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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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia