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A Gift Extending to the Tips of His Fingers

September 17, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Georges Simenon, who died last week in Lausanne, Switzerland, at age 86, violated two cardinal rules for achieving the highest literary honors. He was almost incomprehensibly prolific, and he made it look easy. The Nobel Prize, for which he was often mentioned as a candidate, never came to him, and it may have been because he was too fecund and too popular. (Late in his life he said he would reject it, even if it were offered.)

A United Nations survey in 1972 suggested that half a billion of Simenon's books had been sold worldwide, in 55 languages. His American publisher and good friend, Helen Wolff, said at the time of his death that it was 600 million copies in 47 languages. By any count, it is a remarkable hold on the world's imagination.

He was beyond much doubt the most prolific serious writer of this century. Precisely how many novels and novellas he wrote is even now not certain because at the start of his career he used 17 pseudonyms, including Georges Sim, Gom Gut, Jean du Perry, Christian Brulls, Georges D'Isly and Germain d'Antibes.

He was supplying six publishers, and typing, he boasted later, 80 pages a day. He turned out five 70,000-word novels in a single month.

What the literary world discovered was that during his furious apprenticeship, when he was earning enough to roar along nicely with the Roaring Twenties and to wine and dine Josephine Baker, Simenon truly was mastering the novelist's art. Ironically, having churned out reams of words because his first publishers paid by the line, the prime lesson Simenon learned was that less is more.

In an interview with the American Carvel Collins for the Paris Review's Writers at Work series, published in 1959, Simenon said that Colette had read two of his early short stories and complained that they were "too literary." He took her criticism to heart.

Simenon showed Collins a calendar for July, 1952, with nine days X'ed-out in black, during which he had written "The Brothers Rico," one chapter a day. Then, X'ed-out in red, were the three days he had spent revising the book. That meant, Simenon explained, cutting out: "adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is just there to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence, cut it. Every time I find such a sentence in one of my novels I cut it out."

His novels are very short, which does not make their numbers less impressive. They are short, Simenon explained, because he, as author, has climbed deeply inside the central character's skin. "And it's almost unbearable after five or six days . . . after eleven days I can't--it's impossible."

The writer who had influenced him most, Simenon told Collins, was Nikolai Gogol. It was because Gogol drew characters who were everyday people but who had what Simenon called a third dimension, a weight, a poetic aura. That was what Simenon himself was after.

Had he written only the Maigrets, Simenon would have won an important place in literary history, because the books transcend the imaginary limitations of crime fiction and become a remarkably detailed and sensitive portrait of ordinary French life.

There are readers who have made pilgrimages to 130 Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, where Maigret and his wife lived (on the imaginary fourth floor of a three-story building).

The first-time visitor to Paris feels a bit less a stranger, especially a block or two off the big tourist thoroughfares, if the shops, the cafes with their zinc counters, the baguettes poking from shopping bags, the Metro entrances with their wrought-iron traceries, are first familiar from Simenon's work.

(In just the same way, Raymond Chandler made thousands feel at home in Los Angeles before we ever got here.)

"My characters have a profession," Simenon said, "have characteristics; you know their age, their family situation, and everything. But I try to make each of those characters heavy, like a statue, and to be the brother of everybody in the world." His rewards, he told Prof. Collins, were the letters that did not praise his style but said, "So many times I find myself in your novels."

According to one of Simenon's biographers, Fenton Bresler, ("The Mystery of Georges Simenon," Beaufort Books, New York, 1983), a policeman named Maigret had done a walk-on in an early short story.

Jules Maigret came into being in 1929, full-blown, when Simenon, 26, and already prosperous, was waiting at the Dutch port of Delfzijl for his boat, the Ostrogoth, to be recaulked. (He was, characteristically, rising to write each morning at 6:30 on a beached barge.) That first book, still in print and called in English "Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett," led not only to those 83 subsequent Maigret books but to 52 films and 211 television episodes.

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