The Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Simenon Omnibuses

The Eighth Omnibus
Maigret and the Flea was first published as  Maigret et l’indicateur in  1971. It was translated into English by Lyn Moir. A routine Maigret. As usual, there is little detection, the crime this time is obvious and the investigation consists of Maigret waiting for the criminals to break down and confess, which they suddenly and unaccountably do just as Simenon reaches his usual 130 page limit. Much of the charm of the book is just in revisiting familiar territory. The solicitous Madame Maigret, the team of detectives, the bars and restaurants, the food and drink lovingly described, the weather. Two new characters make their appearance, and the depiction of these gives the book what little interest it has. One is Inspector Louis, a widowed policeman always dressed entirely in black who spends his time listening to people talk in the bars of Pigalle. The other is the informer of the title, named the Flea, a tiny man with a clown’s face who haunts the neighbourhood as much as Inspector Louis. The Flea does errands for criminals, precipitates the crime with which the story is concerned, and informs on the murderers. Both characters bear witness to Simenon’s unending fascination with the vagaries of human nature.

Maigret Hesitates was published as Maigret hésite in 1968: it was translated into English by Lyn Moir. A finely told tale of suspense, with the culprit, though, obvious well before the end. Maigret is in high society and Simenon portrays a lawyer’s unusual family with much acuteness. The crime involves a famous clause of the French penal code, Article 64: “there is no crime or misdemeanour if the accused was in a state of dementia at the time of the act, or if he was driven to it by an irresistible impulse”. Simenon felt strongly there was no guilt, that we all react to environment and circumstance in a way we cannot fully control. This is the basis of his famous compassion. In this case Maigret can see how many candidates there might be for the crime he is investigating, the reason for his hesitation. Simenon came to ally himself with the “little man”, and underscores here how high social position can sometimes inhibit humane feelings. There are delightful descriptions of the beginnings of Spring in Paris, and much about good food and wine. Not in the slightest way profound, but an enjoyable tale.

Teddy Bear was published as L’Ours en peluche in 1960, and translated into English by John Clay. This is the story of Professor Jean Chabot, a successful obstetrician who has risen from poor beginnings to be eminent in his profession. He has a wife and family, a large income, a mistress, and the esteem of his colleagues. Yet somehow it has all turned to dust. He is a stranger to his wife and children, his affair with his secretary is bordering on routine, his wealth seems at the mercy of his boorish brother in law. He comes to the conclusion he has been a success purely to impress and reassure his friends and family, who all need an ‘expert’ in their lives. He recalls an incident when he seduced a young nurse on night duty. The girl fell pregnant, and Chabot passively let his staff turn her away when she sought him out for help. Her body was later recovered from the Seine; now a relative of the dead girl threatens revenge. Poignantly, Chabot remembers the innocence of the girl, whom he has nicknamed Teddy Bear for her childish qualities, and thinks of their encounter as among the simplest and most fulfilling he has experienced. He also thinks of his father, an idealistic reforming politician betrayed by colleagues he trusted, who subsided into invalidism for the last years of his life, a victim of helpless outrage and despair. All that is left for Chabot now is to decide how to end the charade. The account is in part autobiographical, for this was similar to a crisis Simenon was going through in the 60s: like other of his stories an eerie foretelling of things to come. One of several similar stories, this one infused with self pity.

The Eighth Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1975.  Maigret and the Flea, 1971, rated ◊◊◊; Maigret Hesitates, 1968, rated ◊◊◊◊; Teddy Bear, 1960, rated ◊◊◊◊.

The Ninth Omnibus
Maigret and Monsieur Charles was first published as Maigret et Monsieur Charles in 1972, and was translated into English by Marianne Alexandre Sinclair. Although Simenon’s final novel, there is no falling off discernible in this well plotted tale of a mismatched marriage and a missing husband. The detection as such is nicely done, though Simenon does cheat by disclosing another suspect at the end of the book. It is primarily the story of a mistaken marriage, between the affable Monsieur Charles, a prominent and successful solicitor who continues to live like a playboy well into middle age, and who is guilty of being intolerably self centered, though forgiven by his friends because of his charm; and his wife Trika, a hostess marrying for social position and money who finds only loneliness and self contempt. Simenon is on sure ground as he depicts the way we deceive ourselves in pursuing what we imagine we want. Once constrained by the straitjacket of this marriage the wife can only proceed, fuelled by massive amounts of alcohol, to its tragic conclusion, and Maigret (and Simenon) follow her with great sadness and compassion. This would be a tragedy if observed from within the troubled woman’s mind, but seen from the outside by Maigret it remains poignant. It draws the basic situation from that of Simenon’s second marriage.

The Disappearance of Odile was first published in 1971 as La Disparation d’Odile: it was translated into English by Lyn Moir. It is an unusual book for Simenon. He tries to get into the mind of a young girl in her 20s who is contemplating suicide, and shows her as regaining her love of life through an attraction for a young man who saves her life. If that sounds like magazine fiction of a sentimental variety, well, it is. Simenon is not too convincing in giving the state of mind of Odile, nor her change of attitude. The story takes on a poignant tone if you know that five years after the book’s publication Simenon’s daughter Marie-Jo would attempt suicide, and two years after that, succeed. However the book may have drawn on elements from Simenon’s family life, as a novel, and understandable so, it is pretty much a failure. Simenon cannot effectively imagine Odile’s despair, as he does so brilliantly so often in other works. The book begins well. Bob, Odile’s brother, sets off to Paris to look for his sister when she disappears from her home in Lausanne (she has been ignored by her father, who is too busy prolifically producing popular history (more autobiographical references here). The search narrative has the compulsive quality of a detective story. However, half way through the tale Simenon switches point of view, and Odile’s depiction I found facile, and sentimental, and so too her change of attitude. The book is of interest more as autobiography for those interested in Simenon’s life than as a finished work of fiction.

The Cat was first published in 1967 as Le Chat. It has been translated into English by Bernard Frechtman. This book has been seen as another autobiographical one, based on the 40 year second marriage of Simenon’s mother Henriette, but more (in this interpretation) about the relationship of Simenon and his mother, who remained apparently indifferent to him all her life. Emile Bouin and Marguerite Doise have both lost their spouses, and live opposite one another in a cul de sac once owned by Marguerite’s father, a biscuit manufacturer fallen on hard times. They decide to remarry, for companionship’s sake. They are both in their seventies. Emile moves into Marguerite’s house, and soon the incompatibilities in their personalities begin to manifest themselves. Emile is working class, unpretentious, has simple tastes, is methodical and practical. Marguerite is middle class, affected, hypochondriac and fussy. Matters come to a head over the pets the two have, Marguerite a parrot and Emile a cat. The cat dies and Emile believes Marguerite has poisoned it. He retaliates by attacking the parrot, who becomes ill and dies. Marguerite has it stuffed and keeps it in the lounge room as a perennial reproach to her husband. Soon the couple devise separate housekeeping arrangements, and communicate only by notes. With considerable mastery Simenon evokes the past details of these two lives through reveries and flashbacks, and in the process evokes a distant way of life with astonishing conviction and realism. Over the entire book Simenon casts a tone of gentle melancholy, of sadness at the ways people cut themselves off from one another. Three years after the book was published Simenon’s mother died, and intimations of this may have affected the highly intuitive Simenon while he was writing. Though Emile can make contact with others, and for a while moves in with the earthy, rather wise tavern keeper Nelly, who resembles in many ways his working class former wife Angéle, Marguerite is more limited. They both realise that she needs him, and that however poor it may be, they do have a relationship, and that this is better than no contact at all. They continue to exchange notes, Emile continues to write “The Cat”, until one day Marguerite dies. A horrifying tale, and somehow unendurably wise.

The Ninth Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1976.  Maigret and Monsieur Charles, 1972, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; The Disappearance of Odile, 1971, rated ◊◊◊◊; The Cat, 1967, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊.

The Tenth Omnibus
Maigret and the Madwoman was first published in 1970 as La Folle de Maigret, and translated into English by Eileen Ellenbogen. This is quite a suspenseful Maigret story, even though it hinges only on the minor complaint of Madame Antoine, the Folle of the title, that someone unknown is entering her apartment and disarraying her possessions. Her complaints are not taken seriously by the police until she is murdered. Then Maigret must discover who, and why. Like all detective stories there are minor discrepancies of plot and characterisation, made to maintain the suspense, which make the solution, when it arrives, seem a bit forced. Here it’s an invention that everyone seems to know about, except Maigret, and the victim, who swears she has nothing of value yet hides an object which leads to her death. But one reads Maigret stories not for the detection mainly. Here what’s depicted is Maigret’s respect for the old lady who has died, and his sadness that her only relation, her niece, an ageing woman clinging desperately to her last romance with a worthless gigolo, has her need for affection result in a needless death. A counterpoint to this futile relationship, weaving in and out of the tale of detection, is the depiction of Maigret’s relationship with his wife, based on trust and companionship and highlighted by good food and wine.

The Glass Cage was first published as La Cage de Verre in 1971, and translated into English by Antonia White. It is the sad story of Émile Virieu, a man cut off from all others, seemingly indifferent to all emotion, and to what others think. He literally has no reaction to others, and this, added to his peculiar appearance, causes people to treat him with reserve and even suspicion. Émile works as a proof reader, isolated in the glass cage of the title which is suspended over a printing works. It is the only place he feels at home, never speaking to any of the printers, indulging his love of grammar by correcting proofs, happily protected from intrusion by the world. Émile is married, to a wife he is indifferent to, an unattractive woman he married for the conveniences of companionship. He has suffered from migraines since childhood, which has further isolated him. He preferred then to read than play with others. Even the suicide of his brother in law, whose life unravels when he falls for a younger woman who rejects him, and his wife will not divorce him, fails to unsettle him. Or perhaps it does. Increasingly, Émile’s thoughts turn to disease and death. He notices an attractive woman who is a new neighbour, who, surprisingly, flirts with him, and she becomes the focal point of all his lifelong resentments. This is a novel in which nothing happens until almost the last paragraph, and the suspense grows stronger and stronger until the end. It is part of Simenon’s skill as a writer that the reader slowly, imperceptibly, becomes Émile, suffers his resentments, makes his reflections on life, and finally, almost inevitably, lashes out in a futile yet destructive gesture. This is what Simenon does so well, getting under the skin of an ‘ordinary’ man and revealing the madness within, along with a melancholy sadness that human nature should be that way.

The Man on the Bench in the Barn was first published as La Main in 1968, and translated into English by Moura Budberg. Well, it’s been a busy week. I murdered one of my neighbours on Monday, and now, come the weekend, I’ve just shot my wife. Imperceptibly, I’ve become Donald Dodd, a successful small town solicitor, one of Simenon’s many successful men whose lives turn suddenly to dust. Donald comes home from a party one night during a blizzard, with his wife and another couple, close friends from New York. There is a power outage, the car breaks down, and they have to walk the last dozen yards to the house, during which Donald’s friend Ray gets lost. Going out to find him, Donald suddenly realises that he doesn’t want to. Instead, he wants his friend to die, has always resented his successes, feels no emotion but hatred for him, long simmering hatred. Donald does nothing to find his friend; instead, he sits on a bench in the abandoned barn and thinks. The conclusion he comes to is that his life is a sham. All his life he has done what others wanted, tried to win their approval, has been ashamed to admit being someone they mightn’t like. He has come to despise himself. Although his decision to abandon his friend has been made from cowardice, Donald sees it as the start of a path of liberation. He begins a loveless affair with Ray’s wife Mona, and confronts the emptiness of his relationships, with his two daughters, his wife Isabel, his business associates, his father and his friends. Slowly, his wife Isabel becomes a reproach, the focus of his resentments, a loving and patient spouse whom he resents more and more. Eventually he comes to think her solicitude is a wish for his destruction. Finally, he takes a gun and kills her. The tale is told in the first person. Despite the authentic minute detail in the telling, based on Simenon’s own experience in living in America, this just fails to ring true, at least in its tragic ending: good, but not great.

The Tenth Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1976.  Maigret and the Madwoman, 1970, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; The Glass Cage, 1971, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊; The Man on the Bench in the Barn, 1968, rated ◊◊◊◊◊.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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