- Intimate Memoirs, including ‘Marie-Jo’s Book’ by Georges Simenon, translated by Harold Salemson
Hamish Hamilton, 815 pp, £14.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 241 11219 2
This book is already celebrated for its suggestion of an incestuous relationship between Simenon and his only daughter, Marie-Jo, a suicide at 25 in 1978. Any such relationship seems to have been one-sided – on the daughter’s part, and that only in her head. Marie-Jo’s contribution to Intimate Memoirs takes up the last 150 pages, and is called ‘Marie-Jo’s Book’. It consists of her early nature-oriented short stories, starting in childhood, and goes through adolescence, to poems and monologues recorded on cassettes in early and brief adulthood, during which time she seemed to be starving for her father’s love, which in a paternal fashion he gave in abundance, as he always had. The preceding six hundred-odd pages are Simenon’s, telling of his first marriage to Tigy, mother of his son Marc, of houses, trips, holidays, of sexual encounters everywhere, of family Christmases. He tells of meeting in New York the young French-Canadian woman called D who was to be his next wife; he describes the births of their three children and the development of their characters. Tigy remained close by, sometimes under the same roof. So did a slowly increasing entourage who tended the ever-enlarging Simenon abode, wherever it might be. Because of the build-up of characters, as in a novel, the collapse of Marie-Jo at the end of Simenon’s account is all the more shocking, and all the sadder, because the reader has seen, and amply, the concern and love of Georges in all of this. The result, when one has read through these pages, is a sense of depression, and of some sympathy for Simenon. By this time, D has taken to drinking a little too much Scotch, and has turned against her husband, not for the usual reasons of infidelity, neglect or mental torture, but because she strove to be ever more important – top dog, in fact. From Simenon’s account, she might win some prize as a bitch.
Simenon began the memoirs in February 1980. He addresses the first page to ‘my tiny little girl’ (Marie-Jo), and even here there is a hint of drama of the kind typical of Simenon’s books. Marie-Jo’s telephone in her Paris studio had been disconnected, and her doctor in Cannes telephoned Marc, the brother then living nearest to Paris. The apartment door was locked, the police had to be called in, plus a locksmith. Marie-Jo had ‘a small red hole’ in her chest. ‘Where did that single-shot .22 pistol come from? Who bought the cartridges?’ We turn to page 2. Simenon takes us back to his beginnings: to his far from well-to-do family in Liège, to his journalist days when he was ‘hungry for everything, food and women’, and was sometimes writing eight short stories a day, sending them to newspapers under various names. Not until the creation of the humble and human Inspector Maigret did Simenon’s fortunes begin to climb.
The reader begins to wonder where Marie-Jo is, and is tempted to skip some pages to find her. Yet gradually the book becomes fascinating. Simenon falls naturally, maybe inevitably, into his usual style: he has his brief way of telling important events, and in this book an incredible ability to recollect dialogue, often trivial but nonetheless amusing, uttered twenty and more years before. One forgives him the inventions. The years slip by. Marc’s birth and his robust health is noted, and, like his siblings, he has a file containing photographs, doctors’ reports, letters to his father, childhood drawings, all carefully amassed by his father. On a trip to New York to see his publishers, Simenon meets the woman he is to call ‘D’ throughout the memoirs. It seems to have been love at first sight, and Simenon forgets about the redhead who has been interesting him up to then. D has come on the scene because she has been recommended as a secretary. She has aspirations to be an actress. She has once tried to kill herself. She doesn’t know what she wants to be. They have a night on the town, walking the streets of Manhattan, before ending up in one or the other’s hotel room. She and Simenon seem fused. When he returns to France, she telephones, singing ‘Kiss me once and kiss me twice ... ’ and Tigy says: ‘Oh, does she sing, too?’
D arrives, sleeps in the Simenon house, where she works as secretary, and Tigy puts up with the goings-on. By the time D is pregnant, with Johnny, they are all living in America, and Simenon knows that a child born out of wedlock, in these circumstances, won’t do, so reluctantly he obtains a divorce from Tigy. All remain friends, more or less, and Tigy is still a veritable part of the household, as she shares custody of Marc, though by law she must live in a separate house, nearby, for a while. Almost casually, in the course of these sometimes stormy pages, Simenon reports that he wrote four Maigrets in six weeks or so, and gives their titles. He gets up at six, writes his ‘chapter’, and finishes his daily stint by noon, so in the afternoons he can walk in the woods with his children, observe the beavers, the birds, the flowers in his garden (he says he can remember few names of flowers, but he loves them all), and visit D or perhaps some current members of his household staff, whom he never called servants, but rather members of his family. Simenon likes to make love two or three times a day. The new Mme Simenon busies herself ever more with Georges’s files, letters to be answered, even contracts, though Simenon is at pains to say that D never drew up a contract for him, he always did that.
Finally, there is the birth of Marie-Jo, which delights Simenon, because she is the first girl. He dotes on her. An anecdote twice mentioned concerns Simenon’s daily routine of driving to the post office in the afternoons (in Connecticut now) and getting out of the car to kiss Marie-Jo: at this hour the baby is always being pushed in her pram towards home by the nursemaid. One day Simenon was unable to stop on the narrow road because another car was approaching him, and, minutes later, the baby girl fell into a kind of coma. A doctor was called in at once, and he advised Simenon to pick the baby up and hold her close. This did the trick, the baby’s eyes opened, she even seemed to smile faintly. The next significant story is of Marie-Jo, at eight, stopping her father before a jeweller’s window, and asking him to buy her a wedding-ring. Georges demurred, but could not dissuade the little girl. The ring had to be cut down, then her father had to put it on. In later years, when the ring had to be enlarged from time to time, the father always had to put it on her finger. Marie-Jo’s death note said that she wanted to be cremated with her wedding-ring on, that she wanted it dropped with her ashes in the garden of the family house, by now in Switzerland. Her wishes were carried out.
As for Marie-Jo’s character? She was a high-achiever, aiming always at the best marks in school. She wanted to please her father, whom she referred to in her letters and tapes as ‘My Lord and Master’, and once ‘My God’. She had some affairs with young men, but none seems to have been of importance to her. When she was quite grown up and her father, after his separation from D, had acquired a secretary called Teresa, Marie-Jo was disappointed that she could not take Teresa’s place. Can’t I do everything just as well as Teresa is doing it? she asked. Whereupon Simenon pointed to a bed, and replied that Teresa fulfilled all his needs, and could Marie-Jo not understand that?
Marie-Jo never made up her mind about what she wanted to do in life. Her half-brother Marc had decided to become a film-maker, and had started as apprentice with Jean Renoir, one of Simenon’s good friends. Her brother Johnny had been to Harvard Business School, and had no problems about his future. Pierre was younger than Marie-Jo. In the last months of her life, she strummed a guitar in her Paris studio, and recorded on cassettes poems and monologues of her own creation. They are all printed here:
the first step was wrong
and you can’t change it;
it will always be wrong.
You can try to run after that ...
You fall down sooner or later
and my first step was ... I don’t know when.
Not when ... when I was dancing with you, father.
Because I am sure at that time it was all right.
She and her father used to dance to ‘The Tennessee Waltz’. The girl records it on a cassette. When her father, ever ready to get the best professional help for her, installs her in a Paris clinic and flies at a moment’s notice from Lausanne to Paris to see her, he is cheered to find that she can almost smile at him from her bed. She has taken barbiturates, but she at once telephoned for help. The following day, chaos again, as Simenon is informed that she has jumped out of the window of the clinic – though, since her room was on the ground floor, she had only scratches.
What more did Marie-Jo want from her father? It may occur to the reader that, with all the casual sex in the household, the daughter might have thought: why not some for herself? Yet ‘society’ frowns on this, and Marie-Jo, like everyone else, would have been aware of that. If incest leaves no mark on the protagonists, society will put it there for them – or their own imagination may do so.
Above the copyright information of Intimate Memoirs stands a statement signed by Simenon, apologising for certain cuts made on Court of Justice orders and at the request of Mme Simenon-Ouimet. ‘Only one of these deleted passages, six lines, was written by me. The others were from a heartrending message of my dead daughter, Marie-Jo.’
There is perhaps no explanation for Marie-Jo’s suicide except an unfortunate combination of circumstances: the very devoted father, his impressive literary reputation, Marie-Jo’s stronger brothers, her mother, whose behaviour seems to have been ever more neurotic and selfish.
The girl remains a mystery, perhaps even to her father, but Simenon’s personality comes through clearly. He tells of parties, of Transatlantic crossings in the days when there were luxury liners aplenty, of dinners at the captain’s table on the Ile de France, of seeing old friends in Paris, such as Jean Gabin, Marlene Dietrich, Fernandel. Small things come out: he is rather colour-blind as to green and blue; he has a hard time saying no to people who want interviews; he can’t work in big cities, though one of his pleasures and needs is to stroll through city streets observing everything, to drink a beer in a workmen’s bar. He invited his mother to one of his American homes, and she found the household too numerous and said it must cost her son a goodly sum. He replied that they all worked, and that he couldn’t get his own work done if they weren’t all there. During the McCarthy years of 1952-54, Simenon changed his mind about becoming an American citizen, having seen what he thought could never happen in America: the populace cowering under a witch-hunt for Communists.
He seems to have found his ideal in Teresa: ‘The goal of my endless quest, after all, was not a woman, but “the” woman, the real one, loving and maternal at the same time, without artifices, without make-up, without ambition, without concern for tomorrow, without “status”.’ And the way he writes his books? He lists his characters, their education and background, makes a plan of the house in which the action takes place, so that he could walk around in the dark there. He claims not to plot in the usual sense, but only to find some incident which sets the story going, and to write on from there. Simenon recently declared that he has stopped writing, which is open to doubt. The latest from the former Mme Simenon is that she has engaged a lawyer to try to get at least 10 per cent of her husband’s earnings during the entire period they were together, because she claims to have been his agent. It’s enough to make a man swear off. M. Simenon leaves us in suspense.