Well, I guess it’s no surprise that it took Georges Simenon to get me back to this journal; if he could write a book in nine days, I should be able to file one dispatch in one month. (When an interviewer asked if he ever took time out to relax, Simenon answered Mais oui; as it took him nine days to write a novel, if he wrote six in a year that left him with 311 days off.)
If I’ve been absorbed by France Culture radio’s ‘grand traversé’ dedicated to Simenon running every morning this week (click here to listen to the archived emissions), particularly the first hour, dedicated to archival interviews with the author, I’ve been disappointed by the relatively scant time devoted so far, in daily programming of 3.5 hours quand meme, to Simenon’s major creation, the Commissaire Maigret. And when Maigret does come up, as he did today in the discussion portion of the program, the ‘experts’ seem to fundamentally misunderstand his world.
According to this particular expert, the world of Maigret, or of the Maigret novels, is ‘sans esperance” or without hope. While this quality might apply to the other major part of Simenon’s oeuvre, the ‘romans dur,’ in which the criminal himself is the protagonist, typically perpetrating the crime at the beginning of the book and then degenerating before our eyes for the rest of it, the Maigret series, in which the detective is the hero, seems to me more an ongoing love affair with and portrayal of the principal character — his manners and his way to explore new worlds, his typical mode of access for solving the crime being to immerse himself in the milieu in which it took place. In effect, he’s our reliable old friend, the narrator we identify with as we encounter these worlds and communities with him. We feel that we’re with him when he enters a bistro and cries out, “Une demi!,” when he’s lost and morose and doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere in his investigation, when he ‘bavards’ with his inspectors. The most minute details of how he interacts with the drama become more important than the mundane details of the crime itself — even the way he becomes involved. In one tale, Maigret is ready to turn away a man who’s fled a small coastal village, where he’s accused of murder, to come to Paris to ask for Maigret’s help — until, crossing the bridge St. Michel, he gets a whiff of air that evokes oysters and ‘petit blanc’ and decides to take the case. (When he gets there, he discovers that the oyster harvest has been held up because of tidal problems, so he has to content himself with the petit blanc for the duration of the investigation.)
It’s not that the crime is incidental, but that the center of the story is not its grisly details, not the violence of the culpable, but Maigret’s quest — as much a quest for the solution of the crime as for understanding the personages involved. And because his ‘method’ (in quotes because Maigret would vehemently deny he has one) is to infiltrate the world, the milieu where the crime took place — be it that encircling an ecluse or lock, a port, an upper-class household, a demi-monde, a boarding house — the stories become chants to these communities, in Maigret’s case a tour de France alternating with immersions in the neighborhoods and rhythm of Paris. (Even more fun for those who have lived there; Simenon often situates the crimes on specific streets or in specific places in the general area described by Montmartre and, below it, the 9th arrondisement, often Notre Dame de Lorette, a street I know well.)
The point is that where the ‘romans dur’ start from an already ‘black’ point — the crime, usually violent — and descend into an even darker universe as we get inside the mind of the culpable, the Maigret novels use the fait divers as a trigger for a search for understanding, and an excuse to return to the world of a sensitive hero, Maigret, whose encounters with Paris, France, and occasionally other places are elevated and rich, steeped in the culture of the particular place, as it was in the middle of the 20th century. (One of my favorite passages occurs when, sur place investigating a theft and murder in a suburb, Maigret ‘pique’s the lobster delivered to the local bar from the hapless Sgt. Lucas for his own dinner, and pauses to call HQ. “Stay there!” he says, then, “I’m talking to the lobster,” which is trying to escape.
Speaking of food, in one of the archival interviews Simenon offers a ‘how-to-survive when you have no money’ story that rivals Dolly Parton’s claims that when she first started out, she made ketchup soup to economize. The 20-year-old George Sims, just arrived in Paris (at the Gare du Nord in my old neighborhood, which still, 86 years later, fits Simenon’s description as ‘the endroit ‘le plus raid’ in Paris), had taken a chamber in a boarding house where it was forbidden to cook. Here’s his advice for surviving on very little: “You buy a round of camembert — not a good one but the cheapest you can find. You eat a little morsel, and then you put it in the cabinet. Every day it gets bigger.”