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When I was Old
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B+ : convivial; interesting (if somewhat blinkered) glimpse into (this) writer's life
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The complete review's Review:
In a short Preface, from 1969, just before publishing these notebooks that he had set aside some six years earlier, prolific novelist Georges Simenon explains that at the beginning of that decade: "I began feeling old, and I began keeping notebooks" -- a reflective sort of writing he had apparently never previously done. From the summer of 1960 through mid-1961 he wrote regularly in them, the entries then petering out for the conclusion of 1961 and early 1962, with only one final entry from 1963, ten months after the previous one; the notebooks had served their purpose and he had moved on (more completely than he acknowledges in the Preface or anywhere else here, as it turns out). As he notes in that Preface:
Soon I shall be sixty-seven and I have not felt old for a long time. I no longer feel the need to write in notebooksThoughts of mortality seems to have been one of the motivations for starting them -- premature thoughts, as it turned out (and as he apparently better recognized in 1969), as Simenon lived until 1989. Indeed, he notes near the end that his preöccupation with this sort of journal-keeping seems to have coïncided with a period of poor health, with frequent dizzy spells, and once he was more or less over that and more active again -- including taking up golf -- he largely lost interest in continuing them (and, indeed: "I've come very near to destroying these notebooks").
The notebooks were originally not intended for publication: Simenon was writing a sort of testament to and for his children, explaining and revealing himself to them. Early on, as he's just beginning this undertaking, he writes:
These notebooks are definitely not destined for publication, and, I believe, if I go on, that I will ask my heirs to destroy them after reading them.It's not too long before he seems to get more comfortable with the idea of this being a public record, too -- though he notes several times that wife D. (Denyse Ouimet) -- reading along -- has a final editorial say on what goes in the final record.
Simenon does not abandon his fiction-writing during this period, still keeping up his usual pace, if occasionally slightly delayed. Novel-writing is still done in explosive bursts -- an intense week or so to complete a novel, and then a bit more time for revisions -- and among the fascinating things in these notebooks is his slow build-up to each novel ("to write a novel I need almost a month of peace without any disturbances (seven to eight days of writing, it is true, but to get into the mood and identify with my characters it takes me longer and longer"), the itch of ideas and characters coming together ("I begin to feel a novel coming on"), the sharpened pencils prepared, until he feels he's ready -- and then the week of notebook-silence, followed by the announcement of yet another completed work. But he is soon won over, at least for a while, by this notebook-writing exercise as well:
I'm beginning to understand why so many writers have kept a notebook, a journal. You write freely, without thinking of the reader. It's chatting with yourself.But he also finds:
I see too, with annoyance, that I use words here that I never use in my novels because I don't trust them: abstract words, vague or overfamiliar words, fashionable words. Put another way, because I am trying to give voice to a few minor ideas, I adopt unintentionally the vocabulary of after-dinner talk.That's part of the appeal for the reader, however. Simenon isn't offering so much a day-to-day diary -- he does describe, in broad strokes and the occasional close detail, events of the day and his (and his family's) daily routines, at home and traveling, but he's also very conscious about offering a bigger picture: an autobiographical overview of the stations of his life, his attitude about a variety of matters -- politics ("I'm not interested in politics. But I'm still intrigued by a problem posed by politics: that of sincerity and insincerity"), sex, love, alcohol (he calls himself an alcoholic, and admits he was close to becoming a full-fledged one; during this period he only drinks intermittently (though tending to arguably over-indulge on those rare occasions)), and, above all, writing, both his and more generally. And all in an agreeably conversational style. He is also particularly devoted to and concerned with family here, paying attention to his four children at their various stages of development -- the youngest of four here barely a toddler, the oldest already just married. Among his concerns -- showing his age, or rather his feeling old, part of the general feeling that led him to write these notebooks -- is the legacy he leaves his children, from concerns about where they might want to live after his death to the type of father-figure he wants to be.
Simenon, comfortably trying to live the more quiet and sedentary life in Switzerland at this point, also reflects on his earlier days, fascinating summaries of just how active he was: there are only brief mentions of his round-the-world trip -- some in almost ridiculously abbreviated summary: "Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, India, etc. Also Russia, Turkey, Egypt ..." --, or his years living in the United States (where several of his children were born), but, for example, a nice short section on how he traveled the canals of France in the mid-1920 in a ridiculously small boat, complete with his first wife, a maid, and dog, and would set up his typewriter on the shore to get in his forty to eighty (!) daily pages. The restlessness and constant moving about -- all the while churning out book after book -- stand in contrast to the more quiet, domestic life that dominates as he writes these pages -- though here too there are the long vacations with family and occasional shorter trip; still, the notebooks cover a period of relative calm, and it's telling that one of the last entries, from February 1962, has him excited about the very sudden decision to leave their current home and build a new one, a plot of land quickly chosen, an architect hired .....
Early on he describes a variety of visits from and with journalists, assigned to profile the him -- Simenon putting up with the same old questions and accepting with a shrug that what they write corresponds only vaguely with reality. These notebooks, he suggests, might get closer to the truth -- one reason for writing them may be: "to try to re-establish the truth" -- and he makes a good show of presenting himself straightforwardly honestly (admitting also occasionally that he may be deluding himself). He works at seeming unpretentious -- and still remains concerned that he may have: "unconsciously wound up taking myself seriously" -- with sometimes odd results, including how he presents the easy comfort he lives in ("The Rolls delivered day before yesterday" -- though he admits some concern about: "the snobbism attached to it"). (One subject he declines to talk about with his interviewers is money -- but his easy wealth is hard for them to ignore; he doesn't write much about it either, able to affect the nonchalance of those who do not have to worry about it (though he reminds himself and readers of the earlier days of struggle -- always knowing how to make ends meet, but often having to put a great deal into it, whether in working seemingly endless hours or selling the first editions he had accumulated as an adolescent).)
Especially early on, the notebooks seem written, in part, as answer or counterpart to the magazine-profiles he's subjected to, as if he wants to set the record straight. Of course, his is also -- just differently -- a subjective picture of how he sees himself -- as amusingly also suggested by the fact that he takes issue even with the (arguably as objective as it gets) photographs of him:
And I don't like the photographs they have made of me any better -- especially the ones which the others consider good. I don't recognize myself.Though he doesn't put it this way, Simenon clearly wants to be in control -- especially of his image -- though he's careful in how he presents himself; after all:
I have known two men who believed themselves or knew themselves to be great men, behaved as such, without shame: Anatole France and André Gide.Certainly, the attitude Simenon affects throughout is of being true first and foremost to himself, of doing as he pleases and very much going his own way -- deferring only, for example, to the occasional honor which he feels he can not avoid accepting (though when there are rumors of him being in the running for the Nobel Prize he claims: "The Nobel would have given me pleasure a few years ago. Now I'm not sure I would accept it").
By this time, Simenon has written an enormous number of books -- "169th, 170th novel ? I no longer know. So many figures are published" -- but remains as productive as previously. Among the works completed during this time are notable ones such as Betty and The Train -- Simenon expressing just a twinge of disappointment how, for example, Betty receives barely any critical acknowledgement. He admits:
I would like so much to be indifferent to opinion. Entirely indifferent. I manage to be in what concerns me personally. Not yet in what concerns my characters, as if, in my eyes, they are more important than myself.There are interesting titbits about his approaches to writing, and his general attitude, such as:
for years my chief effort has been to simplify, to suppress, to make my style as neutral as possible in order to make it fit as closely as possible the thoughts of my characters.Or, practically the antithesis of MFA/workshop(ped) writing:
I prefer the approximate word, the ordinary, the first at hand to the precise word which has slowed down thought for even a few seconds and by that fact has robbed it of spontaneity.He also describes the difficulty he has revising his texts, and how he doesn't retain much memory of what he's written, always moving on instead.
Simenon's notoriously active sex-life is only partly addressed; among the amusing suggestions of how much it is on his mind comes as he waits for D and his son at the hairdresser, playing ping pong, wistfully observing: "I too play with little balls, and it relaxes me, like playing with a new pair of breasts". He differentiates between love and sex, and claims wife D is accepting of his sleeping around but, devoted though he largely seems to be to D, there are obvious tensions which are only vaguely hinted at -- medical and psychological issues among them.
He does not tally or even go into, at any length, his present-day conquests along the way; he does mention some past times of great (and more desperate) activity; he does sum up , however, that:
I make love simply, healthily, as often as necessary, but I'm not in the grip of any compulsion. I am not driven by any neurosis; only by a need.One of the main problems with When I was Old isn't apparent from and in the text itself -- beyond the late, final entry, that has Simenon and D having been apart for a full month. Readers may, however, be aware that the separation soon would become permanent -- indeed, had been for several years by the time this volume was first published, when Simenon's family circumstances had been radically upended yet again. So also the family-idyll -- and he does seem to try be a good, devoted family man, taking time for and interest in the children -- reads differently with the knowledge of what came after, most notably with daughter Marie-Jo a suicide at twenty-five, much of this then related at much greater length in what was nevertheless a similar exercise, Simenon's massive Intimate Memoirs (1981).
If some darker shadows loom over this would-be record, When I was Old is, on its own, nevertheless charming and very enjoyable, a fascinating account of the life of the writer, past and present. Yes, as it turns out, it's obvious that far too much is left out and not addressed -- but that doesn't diminish the reading pleasure of the text as is. There is quite a bit of insight into the man and his writing, and his approach to writing -- and there's no question he's a fascinating character.
Well worthwhile -- with the understanding that it's only part of the (likely considerably darker real) story.
- M.A.Orthofer, 16 December 2018
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Belgian author Georges Simenon (1903-1989) wrote hundreds of books, and is especially famous for his detective-fiction.
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