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Monday 31 August 2015

Alison Joseph talks with John Simenon

Like many crime writers, I have to own Georges Simenon as one of my great influences. I got to know his work very well when dramatizing some of the Maigret novels for BBC Radio 4 some years ago, and I came to love the character, and to admire the extraordinary talent of his creator. So, when Mystery People asked me to interview Georges’ son John, I jumped at the chance.

Georges Simenon was born in Belgium in 1903, and lived in America and then in Switzerland.
He’s known for writing about 200 novels, of which about 75 feature
Inspector Maigret, as well as countless short stories.   

In recent years, his son John has shouldered the responsibility of his father’slegacy. Based in Switzerland, and a film distributor and producer by trade, he now manages his father’s estate.
We met in London, where he is currently involved in a new television adaptation of the Maigret novels. I started by asking him about why it is that his father is considered by so many to be such a great writer of detective fiction.

John: People will perceive my answer to be the answer of a son, and not the answer of a reader. But I think, simply, he captures the essential nature of the human mind, what human beings are all about, better than anyone else. You see, I discovered these novels late. As a teenager I read the books as they were coming off the press, and I just didn’t like them. For the very simple reason that, as my father said, he was a sponge. He never invented anything. So, to me as a teenager, it was as if our private life was revealed to the whole world, and I simply hated that. And so I stopped reading them. Then, years later, I read The Stain in the Snow. And it was like a revelation - because I was reading it as someone grown up. I had my own life, I had cut the cord - and that book to me captured so much about what humans are all about, the 'homme nu,’ the naked man, that my father always refers to. And from then on I was hooked. And I now read them as a reader, not because I have to, but for pleasure.

Alison: What was he like as a father?
John: He was a real father. He saw himself first and foremost as a father. I was the second child – his three sons followed each other ten years apart, with my sister three years after me – and he had plenty of time to spend with us. He wrote, as people know, very fast. If you put together preparation, writing and reviewing, say it was about four weeks, say about five novels a year - that leaves many weeks of non-writing. One of his biographers made a very very good point, which is that he first learned his craft for ten years. All of his pulp fictions of the 20s were a learning process. So, he knew what he was doing. He wrote early in the morning; when we came back from school for lunch, he was there, we always ate together, and in the early evening too, he was always there. And just about every day we would take long walks together and discuss almost everything. He was very demanding as a father - at the same time, he wanted us to feel free, but also responsible at the same time.

Alison: Could he have been anything other than a writer?
John: No. He started as a journalist, and a reporter. Although his journalism is extremely perceptive, I'm not as enthusiastic about his writing style. I'm a fan of the content, the perception, but not of the style. And anyway, he didn’t consider himself a journalist. To him it was simply a part of his growing and learning process.  He said, if I'm going to write about a banker, then I need to know about a banker's life. And to him, knowing about a banker's life didn't mean doing research and asking questions. He wanted to live as close to it as possible, to be in situations where he would interact with that life on a level basis - and that was how he amassed all the perceptions he needed. And therefore there's not anything in his books that he hasn’t directly experienced himself. And that's true  - you can't write about people if you haven't experienced the reality of what it means to be in that particular situation.

Alison: It’s known that Arthur Conan Doyle got fed up with Sherlock Holmes - do you think your father got fed up with Maigret?
John: He didn't get fed up with him, no. He saw Maigret as a stepping stone into another kind of literature. When he started Maigret, within a year, he announced, that's it, that's the end of Maigret. He started in 1931, and the last one was in 1933, and that was it, as far as he was concerned he was moving on to something else. But then, in the pre-war and war period, there were a lot of contingencies, and he thought, why don't I bring back Maigret in a series of short stories. So that's what he did, more out of necessity than anything. And then, after the war Maigret had become like a companion. So he never rejected Maigret.

Alison:  No one can talk about your father without talking about his complicated relationships. Were you aware of that?
John:    Yes, but I don't want to talk about it anymore because I've been so often misquoted. No one can talk about my father without mentioning it - but frankly, it's only become an issue for journalists after his death.  During the time he was alive, it was not an issue. He had a life, he was honest about it, and everybody knew about it - but it was not an issue. Nobody thought about it. We had a normal life. That's as much as I'm going to say. There's no secret. There's no skeleton in the closet about it.

Alison: Was he a happy man, do you think?
John: I don't think so, no. He wrote that being a novelist is a vocation in being unhappy. He had a lot of what he called in French 'petits joies' which means little happinesses, moments of happiness, and that is one of the things he would try to teach me, to collect those moments. He’d say, when you get one, enjoy it to the most because it’s fleeting and you never know when there's going to be another one. So I would say he certainly had many of those. But I'm sure, too, that I have more than he did - because otherwise I'd be a novelist myself. I mean, yes, there were moments of tragedy in his life  - the death of my sister, the break up with my mother, which had nothing to do with the complicated life you're referring to - all of these things, the death of his brother - these things are very difficult moments for anybody. And given that he was extremely sensitive, inordinately sensitive, I would say that he never really got over any of these events. And the relationship with his mother - well, she admitted herself, that when his brother died, she said what a pity it wasn’t the other son who had died.  I'm not sure she realized what she was saying, and I'm not sure we should interpret that with the full weight of our first impression, but still... but still.

Alison: Do you think he felt anything was left undone in his life?  Do you think in terms of his work, there was more he wished he could have done?
John: I would say not. Very shortly after he stopped writing, he gave no indication that there was any regret. It's like, that was my life, and now I've got another life. So I don't think there was any regret. I think he was probably frustrated as a novelist – in that, it took him a while to accept that his achievement was the whole body of his work, rather than a specific Great Novel. But that is the greatness of his work. If you want to sum up Simenon in one book, it's impossible. There's so much of him in all the work. It would be like trying to choose a bit of a puzzle to say that it represents the puzzle. It simply wouldn’t be true. And it took him a while, till after his relationship with Andre Gide, in fact, to understand that that in the end was going to be his legacy. And, perhaps, feel a bit frustrated about it. Also, for a long time he dreamt of writing the Big Novel, a series of strands that all develop, intertwined together, like the Rougon Macquart series by Emile Zola.  At one point he tried that – PedigrĂ©e, a semi-autobiographical work, is an attempt at doing that. But in the end he came to see that what he does so well, are these short tragedies. His stories take the form of a Greek tragedy, in a very short, condensed structure. That's what most of his books are all about - the Maigrets are just a lighter version of this.

Alison: There's a very deep philosophy all the way through his work. He touches on it very lightly, but you can just feel this profound sense of the human condition.
John: Yes. I personally think - now this is going to sound borderline scientific, but it is, in a way. Very very early in his career my father wrote about how, in his view, man is not responsible. Not so much from a philosophical point of view, but just from a physiological point of view. Because if we are made up of chemical reactions, how do you direct these, how do you have control over these? In fact, you can't. And as a matter of fact, this is turning out to be held true by neuroscientists today. And it has great repercussions for the notion of responsibility. To sum it up in one very short sentence: he believed in man's biological irresponsibility. Scientific studies show, for example, that we act before we think we act. In other words, whenever you do anything, your brain becomes aware of you doing it a few milliseconds after you've done it, and that's a fact - it's measurable today. And that's a pretty good indication that if you push that all the way through, you can't be held responsible for what you're doing. And that explains, I think, Maigret's attitude towards human beings. People may perceive it as a certain kind of benevolence - but, if you really go through every single book, nowhere, ever, does man escape his social responsibility. He never gets away from it. Now, very often the way for his characters to deal with it is suicide - and there is that kind of confrontation between biological irresponsibility on one hand and social responsibility on the other, which you find in just about every book, whether it is a Maigret or a non Maigret. Now you can link that with existentialism, or with Christianity, even. I think there are many such links that could be explored one day. And that may be about. the reason why his books are so profound and so widely read - that he’s describing the root of what we’re all  about. t's there, but it's not obvious or ostentatious.

Alison:  Last question:  I just wondered how being his son had shaped your own career.

John:    If you have a very strong father, I think any child has to at some point get away from it. So I wouldn't say it's because he was famous, or a writer; he was a very strong father image like any other, and I was a son like any other, and I needed to cut the links. And I did it in a very - it was not a smooth affair, but then neither he nor I were very smooth in those things - so there was a lot of sound and fury. And that shaped my willingness to stand  was going to leave his affairs there would be no room for us manage them. . So, we had to lead our own lives. But, due to an odd set of circumstances, all the people he had named to look after his affairs died within five years of his own death. So we found ourselves asking, now what do we do? And because of my own experience in the movie business, I was the best placed to get involved. And to be honest, I take great pleasure in doing it. I don't see it as a burden. If I was an agent, what better client could I wish for?

For a full list of the Inspector Maigret books Visit

Alison Joseph is a London-based crime writer and radio dramatist. She started her career in local radio, and then in television as a documentary director. She is the author of the series of novels featuring SISTER AGNES, a contemporary detective nun based in South London. Alison has written about twenty works for radio, including THE TRUE STORY and also dramatisations of Georges Simenon's Maigret novels. Her new novel is 'Dying to Know', a crime novel about faith, evidence and particle physics.


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