London Review of Books’ John Lanchester talks to Thomas Jones about Georges Simenon, whose output was so prodigious that even he didn’t know how many books he wrote.
Thomas Jones: Hello, and welcome to the London Review of Books podcast. My name is Thomas Jones, and today I’m talking to John Lanchester, who’s written a piece in the current issue of the LRB about Georges Simenon and his 75 Maigret novels, which Penguin have just finished reissuing in new translations. Hello, John.
John Lanchester: Hi Tom. Thanks for having me.
TJ: Thank you for joining me. And I thought we could begin where you begin your piece with Simenon’s ‘colossal output’, as you put it, and that nobody knows how many books he actually wrote, though it was probably more than four hundred, which is fewer than Barbara Cartland, but still puts the rest of us to shame.
JL: He didn’t half crack on, that’s true. Yes, he started as a young man in Liège, his home town in Belgium. And he got a job as a reporter on the local paper. I think he was not quite 16, which is properly strange. It’s like something out of a high concept kid’s TV show, you know, Georges Simenon – Boy Reporter, and very early on latched onto the idea of making money through writing.He began writing when he was 18, his first book came out when he was 19. He started writing every sort of potboiler, thrillers, romances, sort of semi-porn westerns, things like that, at an absolutely astounding rate of productivity. And his target was eighty pages a day, typewritten, and even on the assumption that the pages … I mean, a short page would be 150 words and it could well have been more, but it was 10,000 words a day, and he did that every single day. And then he’d write eighty pages, and then he’d go and be sick. Just from the physical and mental exertion and the strain. That was in the morning. And then he’d recover and do a bit of light reading and pottering about. And then the next day he did the same again, over and over and over for about seven years. And in that period, as you’ve mentioned, we don’t know exactly how many, because he forgot, and he had multiple pseudonyms. The main one being Georges Sim, which was how he was known when he began writing the Simenon novels. People thought that Simenon was a pseudonym because George Sim was so well known, but he seems to have written about 150 or more books in this seven-year burst. It makes you feel peculiar even to think about what that must have been like.