The quiet commissaire: the extraordinary ordinariness of Maigret

Georges Simenon's detective is one of literature’s most exceptional characters. Or, rather, one of literature’s most unexceptional characters: the most exceptional unexceptional.

                       

Pietr the Latvian
Georges Simenon
Translated by David Bellos
Penguin Classics, 176pp, £6.99

Born in Saint-Fiacre par Matignon, deep in the Auvergne, the heart of France, he is around 45, lives in Paris, is married but childless, a pipe smoker, gruff, uncomplicated, the sort of man who likes to relax with a glass of beer and his own thoughts for company. He wears a well-cut suit, a bowler hat and an overcoat with a velvet collar. Greying dark-brown hair, a poorly knotted tie and a taste for good, plain food. Big, broad-shouldered, proletarian, he stands with a boxer’s stance, feet wide apart, forever dependable, immovable and there. He looks like Jean Gabin. Or Rupert Davies. Michael Gambon. Michel Simon. Handsome-strange. Beautiful-ugly.

He is, of course, Jules Amédée François Maigret, the creation of Georges Simenon and one of literature’s most exceptional characters. Or, rather, one of literature’s most unexceptional characters: the most exceptional unexceptional. Most of the great characters in literature are like great “characters” in life – florid, flamboyant, attention-seeking – and many of them clearly suffer from some kind of neurosis, or terrible anxiety, or fatal flaw, kink, twist, weird problem, or secret thwarted ambition or desire, or, indeed, some more severe form of psychiatric disorder. Take, for example, Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, Holden Caulfield, Emma Bovary, Macbeth, Ibsen’s Nora, even little Bertie Wooster. There are few great characters in literature who are undeniably and delightfully dull and yet who also possess true negative capability, who are entirely possessed of themselves. Maigret is the first among very few equals.

He is also one of the few detectives in literature who seem to be possessed of characteristics not shared by their creators. In a sense, G K Chesterton was Father Brown and Agatha Christie was Miss Marple. Dashiell Hammett was a quarter Sam Spade and three-quarters the Continental Op. Yet Simenon was not Maigret; instead, he was almost the exact opposite. Where Simenon was promiscuous, Maigret is uxorious. Where Simenon was self-promoting, Maigret is self-effacing. Where Simenon was swift, Maigret is slow.

If Simenon were the analysand, then Maigret would undoubtedly be the therapist. He is the detective as patient listener and quiet observer, the Carl Rogers commissaire. The outcome of his investigations often seems irrelevant: Simenon rarely planned or outlined his novels and he hated to revise. The books are about their process, not about their conclusions. Maigret is not so much an instrument of the law as a redresseur de destins, a silent fixer, a rectifier, a mender of destinies. He works both by intuition and by logic – with mercy and with a sense of justice. He is the perfect father. An apophatic god.

According to Simenon’s account, Maigret came to him one morning in 1929, while he was sitting in a café by a Dutch canal. “Had I drunk one, two or even three little glasses of schnapps and bitters? In any case, after an hour, feeling rather sleepy, I began to see the powerful and imposing bulk of a gentleman emerging, who it seemed to me would make an acceptable detective-inspector.”

Simenon had perhaps enjoyed more than a couple glasses of schnapps and bitters that morning, for his memory is certainly at fault. There was no sudden puff of smoke by the side of a Dutch canal. Rather, Maigret seems to have emerged from the mists of Simenon’s imagination slowly, pensively, ploddingly and over time.

In 1929, Simenon was already a successful author. He had started work at the age of 15 as a junior reporter on his local newspaper, the Gazette de Liège, and in his twenties he had published more than 100 of what he called his romans alimentaires, pulp romantic and adventure novels, which he wrote under various pseudonyms and at incredible speed. (At his peak of pulp productivity, in 1928, he produced no fewer than 44 novels, many of them written in a matter of days.)

In the 1930s, he started writing what he called his romans durs, his literary novels, the most distinguished of which – L’Assassin (1937), L’Homme qui regardait passer les trains (1938), La Veuve Couderc (1942) – were masterpieces of psychological intrigue. The Maigret books bridge the two extremes of his career but have eclipsed all else in reputation and renown. When he died in 1989, France Soir announced on its front page, “Le père de Maigret est mort”.

A Maigret-type figure first looms out of the fog in one of Simenon’s pulp novels, written under the pseudonym Christian Brulls, L’Amant sans nom (1929), which features an “agent No 49”, a detective possessed of “calm, cold patience” and a pipe. In Une Ombre dans la nuit (1929), there is a character called Maigret who is a doctor. Commissaire Maigret first appears in Train de nuit (1930) and then again in La Maison de l’inquiétude, published in serial form in 1930. All of the elements slowly came together, like an actor haphazardly assembling a character, from prop to prop and tic to tic to the final full performance: first the pipe, then the coat, the hat, the beers, the heavy hands, the calm.

Simenon was clearly aware that with Maigret he had created something special – or at least something that he could make into something special. He was willing for the first time to attach his own name to his productions; this was his chance to break out of the pulp fiction ghetto. And he broke out in style. To launch Maigret upon the world, he organised what he called a bal anthropométrique, an “anthropometric ball”. On 20 February 1931, at a nightclub at 33 Rue Vavin, near the Luxembourg Gardens, 1,000 guests gathered to celebrate Simenon’s new creation. On arrival, they were met by a film crew from Fox Movietone – paid for and arranged by Simenon. Inside, the nightclub had been decorated with lurid images of handcuffs and bloody corpses and Simenon apparently spent most of the evening prominently seated, signing copies of his books: this was publishing as spectacle. (He had only just failed to pull off a previous, even more spectacular publicity stunt: in 1927, he had agreed to be locked in a glass cage, to spend seven days writing a novel for serialisation in a new newspaper, Paris-Matinal. The paper folded before Simenon made it inside the cage but the word of mouth was priceless.)

In financial terms, Simenon’s move to Maigret was a great success. In 1925, his earnings were 42,671 francs. In 1929, they were 135,460 francs. By 1931, they were 310,561 francs. By the mid-1930s, he was earning about a million francs a year. The figures matter: Simenon is one of the few serious writers whose achievements can be counted in numbers, a writer with a quantitative career, as well as qualitative achievements.

There were 193 novels written under his own name; 200 others written under 20 or so pseudonyms; 75 Maigret novels; four autobiographies; 21 volumes of memoirs. An average of four to five books a year; 80 pages a day; two weeks to write a book. At his death, world sales stood at more than 500 million copies in 55 languages, written in a vocabulary of no more than 2,000 words. And he claimed to have made love to 10,000 women.

“Excess was his watchword,” writes Pierre Assouline, the author of Simenon: a Biography (1997). Patrick Marnham, in The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret (1992), puts it plainly: “Most people work every day and enjoy sex periodically. Simenon had sex every day and every few months indulged in a frenzied orgy of work.”

This orgiastic exuberance, this extraordinary dedication, characterised both Simenon’s personal and his professional lives. “I would like to dedicate what follows,” he announced, in a programme about Balzac, “to all those who write novels for pleasure or out of vanity or in the hopes of an easy living, to those who invite us to share their ideas and their little adventures and also to [those] who imagine that the novelist’s trade is a trade like any other . . . I would like to show them that it is, on the contrary, a vocation, a renunciation, if not a sickness and a curse.”

Penguin is now honouring Simenon’s spirit of excess with what seems like a lunatic project. It is publishing all 75 of the Maigret novels, one a month, in order and newly translated, over the next few years. It is the kind of project of which Simenon would heartily have approved.

The venture begins with Pietr the Latvian (Pietr-le-Letton), first published in May 1931: the book that Simenon claimed was the first true Maigret. Though the plot lumbers and lurches, all of the essential elements are there: the familiar, warming iron stove in Maigret’s office at the headquarters of the police judiciaire; Mme Maigret at home doing the cooking; a long, slow chase, with the emphasis on the why rather than the whodunnit; and much drinking of beer.

Like Simenon, Penguin has not stinted. This is not a gimmick but a serious enterprise. Pietr the Latvian is translated by David Bellos,one of the world’s greatest translators. The next book to be published in the series is a translation of The Late Monsieur Gallet (M Gallet décédé) by Anthea Bell, another of the world’s greatest translators. After that is The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien), translated by Linda Coverdale.And so on.

This sort of quality and commitment is a long way from Simenon’s treatment at the hands of his previous English translators, notably Geoffrey Sainsbury. As Pierre Assouline notes, “From the very beginning Sainsbury freely altered names, psychological profiles, details and even plot elements when he considered them inappropriate, implausible or contradictory. The results of his ‘re-creation’ were duly submitted for the author’s approval, which was always forthcoming. And for good reason: Simenon did not understand a word of English.”

The good news is that Simenon is now available to be read by anyone who does not understand a word of French.

Ian Sansom’s books include “The Norfolk Mystery” (Fourth Estate, £14.99)

Pipe dream: Maigret is a man of simple pleasures. Photo: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge