Writing life: Georges Simenon

The crime writer and Maigret inventor's books were all composed in the same intense mood, as if he were gripped by a fever


Writing as purgation

Georges Simenon was prolific in everything in life. He wrote over 350 books, boasted of 10,000 lovers and lived in 33 different homes, beginning in Liège, Belgium, where he was born and ending in Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland in 1989.

In between he lived in Paris, on a canal boat and a white house on the edge of Lakeville, Connecticut. Wherever he lived, his working methods remained the same. The writing process for Simenon was painful and stressful, like an intense period of purgation.

The Catholic boy who was taught at a Jesuit school likened the experience of preparation in an interview with a New York Times journalist as putting himself into an 'état de grâce', a Catholic concept of being without sin. 'To me,' he explained, 'a "state of grace" means being free to receive any message. To be completely receptive, you must be full of emptiness.'

He would then have a medical check-up to ensure he was unlikely to succumb to illness in the next two weeks. His children were also examined. If he or they fell ill during the course of a book the spell was broken and it would have to be discarded.

Birth of a novel

Once handed a clean bill of health, Simenon would take a calendar, mark off eight days for composition and three for correction. On his desk he would arrange four dozen freshly sharpened pencils, each to be discarded when the point wore down.

'I am an artisan; I need to work with my hands. I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood,' he said. Once he began, nothing was to interrupt the flow as he scribbled feverishly, swigging down glasses of red wine.

Do Not Disturb

Later in his life he would hang a Do Not Disturb sign, lifted from New York's Plaza Hotel, on the doorknob of his study each day to remind people that he was 'with novel’.

Simenon would always begin his work in the same way, writing down the names of the characters, their ages and their families on the back of a manila envelope. 'It is almost a geometrical problem,' he explained, 'I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limit? That’s the question.'

He would then walk around the room clutching the envelope, repeating the name of his chief protagonist until the first chapter arrived in his head. There was no careful outline – everything poured out, chapter after chapter, until the resolution, without a day’s break. In that time he would not see anyone or answer the phone.

Only on completion could Simenon relax and resurface but, given his prodigious output, these periods were few and far between and it was never long before he returned once again to his secluded writing room.

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