‘Maybe I am not completely crazy, but I am a psychopath.’

Mr Bresler’s scrappy, ill-written biography serves one purpose at least: as a crib for those unable to face the 21 autobiographies (only two of which have been translated into English). Though he picks up the occasional forensic solecism in the Maigret books, he tends to rely for criticism on the judgments of Julian Symons and Maurice Richardson. This is probably wise – Mr Bresler arouses little confidence in his own literary footing. When, for instance, he quotes Simenon’s dictum about style – ‘If it rains, I write: “It rains” ’ – he seems unaware that the novelist, far from propounding some modernist line of Hemingwayesque austerity, is merely parroting one of the longest-running pieces of advice ever given to the naturally over-eloquent French. La Bruyère first issued it three hundred years ago; most famously, Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp repeated it didactically to Flaubert after he had read them the first Tentation de Saint-Antoine. Mr Bresler does, however, reveal the gratifying fact that of all the foreign-language TV impersonations of Inspector Maigret, the BBC’s Rupert Davies was the one which pleased the author most. He adds the quainter fact that of all the televised Madame Maigrets, Simenon’s favourite was the actress who played her in Japanese. But then perhaps she was always bending over to dust the coffee-table.