A look behind the scenes
Non-fiction: When I Was Old, Georges Simenon, Penguin Modern Classics, pbk, 464 pages, €11.75
It's November and you're writing in your diary, weighing up the year. You've begun to fret a little because, yes, you've only written three novels since January. Who are you? Why, Georges Simenon of course. Towards the end of 2013, Penguin announced that it would publish all 75 of Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels, at a rate of one a month. They've been as good as their word, with 36 published to date.
When I Was Old is a kind of companion piece to this series: three diary-style notebooks that the author filled between the summer of 1960 and early 1963. Simenon was 57 at this point and keeping a diary was a novelty. He tells you he's keeping it so his children will know who he really was, but you suspect it was a way of unwinding, a kind of doodling for the compulsive writer.
If you're looking for the intimate details of his life, you won't find them here. He used to get his wife to read his entries as he went along, so there's a degree of self-censorship from the beginning. But that's not to say you don't get well acquainted with the 'real' Simenon - or one version of him.
When I Was Old makes you feel he's chatting to you as he would to a good friend. The Simenon of the statistics (books written, women bedded) recedes into the background and Simenon the man comes to the fore.
At this point in his life, Maigret's creator is living in a grand house outside Lausanne with his wife and three young children. He has a maid, a chauffeur and a cook (with whom he's carrying on an affair which never makes the pages of the diary). He takes an hour-long bath each morning before getting a massage, reading the papers, and having a mooch around town. Simenon paints himself here as a devoted father and husband, a man who would rather have his feet up by the fire in his study than have Charlie Chaplin and Henry Miller around to dinner.
There are a few reflections on his work, but not too many. He talks about his "craftsman's conscience" and attributes his success to simply having won "the literary lottery". His novels are marked by their quick pace, their focus on people's actions, and the absence of abstract ideas and long descriptive passages. Here, he allows himself a free rein, often commenting on the events of the day, from De Gaulle (whom he disparages) to the Congo (where, he believes, there will be no peace until "the financial cartel" says so). You get the impression he would enjoy the Panama Papers.
Simenon's life-long project was "to look behind the scenes". When he first came to Paris he had a bar in the apartment he rented on the Place des Vosges and he would invite people up for drinks. "The later it grew, the more people who must have been impressive in their offices became accessible, often pitiable." These evenings gave him a life-long mistrust of self-assurance and fuel for hundreds of plots.
You don't have to be a die-hard fan to like this book. If you've only read two or three Maigrets, you'll enjoy it.
When I Was Old gives you the illusion of making a friend - and it sends you back to his fiction, which, I suppose, is all part of the plan. The minute I finished it, I went out and bought one of his freshly reprinted thrillers.