Those who know anything about Georges Simenon usually know at least three things. The first is that he divided his energies between detective novels and “straight” novels. The former made him one of the highest-earning writers in the world in the mid-twentieth century, and barred him from achieving the top-rung literary status that he longed for. The second thing is that he generally devoted only about a week and a half to writing a novel, a practice that, again, was good for his bank account and bad for his reputation. Finally—and this is a matter that Simenon discussed enthusiastically with journalists—he spent a great deal of his life having sex. Once, in an interview with his friend Federico Fellini, he claimed that he had been to bed with ten thousand women.
Simenon was born in 1903 in Liège, the main economic and cultural center of French-speaking Belgium. In his highly autobiographical coming-of-age novel “Pedigree” (1948), he described his home town as a place where there was almost nothing to do except go to school and to church. After Sunday dinner, Uncle Charles would show the photographs that he had recently taken of clouds over the general post office. Eventually, Simenon discovered books: Balzac, Dumas, Dickens, the usual list for boys of his period. He also found another interest: girls. His description of his deflowering takes your breath away. He and Renée—he was twelve, she fifteen—were in the woods. He climbed a holly tree, to pick berries for her, and descended bleeding, from the thorns. She told him to lie down, and she licked the blood off. Then she pulled down his shorts and climbed onto him. “It hurt like mad,” he recalled. “She practically circumcised me.” Soon, however, he tried again and became a fan for life.
Simenon adored his father, Désiré. In “Pedigree,” too, the father is called Désiré, and, like the real one, is a minor agent in an insurance company. A sweet-natured, unambitious, and dignified man, he stands in his church pew “as calm as a saint in a stained-glass window.” He loves his lunch, his newspaper, his chair in the kitchen, and, undemonstratively, his son, Roger (the Simenon character). By contrast, the mother, Élise, has screaming quarrels with the boy. Élise is as unhappy as Désiré is happy. She weeps and throws fits daily. Her greatest concern is money. The family is petit-bourgeois, but only barely. Against Désiré’s wishes, Élise takes lodgers into their small apartment. Soon, when Désiré comes home from work, someone is sitting in his chair, reading his newspaper.
Simenon was a disobliging child, and once he reached adolescence all he wanted was to get out of Liège. He quit school at fifteen, and he went to work writing for a local newspaper. Soon, he began writing novels as well. The first was published when he was eighteen. That year, Désiré died, of angina pectoris, at forty-four. A year later, Simenon left town. He came back home for two days to marry his fiancée—Tigy (Régine) Renchon, a painter, and apparently more a friend than a lover. The two of them settled in Paris, and Simenon didn’t cross his mother’s doorstep again for almost thirty years.
This productive man now became more so. In the next seven years, he brought out more than a hundred and fifty novels and novellas. All were unabashed pulp—Westerns (e.g., “The Eye of Utah”), adventure tales (“The White Monster of Tierra del Fuego”), and what he called “spicy” stories (“A Girl Who Learned a Thing or Two”)—published under pseudonyms. Tigy quit painting in order to help him. They hired a housekeeper, Henriette Liberge, nineteen years old, whom Simenon nicknamed Boule, or “ball” (she was plump), and he made her his mistress in short order. Other lovers came later, and he visited brothels frequently. Every morning, he sat down and completed his self-assigned daily quota of eighty typewritten pages. Then he would vomit, from the tension, and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing. Thus, by the age of twenty-seven, he had established the pattern of his life: lots of books, lots of women. In the words of his excellent biographer, Pierre Assouline, “the train was on its way.”
But Simenon was discontented with being a writer of potboilers. In 1931, he produced the first novels that he was willing to sign his name to. They were detective stories, about a police superintendent named Jules Maigret.
At the opening of a Maigret novel, as of any detective novel, a body drops, and at the end of the book we find out who did it. But the point of the Maigret stories is by no means the plot. The dénouement, which, in classic detective stories, is usually the crucial matter, often makes only a slight impression in the Maigret novels. In many cases, the culprit turns out to be the person we suspected all along, or the opposite— someone out of left field, a person we’ve never met before. Julian Symons, an expert on the detective novel, claimed that the Maigret novels were not really part of that genre, because, he said, Simenon was not interested in detection.
What interested him was his characters and the world they moved through. The central matter in the Maigret novels is Maigret. We see him more clearly than we do any other character in Simenon’s fiction. In most of the books he is middle-aged, and a famous man. Because he is the head of the homicide police, his picture is frequently in the papers. When he gets into a taxi, the driver often says, “Where to, Inspector?” He is tall (five feet eleven) and broad-shouldered. He smokes a pipe almost continuously, as did Simenon. He likes to drink. Not rarely, he will stop in a bar by 10 A.M. He also loves to eat, and he is no longer thin.
Which brings us to his wife. As one critic said, Mme. Maigret looks after her husband as if he were a toddler. She makes splendid meals for him, not just at dinnertime but also for lunch. Often, he does not arrive to eat them, because he is out solving crimes, but if Maigret misses the foie de veau en papillote at lunch he still gets the chicken with tarragon for dinner.
Appropriately, Maigret’s first encounter with this woman has to do with food. In what is probably Simenon’s most poignant book, “Maigret’s Memoirs” (1951), our hero remembers a time when he was an apprentice policeman, on a bike. A friend invites him to a party given by some government people. He goes, but he feels awkward and ill-dressed. At one point, he is standing next to a full plate of petits fours. He reaches out for one, then, without thinking, another and another. Eventually, he looks down and sees, to his mortification, that he has eaten every last one of the little cakes. Furthermore, other guests have noticed and are staring at him in disbelief. At that moment, a girl in a blue dress comes up to him with another plate of petits fours. Would he like one? she asks, and advises him that the ones with the candied fruit on top are the best. This is the niece of the hosts, and what she is saying is that Maigret should have all the cake he wants. Her name is Louise, but she is almost never called that again, because she is soon Mme. Maigret.
This episode made me recall the chapter in “David Copperfield” where David, penniless and alone in the world—his mother has died in childbirth—walks all the way from London to Dover, to the home of his great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood. Miss Trotwood brusquely tells the maid to give him a bath and put him to bed. Then comes a paragraph famous in Western literature. David sits in darkness, gazing out the window, over the Channel,
looking at the moonlight on the water, as if I could hope to read my fortune in it, as in a bright book; or to see my mother with her child, coming from Heaven along that shining path, to look upon me as she had looked when I last saw her sweet face. . . . I remember how I thought of all the solitary places under the night sky where I had slept, and how I prayed that I never might be houseless any more.
Maigret’s mother, too, died in childbirth, when he was a boy. His father rarely spoke again. Maigret wanted to be a doctor and went to medical school for two years, but then the money ran out. He went to Paris and became a beat cop. Like David, he had no money, no protectors, no proper shoes. Much of the time, he was hungry. (Hence the petits-fours episode.) Unlike Dickens, Simenon is abstemious. In his account, there is no moonbeam, no mother. But when the girl in the blue dress appears, to save his honor, you feel, as with Copperfield, that an act of grace has occurred.
Simenon treats the Maigrets’ marriage in the same fashion: great emotion, greatly muted. On Sundays, they usually walk, arm in arm, to the movies. Every year, Mme. Maigret goes to visit her sister in Alsace for a month, and Maigret moves into a hotel, because he can’t bear to be at home when she’s not there. Physical exchanges between the two are seldom described. I know of only a few exceptions. In “Maigret and the Dead Girl” (1954), the superintendent turns around and kisses Mme. Maigret—in bed! I was very embarrassed.
The Maigret books are full of moral teachings. One is about the ordinariness of crime. In “The Bar on the Seine” (1931), a guest at a country weekend party is killed, and the police put up a roadblock. The neighbors find this a great nuisance, “especially for a small scale crime that had very little coverage in the newspapers.” In “Maigret and the Killer” (1969), a young man is stabbed to death on the sidewalk in front of a café. Four men playing cards in the café hear the commotion and go to the door, but they don’t venture out. It’s raining.
Correspondingly, in these books Simenon tends not to give us the violence straight on. In my experience, we never see the murder happen. Maigret’s initial reaction to a crime is an itch to solve it, but by the end his emotion is usually sorrow. Once, he watches some men playing boules, and he envies them, he says, because when they win they are entitled to feel joy. When he wins, someone loses his liberty, or his life.
Probably the most admired quality of Simenon’s books is his scene-setting, his power to describe and to make the description call up emotion. “The Bar on the Seine” opens on a glorious day:
The sunshine almost as thick as syrup in the quiet streets of the Left Bank. And everything—the people’s faces, the countless familiar sounds of the street—exuded a joy to be alive. . . . When Maigret arrived at the gate of the Santé [prison] he found the guard gazing soppily at a little white cat that was playing with the dog from the dairy.
In the clear air, Maigret’s footsteps ring on the pavement. “Does he know?” Maigret asks a warder. “Not yet,” the warder answers. “He” is the prisoner. What he doesn’t know is that his appeal has failed, and that he is going to die. By juxtaposing this with the lovely day, and the dog playing with the little cat, and the guard looking at them tenderly, Simenon is telling us that though life is beautiful, it is also appalling.
In many of Simenon’s other novels, life is more appalling. Just as he decided, after ten years of producing potboilers, to get serious, and started writing the Maigret novels, so, two years after that, he came to feel that the Maigret books were not serious enough, and he began writing “straight” novels, which he sometimes characterized as romans durs, or “hard novels,” meaning hard on us.
The greatest of these is “Dirty Snow” (1948), in which Frank, the nineteen-year-old son of a brothel owner (he lives in the brothel, spying on the whores at their work by standing on a table and peering through the transom), makes his way in an unnamed city under military occupation. In the first chapter, we see Frank with his friend Kromer. Kromer has murdered people. For example, he was once having sex with a girl in a barn loft, and she became sentimental. She said that she hoped he was impregnating her. “The idea of having a child with that stupid, dirty girl he was kneading like a piece of dough had seemed grotesque” to him, so he strangled her. That was the first time he killed someone. “And let me tell you,” he says to Frank, “it’s very easy.” Frank is overcome with admiration. Kromer shows Frank a knife that he has just acquired. Frank asks to borrow it. Soon afterward, he is lurking in a snowbank when an officer comes by. He kills him. He doesn’t know the man. He just wants to try out Kromer’s knife, “to feel what it was like when it . . . slipped between bones.”
Not “Dirty Snow” but many other romans durs follow a single plotline: a man walks out on his life—his job, his family, often the town, too—and gives himself up to a kind of obsession. As Simenon put it, his characters “go to their limit.” Often, this involves their committing a crime, which is all the more shocking in that it receives no authorial comment. Simenon’s novels are almost always strict point-of-view narratives. We see things only as the main character sees them. Sometimes this is half comical. In “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” (1938), a prototypical roman dur, the first action that the hero, Kees Popinga, takes upon leaving home is to try to seduce his boss’s mistress. When she casually refuses him, he kills her. “I just can’t understand why Pamela laughed at me,” he writes in the diary he is keeping of his adventures. She’ll think twice about doing that again, he figures. But what if she goes to the police? That might be nice, though. His name will be in the papers. He has forgotten that he killed Pamela.
Such anomie sounds very much of Simenon’s time: the Fascist-breeding thirties, the war, the postwar despair. It seems to echo the work of the existentialists Sartre and Camus, and Camus acknowledged that he had learned from Simenon. But the most influential of Simenon’s colleagues, and the most admiring, was much older—André Gide, who called him “perhaps the greatest and the most truly a novelist in contemporary French letters.” Other respectable artists also spoke of Simenon as a serious writer. At the same time, many of his top-drawer literary fans, clearly meaning well, praised him as a supplier of page-turners. The Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda said, “There is nothing like winter in the company of a keg of brandy and the complete works of Simenon.”
Sad to say, Simenon endorsed this snobbish position. He called his Maigret novels quasi-literary. Like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, he tried to ditch his famous detective. From 1935 to 1941, he wrote no Maigret novels. Then, he said, he yielded to popular demand, which is another way of saying that he yielded to financial considerations. Very early on, Simenon learned to spend what he earned. He had fabulous houses—he once rented a sixteenth-century château—and fancy cars to park in front of them. At one point, when he was living in the country, he had a menagerie, including a white stallion that he liked to ride to the market, and two wolves. (The latter, unfortunately, ate the family cat and had to be given to a zoo.)
Living in such a manner, Simenon could not ignore his sales. In his mature period, he wrote almost twice as many straight novels as Maigret novels—a hundred and thirty-four versus seventy-six—but it was the Maigrets that made the real money. Simenon was legendary in the publishing world for driving a hard bargain. Eventually, he obtained full subsidiary rights to his books. This meant that he received the money from all translations, which have appeared in some fifty-five languages. But far more important—a gold mine—were movie rights. Fifty-three films were made of Simenon’s work during his lifetime, and that’s not counting the television adaptations. Of course, it was the Maigrets that were most often adapted for film and TV. (The ITV series, of the nineteen-nineties, with Michael Gambon as Maigret, is the best.)
Nevertheless, the widely held view that he wrote primarily for money infuriated Simenon. He thought that he deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, and, in interviews, where he was always incautious, he predicted that he would. On the day when it was announced that Camus had won the prize, Simenon got drunk and hit his wife. In 1933, as part of his campaign for acceptance in the high-art league, he had changed publishers, signing on with Gallimard, France’s most prestigious house, whose list included Gide, Proust, and Valéry. Gallimard unquestionably took him on so that he could make some money for them. He obliged, but that did not prevent some of the Gallimard editors from treating him like a gate-crasher. He responded with defiance. When he went to Gallimard’s offices, he would sing (not hum) as he walked down the hushed hallways where editors were curating the modernist money-losers they considered superior to his work.
So there were, fundamentally, two competing views of Simenon. He was a hack or he was an artist. Both are half right. The finest things Simenon ever wrote—“Dirty Snow,” “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By,” “Pedigree”—are non-Maigrets. These few books are not just his best novels; they are among the best novels of the twentieth century. But many of the durs have serious weaknesses, the worst being that the hardness often comes off as luridness. This month, a 1947 novel, “Act of Passion,” is being reissued by New York Review Books, which has a long and distinguished line of Simenons. This is a classic dur, in which a man, Charles Alavoine, escapes from what he feels is a mediocre existence in favor of a sort of self-immolation. Near the end, he has just made love with the woman, Martine, for whom he gave up everything. He is holding her in his arms and stroking the place on her thigh that he likes best. “And to think that I shall have to kill her one day,” he says to himself. Then he goes on caressing her thigh. You’re surprised, but are you impressed? Or does it just seem an effect, as if the book were an existential comic?
Martine’s case brings up another matter. Simenon was repeatedly accused of misogyny. He indignantly replied that he had great female characters and that when the women weren’t strong, and got kicked around by the men, that was the way of the world. But the strong women of the durs are, for the most part, frightening bitches. The nicer women are generally weak, even masochistic. Many, like Martine, are killed by their men, and the man likes it better if she doesn’t resist. “I felt that she was encouraging me,” Martine’s lover recalls. (Of course, he says that it hurts him more than it hurts her.) Others are not killed but just shamed. The early “Tropic Moon” (1933) takes place in Gabon. (Simenon, who loved trips as much as paychecks, wrote many travel articles, and thereby spent some time in Africa.) In it, a group of white men get drunk one night and drive out to a village, where they herd three women into the back of their truck and continue on to a clearing, where they have a little orgy. Then they pile back into the truck. The women try to get in, too. “Hey, baby, just a second!” one of the men says. “Whites first!” The women obediently stand back and wait their turn, whereupon the men drive off without them. The women, shrieking, run after the truck, but it is soon gone. They are left naked, fifteen miles from home, in the middle of the night.
In “Dirty Snow,” the officer whom Frank will eventually kill is a regular at the local bar. He usually has two women with him. While drinking at his banquette, he fingers them under their skirts and then raises his wet hands to the light, laughing. Simenon may have called this the way of the world. I call it pornography, of a familiar sort. I dislike the scenes of humiliation more than the murder scenes, because they are more realistic, more possible. But it’s all pretty bad, not just politically but also artistically: because it involves the abuse of a mere woman, not a man, it can just be thrown off, as a kind of flourish. This encouraged Simenon to rely on such gestures, as in Alavoine’s decision to murder Martine in “Act of Passion.” It gave him access to cheap effects.
Underlining this easy evil is Simenon’s fondness for a sort of pat irony, like something out of Maupassant. In a 1956 book, a man who tells his wife that he will take her to Cannes for Christmas—he is lying; he intends to go skiing with his mistress—is seen, in the last chapter, in Cannes with his wife. His mistress has come to a bad end. At the conclusion of another novel, a man who has labored for months devising a way to poison his wife and run off with his mistress looks on in horror as his mistress eats the arsenic-laced meal he had cooked for his wife.
Such things don’t happen often in the Maigret books. You could say that, being police novels, they are conservative, bent on making people behave. But when you read them and see the sorrows and the bad boyfriends and the too many drinks that they, too, describe, you realize that this is not really the case, any more than, say, with Raymond Chandler’s books. Simenon respected his Maigrets less, and as a result they are, on average, more relaxed, more witty, even more poetic.
Nevertheless, they share one serious fault with the durs: they are often sloppy, and that, unquestionably, was owing to Simenon’s writing method, his habit of completing a novel in ten to eleven days. Usually, he took seven to eight days to write a novel, and then two or three days to revise. Furthermore, when he started a book, he had no outline of the plot, only a sketch of the characters. He said that, upon beginning, he entered into a trance, in which, chapter by chapter, the plot came to him. This was obviously a high-pressure business, but he seems to have taken pleasure in it. When he felt a novel coming on, he cancelled all appointments and had a checkup with his doctor to make sure he could endure the stress. Four dozen freshly sharpened pencils were lined up on his desk, and a “Do Not Disturb” sign, stolen from the Plaza Hotel in New York, was hung on his study door. He wrote one chapter per morning, but even in the afternoon his family and staff were ill-advised to speak to him. For each book, he had a “lucky shirt.” It had to be washed every night.
This method damaged his work terribly. Halfway through some books, subplots get dropped, characters change weirdly. If Simenon had cared about revising, he would have seen the problems and either fixed the book or given up on it. Surely he noticed that the few novels for which he violated the schedule and took more time—notably “Pedigree,” which contains the most beautiful writing he ever did—were among his finest. But, again, this wasn’t just a case of not knowing. He didn’t want to bother. Once more, we should not forget about the money. In the words of Luc Sante, Simenon had a working-class view of his profession. The more product he turned out, the more he expected to earn. Commentators exclaim over his sales, but his publisher Gaston Gallimard pointed out that his books, on average, sold only about eight thousand copies. The reason people bought so many of his novels per year is that he produced so many novels per year—an average of five after his potboiler period. Stanley Eskin, whose “Simenon” (1987) is the best critical study of the author, says that, at heart, Simenon had little respect for intelligence. Fine, but then you have to ask: why did this man expect to win the Nobel Prize?
Despite the vomiting, Simenon appears to have enjoyed himself for many years. He didn’t do much besides writing. He apparently didn’t waste a lot of time reading his contemporaries’ novels, including those of his useful friend Gide or his other fervent literary fan Henry Miller. It seems that when Simenon and Miller got together they talked mainly about girls. Miller told Simenon that he had “a six-inch bone in his cock.”
After Tigy and Boule—or together with them—Simenon had two more wives, or “wives.” In 1945, in New York, he hired a beautiful, nervous French-Canadian woman, Denyse Ouiment, seventeen years younger than he, as his secretary. She later said that they met at one-forty-five and were in bed by seven. After Denyse had a child in 1949, Simenon divorced Tigy, but in time his harem was augmented by Teresa Sburelin, a Venetian woman who joined the household, in 1961, as Denyse’s maid. Other servants, too, had a dual function. “If one has a place in the country and if one has servants, what can one expect?” Simenon told Brendan Gill, of The New Yorker. “One must take care of their needs.” Still, Simenon said he liked prostitutes best. Denyse, when told about his claim of having had ten thousand sex partners, said, pooh, it was probably only about twelve hundred.
We shouldn’t be too impressed by this. In 1968, Simenon, with his usual indiscretion, allowed himself to be interviewed by a panel of five doctors. One of them later said that the group was struck by his unromantic approach to sex. He told them that he limited the contact to two minutes. Reportedly, he also kept his clothes on (he just unzipped). One day, when Denyse was in her study conferring with one of her assistants, Joyce Aitken, Simenon entered the room, wanting to have sex. “You don’t have to leave, Aitken,” Denyse said, and she and Simenon got down, briefly, on the rug. If you followed such procedures, you, too, could have twelve hundred sexual partners.
In 1940, after the Second World War got under way, Simenon moved his family to a village in the Vendée, in west-central France. Because of travel restrictions, he got stuck there. In the morning he wrote; in the afternoon he played cards with the locals in a café. His war record was mixed. He ran a refugee center, very energetically, people say. On the other hand, four of the nine movies made of his books during the Occupation were produced by what he knew was a Nazi-run company. For that organization, he also signed a statement that he was an Aryan. Pierre Assouline says that Simenon was neither a collaborator nor a resister but just an opportunist. Alan Riding, in his recent, evenhanded book on the Occupation, “And the Show Went On,” also brushes Simenon’s case aside. But most people suffered severe privations during the war. Meanwhile, Simenon got richer (primarily from those movies). And so, once the Occupation ended, the purge committee of the French writers’ union began looking into his case. Simenon became truly frightened—some writers, on the committee’s recommendation, were barred from publishing—and in 1945, as soon as he could get out, he sailed with his family to North America. They eventually settled in the genteel town of Lakeville, Connecticut, where Simenon was restless but productive. (Many of his best books were published in his middle years, from about 1938 to 1951.) After a ten-year exile, the family returned to Europe, settling near Lausanne, Switzerland, which for Simenon, as for others, was a tax haven.
Something that had sustained Simenon in the United States—his passionate relationship with Denyse—now collapsed beneath him. She became increasingly nervous and obsessive. (Once, when they checked into a hotel, she changed the paper linings in the drawers and disinfected the telephone.) Such problems were exacerbated by the fact that she had become an alcoholic. She had several stays in detox centers, as well as in psychiatric clinics. Simenon was not in good shape, either. The two had screaming fights; they hit each other. Finally, in 1964, he banished her from the house. He gave her a generous allowance, but he would not agree to a divorce, he said, because she was asking for too much money. They remained legally married until his death.
One day in 1973, when Simenon was having trouble with a novel, he declared that he was through writing fiction. If you read his novels of the two or three years preceding this, you may decide that he was right to stop when he did. For his seventieth birthday, however, he went out and bought a tape recorder, into which, over the next six years, he dictated twenty-one volumes’ worth of memoirs. They are widely considered formless, trivial, and boring. Simenon later agreed: “At bottom I have nothing to say.”
Simenon had four children, one boy by Tigy and two boys and a girl by Denyse. He was a doting father, and all his boys did well. But the daughter, Marie-Georges, always known as Marie-Jo, had a hard time, especially once she reached adolescence: drug problems, love problems, dissipations, depressions. Like her mother, she had frequent stays in psychiatric clinics. A special difficulty was her fervid attachment to her father. Whatever she thought of her parents’ relationship, she seems to have believed that, once they separated, she should have been given a more central place in her father’s life. But, after Denyse left, Teresa Sburelin took on the role of wife, blocking Marie-Jo’s path, as she saw it. Once, in the bedroom Simenon shared with Teresa, Marie-Jo pointed to their bed and asked him, “Why not me?” In 1978, when she was twenty-five, she locked herself in her apartment and shot herself in the heart with a .22. Assouline says that Simenon felt not just sorrow and guilt but relief. He loved her, but she had tormented him with her problems all her life. He had foreseen her suicide.
Around the time of his retirement from novel-writing, Simenon put his enormous house in Lausanne on the market, sold his five cars, placed his furniture in storage, and moved, with Teresa and his youngest son, into a small eighteenth-century house. From then on, he saw almost no one. In an office across town, Joyce Aitken (of “You don’t have to leave, Aitken”) managed his business affairs and also his fortune, which, in 1987-88, the Swiss tax authorities estimated at three and a half million Swiss francs (the equivalent of about four and a half million dollars today), not counting property. He expressed utter indifference to the books he had written: “So many hours, so many pages. Why?” Teresa looked after him tenderly, and he spoke of her with love. Nevertheless, he said that one of the reasons he was attached to her was that she had not asked to be in his will. In 1989, at the age of eighty-six, he died, of natural causes. Assouline writes of his subject—so avid for work, fame, money, women—that he died “as he had dreamed of dying: old.” ♦
In an October 1957 letter to a friend who had recommended he read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Although I don’t feel that it’s at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I’ll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence. . . .”
Thompson carved out his niche early. He was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, where his fiction and poetry earned him induction into the local Athenaeum Literary Association while he was still in high school. Thompson continued his literary pursuits in the United States Air Force, writing a weekly sports column for the base newspaper. After two years of service, Thompson endured a series of newspaper jobs—all of which ended badly—before he took to freelancing from Puerto Rico and South America for a variety of publications. The vocation quickly developed into a compulsion.
Thompson completed The Rum Diary, his only novel to date, before he turned twenty-five; bought by Ballantine Books, it finally was published—to glowing reviews—in 1998. In 1967, Thompson published his first nonfiction book, Hell’s Angels, a harsh and incisive firsthand investigation into the infamous motorcycle gang then making the heartland of America nervous.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, sealed Thompson’s reputation as an outlandish stylist successfully straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing. As the subtitle warns, the book tells of “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” in full-tilt gonzo style—Thompson’s hilarious first-person approach—and is accented by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s appropriate drawings.
His next book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, was a brutally perceptive take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. A self-confessed political junkie, Thompson chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign in Better than Sex (1994). Thompson’s other books include The Curse of Lono (1983), a bizarre South Seas tale, and three collections of Gonzo Papers: The Great Shark Hunt (1979), Generation of Swine (1988) and Songs of the Doomed (1990).
In 1997, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence with everyone from his mother to Lyndon Johnson, was published. The second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, has just been released.
Located in the mostly posh neighborhood of western Colorado’s Woody Creek Canyon, ten miles or so down-valley from Aspen, Owl Farm is a rustic ranch with an old-fashioned Wild West charm. Although Thompson’s beloved peacocks roam his property freely, it’s the flowers blooming around the ranch house that provide an unexpected high-country tranquility. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, have shot clay pigeons and stationary targets on the property, which is a designated Rod and Gun Club and shares a border with the White River National Forest. Almost daily, Thompson leaves Owl Farm in either his Great Red Shark Convertible or Jeep Grand Cherokee to mingle at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern.
Visitors to Thompson’s house are greeted by a variety of sculptures, weapons, boxes of books and a bicycle before entering the nerve center of Owl Farm, Thompson’s obvious command post on the kitchen side of a peninsula counter that separates him from a lounge area dominated by an always-on Panasonic TV, always tuned to news or sports. An antique upright piano is piled high and deep enough with books to engulf any reader for a decade. Above the piano hangs a large Ralph Steadman portrait of “Belinda”—the Slut Goddess of Polo. On another wall covered with political buttons hangs a Che Guevara banner acquired on Thompson’s last tour of Cuba. On the counter sits an IBM Selectric typewriter—a Macintosh computer is set up in an office in the back wing of the house.
The most striking thing about Thompson’s house is that it isn’t the weirdness one notices first: it’s the words. They’re everywhere—handwritten in his elegant lettering, mostly in fading red Sharpie on the blizzard of bits of paper festooning every wall and surface: stuck to the sleek black leather refrigerator, taped to the giant TV, tacked up on the lampshades; inscribed by others on framed photos with lines like, “For Hunter, who saw not only fear and loathing, but hope and joy in ’72—George McGovern”; typed in IBM Selectric on reams of originals and copies in fat manila folders that slide in piles off every counter and table top; and noted in many hands and inks across the endless flurry of pages.
Thompson extricates his large frame from his ergonomically correct office chair facing the TV and lumbers over graciously to administer a hearty handshake or kiss to each caller according to gender, all with an easy effortlessness and unexpectedly old-world way that somehow underscores just who is in charge.
We talked with Thompson for twelve hours straight. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the host: Owl Farm operates like an eighteenth-century salon, where people from all walks of life congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from theoretical physics to local water rights, depending on who’s there. Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, was present during parts of this interview, as were a steady stream of friends. Given the very late hours Thompson keeps, it is fitting that the most prominently posted quote in the room, in Thompson’s hand, twists the last line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.”
For most of the half-day that we talked, Thompson sat at his command post, chain-smoking red Dunhills through a German-made gold-tipped cigarette filter and rocking back and forth in his swivel chair. Behind Thompson’s sui generis personality lurks a trenchant humorist with a sharp moral sensibility. His exaggerated style may defy easy categorization, but his career-long autopsy on the death of the American dream places him among the twentieth century’s most exciting writers. The comic savagery of his best work will continue to electrify readers for generations to come.
. . . I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English Language—and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Well, wanting to and having to are two different things. Originally I hadn’t thought about writing as a solution to my problems. But I had a good grounding in literature in high school. We’d cut school and go down to a café on Bardstown Road where we would drink beer and read and discuss Plato’s parable of the cave. We had a literary society in town, the Athenaeum; we met in coat and tie on Saturday nights. I hadn’t adjusted too well to society—I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation—but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else . . . at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing. It was the rock in my sock. Easier than algebra. It was always work, but it was always worthwhile work. I was fascinated early by seeing my byline in print. It was a rush. Still is.
When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity. So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, “Well, we might be in luck.” It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.
So I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place. So I started as an editor. Boy, what a joy. I wrote long Grantland Rice-type stories. The sports editor of my hometown Louisville Courier Journal always had a column, left-hand side of the page. So I started a column.
By the second week I had the whole thing down. I could work at night. I wore civilian clothes, worked off base, had no hours, but I worked constantly. I wrote not only for the base paper, The Command Courier, but also the local paper, The Playground News. I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. I wrote for a professional wrestling newsletter. The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations. I wrote a critical column about how Arthur Godfrey, who’d been invited to the base to be the master of ceremonies at a firepower demonstration, had been busted for shooting animals from the air in Alaska. The base commander told me: “Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?”
When I left the Air Force I knew I could get by as a journalist. So I went to apply for a job at Sports Illustrated. I had my clippings, my bylines, and I thought that was magic . . . my passport. The personnel director just laughed at me. I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been sports editor for two papers.” He told me that their writers were judged not by the work they’d done, but where they’d done it. He said, “Our writers are all Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times. This is a helluva place for you to start. Go out into the boondocks and improve yourself.”
I was shocked. After all, I’d broken the Bart Starr story.
What was that?
At Eglin Air Force Base we always had these great football teams. The Eagles. Championship teams. We could beat up on the University of Virginia. Our bird-colonel Sparks wasn’t just any yo-yo coach. We recruited. We had these great players serving their military time in ROTC. We had Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay quarterback. We had Max McGee of the Packers. Violent, wild, wonderful drunk. At the start of the season McGee went AWOL, appeared at the Green Bay camp and he never came back. I was somehow blamed for his leaving. The sun fell out of the firmament. Then the word came that we were getting Bart Starr, the All-American from Alabama. The Eagles were going to roll! But then the staff sergeant across the street came in and said, “I’ve got a terrible story for you. Bart Starr’s not coming.” I managed to break into an office and get out his files. I printed the order that showed he was being discharged medically. Very serious leak.
The Bart Starr story was not enough to impress Sports Illustrated?
The personnel guy there said, “Well, we do have this trainee program.” So I became a kind of copy boy.
You eventually ended up in San Francisco. With the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, your life must have taken an upward spin.
All of a sudden I had a book out. At the time I was twenty-nine years old and I couldn’t even get a job driving a cab in San Francisco, much less writing. Sure, I had written important articles for The Nation and The Observer, but only a few good journalists really knew my byline. The book enabled me to buy a brand new BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine. It validated everything I had been working toward. If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else. To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that. Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this. I knew I was a good journalist. I knew I was a good writer, but I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing.
With the swell of creative energy flowing throughout the San Francisco scene at the time, did you interact with or were you influenced by any other writers?
Ken Kesey for one. His novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion had quite an impact on me. I looked up to him hugely. One day I went down to the television station to do a roundtable show with other writers, like Kay Boyle, and Kesey was there. Afterwards we went across the street to a local tavern and had several beers together. I told him about the Angels, who I planned to meet later that day, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come along?” He said, “Whoa, I’d like to meet these guys.” Then I got second thoughts, because it’s never a good idea to take strangers along to meet the Angels. But I figured that this was Ken Kesey, so I’d try. By the end of the night Kesey had invited them all down to La Honda, his woodsy retreat outside of San Francisco. It was a time of extreme turbulence—riots in Berkeley. He was always under assault by the police—day in and day out, so La Honda was like a war zone. But he had a lot of the literary, intellectual crowd down there, Stanford people also, visiting editors, and Hell’s Angels. Kesey’s place was a real cultural vortex.