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Simenon sous le masque*
Anne Richter

Racine, Belgium, 2007, 121 pages

Etienne Borgers
Translated by Christine Tipper


Georges Simenon liked to recall in interviews he gave on the radio and to others that there was no ‘Simenon mystery', contrary to an explanation given in a critical text several years previously. But how then does one explain the dozens of books that comment on his work, the various essays about the author and his prolific production that exist in numerous languages? It is certain that the scope of the Simenon corpus is well able to accommodate those who have tackled it, but what about Simenon the man?

It is evident that Simenon liked to talk about himself in the supposedly autobiographical works - his famous ‘Dictées' – ‘Dictations' and in the numerous interviews he gave during his long career as a successful author, but can a valid portrait of the man and author be found therein? Nothing is less certain, and it is not the exaggerations – often close to fantasies – of his magisterial ‘Mémoires intimes' – ‘Intimate Memoirs' written at the end of his life (1981) that allow us to see clearly through the haziness that clouds the character's portrait. Certainly the biographical facts of this author are reasonably well established, and constantly updated in the multiple biographies that have been dedicated to him, but what about his vision of the world and of the man who is represented in his major works, and the origin of this approach?

Often Simenon gave standard answers to this type of question, or tried to muddy the waters by giving contradictory declarations, in which he scattered traces from his works, evoked for the occasion, which were superficial and often refuted by other examples that could be found there. But let's not deceive ourselves, for there really was a Simeon universe and it belonged to him, a universe that had permanent features. And it wasn't only the grey ambience - or the absence of humour. To define Simenon's character, his intimate convictions, the personal mechanisms that allowed him to live, one cannot depend too much on the declarations of the great author to help us. Except at certain moments, often very brief, when light is shed on the portrait by real clues about the man Simenon that appear in his oeuvre and in a few of his confidences. It is the hunt for these moments that Anne Richter has embarked upon in her essay Simenon behind the mask.

As if to illustrate this point, the photo chosen for the book cover is one of the most artificial, most conventional portraits of Simenon, taken by the Parisian photographer to the stars and personalities, the Studio Harcourt. Yet it is also one of the aspects of the character, ready to assume his role as a publishing star, he who never hid from publicity, fame, nor the opportunities or luxuries obtained by money. A role behind which, once more, the real Simenon hid.

A large part of Anne Richter's search is that of a psychological explanation that borders on psychoanalysis, according to which Simenon did not wish to explore human personality in depth for fear of discovering himself and of exploring the profundities of his own personality. It is certain that Simenon never explored writing in depth, but I think that it was a self-imposed voluntary restraint by this author, who did not want to be ‘swallowed' by his art and become perpetually unsatisfied in the search for excellent writing and the ultimate novel. Like many literary geniuses. Added to that I remain convinced that Simenon had a limited literary register, despite the spectacular advances he made during the second part of his career (from the 1930s onwards) and the masterpieces he has left us. And he knew it. But far from it being a shortcoming or weakness, he made it his true style, working economically in his novels where the suggested has just as important a role as the described, and always with man at the centre of his preoccupations. Already in his Maigret series, and especially in his novels ‘of fate', which were of a more literary calling that he himself qualified as ‘difficult'. In her analysis, Anne Richter discusses, amongst others, two of Georges Simenon's best novels: La neige était sale (The snow was dirty) and Les anneaux de Bicêtre (Bicetre's rings), the first is without a doubt his chef-d'oeuvre, an exceptional existential thriller. She examines also, with pertinence, why certain literary personalities were interested in Simenon, André Gide (a well-known case) and Henry Miller (less well-known and at first sight against the grain when considering the sulphurous and hedonistic nature of Miller, this writer of genius, in his life and…in his oeuvre). Or again when evoking his relationship with Carl Gustav Jung who admired him.

In this short essay, Anne Richter also tackles a large number of the facets of Simenon's character, trying to decode the facts about his family life - professional and relational - to capture the truth, that should help us understand who really was the man behind the façade. Simenon behind the mask manages to highlight facts that allow us to start opening the door on the discovery of this author's true personality, to orientate our own thoughts, our own research, our comprehension of the man and the author. That is not bad considering the inhuman dimensions of this oeuvre. Inhuman because it conveys qualities far superior to the literary standards of its day; inhuman because of its size in numbers of volumes, with 76 novels about Maigret, 117 novels ‘of fate', his numerous autobiographical writings, his reports, to only cite the most important part.

One should note that the last chapter entitled: ‘Simenon, an imbecile or a genius?' is very pertinent to the argument and clearly explains Anne Richter's method in the search for the real Simenon. I could even advise future readers of this essay to – of course – read the first chapter that serves as an introduction and then to go directly to the last, in order to have from the beginning an outline of the essay and the route it takes, and to discover a solid synthesis of what is developed in more detail in the other chapters. Simenon behind the mask is another stone in the monument built by critical texts to define Georges Simenon, a more and more complex edifice, in the image of he who inspired it. Whilst never being completely sure that the author from Liege can be found completely and definitively therein.

The ‘Simenon mystery' still has good times ahead.


Note about the essay and its author

Under the title Simenon behind the mask, Anne Richter has had published by Racine a revised and extended version of the essay she published in 1993 (and reedited in 2002) that was called: Simenon malgré lui – Simenon despite himself. In 1963, she had already devoted an essay to Simenon (Georges Simenon et l'homme désintégré – Georges Simenon and the broken man) ; she has also collaborated on numerous articles for the Cahiers Simenon since its creation in 1988.

* Simenon behind the mask

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