“When I Was Old” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)
Leafing through – some of – life’s back pages
While the scope may sound narrow, Simenon took the opportunity in these three years to range over many aspects of his full and productive life, candidly recalling observations, experiences, anxieties and “all the silly ideas that pass through my head”.
It is not really a “diary”, though some details of his domestic life are described. The central interest lies in what Simenon says about himself as a social observer, a thinker, a writer. What emerges is a picture of a troubled, insecure man: one capable of deep compassion and empathetic understanding, but also a man who seems blind to how damaging to the relationship which matters most to him is his morbid obsession with fleeting sexual encounters.
There are satisfying and interesting passages where Simenon reflects on “justice” and expresses his strong reservations about the nature of “punishment”. These should not surprise anyone who has read a number of his 75 Maigret books (and Simenon has some interesting comments about those too).
The celebrated author – with some 391 titles that have sold somewhere in the region of 800 million books translated into many languages (whatever the accurate figures are) – ruthlessly examines his tortuous writing methods, his past, his fame, his intimate relationships and his fears of ageing.
These are the meditations of a very successful writer seemingly having a bit of a midlife crisis, the notebook jottings of one who has had an enviable range of experiences for 40 years and is now settling down to family life with his children and a wife he obviously loves to distraction, and who obviously loves him judging by what she seems to put up with. But apart from periodic ailments we are told very little about her.
The irritation of having swarms of journalists and others trying to discover the secrets of his success comes across well, though it is clear that he also enjoys the adulation. He respects and enjoys the company of doctors and engineers, people who do something whose work produces benefits that are immediately perceptible.
His reflections on the state of the world, the universe and everything are occasionally profound but more often rather superficial. Still, he does have capacity for self-criticism, managing often to stand outside himself and recognise that he may be mistaken and is able to change his mind.
Simenon offers his thoughts on ageing and human frailty, turning a penetrating gaze on his own personal life and impending death, and drawing some valuable lessons from it. Perhaps it is the rambling of a man reaching a certain age, where he begins to realise time may be running out and decides to scribble down what comes to mind for the benefit of his offspring and perhaps his admirers
The feeling is that he’s chatting to you as he would to a good friend, and the result is an unsparing, often painfully revealing insight into a man trying both to find and to escape himself.
Simenon chose the following quote for the front of the book. It is by French physiologist Claude Bernard in the year of his death, 1878: “I only did what I could, no more than I could… “ Simenon would go on to live until 1989, dying at the age of 86 in Lausanne, Switzerland. He published two further autobiographical works, “Letter to My Mother” in 1974 and “Mémoires intimes” (Intimate Memoirs) in 1981.