The World of Bond and Maigret: Fleming Meets Simenon (Sunday Times, Sept. 15, 1963 and Harper’s Bazaar, Nov. 1964)
By Gordon Young
The low-slung black supercharged Studebaker Avanti which drove up one evening last month to the ancient Château d’Eschandens, outside Lausanne, was upholstered in rich black leather. It had self-powered windows, nine crimson-lettered dials on its dashboard and a top speed of 170 m.p.h. It is one of the few cars of its kind in Europe.
Its driver, Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, was paying his first visit to Georges Simenon, author of 167 novels (forty-nine of them filmed) and creator of Jules Maigret. Their meeting had been arranged by Gordon Young, who recorded their two-hour talk, from which the extracts here are taken.
The scene is Simenon’s private study on the first floor of the château, his home. High-vaulted castle windows look out on to a quiet park; white walls are sparsely decorated with a few family photographs and a painting by Fernand Léger. (A Simenon portrait by Bernard Buffet is in the salon on the ground floor.)
In an alcove, racks hold Simenon’s twenty-four pipes and six great glass jars of tobacco. Ten more pipes are on Simenon’s inlaid antique desk, along with a pot full of sharpened pencils, four copies of the latest Simenon Penguin edition—and Simenon’s golden ball, on an ebony block. (Because Simenon needs something to play with while he thinks, Madame Simenon had this solid gold ball made for him by Cartier of Paris.)
Simenon, young and sprightly at sixty, sits at his desk in a spotless white open-necked wool shirt and flannel trousers. Fleming, casual, in a well-worn blue sports shirt and charcoal woolen cardigan, looks like Bond on holiday. Perched on a stool against the wall is Denise, Simenon’s French-Canadian wife and efficient business manager, in a beige woolen suit and brown-trimmed white silk blouse.
Fleming has just come back from playing in a golf tournament at Aigle and, since Simenon is a golfer too, Fleming begins easily with a wry account of his defeat…
Fleming: I was outsmarted. I always thought I was good off my handicap but somebody was better; an American. They were playing a most extraordinary competition…
Simenon: (talking excellent English, with a soft Maurice Chevalier accent) I played a round this morning. But every night when I’ve been playing golf during the day, I think “Why did I miss that shot?” and I try in my mind to find what was wrong, and it takes me an hour before I can go to sleep—and the next day I make the shot worse than I did the day before.
Fleming: I think one becomes too self-conscious. I know that when I address a ball I feel all my muscles, everything working, and I think how the shot is going to be and so forth. Well, that’s stupid; you’ve got to be an automaton, have a repeating swing.
Simenon: I’m not as lucky as you are—you have a 13 handicap. That’s not bad.
Fleming: It’s not very good. But I find golf a wonderful relaxation, anyway. It cuts you down to size and it can be hilariously dramatic.
Simenon: It’s the only way after you’re sixty, and I’m sixty, so…
Fleming: Well, I’m fifty-five.
Simenon: You’re a young man.
Fleming: I read your first books in 1939 on my way to Moscow. I stopped in either Amsterdam or The Hague and there on the bookstall was a whole collection of those very good jackets you had in those days, those photographic jackets. I bought three or four to take to Moscow, and I absolutely adored them. And I think, of course, that if it hadn’t been for those jackets I probably shouldn’t have bought them for years. I think jackets are very important for books. But publishers don’t seem to think so.
Simenon: Oh, yes, now they care a lot about jackets, especially in America. They study a jacket for weeks sometimes and try five, six, seven different jackets.
Fleming: Do they give you a chance to comment on your jackets?
Simenon: They give me the chance, but I don’t bother. I never worry about a book when it’s finished.
Fleming: Really? Don’t you like the way it appears and how it’s printed?
Simenon: Not especially.
Fleming: Oh, I’m very keen on that.
Simenon: As soon as the book is out of this room, it’s out of my life.
Fleming: What about correcting? I mean who does the correcting for you? Does your publisher correct and then send corrections back to you and suggest things or not?
Fleming: Nobody does?
Fleming: I find I make stupid mistakes which they correct.
Simenon: My publisher has not the right to change a comma—not even to suggest to change a comma.
Fleming: Very interesting. But I find I keep on getting into bad habits: I get a word which I use too often. At the moment I’m going through an awful period of using the word “just.” “It was just five miles away.” … “He was just going to get into his motor car,” and I keep on putting this damn word in. It’s like a painter who finds that he’s painted a “face” somewhere in his picture that everyone sees but him.
Simenon: I have exactly the same trouble—but the word changes for each novel. In one book I will always use the word “mais”—“but”—in another always “perhaps,” so it takes me three days to take out all the “perhapses.”
Fleming: Well, I do most of that myself, but I still find…you see, I’ve got a very good publisher’s reader, William Plomer, who’s a great poet and an extremely nice man, and he said some time ago that I never put in any exclamation marks. This stuck in my mind, and so in my last book I put in exclamation marks like pepper. And my publishers left them in. Now only yesterday I got a fierce review in The New York Times saying not only is Ian Fleming a very inferior writer but he has the girlish trick of putting in exclamation marks all over the place. I think a little help occasionally from a good reader is a very helpful thing. How many people read your manuscript before it goes to the publishers?
Simenon: My wife reads the copy every day, but she doesn’t correct anything and she doesn’t even speak to me about it.
Fleming: Well, my wife reads my books and also says nothing, but that upsets me.
Simenon: My wife reads the pages every day and then she doesn’t read it again.
Mme. Simenon: Well, I usually look at the proofs when they comes back.
Fleming: That’s what I mean. Who does the proof correcting?
Mme. Simenon: Well, I weed them a bit.
Simenon: I don’t even send away my manuscripts. When the manuscript has been corrected by me, instead of typing it again it’s Photostatted and it’s the Photostat which goes to the publisher. So the MS never leaves this house. I prefer some little mistakes to a too-cold correctness.
Fleming: Well, you write wonderful French. I read your books always in French when I can. You have one of the most beautiful French styles I know.
Simenon: Some French critics have said I have no style at all. And they are almost right, because what I have tried for forty years how is to avoid everything which is like literature.
Fleming: Not to be too literary? I agree.
Simenon: Yes. To stay as simple as possible.
Fleming: Well, you’ve always been like that. I think that, say, 100 years from now, you’ll be one of the great classical French authors. I’ve always said so. You’ll be the Balzac of…
Simenon: To tell you the truth I don’t care, because I won’t be there.
Fleming: Of course you’ve written novels, you see. In fact all your books are novels of suspense, whereas I write quite a different thing, which is the thriller, a thing of action and no psychology—except that the villain occasionally has to have some psychology to explain why he should be a villain. But I never try to examine my characters in depth, whereas all your books do that. I haven’t read all your books, but probably about fifty of them.
Simenon: I know what you write, but to tell you the truth I have never read it—for one reason, and that is that at age of twenty-five I decided never to read any novels again. And I haven’t read any novels since 1928. Not a single one. I have a lot of friends who are writers and they send me their books and inscribe them. I know your books from the critics, and that’s why I know you very well.
Fleming: Have you written about Switzerland?
Simenon: No, I very seldom write about a country where I live. It takes me a long time. For example, in the United States I waited almost six or seven years before I wrote about America. I prefer to be far away, to have some recul…You stand in Trafalgar Square or the Champs-Elysees and try to describe it in, say, a hundred words. It’s impossible—because you see too many details; you will have three pages instead of a hundred words. But if you are in Tanganyika dreaming about a glass of ale and Trafalgar Square or a terrace in the Champs-Élysées, you will in two sentences give the essential. And that’s why I prefer always to be far away from the setting.
Fleming: Quite true. I write all my books in Jamaica. I can’t really write anywhere else—because there’s a vacuum there and I can only write in a vacuum. I can’t do it in England—life simply won’t allow me to. My friends are quite uninterested in my writing—they think I can turn these things out in five minutes and that this is anyway not literature and therefore deserves no sympathy at all.
Simenon: Here we cut every connection with life around us when I am on a novel. Nobody comes here, not even relations, and I don’t go to town or even to the village. I walk in the garden, I count my steps, and I know how many kilometres I make a day just to get some fresh air.
Young: How long does that go on for—how long do you put yourself through that?
Simenon: It depends on the length of the novel, but not only that. It also depends on whether I write a book at the rate of one chapter a day or if I write a book like I did the last one—one day writing a chapter by hand, and the next day writing it over again on the typewriter. With some books I write in the afternoon one chapter by hand and the next day in the morning at six o’clock I rewrite it on the typewriter. That is what I call doing a book with two sittings a day. But for certain novels I write by hand for one day both morning and afternoon—only one chapter—and the next day I type it, so that takes twice the time. A novel in two sittings takes from eight to eleven days, and a novel with one sitting a day takes twenty-two to twenty-four days—that’s about it. And then the revision takes from three days to one week. I hate revising a book.
Fleming: I don’t mind revising because I feel the book is finished. I’ve done my work and I can play with it then.
Simenon: It seems to me so disgusting when I read my book over again; I say to myself but this is not at all interesting, nobody will read it—it’s so flat and dull and inconclusive. I hate that job.
Fleming: Well, I write straight on to the typewriter and I never look back until I get to the bottom of the page, because otherwise I’m so horrified while I’m writing at what awful piffle it is that I could never get on with it—I’d lose pace at once if I started correcting what I’d written the day before.
Simenon: I understand. I never do it until later; I work until the book is finished. That’s why I like the typewriter, because with the typewriter you don’t look back—you keep your rhythm. You spoke about style a little while ago. I consider rhythm as the definition of style—and the style comes from rhythm, like in music or painting. It’s a question of the rhythm, of the colour, and if you write and keep coming back on it again you lose the rhythm.
Fleming: And you lose pace. I think pace is very important. I think in books where there’s some sort of a mystery, people do want to get on; they don’t want suddenly to have to wonder what is the hero doing, why is he doing this.
Simenon: Yes, that’s even more important in the books you write than in the books I write.
Fleming: But then, don’t you feel that people get rather tired if Maigret, for instance, at the end of a book has to assemble all the suspects and examine them all and give the reader a chance to guess which is the villain? Don’t you have to be very careful not to hold up the speed too much?
Simenon: I don’t pay any particular attention. In most of the Maigret stories I think people know after ten or twenty pages who is the killer or whatever it is. I don’t like to have four or five suspects and have to choose between them. Do you think that the reader of today does still try to guess? I don’t think so.
Fleming: No, that’s very old-fashioned.
Simenon: So you have to give them something else than just to guess. Even my children now guess everything after five or six minutes.
Fleming: Yes, that’s quite true. But of course we’ve still got in England the old-fashioned detective story—the Agatha Christie type of story, with the suspects and the poisoning and all the rest of it. I personally can’t read them, because I’m not interested enough in who did it. But lots of people, the Oxford don and the Cambridge don, go on writing this sort of book. Up to a point in America too—Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner. They’re all exactly the same, the Erle Stanley Gardner ones. I can’t read them. But Stout I always read because his Nero Wolfe is such a splendid monster.
Young: As an ordinary reader of both of you, and a great admirer of both of you, what I have always wanted to know very badly is this: To what extent have your own personal experiences been the basis of your writing? How much of your lives come into your books?
Fleming: Well, from my point of view, practically none at all, except through one’s powers of observation. I invent the most hopeless-sounding plots; very often they are based on something I’ve read in a newspaper. And people say, “Oh, this is all nonsense”—and then the Russians come along in Germany and shoot people with potassium cyanide pistols. Last year a Russian spy got a heavy sentence for killing three West Germans in this way—with a water pistol. So I find constantly that things I’ve read about in some obscure magazine or somewhere are always coming true in real life. But I go around the world a lot—for instance, I set my last book in Japan. Well, I couldn’t possibly have done that unless I’d spent a lot of time in Japan.
Simenon: I never put a precise experience of my own into a book, but everything is experience to an author, every minute of his life. So I wouldn’t write the same books if I didn’t lead the same life. But I never consciously use something I know, or some person I know. For example , I know a lot of people, but I never think when I’m meeting somebody, “Oh, this one will be a good character in one of my novels.” It’s the same if I travel; I never travel as a writer, looking at somebody or taking notes; but twenty years later it comes back and I use it.
Fleming: Do you have to make little notes about, say, a good name, if you see a good name above a shop?
Simenon: No, I never do that. Until last year I used telephone directories. I have 180 or 200 phone books from all over the world and I used them. Then I had some trouble with that. So now I use the Littré (French dictionary). That’s wonderful. You see, almost all French names come from common nouns and trade names—Boulanger the baker, Maréchal and so on. So if you take words from the Littré and somebody happens to have the same name, they can’t say anything.
Fleming: Like Mr. John Butcher, Mr. Sam Baker—yes, I see.
(Simenon takes one of the great red volumes of the Littré from the shelf behind him.)
Simenon: Here, I can open it at any page and you’ll find it full of possible names. I get hundreds of names. (Simenon draws from his desk a four-sheet folder covered in columns of names.) Look, that’s just for one novel. I make this list and then choose my names from it. I use perhaps only ten of these names.
Young (to Fleming): Where do you get your names from?
Fleming: Well, I get a lot of mine motoring—if I pass through a village street anywhere abroad and I see a good name outside a shop.
Simenon: That was Balzac’s way. All his names came from shops.
Fleming: I found particularly in German Switzerland some very good villains’ names. I saw one wonderful villain’s name, but I can’t use it. Unfortunately it was the name of a very respectable builder. It’s getting more and more difficult to find villains.
Simenon: Ah yes. In America there’s only the Cubans left now. Even the Chinese you can’t touch.
Fleming: Of course, you don’t have villains like I have villains. My villains are so black and, as you know, people aren’t really like that. I make them like that. I generally give them a heavy moustache because I dislike moustaches. But I find it more and more difficult to find good villains. I used the Russians marvelously for four or five books; but now, you see, I think we ought to have peace with the Russians, so I’ve had to stop ragging them. I’ve had to invent an international organisation.
Young: The last time I saw her, Madame Simenon let drop a very stimulating remark. We were talking about women or something and she said, “Oh well, if Mr. Fleming has had half as much experience of women as my husband, I’m sure he will be able to talk, very well on that subject.”
Simenon (exploding with laughter): Oh well, you know all my secrets, do you?
Young: So perhaps we can ask now to what extent life enters into your art in that respect.
Fleming: Well, Mr. Simenon is sixty years old and I’m only fifty-five, so he’s got the advantage of five years!
Mme Simenon: It depends a bit on the age at which you started!
Fleming: Yes. I remember trying to tempt my governess once, but I failed. No, I think I make my heroines entirely out of my head and instead of making them too beautiful I try to give them some little peculiarity—a slight limp or something of that sort to make them slightly more true to life, because one’s girlfriends are never perfect. They’ve always got some little thing, so I try to give them something: they are, I admit, inclined to be over-luscious.
Simenon: And people are very seldom in love with a very beautiful woman. A beautiful woman is something to put in a theatre or to make a movie about, but you don’t like to have them in your drawing room or in bed.
Fleming: I talked to an oculist about that, and he said just the same thing. I asked him if he’d ever seen a pair of perfect eyes. And he said yes, he had once, in a woman, and he said they were totally dull. He said it was quite extraordinary, they looked cold and lifeless, and yet he said they were a really beautiful, perfect pair of eyes.
Simenon: And look at the movies, for example. They have to have people with exactly the same two halves of the head: yet such people are not attractive in life at all.
Fleming: Not to me, not at all. Elizabeth Taylor…
Simenon: What we consider in a woman is beautiful is just the little difference! So the more little difference they have, the more chance they have to catch a man. It’s the same with the eyes; a little difference can be attractive.
Mme Simenon: Yes, we call it in French une coquetterie dans l’oeil. It means eyes which are not crossed but just a little, little bit out of alignment. My daughter has it. It gives so much life to her eyes.
Fleming: Very good. Of course that particularly applies to teeth. I can’t understand what the film-makers are doing. They find a girl and the first thing they do is to saw off all her teeth and put caps on. I mean, how dull can you be?
Simenon: It is perhaps because on the film a little irregularity gives a wrong idea of the girl.
Fleming: Now, about Maigret. Where did Maigret, the man himself, come from? Can you remember?
Simenon: Not at all. I wrote the first novel about Maigret not knowing at all that it would be a series. He was a character for one book, so I didn’t care. He just came into my mind.
Fleming: How old is Maigret now?
Simenon: He has no age. In my novels he is still about fifty-three. When I started thirty years ago he was forty-five. I would like to age so slowly. It would be wonderful. Because when I started I was twenty-five and he’s still fifty-three.
Fleming: Bond’s still in the middle thirties. Unfortunately, I’ve had to write his obituary in the next book—oh, the news of his death is exaggerated—but I’ve had to give certain facts that get him to about thirty-eight or thirty-nine. But I’ve had the greatest difficulty in keeping him down. Do you suppose you’ll go on writing about Maigret?
Simenon: Very seldom. You know at first I wrote eighteen Maigret books in a row just to learn my trade, to know how to write a novel, and then I stopped and I said, “Never any more.” And then I wrote just plain novels. But seven years later, I got so many letters from readers that I started again for the fun of it. And between two novels there’s too much time doing nothing. So I decided about once a year or so to write a Maigret. Partly through sentiment and partly as an exercise.
Fleming: Your ambition really is to write the great novel?
Simenon: Not big literary—just plain novel.
Fleming: You don’t want to write a War and Peace?
Simenon: Not at all.
Fleming: Well, I’ve no ambitions at all to write a novel. When I’ve finished writing James Bond I don’t think I shall write any more. I’m getting very close to the end of my tether, too.
Simenon: It would be very difficult for me to live without writing.
Fleming: Yes, I dare say it would be for me.
Simenon: When I stay two months without writing I get almost sick. I lose confidence in myself; I am a man without roots. I feel completely loose.
Mme Simenon: Lost.
Simenon: Yes, lost.
Fleming: Do you feel that as you write you improve? Because if you didn’t improve in some tiny way, you’d get disconsolate, too. You must feel that you are writing better, don’t you?
Simenon: I am not very ambitious, but on each novel I have the feeling that I learn something new, or that I reach a little goal a bit further ahead than the last one. But the question for me is to try to have less artificial story, and less adventure, fewer conventional ideas—to go instead a little deeper under the skin of the man. That’s my goal, but in a way it’s an impossible one. I can’t be God, so…
Fleming: Yes. But do you find you need to meet a lot of people, do you need to move about a lot in order to see more of life, to write more about life?
Simenon: Not any more. I see very few people now; I use my memories of the people I have met. I see them now from far away. And I learn more about people from my children than from people who come here. Each child teaches you so much.
Fleming: And renews you too, presumably, because you can see a lot of your own youth in it.
Simenon: For me the complete novelist is the one who makes the full round of life. I mean that at twenty, for instance, he gives the ideas of life of a boy of twenty and at thirty you can keep the same character, the same situation, and then have a completely different book. At forty the same—and at fifty, sixty and seventy. That’s why Goethe’s such a big man; because he made the full round.
Fleming: Yes. Goethe, I think, was the only homme complet in history. You can’t fault him. Psychologists say that most geniuses are suffering from some kind of physical inferiority or physical defect. I mean Beethoven was deaf and so on. But they’ve never been able to find anything wrong with Goethe. He was healthy, he lived a full life, his sex life was normal, he covered an enormous range of interest—even the pollination of flowers.
Simenon: …and he studied the eye too, and everything.
Fleming: You do read some other books then—not novels, but technical books?
Simenon: Yes, especially medical books. That’s my hobby. I take five or six medical reviews every week.
Fleming: Have you ever been to the Far East?
Simenon: I was in India—but not further than India, because I came from New Zealand and Australia. Before the war when I was travelling a lot I was tempted to go to Japan and China, but I didn’t go because I felt it would not be honest to go just for three or four months. It takes a full year or two to start to understand them. Then I decided to wait until I had enough time to spare—and now I’m still waiting. I went to Russia in 1932. Not to Moscow, but all through the south from Odessa.
Fleming: Is there anywhere in the world you would still like to go to?
Simenon: Everywhere and nowhere, you know.
Fleming: I like se deplacer; I like movement. I even like being in the Montreux Palace. I look out of my window and I see these stupid boats and these idiotic tourists going back over the Simplon…
Simenon: That reminds me of the story of Van Johnson, the film actor. A very nice boy.
Mme. Simenon: He came to Switzerland at the time all the other Hollywood stars were coming here and he stayed one week, two weeks, three weeks, a month. Then all of a sudden we saw him in Cannes. So we asked him if he’d decided where he was going to settle in Switzerland. “NOT in Switzerland; I’m taking the next plane back to Hollywood,” he said. We asked him why. He said: “Well, at first the quiet was wonderful. I’d wake up in the morning and I’d see the lake and the mountains and they seemed just perfect. Beautiful. But then they started getting closer and closer and closer. And one morning I found them at the foot of my bed—and I got OUT.”
Fleming: M. Simenon—have you ever written a play?
Simenon: No. I wrote a play from one of my novels.
Fleming: And was it ever produced?
Simenon: Yes, in France, in England, and America—but that was fourteen years ago. But you know I am not tempted by the theatre. For one reason. I consider it as being something so completely different. It’s the same as if you ask a painter if he wants to make a sculpture. Painting is the size of nature: sculpture is greater than natural size. It’s the same with the theatre. The novel is plain life, it’s natural life. But the theatre needs to be greater than life-size. I’ve spent all my life looking at people from the same level, so…
Fleming: And films? Have you ever thought about writing films?
Simenon: I never cared about that. My wife sells the rights and I never even see the producer or the actors.
Fleming: No, I’m not interested in the least. They consult me, and I give them my ideas, perhaps, at a lunch, but that’s all.
Simenon: I don’t even go to see the films of my books.
Fleming: Have you ever seen any of your television series in England?
Simenon: They came with two and showed me them, and I was quite satisfied.
Fleming: I think they are well done.
Simenon: Very well done.
Fleming: The character’s good.
Simenon: Very good. Rupert Davies. He came here and saw us.
Fleming: He’s thought to be very good in England.
Simenon: But of course, everybody when he reads a book has his own idea of the character. That’s why books with illustrations are always bad, because the illustrations never correspond with what is in the mind of the reader.
Mme. Simenon: That’s one reason why one needs to be more difficult about Maigret than James Bond, because you describe Bond, but my husband never really describes Maigret. I went through all the Maigret books and I tried to make an identica, but you cannot do one. You can read every Maigret that he’s written and you never know whether his hair is red or brown, or the color of his eyes. People think that he’s stocky, but actually he’s tall—that was mentioned in just one book. Maigret has no age, so if he matures ten years in forty years it doesn’t matter. When my husband created Maigret, he was already, then, ageless and timeless. It was an unconscious feat of creation, whereas I think that when you created Bond you had a precise image of him.
Fleming: Quite. One thing would interest me to know. I’m a collector of rare editions, a bibliophile. Which is the rarest of Monsieur Simenon’s books? The smallest edition, for instance?
Mme. Simenon: The smallest edition is not a novel. It’s called Le Roman de l’Homme and it was published afterwards in a very limited edition in France.
Simenon: We keep it a little confidential, actually. Of course, from a bibliophile’s point of view the rarest of my books is Le Pont des Arches—my first book, which I wrote at the age of sixteen. It’s now completely disappeared, except that I have one copy here. I wrote it when I thought I was going to be a humorist. But they didn’t understand it—because of the humour.
Mme. Simenon: Actually, it’s been republished.
Fleming: That doesn’t count from a bibliophile’s point of view.
(A servant comes in with whisky and soda for everyone except M. Simenon who has a glass of iced tea.)
Mme. Simenon: Tell me, Mr. Fleming, why did you have such a bad review of your last book in Newsweek?
Fleming: Did I really? I had a wonderful review in the Herald Tribune—he compared with Shakespeare and heaven knows what all; tremendous stuff. But The New York Times! Anthony Boucher has always hated my books.
Simenon: He hates my books too.
Fleming: Do you pay much attention to your reviews, M. Simenon?
Simenon: No, my wife sometimes shows me one or two and that’s all. I don’t read them.
Fleming: Actually, I’m as interested in my bad reviews as I am in my good ones. Occasionally one gets someone who really sees the point and then, of course, one is delighted. But the bad reviews interest me just as much because very often they deal with a legitimate complaint, which I am very interested to read. I regard my oeuvres in a very humble fashion.
Simenon: So do I!
Fleming: So I really don’t mind if somebody gives me a kick in the pants. I think I deserve it anyway. If you go out into the market-place, you must expect plenty of tomatoes among the roses.