Glass Half True

Keeping the Belgian ball rolling…

One of the twentieth century’s most well-known and widely-read authors, French-speaking Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, outdid Jean Ray when it came to pseudonyms and prolificacy.

Simenon (b. 13 February 1903 – d. 4 September 1989) began writing professionally at the age of 15.



His prodigious output consisted of 193 novels under his own name, numerous short stories, and an estimated 200 books written under a dozen pseudonyms, and on a wide variety of typewriters.


Images from Getty Images


Simenon is best known to English speaking readers for his 75 Maigret novels.


The author’s life was shrouded by inaccuracies and falsehoods, many of his own creation. In 1927, for example, Simenon signed a contract with entrepreneur Eugene Merle to write a novel whilst locked inside a glass cage.


Onlookers were not only promised an insight into the writer’s creative process, they were also promised the chance to influence the book’s outcome.

Conceived as a launch event for the Paris-Matinal newspaper, the terms of Simenon’s arrangement with Merle specified that he was to provide the newspaper with an exclusive book which would be serialized over several weeks. Members of the public were to vote on the book’s theme and its title.

Simenon was paid 50,000 francs upon signing the contract with the promise of a further 50,000 once the completed manuscript was delivered. The attendant media interest boosted Simenon’s profile, and over the next few decades this incident became a core part of the mythology which grew up around him.


In the 1990s, after reading about Simenon’s publicity stunt, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison decided to repeat the experiment. X-Files creator Chris Carter was enlisted to supply Ellison with a sealed envelope containing the story’s theme. As each page was completed it would be plucked from Ellison’s typewriter and placed in the store window for passers by to read.

At the day’s end Ellison could bask in the glory of having a completed draft in his hands and feel satisfied at following in his literary hero’s footsteps.


Ellison at “The Booksmith” in San Francisco, 1644 Haight Street, May 14, 1994


Images from

Some time afterwards Ellison learnt that Simenon never got to write a story in that glass cage. Eugene Merle’s newspaper Paris-Matinal went into liquidation before the publicity stunt took place, but under the terms of the contract Simenon kept the advance payment of 50,000 francs.

The confusion about this incident’s occurrence (or lack thereof) grew, in part, because Simenon sensed a good publicity opportunity and when confronted by people who claimed to have witnessed him toiling away in the glass cage, never corrected them.

(Extracts sourced from an online article: Noir is the Colour – Simenon and Monsieur Hire)


(from my collection)

5 thoughts on “Glass Half True

  1. I recently read an essay about Simenon by Simon Leys (another writer from Belguim!). This is such a nice companion to that essay. Was just telling Richard P. the other day how much I enjoy your blog. Thank you!


  2. It’s hard to justify keeping that money, but I suppose the paper was going down the chute and couldn’t afford to take Simenon to court. Great photos. Thanks


  3. Heh, I love the fact that Simenon basically encouraged the creation of fiction in memory by not correcting those who claimed to have seen him do the stunt in the glass cage.. Perception becomes reality 😀


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