Georges Simenon, La Rue aux Trois poussins (1963)

In the big volume of Simenon that I took with me in our family trip, I discovered that there was a short story collection. I had fond memories of another Simenon’s short story collection (I read “Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue” five years ago already!) and it made me pick that one, which don’t feature Maigret at all. “La rue aux trois poussins” is a translator’s nightmare. It should be easy enough: “the street with the three chicks”, but you would picture three young women, whereas we are speaking here of three preschoolers. Chicks in French is an endearing term for small kids or toddlers (rather gender-neutral or boys, I have given the book back to the library, but I sort of remember that one of the three is a girl). So what would this story title be? “The street where the three buddies play?” Can you propose anything better?

In this story, three young kids play outside while their mothers are busy with chores, and their older siblings are at school. One of them listens to what a mean older boy says about his father, and repeats it at home to his mother. A long-reaching, life-altering tragedy follows this bit of gossip and that bit of misunderstanding.

Overall, I didn’t quite enjoy this collection. The stories show Simenon in a dark mood, his characters are often pitiful and mean, and it shows the women under an overwhelmingly harsh light. They’re bitter nags, superficial airheads, scheming adulterers, gossips and liers. Only Mélie the fishmonger has a proverbial heart of gold, and it was my favorite story of the whole book. One could still argue that Mélie might be very business-savvy, but if she continues to bail her ne’er-do-well husband out, she might end up badly too.

Simenon still writes with great skills, as he can draw a street scene or a café scene in a few sentences and still render it vividly. His characters are people of little money and few prospects. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but most of these stories were first published during the war between 1939 and 1941, and it might have contributed to the gloomy, hopeless and closed atmosphere of those stories. They were published in the magazine Gringoire, which was a very nationalistic, violently anti-Communist and conservative newspaper (it also published Irene Nemirovski, so it’s not all black-or-white).

It led me into the rabbit hole of Simenon’s attitude during the war. My understanding is that he was no big hero or traitor either. He very prudently retired to the countryside where he led a wealthy and relatively worry-free life, which is already a lot better than most people in the country. His passivity and lack of support for the Resistance made him suspicious at the end of the war. Even as he was blamed for collaboration, it was a late and light condemnation that occured in 1948 and it didn’t stop him from staying at the top of the bestsellers lists. It still made me wince to learn that he was so loaded while so many of his books and stories center on poor people.

Georges Simenon, Maigret Loses his Temper (1963)

Original title: La Colère de Maigret

As the novel starts, Maigret is huffing and puffing against bureaucracy and writing useless reports. He’s way more interested when someone informs him that the boss of several nightclubs has gone missing for several days. The man is by all means respectable, his competitors (who may or may not be as law-abiding as he is) call him “the grocer” behind his back (with the meaning of “bean counter”). Something is not right.

Indeed, three days after he’s disappeared, his body is found, strangled, near the Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Maigret and everybody else scratch their heads: it is not unexpected for nightclubs regulars to get killed, but gangsters don’t strangle, nor do they keep a dead body for days before disposing of it. Who had the man an appointment with, on the evening he walked away from his nightclub?

Now, I really don’t want to spoil anything (more) but the twist of the last 10 pages is a big one, and explains the title. Otherwise it would almost be a misnomer, as Maigret is slow, a bit impatient maybe, and his investigation is decisively low-key. But those last few pages almost take the book into a different genre, and I found that Simenon hurried things a bit too much. It’s common for Simenon not to tie nice bows on everything but in this case I felt that he could have made Maigret’s decisions or thoughts a bit clearer (especially in contrast with the investigation where he basically explains his method step by step). Anyway the conclusion will leave me thinking about it for some time…

Beyond the plot and the detective work itself, I enjoyed getting glimpses on Maigret’s personal life and what it tells of this era. Maigret goes home for lunch, and Madame Maigret is really expected to have every meal ready, except when her husband decides on a whim to not show up for dinner. Investigations continue on Saturdays, but everyone takes a break for Sunday and Maigret decides to go on a weekend break, for which Madame Maigret has to pack at one hour’s notice. Madame Maigret reads magazines and looks at her husband ironically as he goes fishing and doesn’t catch much. Madame Maigret is really a saint who hasn’t heard of women’s rights yet (this is 1963 for sure, and Simenon is annoyingly patronizing to women – if not worse, in other books). I wonder if Pierre Bayard would write an alternate version where Madame Maigret wasn’t so subservient and shallow.

Right now, I’m trying to imagine if it would be feasible in 2021 to decide on a Saturday at 5pm to hop on a train before dinner, book a hotel about 2 hours away and plan a last minute weekend getaway… (no app and just a landline). That certainly would be very expensive.

(ps. Sorry for the clumsy layout, I’m currently publishing from my phone)

The One with the Oyster Attraction

Georges Simenon, Maigret Goes to School (1954)

Last time I wrote about choosing a book for all the wrong reasons (well, not exactly wrong, but shallow at best), and today I want to tell about this weird investigation that Maigret chooses for all the shallowest reasons. It is spring in Paris (a timely book if any!), the temperatures are up, the birds are chirping, and Maigret wants to take some fresh air. He stops on his way to the police quarters to have a drink, and when he comes back, a weird guy waits for him in the waiting area. A poor guy who has run from home in rural France, taken the last train to Paris, not slept a wink the whole night in order to appeal to the famous Commissaire Maigret: only Maigret would save him, because all the villagers are convinced that he committed a murder and the local police won’t listen to him.

In truth Maigret doesn’t really care for the man, who isn’t really convincing or fascinating, but the suspicious death of a retired postmistress is set in a small village near the sea, and because Maigret remembers he had excellent oysters and white wine there, he takes a few days off to look into the case. When he arrives on site, he learns that the postmistress was universally hated because she was a gossip and a blackmailer, but that the local community hates even more the teacher who has arrived from Paris in disgrace and doesn’t fit into this village of wine merchants, farmers and tradesmen.

I tend to prefer Maigret stories set in Paris, but Simenon is also very good when describing tight-knit villages and the boredom and gossip there. I really enjoyed the slow methods of Maigret, and the care he takes to interrogate the kids who were in class at the time of the murder. The teacher got out for some admin duties just then and the kids were doing anything but studying, including looking outside… but there are as many lies as witness accounts.

As a 2021 reader I was rather shocked by the amount of alcohol that is consumed almost on every page. From morning till night, every time someone has to tell Maigret any secret, they do it sharing a glass of wine, a shot of strong spirit or even some alcohol-laced coffee. I’m just surprised that Maigret can discover the truth and not get to bed with a massive hungover. There’s a running joke about those coveted oysters and white wine that decided Maigret to take up the case: because of neap tide, he won’t even have any for the whole duration of the investigation!

The One with the Twin Brothers in the Fishing Village

Georges Simenon, Les Rescapés du Télémaque (1938)

During the first lock-down, libraries and bookshops were completely shut-down, and even Amazon was limiting the shippings, so I was really stressed-out to have nothing left to read. Well, yes! I’m fully aware that it was completely irrational, given our very full bookshelves, but as other people were hoarding TP and pasta, I was indeed hoarding books.

And while I was hoarding, some people were Kondo-weeding their own bookshelves, resulting in many books ending up in the trash (in the worse option) or in little free libraries (in the best option). I found this book in a cardboard box that was left outside in our compound. The box remained for a few (dry) days, then after the next rain showers, I guess someone threw the rest out into the bins.

This novel does not feature Maigret, and yet there is a murder, and an investigation. But it’s the weirdest investigation, as the one who’s leading it is the most unqualified sleuth ever. A rich old man has been murdered in his mansion in Fécamp, a small fishing village in Normandy. The main suspect is Pierre, the captain of a fishing boat, who is currently away at sea. As soon as his boat gets into the harbor, he is arrested, to the whole village’s outcry, as the young man is well-loved by everyone. Well-loved indeed, but would he be able to kill a man, who has probably killed his own father decades ago? People are not so sure anymore.

Now there’s this part where readers with a vivid visual imagination might want to SKIP THE NEXT FEW LINES (sorry for yelling!). The murder mystery hides another mystery that happened 20 years before: the shipwreck of the Telemaque, whose survivors finally resorted to… eating one of their dead mates, namely Pierre’s father. This story remains in the back of the whole book and shows how this tragedy has long-lasting impacts on the next generation.

Charles is Pierre’s twin brother, but they are polar opposite. Pierre is charming, but he’s not good at school. Charles is shy and awkward, and he has taken Pierre’s naval written exams for him. Pierre is strong and healthy, Charles is weak and has TB. Pierre works at sea, while Charles is an employee of the railroads. Charles is always in his brother’s shadow, but for once he has to step forward and lead his own investigation to clear his brother’s name.

Charles has no idea where to start. He is literally the slowest investigator ever, because he has never really reflected on his situation. He has always taken life as it is, people and events at face value, including his own brother, and never analyzed what people thought of him, of his family, or how people may lie to him. It’s a slow awakening, and I really enjoyed this portrait of a complex brotherly relationship.

It’s not, by far, the most well-know or best-written Simenon ever, and it’s really on the slow side, but the portrait of the characters and of the small fishing village was quite fascinating. Once again Simenon proves to be such a good writer of heavy atmosphere and characters. It also got me interested in this coastal region of Normandy and… drumrolls please… we will go there in February if all is well! I will tell you if I can see where the events take place and if the village still retains this particular atmosphere!

The One with Maigret’s Mutism

Georges Simenon, Maigret in Holland  / A Crime in Holland (1931)

At my workplace there’s a shelf near the coffee place for a free library. People usually unload their old duds, the old business books of the 1980s, the yellowing romance books that were gathering dust in their attics. But sometimes, you find something tempting, and that’s how I came home with Maigret in Holland, despite trying to not get any new books. It’s hardly new, does it count? 🤷‍♀️

Maigret is a man of few words, but once he arrives in the tiny town of Delfzijl he has no words at all (Delfzijl is a real town at the very north-eastern tip of Holland, separated from Germany by the river Ems estuary – I looked it up for you, because in Maigret the geography is always real and precise, and I like that). Maigret speaks no English, no German and of course no Dutch, but he still has been sent to this place because a French professor is investigated for murder by the local police. So what can he investigate? He looks at people. He get intuitions, he wants to ask questions, but he gets frustrated. I’m not sure that is good process in terms of modern policing, but…

What shocked me in this particular episode is the really harsh light he puts on women. It’s an early Maigret from the 1930s, so there’s no redeeming Madame Maigret yet, but is it an excuse? Women are not nice, not say the least, may they be stupid, frustrated, scheming, lying, or worse. Ambition in women is seen under a negative light, may it be by education or by the mere wish to get out of a small town for a better future. The victim’s wife is considered more kindly (with more pity perhaps?) but she is weak, having turned a blind eye on her husband’s many affairs for years. The men aren’t definitely models of virtues either but they come out better than women. And Dutch people, well, I get the feeling that Maigret, or Simenon, or both, thought they were plain stupid (It made me wince at first and wink too, as Belgian people and Dutch people don’t really get along). It’s not the best Maigret, and probably not the one to start the series with.

Maigret is the outsider but he insists on the truth at all costs, while the close-knit strict Protestant community would rather hush it up, laying the blame on a sailor who has left and probably considering that the guilty part will get its comeuppance anyhow. Is Maigret right? The ending shows that everything is not black and white, and these very few sentences on the last page made me like this story a bit better.

Two Maigrets for the Year End

Georges Simenon, Maigret et le fantôme (Maigret and the ghost, 1964)

Georges Simenon, Maigret se défend (Maigret on the defensive, 1966)

Last December I read two Maigret stories back to back. In fact, my library has the complete Simenon novels (not only Maigret) in a dozen volumes with Bible-type thin paper, and I could not stop after only one, it was so good that I immediately started another!

Maigret books never disappoint. Simenon writing is very simple and straightforward, but he manages to convey atmosphere, characters and situations with just a few words. But because he makes the action so direct, I felt as if I was travelling back in time, towards 1960s Paris, an era so close and yet so different from today!

Maigret investigations are always set in a very precise geography. The first one, Maigret and the ghost, takes place on the Avenue Junot, on the northern side of Montmartre, where a police inspector has been shot. This sorry man, Inspector Lognon (a ridiculous name), a pitiable loser by all accounts, saddled by an acrimonious wife, is the subject of mockery across the police force, but Maigret likes him, and even Mrs. Maigret takes upon herself to go help his ailing wife while he’s in hospital, even if she is clearly insufferable. What a surprise when policemen learn that Lognon had been visiting a young single woman who lived on this avenue (and who has since disappeared). Lognon with a mistress, who would believe it? But of course Maigret digs deeper to learn who is this woman (who is rather virtuous by all accounts) and what Lognon was doing at her place. Most of the action takes place in the 18th district, and you can check on Streetview how it still looks to this day.

The second mystery is even more fascinating: when a well-connected, wealthy young girl accuses Maigret out of the blue of having raped her, Maigret is suspended, and his team forbidden to investigate. Maigret has indeed been called in the middle of the night to help this girl he didn’t know, but Maigret suspects that she is not the one to have set him up. Some malevolent criminal is at work, but why and who? Maigret is in turn angry, bitter, shocked, slightly depressed, and it was a nice change of pace from his usual placid self. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I enjoyed the part of chance that comes into the explanation of it all. You won’t find any big evil mastermind behind this, as Simenon never gets into paranoia and his criminals are all slightly mediocre, even when they are intelligent.

As I’m writing this long overdue post, all the good things about these books come back to me and I really want to read a third or even a fourth Maigret!

The One with the Sorry Self-Made Jerk

Georges Simenon, Le Bourgmestre de Furnes (1939)

Wow, does this man know how to dampen the mood! He called these novels “romans durs” (tough novels) but not because they are violent, but because they are gloomy and hopeless. After the tragic fate of the young man fresh out of prison, I tried another one, the fate of the mayor of a small town in Flemish Belgium. No less tragic this time again.

This book is the wonderful, chilling portrait of a powerful, heartless man. Joris Terlink was the son of a poor shrimp fisherman in a tiny hamlet, but through intrigues and sheer ambition he has become a wealthy manufacturer of cigars and the mayor of the small market town of Furnes, near Ostende. Everybody in town treats him with deference and calls him Boss, but it’s more out of fear than respect. He has enemies in the traditional Catholic upper-class of Furnes. He stands firm against corruption, but he refuses in the same way to help people with a small job and money, because he made his own fortune without help. He’s a bully at home and a bully at work, a solitary man whom you don’t pity. Unless you take a peak at his private life and you discover that the people around him are also horrible, and that the only human being for whom Terlink shows any feeling is his adult daughter who is mentally deficient and whom he keeps in a room at the top of the house.

Well, I told you it was no picnic, right? I bet Simenon could push any positive-thinking expert over the edge in less than 200 pages. Poor Pollyanna would have to take antidepressants…

This is not a murder investigation, but there is one dead guy though. An employee of Terlink’s, a guy who needed money to finance his girlfriend’s abortion. The girlfriend is 16, un wed, and the daughter of a powerful Catholic man, a direct competitor to Terlink’s position. Would you expect for one second that Terlink would lend this guy money? I don’t think so. So the guy kills himself and tries to kill the girlfriend, making it into a huge public scandal. Of course Terlink benefits from the scandal, the girl’s father resigns and the girl is sent to a nearby seaside resort to give birth to her child far from the judging eyes of Furnes people.

What happens next is probably akin to a burnout or a midlife crisis, in my modern eyes. Terlink should rejoice or launch himself into more business. Instead, he dithers and wavers. He ditches boring meetings, plays hookie from the town hall and instead finds himself increasingly often at the seaside resort, attracted (in a non-sexual way) to the 16-year-old girl, who, instead of being shameful and repentant, enjoys life on her own with two other carefree women. This girl clearly would be his own fantasy daughter, if only his own wasn’t ill. He discover an alternate lifestyle, free of duty, work, Catholic sin and social pressure far from his little town. This is also a sign of social evolution, between the old society based on fishing and market and field work, and the new one with tourism and restaurant, dancing, entertainment …

Would you think that Terlink starts over and become a joyful guy, enjoying his money and buying himself the pleasures of a young lover? Come on, that’s Simenon! Terlink could, but that’s not who he is deep down. The novel ends rather gloomily, this breather being short-lived and doomed to become the mayor’s downfall.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who feels under the weather but otherwise it’s really interesting to watch a man you would judge as a jerk at first sight become a complex, flawed and pitiful human being.

The One with the Pestering Widow

Georges Simenon, La Veuve Couderc (French 1942, English title: The Widow)

Part of my plan for 2017 was to read more Simenon, which meant in my mind more Inspecteur Maigret. But it turns out that the volume we own at home is a collection of his serious novels (“les romans durs”, “the hard novels” according to Simenon’s own terminology), not the lighter Maigret police investigations (although one can discuss if Maigret is lighter, at least it’s more plot-driven and was definitely written to entertain). So the hard way it went…

I chose La Veuve Couderc at random, because I was maybe expecting a glamorous widow (like the NYRB cover?). But it is anything but glamorous, bucolic or romantic.

The widow in question is Tati, a 40-something year woman (which in 1942 made her an old woman), uneducated, ugly (she has a huge mole on her face) and rather unsympathetic. She has been a farm girl, a servant from the age of 14, and she slept with the master’s son (and the master himself) a few years later. She managed to get herself married to Couderc and after the master fell into dementia, her husband died and the thriving business went bankrupt, she hangs on to the farm and takes care of the old master, fighting her two sisters-in-law who want to get rid of her.

But we don’t get to know her first thing. We enter the novel through a vision of a man walking in the sun as seen from a crowded bus. We are in a peaceful countryside, a quiet canal and sunny meadows. It is the scenery as seen by Jean, whom we discover is a young man fresh out of prison. He is free, without any destination, any project, any money. He meets Tati on the bus coming back from the market and she hires him as a farm hand.

Jean and Tati are an unlikely couple. He is 28, educated, son of a rich businessman in the city. Yet Simenon manages to make it a very linear story, as if nothing was surprising. The atmosphere is slow and heavy and the two characters seem doomed from the start.

There are moments of lightness, when Jean discovers the farm life and takes joy in simple manual activities and the routine of life with the animals. He was adrift, and the farming life grounds him for a time, but not for long: soon his guilt, his restlessness and his nightmares come back to haunt him. Tati, on the other hand, has felt frustrated for years, stuck in the farm with her father-in-law. She bosses Jean around, but when things get more personal between them it gets out of hand.

It’s not an easy read by any means, not because its gore but because of its hopelessness. Yet as I am finished with this one I am quite ready to continue with another “roman dur” by Simenon.

 

Two Maigret for the Road

Georges Simenon, L’amie de Madame Maigret (1950 / Eng: Madame Maigret’s Own Case)
Georges Simenon, Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue (1950)

Coming back from holidays, I find my WordPress drawers accumulating dust and drafts. Quick, quick, I want to mention a few more books before the summer ends!

In June when I went to the writing retreat we were lucky to have a wonderful library at our disposal. They were second handbooks, old paperbacks and yellowed classics, but I found the crime shelf particularly inspiring.

I borrowed several Maigret mysteries because I wanted to study them rather than getting absorbed by the plot itself. After all, I’d come to write and not to read! Simenon may have been a not very nice person in life, but as a writer he’s certainly an impressive figure to behold. He wrote hundreds of novels and hundreds of stories, often completing a full draft of a novel within one week! He’s famous for his enormous production, but also for his very simple and straightforward style, very concise yet highly readable, and for fleshing out a character in just a few words, one sentence or two, enough to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind.

Researching this post I stumbled upon an article by Peter Foorde about the inaccurate translations of Simenon’stories into English, that demonstrated that in the 1930s and 1940s a certain amount of padding was added to Simenon’s texts because his style was deemed too simple.

How did he achieve this without characters being mere clichés? Taking random paragraphs of one novel was a very good exercise, as was the systematic comparison of first paragraphs for his short story collection “Maigret and the tail-less piglets”. I had watched the TV version of several of these stories and so the story became easily secondary compared to the characters and description. Not one word was wasted. Sometimes it is even terse, and it’s not particularly flattering for characters presented this way.

When the two books were finished, I was awed by Simenon’s craft. The stories were nuanced yet simple, the characters had depth yet were shown with few sentences. Simenon said that the most important piece of advice he received on writing was not to be literary. He sure isn’t, and yet his books are literature, not just commercial pulps.

What an inspiration! What a teacher!

 

George Simenon, L’ombre Chinoise (Maigret Mystified, 1932)

A few weeks ago I went for a business trip and I was looking for the perfect book that filled these criteria:

  • Good quality (you don’t want to take one book and discover you took the wrong one)
  • Short enough to last 2 evenings
  • Entertaining and riveting, yet not too complex

It seems that Simenon Maigret mysteries are matching it all. It’s been a long time since I have read any of them, but I regularly watch the European TV adaptation played by Bruno Cremer. Like a lot of French people, in my mind, Cremer is Maigret. So I’ve the idea of someone rather mellow, with a round face and a full figure, sometimes prone to fits of anger but mostly quiet and observant. He’s seen it all and nothing surprises him. He patiently waits for the suspects to unwittingly reveal their secrets and then picks up the pieces to execute justice.

But in this early novel (written in the 1930s), Maigret is more of a dry and nervous type than in the TV show (or maybe later in the series?). He’s often exasperated by the hypocrisy of petty bourgeois family intruigue and prejudices and he makes no secret of it. The most friendly character is the victim’s mistress, a cheap call girl from Pigalle. But all other characters are unpleasant and sly.

The murder takes place in Place des Vosges, in one of those appartment buildings where many social classes share a building and where the courtyard architecture enables some snooping around when windows are lit up  at night (that’s why the original title is Ombre Chinoise, Shadow silhouette).

This short book inspired me to read some more Maigret next year, and to learn more about the enigmatic Commissaire. Now, who is your Maigret?