Chief Superintendent Maigret
August 11, 2009
My all time favorite author says he's slept with 10,000 women in the course of his life. You gotta admit, that's a lot. From my virtuous vantage point, one wonders if it is even possible. Actually, he didn't say it himself, but it was some reporter who knew his habits made the calculation, and he said 'yeah....that sounds about right.'
The author is Geoges Simenon (1903-1989), largely unknown in the U.S, but one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, and familiar everywhere else. Many of his novels are so sordid - should one be surprised? - you almost can't read them. I haven't gotten through many, and my motivation to do so quickly wanes. His own mother complained “"Why don't you ever write a book about nice people and good Catholics, instead of all these criminals?'" Indeed, I might not know of this author at all were it not for one remarkable fact: his most famous character, Chief Superintendent Maigret, protagonist of over 100 books and short stories – all murder mysteries - is as upright as his creator is decadent. One almost imagines the author inventing him as a sort of therapy, as if pining like a Michael Jackson of yesteryear for a normality that was never his. (not that he ever expressed any regret over the 10,000)
The impossibly cozy home scenes of Chief Superintendent Maigret and Mdm. Maigret play almost as novelettes within novels – typifying that old-fashioned safe harbor that a person longs for after slogging it out in the rough-and-tumble world. Was marriage ever so tranquil, its participants so companionable? Don’t expect any racy sex scenes here nor even strong emotion, just pure domestic pleasantry. After solving a tough case, there is no better pastime for Maigret than to stroll arm in arm with his wife to the movies.
You wouldn’t expect a series of murder stories would be joyful, but joy, good humor, and a sheer love of life, permeate the Maigret series. Maigret loves nothing more than to roam the streets of Paris, tracking all clues himself, interviewing whomever he can – page after page is unattributed dialog – defying superiors who want him to focus on bureaucratic drudgery and delegate the interesting stuff to underlings. Its from him I learned to savor bistros, sipping coffee or some such beverage (always alcoholic for him) absorbing the comings and goings of passerby. If he must catch a bus, hopefully its an open platform one, not one of those new-fangled jobs that imprison its passengers. He employs patience and plodding police work, and he benefits from the easy camaraderie of his staff. He absorbs scenes and people and clues almost subconsciously, and he arrives at the truth as much through intuition as deduction – not like that insufferable smart-ass Sherlock Holmes on the other side of the channel, who barely notices it’s people he’s dealing with - an atheist, I'm sure - who is wont to reduce everything to ciphers, and who, when case is closed, doesn't go home to his wife but snorts cocaine instead.
It’s as though Simenon channels all his love of life into these Maigret novels, and reserves his darker broodings (of which he has many) for other works. If there are sordid characters in a Maigret mystery, they are to be found among those he must investigate – do the French really do nothing but tipple and visit mistresses? Or is that only in the author’s mind? Meanwhile, Maigret and his colleagues embody the very essence of normality (just like the police in real life!).
Maigret mysteries explore subtle psychological themes, themes rarely touched upon in popular literature - the interactions of class distinction, for one. Here, Maigret does not have the advantage. He's not an Hercule Poirot, able to look down on all the rest of humanity. The Chief Superintendent is solidly middle class, son of a peasant. Here are excerpts from one of my favorite Maigrets – Maigret in Retirement, in which the Chief is summoned to investigate shadiness amongst the upper crust, and the sleaziest fellow turns out to be an old schoolmate, lowly enough back then, but wealthy and full of himself now:
As the two men were walking along the river bank, it must have looked as though one was holding the other on a leash, and Maigret, as sullen and clumsy as a big shaggy dog, was letting himself be pulled along....The fact was that he was ill at ease….Moreover, he hated people who suddenly spring up out of your past to pat you on the shoulder and address you familiarly....Ernest Malik, in short, represented a type of humanity that had always aroused his aversion.
The fellow strode along with the utmost unconcern, free and easy in his beautifully cut white flannel suit, physically fit, with glossy hair and no hint of sweat on his skin despite the heat. He was already playing the great nobleman showing off his estates to a yokel. "This is where my domain begins...I've a few small boats, since one's got to amuse oneself somehow in this Godforsaken place...Do you like sailing?"
What irony there was in his voice as he asked the heavily-built Superintendent if he liked sailing in one of the slender skiffs visible between the buoys!
And Malik, with an ever more casual air, like a pretty woman toying carelessly with a jewel worth millions, seemed to be saying: "Take a good look, you great lout. This place belongs to Malik, to little Malik whom all of you contemptuously call the Tax-Collector because his father spent his days in a dark office, behind a grating."...Some Great Danes came up to lick his hands and he accepted their humble homage with indifference.
…And in fact Maigret was ill at ease in this setting. Even the surroundings, too smooth and harmonious, irritated him. He felt no petty jealousy but an actual loathing of that immaculate tennis court, of the well-fed chauffeur whom he had seen polishing the sumptuous car. The landing -stage with its diving boards, its small boats moored all round, the swimming-pool, the trimmed trees, the smooth unblemished gravel paths were all part of a world into which he entered reluctantly and in which he felt terribly clumsy.
What Witness of Jehovah hasn’t been there, and felt the subtle condescension of the la-de-da, the stifling atmosphere of wealth? It’s a curious fact that in the public ministry you might find yourself discussing the Bible in a run-down inner city home one hour and in some great imposing manor the next, and be comfortable in both. I’m grateful anytime that happens - that experience of transcending class boundaries - somewhat mirroring this description of Jesus from The Man From Nazareth:
Alike in public and in private he associated with men and women on equal terms. He was at home with little children in their innocence and strangely enough at home too with conscience-stricken grafters like Zacchaeus. Respectable home-keeping women, such as Mary and Martha, could talk with him with natural frankness, but courtesans also sought him out as though assured that he would understand and befriend them . . . His strange unawareness of boundaries that hemmed ordinary people in is one of his most characteristic qualities.
Of course, you're not as likely to be invited inside in the wealthier areas, for the loftier a man's home the more full of himself he becomes, so that he readily imagines himself above fraternizing with some door-to-door minister - a visitor with an inherently humble role. Still, it does happen - receptive people may be found anywhere - and no sooner do you start judging people when you come across someone who overturns all your tidy notions of what to expect.
Again, from Maigret in Retirement (for as usual, the Chief Superintendent does get his man):
With such men, one had a difficult moment to go through, the moment when in spite of oneself one is impressed by their fine houses, their cars, their servants, their manner....One must come to see them like the rest, naked and unadorned...
Isn’t it really just as Prov 18:11 observes?
The valuable things of the rich are his strong town, and they are like a protective wall in his imagination?
The definitive web resource for all things Maigret is http://www.trussel.com/f_maig.htm. Check it out. Here is a webmaster who keeps up with things both substantial and trivial. If Life Magazine ran an article on the Chief Superintendent sixty years ago, Trussel has it. There is even a forum section. Many months ago, I submitted a review of one of my favorite Maigrets, but it wasn't published. I sulked and sulked but then I got over it. Is the forum even open to all and sundry? Or maybe Truffle didn't think the review was any good. That's always plausible. These folks are really into Maigret...real aficionados, and perhaps not too indulgent with amateurs.
I'm never certain how many Maigrets, if any, I've yet to read. Simenon wrote in French, and only gradually did they trickle into English. His last Maigret I just discovered browsing in the library: Maigret and the Killer. (not to be confused with Maigret and the Killers, an entirely different book) It wasn't on the shelves, though. The librarian said it was in storage, deep in the bowels of the building, and she'd go get in for me. Um...were there other Maigrets down there? I thought to ask only upon her return. Yes, there were quite a few, was the reply. Cool!!! Now there’s a summer pastime! If I'm late with an upcoming post or two, you'll know why.
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Good books by great authors are rare. When you come across one with complex characters, interesting settings, and lots of false directions, it is a gold mind. When you find many books like that, well, if you start the last book and Armageddon is going on around you and you don't notice anything until you finish and brother so-and-so taps you on the shoulder and says, "didn't you notice all the screaming?" I at least will understand your surprised look...:-)
Posted by: Screech | August 19, 2009 at 11:04 PM
Hmmm?....huh?....did you say something?
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | August 20, 2009 at 09:35 AM
Hey Tom, Chief Superintendent Maigret is on DVD for PBS.
Check it out ..
"The Maigret Collection DVD 4PK
4 DVD Set
Item No. MAIG400
Our Price: $99.98
Buy Any 3 Items, Get The 4th Free! Details >
A dozen tales of death, intrigue, and ingenious police legwork fill this collection of Inspector Maigret mysteries, starring Michael Gambon as the famous pipe-smoking Parisian sleuth. From Montmartre to the remote French countryside, Maigret probes the dark side of the human psyche with understated elegance and precision. Based on Georges Simenon's popular novels, which have tantalized readers for more than half a century."
Posted by: laceysquarepants | August 23, 2009 at 12:53 PM
I have seen a few episodes on PBS. They are excellent. Michael Gambon well captures the flavor of Maigret. The Maigret novels are set in Paris of 50 or so years ago. The TV series was filmed in Budapest shortly after the fall of the iron curtain. It's very believable.
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | August 23, 2009 at 06:38 PM