|Three paperbacks by Georges Simenon
||[Dec. 11th, 2015|10:41 pm]
I said that paperbacks were cheap at the Sunday morning brocante in Bordeaux. Naturally, I bought some, three 1970s 'Livre de Poche' editions of Simenon at €2 each, 3 for €5. One of the things I had promised myself for this trip to France was that I would get hold of some Maigret, and now Bordeaux obligingly provided me with the opportunity.
I read a lot of crime fiction; and I'm always on the look-out for recreational reading in French. How is it possible that I had never before read any Maigret? I don't know, but somehow that's the case. Any mental image I have is the vaguest memory of the 1960s television version, with Rupert Davies lighting his pipe in the opening sequence (it's one of the very few television programmes I associate with my father). The story would be set in Paris, of course, 36, quai des Orfèvres, and - no, that's all I knew.
Or thought I knew. But even before I get to that there's a surprise, because the first of the three volumes didn't feature Maigret at all: I knew that Simenon was ridiculously prolific, but I had bought on the strength of intriguing titles. Les 13 énigmes turned out to be a collection of short stories, puzzles, as the title suggests - this should not have been unexpected - and to feature a brilliant detective to whom the narrator, his faithful Watson, refers always by the name G7, as a memento of the adventure that first brought them together. That was in Paris, in Montmartre, but thereafter they travel the length and breadth of France together, fighting crime. Or rather G7 fights crime, while the narrator looks on, baffled but admiring, and describes the location: a village near Mulhouse, where place-names end in -heim and the locals speak a Germanic dialect, where the scenery must be delightful in summer (but this was November); a village by the Loire, across the river from Sancerre; Fort Bayard in the ocean off La Rochelle; a country house in the Nivernais which has been suffering the activities of a poltergeist; a burglary near Aigues-Mortes. Would a star detective really be sent from Paris to deal with all of these? Perhaps.
What surprised me even more was that the author of these very minimalist enigmas, stories stripped of the niceties of characterisation until little but the puzzle remains, took the trouble to locate them all so vividly.When I moved on to read the two full-length novels, I got the same surprise all over again. La Nuit du carrefour starts in Maigret's office in Paris, at the end of a long interrogation. It's a lovely little sketch of the capital round the clock, the rush of workers to the cafés at lunchtime, and then again to the stations and metro in the evening, the mist on the Seine, the quiet of the night interrupted by the noise of a fire engine, then of a police raid, the station gradually waking up, the ringing of telephones and the brooms of the cleaners - and all this just to establish that a suspect gives nothing away despite the persistence of Maigret's interrogration.
The story itself happens elsewhere, at the eponymous crossroads, where a diamond dealer has been found shot dead. On the route nationale out of Arpajon, there is a crossroads in the middle of nowhere: a garage, three houses, and the fields stretching away into the distance. One of the houses is the home of the owner of the garage, a retired boxer, affluent and self assured; one belongs to an insurance salesman, fussy and self-important; and the third is a decaying mansion rented by an eccentric Danish pair who claim to be brother and sister. At first I was disconcerted by the contrast between the dreary setting and these two exotics, Carl and Else, who reminded me of Paul and Elisabeth in Les Enfants terribles (which was published a couple of years earlier, for what that's worth - and looking that up, I discovered that La Nuit du carrefour was one of the earliest Maigret novels, and was almost immediately filmed by Jean Renoir, with his brother Pierre as the detective). But in fact there is something cartoonishly exaggerated about all the residents at the crossroads, and about the events there, too. It could be a weakness in the charaterisation, but it gives a 'caper movie' feel to the proceedings: these are dark goings on, but I was encouraged to take them lightly.
Finally, Le Charretier de la Providence is another early Maigret novel, but with a very different mood. It opens with the comings and goings one rainy Sunday in April at the lock where the canal meets the river Marne; the barges in transit, the lock keeper reluctant to work the lock, because he has family visiting ('but you can go through if you work it yourselves'), the little Bar de la Marine where the rain-soaked crews call in for a drink before moving on, the whole busy world of the canals painstakingly constructed detail by detail... It's like the opening of one of Zola's novels, a statement of intent: I am creating a panorama of contemporary life, and in this volume I will be looking at...
Simenon and his wife spent considerable periods exploring the waterways of France: there's some discussion of this and other aspects of the book here, (with maybe the odd spoiler and a lovely gallery of covers). He gives a fascinating description of an existence lived in parallel to everyday life, at no great distance from the towns and railways of the modern world, but in which households are self contained and in constant motion. It's a great setting for a murder, the suspects coming and going and taking their homes, their potential scenes of crime with them, and Maigret reduced to cycling along the muddy towpath in hot pursuit.
Two boats stand out from the others, the Southern Cross, property of the English milord and his rackety ménage, and the Providence of the title, home of the barge's owner, his Belgian wife and the strange, silent 'charretier', the man who tends the horses which pull the barge, and sleeps in the on-board stable with them. He made me think of Michel Simon's rôle in L'Atalante, another story whose title is the name of a barge, filmed a couple of years after the publication (in 1931) of Simenon's novel. Where Jules is a troubling third on the Atalante, a complication in the relationship of the newlyweds, Jean's presence on board the Providence is fully explained by his job title; he treats the owner's wife (her name, she lets slip, is Hortense, but I don't think it is ever used) almost as a mother, she says, although she is younger than he is, anf she responds with a quasi-maternal affection for him.
The occupants of the Southern Cross seem to have come from an entirely different story, something from the jazz age, Fitzgerald, maybe, all glitter and strong drink...
I don't know what it is about this book - both of these books - that makes me want to compare them to other books and moves, and there's a risk in doing so of creating exaggerated expectations. There's something a little stereotyped about the characters, something a bit larger than life (which may be why I see echoes of other fictitious characters in them). I would never dismiss a book as 'only a detective story' (some of my favourite books are detective stories). But both of these novels, in different ways, sit squarely within the genre of the murder mystery.
Now I need to read more Maigret, to see where the series went from these two early examples.