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Simenon’s creative juices flow in Brussels

Brussels — He had 33 homes, 10,000 women, penned 500 novels, yet despite such excess, Georges Simenon, the writer who dreamt up world-known super sleuth Inspector Maigret, worked to a rigorous ritual.

A new museum that opened last month in the heart of his homeland, Belgium, tracks the obsessional work patterns of a man who left school at 15 to eventually be lauded as the most prolific writer of the 20th century.

For its launch, Brussels’ new-born museum of letters and manuscripts brought together manuscripts in Simenon’s spidery long-hand with original typescripts of Maigret and other novels that all told sold 550 million copies in 55 languages.

Underlining the velocity and ease of a writer able to churn out 60 to 80 pages a day, “the manuscripts show he made few corrections”, said curator Jean-Christophe Hubert.

“He worked only a part of the year,” Hubert said. “But he had a routine that became a superstition.”

Simenon, who died two decades ago in Switzerland after moving from Belgium to Paris to the United States and back again, more often than not in a ‘menage-a-trois’ or more, rolled out every major work under the same formula.

On a yellow manila envelope dating back to the 1950s showcased in the museum, Simenon scrawled the title, “Maigret’s Little Joke”, adding the names, ages and addresses of the main characters in a book whose plot was yet to be worked out.

In an airline calendar of the same year for the same book, also on show, Simenon marks down eight days to write the book, a week of rest and three days to re-edit the manuscript.

“It’s true my father had an amazing capacity for work and could write a book in a fortnight,” said his son John in an interview released by the museum, which is running “Georges Simenon, the Journey of a Belgian Writer”, its opening temporary show, until February 2012.

“But first there would be a two-week gestation where he wasn’t particularly thinking about the plot but about the characters and their relationships, learning to know this new family.”

“Once he knew them, once they existed inside him, all that had to be done was to find the trigger, the crisis that would drive them to the edge.”

Unlike fellow fictional sleuths Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, slow-moving pipe-smoking Maigret has little interest in clues or evidence.

Like well-travelled Simenon, who explored the seamy side of life as a cub reporter while still in his teens, Maigret’s passion was unravelling the psychological tensions of characters often from the underclass.

Simenon was a bright student and avid reader whose talent for producing torrents of words developed as a touch-typing junior reporter, promoted from covering local crime to full-blown colunmist before turning 20.

He then headed for Paris where he pumped out some 200 pulp fiction novels under pseudonyms, between nights out on the town and a fling with cabaret star Josephine Baker. By 24 he was wealthy enough to travel .

By his own admission, hard-living Simenon had 10,000 women over several decades “on the basis of two or three women a week”, he once said.

But “he was a good father and a family man,” his son said.

Curator Hubert said the 150-odd documents chosen for the show “highlight the role of the written word and its place in a man’s individual story.”

The new museum, located in an up-market 19th century walk-through gallery, features some 500 old letters and manuscripts, dating from the 12th century to current times, including Einstein’s scrawlings as he scrambled t produce his theory of relativity.

“We wanted to open a museum of manuscripts in the heart of Europe,” director Gerard Lheritier told AFP.”

The Brussels gallery, a favourite haunt of 19th century political exiles such as Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire, is famed too as the scene of a happily non-fatal shoot-out between poet Paul Verlaine and his longtime literary rival Arthur Rimbaud.

Claire Rosemberg / AFP / Expatica