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

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
Show Hide image

Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist