Sunday, February 22, 2009

Walking with Varèse

Avant-garde composer Edgar Varèse and Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, would seem to have little in common. But, during Simenon's five year post-war exile in America, Varèse was one of the few close friends he had in New York, and the two spent hours walking through Greenwich Village exchanging ideas. They were brought together as two Europeans in exile, rather than by a shared interest in contemporary music. Although Simenon said he modelled his multi-layered plots on the counterpoint of Bach's fugues, cited Schubert as an influence, and had moved in the same circles as Georges Auric and Igor Stravinsky in 1920s Paris, he listed his favourite music as Dixieland jazz.

In August 1945 the French Judiciary Police had ordered issued an expulsion order against Georges Simenon. During the German Occupation of France the opportunist novelist had walked a fine line between co-operation and collabaration to allow him to continue indulging his voracious appetite for chateau, boats and women. In 1942 Simenon granted exclusive rights to the Maigret character to the German controlled Continental film studio, and he had previously flirted with right-wing and anti-Semitic thinking. The expulsion order was not needed; Simenon had seen the writing on the wall at the end of the war, and had already fled to North America, where he finally settled in Lakeville, Connecticut. He returned to Europe in 1955 and died at his home in Switzerland in 1989.

Georges Simenon, who is seen in 1979 in my header photo, was a serial opportunist. Born in Liège, Belgium in 1903, he moved to France in 1922. He published 192 novels under his own name (including 75 Maigret stories), around 190 using 24 pseudonyms, hundreds of shorter pieces, and more than 20 autobiographical works. In addition there were numerous lucrative film and television adaptions of the Maigret stories. Simenon's personal life was as prolific as his literary output, and his approach to it was as distasteful as his political views. Married twice, his high profile affairs included one with the 'Créole Goddess' Josephine Baker. In 1977 the 73 year old Simenon gave an interview to the director of the film Casanova, Federico Fellini. The following passage is illuminating, even if the maths do not stand close inspection:
You know, Fellini, I think I've been a better Casanova than you. A year or two ago I figured out that since the age of thirteen and a half I've had ten thousand women. It wasn't a vice. I had no sexual vices, just a need to communicate. And even the eight thousand prostitutes among these ten thousand were human beings, female human beings. I would have liked to have known all females. Unfortunately, because of my marriages I couldn't have real affairs. But the number of times I managed to make love on the run, so to speak, is improbable.
George Simenon's close friends in Europe included André Gide, Henry Miller, Jean Renoir and Jean Cocteau. But, many will say that there is little worth admiring about Georges Simenon except his books, and that these, like the operas of Wagner, are best judged on their own merit. But Simenon the control freak is also worth remembering. As well as a prolific writer he was a very astute and tough businessman. Early in his career he created the 'Maigret machine' to manage and exploit his output. Much of the continuing popularity of his books and media adaptions is due to the rigid control exercised over all aspects, including translation and television and film rights.

Georges Simenon's literary estate is now managed and owned by rights and licensing company Chorion through a subsidiary Simenon Ltd. Chorion also manage the estates of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and represent the Enid Blyton oeuvre . Simenon's son John is retained by Chorion. All this means that slim Maigret volumes written as far back as the 1930s still sell as full-priced Penguin Modern Classics paperbacks. Georges Simenon may only have walked with Edgar Varèse, but today's record companies could learn a few lessons from him about controlling their back-catalogue.

Pierre Assouline's Simenon
is the best biography of the novelist, my copy came from Norwich library. Header photo is from an excellent online survey of Simenon's work by David Howard. The 2002 film Laissez-passer about Continental Studios in wartime Paris is recommended. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said...

In the interests of academic rigour I should note that Georges Simenon's second wife, Denyse, scaled the estimates of his female conquests down to a more modest 1200.

Boydell and Brewer said...

May I make the blatantly commercial suggestion that anyone interested in reading more about Varèse should take a look at the beautifully-produced EDGARD VARESE: COMPOSER, SOUND SCULPTOR, VISIONARY edited by Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, published by the Boydell Press in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation?

davidderrick said...

I find this a slightly grudging portrait of Simenon. Biographers have felt the need to portray him as a monster, because that shapes a biography, and he certainly had defects, but they were human ones. His opportunistic sex was possible then, is frowned on now. He had a large appetite, but he didn't, by the standards of the time, force women into sex. Nor was he an obsessive or an exhibitionist.

He was a great novelist. “Je tiens Simenon pour un grand romancier, le plus grand peut-être et le plus vraiment romancier que nous ayons en littérature française aujourd’hui.” Gide.

His collaboration was a matter of keeping his life going, and it wasn't commendable at all. His youthful "antisemitism" was part of the lingua franca of the time and as far as I can see belongs to a few silly articles he wrote in his teens for the Gazette de Liège. A more typical reference to Jews is this in Les fiançailles de M. Hire, referring to a Jew under interrogation:

"How could he get a chance to describe the little shop in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, smelling of cloth and tailor’s chalk, the single back room where they had to live, the gas burning all day long, and old father Hire, so good, so dignified, so scrupulous in observing the rites of the Jewish religion? He might not have been French, but he wasn’t Russian either. He spoke only Yiddish, and his fat Armenian wife, as yellow as a quince, had never been able to understand him properly." In Chemin sans issue, he describes a returning Russian's pleasure at his first sight on the streets of Warsaw of a Jew in a fur-lined coat. And clearly takes pleasure in the Russian's pleasure. That doesn't suggest antisemitism.

He enjoyed his riches, but wasn't interested in money as a commodity and spent his last 15 years living in almost monastic simplicity.

The Varèse connection is interesting: he was visually literate, I didn't know about musically.