And now for something completely (well, maybe not completely) different

by Nicolette Stasko

Interviewer: Well, hello Nicolette, glad you could make it.

NS: Thanks, happy to be here.

Interviewer: Just a few straightforward questions to get started.

NS: Fire away.

Interviewer: Is your nationality American?

NS: No, I’m Australian.

Interviewer: What are you reading at the moment?

NS: I had dinner with my Inspector Maigret supplier last week and now have a new stock of Simenon. I chose A Crime in Holland to read first, as it sounded the least ‘dark’, hoping not to get too excited or addicted because I have to finish this post. But I’m already halfway through and resisting the urge to keep reading! Along with the novels, which by the way are correctly termed romans dur (not roman noir as I said in ‘Apologia with Rave’, probably because they generally don’t contain the element of surrealism that noir often exhibits), my bibliophile friend also included a study of Simenon by Lucille Becker. So I can get my hit without too much guilt. Crime or detective fiction has always been considered a poor cousin or lesser genre of the novel. Although it may still be a subgenre, in the last decade or so, it has gained a great deal of respect and critical attention particularly in the hands of a master like Georges Simenon.

Interviewer: Why such an interest in this Belgian crime writer?

NS: I mentioned that he was born and grew up in Liege. I’m never certain why some authors/books attract and others don’t (see essay below) but I have a notion that it may have something to do with knowledge or experience of the place the novel is set, among other things. By coincidence in my younger days I spent many months in a little village outside of Liege picking apples and waiting for the kombi van to be repaired. We went to the city fairly often and I still have a pair of beautiful six-inch heel Italian boots I bought there. (How I walked in them all over Europe I’ll never know!) So there’s a lot in Simenon’s books I recognise, especially the atmosphere. When a journalist asked him why it always rained in his novels, Simenon answered, ‘it rains in my novels because it pours in Liege 180 days a year’[1]. How true! This area is one of the least inspiring in Western Europe—flat, monotonous and grey, with weather from the North Sea bringing constant rain, the mood and colours of the landscape are not unlike those that characterise his novels.

Interviewer: Sounds rather depressing. Are all the novels set in the same area?

NS: Interestingly, though I haven’t by any means read all of his work, Simenon tends to reinhabit this area of Northern Europe and especially Paris where Maigret is based at the Police Judiciaire on the Quai des Orfèvres as part of the ‘flying squad’. I have been fortunate enough to spend a fair amount of time in Paris and find my familiarity with that city also enhances the novels. Some early ones I’ve read, set in the South, are imbued with a kind of wonder at the bright sunshine and in A Crime in Holland, the ‘limpidity’ of the light and air is continually noted. It makes a real contrast.

Interviewer: So besides the setting of the novels what else compels you to read these ‘Maigrets’ as I gather they’re called?

NS 4 1Simenon writes directly on the typewriter. He types very quickly and without ever crossing out.
It takes him two months to write a novel[2]

NS: One of the things Simenon is famous for—besides his numerous love affairs—is how prolific he was. Those of us who may be haunted by recurring ‘writers’ block’ might find his work habits (described in the caption above) a matter of envy. A great deal is made of the fact that at his death in 1989 he is credited with producing 573 works (190 potboilers signed with 17 pseudonyms, 358 novels and short stories signed Simenon, 25 autobiographical works, 30 series of articles for the French press and a ballet scenario.) One wonders how he had time to sleep with anyone! Becker argues rightly that the ‘sheer magnitude of his output obscured their literary merits’.[3]

Interviewer: What then would do you think are the ‘literary merits’?

NS: Well in the words of Julian Barnes, it doesn’t sound like much. That’s the extraordinary thing about his work: ‘Simenon got away with a very restricted and therefore very repetitive vocabulary (about 2,000 words, by his own estimation) – he didn’t want any reader to have to pause over a word, let alone reach for the dictionary. He kept his books very short, able to be read in one sitting, or (often) journey: none risks outstaying its welcome. He eschews all rhetorical effect – there is rarely more than one simile per book, and no metaphors, let alone anything approaching a symbol. There is text, but no subtext; there is plot but no subplot – or rather, what appears to be possible subplot usually ends up being part of the main plot. There are no literary or cultural allusions, and minimal reference to what is going on in the wider world of French politics, let alone the international arena. There is also–both admirable positive and enviable negative – no authorial presence, no authorial judgement, and no obvious moral signposts. Which helps make Simenon’s fiction remarkably like life’.[4]

Interviewer: So besides your ‘supplier’, you’re not the only one who has ‘rediscovered’ Simenon?

NS: No, not at all. The TLS ran another review by Tim Parks of recently published translations: A Man’s Head and A Crime in Holland—but since that is the book I’m in the middle of I’m not reading the article until I’ve finished.

Interviewer: You sound completely addicted.

NS: Well yes I guess, although I still have 278 pages left to read of Bleak House which I will get around to. But if for nothing else (which seems evidenced by Dickens’ life as well) I agree with Simenon: ‘Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy’.

Interviewer: Care to explain?

NS: I think I already have.

Interviewer: A few questions about your work… Did you write that claim on the Glass Cathedrals SALT web page about you being ‘one of the best loved poets in Australia’?

NS: no, I didn’t write any of the blurbs or media.

Interviewer: Do you think it’s true?

NS: I have absolutely no idea but I doubt it. It’s probably not a good idea to believe everything you read.

Interviewer: Would you like to comment on whether you consider yourself to be a nature poet or not?

NS: My last book under rats with Vagabond made reference to cats, rats, bats, spiders, deer, wasps and hummingbirds! Not in that order. In fact I am planning to write the definitive study on the life and habits of the Peruvian Marvellous Spatuletail (Loddigesia mirabilis) if I get a grant. Just kidding.

NS 4 2Loddigesia mirabilis – Gould Troch. pl. 161 (detail).jpg

Interviewer: I notice that you often use the word ‘seeing’ in a distinctive way. Care to comment on that?

NS: It’s probably a hangover from the John Berger era when his book Ways of Seeing made quite a splash in the 70’s. But the best way of explaining is with an early essay I published in a small journal out of Hobart. I think it only lasted for four or five issues but it was very ambitious and interesting. My essay is extremely ideal and somewhat romantic but twenty years ago we were all, I think, a lot less cynical. I still consider it a good piece of writing. I like the earnestness and am still impressed by the erudition I’m probably incapable of now. So at the least it can be read as a bit of Australian literary history or nostalgia[5].


Interviewer: Would you like to comment on this blogging experience?

NS: There is something I’d like to mention and that’s the library. As I said earlier I live in a very small terrace with not much room for books. So obviously borrowing is important to me. I’m still a Luddite and love the actuality of pages over electronics.

NS 4 9

It is really awful to find that almost every book I brought home for these posts (I can’t find my copy of Self Portrait. Someone must have borrowed it!) had been written over as if the reader didn’t have access to paper! I know the guidelines state that the blog is not for whinging etc but it really annoys me that someone might think that another reader would be interested in their drivel. I guess that’s one good thing about books on-line. So here’s another poem I wrote many years ago.

Reading in Bed

I love old books
except when they were owned
by students
and other earnest types
scored in black lines
asking questions that
can never be answered
Wallace Stevens’ Collected
thick cream pages heavy wine
dark cover
filled with bright blue ink
when you open it

Elizabeth Bishop  just now
quietly Questions of Travel
each hard gained insight
marked carefully
pencilled comments
so obvious
the poem unable to speak
for itself it seems
whole sections ruled
block wisdom
swallowed like a dose
and delicacy
of line and phrase
I sit here
filling the bed
with eraser crumbs

Interviewer: I guess it still holds true…A final comment?

NS: I’ve found these posts interesting and challenging because it’s not the way I normally write and I’ve come to admire those people who do it weekly on a regular basis. The immediacy of it is a little scary. My poetry has been described as ‘immediate’ and ‘intimate’—probably far too much for some people’s taste— but the difference is that it takes so long for a poem to appear and there is the distance that a poem, as a ‘thing’ or form, provides. And of course there are always regrets for what one could have, but didn’t write about…

NS 4 10Bleak House with glass of wine


[1] Maurice Piron, ‘Georges Simenon est son milieu natal’ in Simenon, Cistre Essais, Lausanne: Editions l’Age d’Homme, 1980, p38, quoted in Lucille Becker, Georges Simenon: ‘Maigrets’ and the ‘romans durs’, London: Haus Publishing Ltd., 2006, p3.

[2] Paris Match, Number 217, May 16-23, 1953, pp 56-57.

[3] Becker, p. viii.

[4] Julian Barnes, ‘Georges Simenon Returns’

[5] Siglo, Francisco Ascui and Kirsten Dunlop (eds.), Hobart: Diogenes Press, 1994, pp. 15-20.

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