The novel in 11 days

The contrast between Nabokov and Georges Simenon as novelists is about as great as it can get, short of caricature.  Nabokov and Hemingway, for example, would be caricature.  Possibly, Hemingway and Hemingway is caricature.

Nabokov and Simenon, however, are still within coo-ee of each other, though their results and methods were very different, as was their congeniality as interview subjects.  In his interview with The Paris Review in 1967 Nabokov is the nightmare subject – arch, facetious, overweening — Simenon, on the other hand, is forthcoming and transparent.

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) is most famous for the Inspector Maigret detective novels, novels he churned out by the dozen.  What’s less well-known about Simenon — at least until the recent reawakening of interest led by the writer, John Banville, and the New York Review Books republication of some of his oeuvre — is that he also wrote many “serious” novels which are virtuoso lessons in that magical ingredient of any artwork: atmosphere.

What he says about atmosphere in The Paris Review interview is fascinating.  He reveals it is central to his very method.  What’s also fascinating is that he cheerfully volunteers exact details about this method, a method that resulted in 550 million copies of his work being in print today. (1)

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At any time, Simenon says, he has two or three themes in his mind.  They’re not things that “might serve for a novel”, rather, “they are things about which I worry.”  Two days before the writing is to begin – intriguing, this precision – a couple of things happen.  First, he “finds” some atmosphere.

Today there is a little sunshine here. I might remember such-and-such a spring, maybe in some small Italian town, or some place in the French provinces or in Arizona … and then, little by little, a small world will come into my mind, with a few characters.

Second, he consciously takes up one of the “themes” that has been circulating in his mind, and then this theme or idea “will come and stick around [the characters]”:

They will have the same problem I have in my mind myself.  And the problem – with those people – will give me the novel.

Immediately after – “because as soon as I have the beginning I can’t bear it very long” – Simenon would take an envelope, a telephone book and a town map.  On the envelope he’d put the names of the characters, their ages, their families; the telephone book he’d mine for names; and with the map, he’d “see exactly where things happen.”  Then two days later, in every case, he’d begin writing.

Not only is he precise about the interval before starting, the whole production runs to a suicidal timetable.

After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day.  Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel.  If, for example, I am ill for forty-eight hours, I have to throw away the previous chapters.  And I never return to that novel.

At the end of 11 days – the limit of his endurance – he’d have his book.

This was the method by which Simenon created scores and scores of novels, both the Inspector Maigrets, and the serious novels, the two forms of writing he calls his “non-commercial” writing.  His “commercial writing”, a thing of the past by this stage in his life, were the “stories for magazines and things of that kind” that he wrote to earn his living in the beginning.

Simenon is particularly interesting when he distinguishes between the non-commercial and the commercial writing.  In fact, he makes the same distinction between the two I was groping towards in distinguishing between writing and blogging, and he makes it on similar grounds.

For him, commercial work – “I didn’t call it writing” – is that which is done “for such-and-such a public or for a certain kind of publication or for a particular collection.”  Commercial works can be very poor or very good, even wonderful,

but very seldom can they be works of art, because a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers.

And when the interviewer asks in what way would this show up, Simenon answers pithily,

in the concessions.

The interviewer asks, “To the idea that life is orderly and sweet, for example?”

But Simenon is too toughminded for such pussyfooting.  He answers:

And the view of morals.  Maybe that is the most important.  You can’t write anything commercial without accepting some code.  There is always a code …

Funny how this business of writing always comes back to morality.  It was the very first question Nabokov was asked, and here it is again, raised this time by the interviewee.

***

Simenon was blessed in his interviewer, a man called Carvel Collins.  Unlike Nabokov’s all-too-evident Gold, Collins is not obsequious or obstrusive.  In fact, one of the most satisfying things about the interview is a non-question, a question that wasn’t asked: Mr Simenon: what drives your faintly pathological work rate?

In asking it, Collins would have received an answer trimmed to fit an answer-like space.  In not asking it, he elicits a stimulating picture of a man engaged on a grand and never-ending journey of problem-solving and “problem-finding”, as Richard Sennett, the sociologist, happily describes the general practice of craft.

It’s an image, this “craftsman” one, that Simenon would own with gladness:

I am an artisan; I need to work with my hands.  I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood.  My characters – I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional.  And I would like to make a man so that everybody, looking at him, would find his own problems in this man.

***

Notes

1. Wikipedia

Images: Simenon, courtesy of Wikipedia (top)

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16 thoughts on “The novel in 11 days

  1. Another fascinating glimpse into creativity! I can’t imagine a work style like that.

    Your comment on Hemingway and Hemingway as a possible caricature is interesting. When I was an undergraduate I took an English paper called Great Literature vs. Popular Literature. The idea was to read similar books on similar topics to see how great and popular compare and contrast. Very elitist.

    This was in the US and we did Dr. Faustus by Mann vs. The Exorcist, Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner vs. Gone With the Wind, Pride and Prejudice vs. a Harlequin Mills & Boon and lastly we did The Sun Also Rises vs. Across the River and Into the Trees both by Hemingway. We were supposed to figure out which what great and which was popular.

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    • I’d like to say I’d divined your undergrad assignment (which, I say, does sound very juicy if madly prejudicial — great vs popular!) but really I was being a smart-alec about the sainted Ern. The Sun Also Rises is v good, but the veneration of his writing I find bizarre. Then again, I didn’t realise he had a “high” style and a “low” style … could you tell?

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      • It was a fun paper. I, too, am not a big Hemingway groupie.

        The “correct” answer was Sun Also Rises is great while Across the River and Into the Trees is popular. If for no other reason that Hemingway himself said the best thing about the book was the money he earned from it! Across the River is really dull too.

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    • As a teacher of Hemingway for too many years to admit, may I venture a little guess?

      Across the River was great: The Sun Also Rises was popular?

      Hemingway’s Nick Adams’ stories are among his finest writing, in my view.

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  2. Narelle,
    Lots to digest in this post. Particularly curios is Simenon’s way of working. Methodical to a “T”. And yet, his manner is how I envision so many of the greats producing their writing. The characters or the environment or the theme lodge themselves in the writer’s mind/heart/spirit and nothing will rest.

    Last night, we were invited to sit in a sky box at the Giants’ baseball game. The woman who sat next to me was a writer, she said, with her third novel coming out. I asked her what her manner of work was: every morning, without exception, she makes her coffee and writes until noon.

    Upon further questioning (despite the din of baseball), she said her friends in Berkeley are the Chabon’s, Michael and his wife. I asked what his work habits were and she laughed outloud, almost losing her slider and peanuts. “Michael fusses around all morning, distracting himself, and writes only when he feels like it, ” she revealed.

    And on a totally unrelated note:

    The Giants were losing, the noise was deafening, so I looked to the left and there, 10 seats down, having a hotdog and beer, was Carlos Santana.

    Oye como va!

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    • hooray for Michael Chabon :) Not half as neurotic really as Simenon’s method. This matter of writing habits in the great is always fascinating, isn’t it? I like what you say about the theme lodging itself in the “writer’s mind/heart/spirit and nothing will rest”; that’s exactly how Simenon comes across in the interview when he’s talking about it. You can feel his agitation, his consciousness of the need for haste. PS. is a slider like a spider? or like a kettleholder?

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  3. I once attempted this method of writing and, frankly, it was difficult to do anything other than serious work. If it was a research text exploring some issue of historical significance, perhaps I could pull it off. However, attempting to do a novel in such a way would result in my final chapter being a string of obscenities and brain matter.

    I think you for, once again, posting something of intellectual merit and worth.

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    • Hi Posky. You’d be in the very best company then because Simenon too used to end up with a brain like mush. He’d even consult his doctor before starting. It’s interesting how much variation there is in the big writers’ methods. DH Lawrence used to write 3,000 words a day (brain quivers at thought), while Graham Greene, I think it was, used to throw down his pen in the middle of a sentence once he got to 500.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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