essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Maigret in Exile and other stories
Maigret in Exile was first published as La Maison du juge in 1942, and was translated into English by Eileen Ellenbogen. This a rare thing, a boring Simenon novel. Maigret has been transferred from Paris, for reasons we never know, to a small provincial town where nothing ever happens. But things look up: a nosy neighbour notices a corpse in the house of a retired judge. Slowly all the details of the judge’s former life are bought to light: his promiscuous former wife; his bastard son; his nymphomaniac daughter; a murder he committed long ago. Slowly Maigret tracks down the killer, and grills him till he confesses. It’s all been done before with more panache. Somehow this book reads like Maigret by numbers, and the characters never come to life.
Maigret and the Toy Village was first published as Félicie est là in 1944, and translated into English by Eileen Ellenbogen. In this good humoured Maigret story we learn that Maigret is looking forward to retirement in a few years, and that he wears a carefully trimmed mustache. The toy village is the Jeanneville Estate, a housing development a few miles from Paris, where a local resident has been murdered. The man’s housekeeper Félicie proves to be a stubborn witness, refusing to co-operate with the police. Despite clues that lead to an investigation of several unsavoury types from the Place Pigalle in Paris, Maigret refuses to budge from Jeanneville, where he quickly develops a love hate relationship with Félicie, and almost takes on the personality of the murdered man, convinced that here, in this somewhat unreal environment, lies the solution to the crime. That solution, unfortunately, involves the coincidence of two identical wardrobes, one containing stolen money, which are switched, so thwarting the villain and causing the crime. On the other hand we have the empathy with which Simenon realises the way that fantasy plays a part in making lives blighted by poverty endurable. And the marvellous portrait of Félicie.
Four Days in a Lifetime was first published as Les Quatre Jours du pauvre
homme in 1949, and was translated into English by Louise Varèse. François Lecoin is a poor man who accepts his lot, perhaps a shade too readily. He has a sick wife and a young son to look after, and his life is a constant succession of devices to make ends meet. Then his wife dies, and that seems to trigger something in François. He becomes no longer willing to accept the blows of fate. Perhaps he has had his fill of misfortune. Instead of begging letters and job applications always refused, François begins to act unscrupulously, first of all blackmailing his brother, who has married a wealthy woman and is standing as a local Deputy. He continues by seducing his brother’s wife, Renée, who controls the family money. He progresses to editorship of a scandal sheet, The Horsewhip, which prints damaging stories of minor celebrities, or withholds them for a fee. François becomes wealthy, and lavishes his wealth on his son, who has the best of everything. But for François success is fragile. His newspaper offends a powerful Minister and is closed down. As a repercussion his school refuses entry to François’ son Bob. Bob, who has lost all intimacy with his father during this drive for wealth and success, is mortified by the rejection, and commits suicide. François grimly goes to meet his fate, probably a bashing from the police, and a return to poverty. Here is a dour picture of the desperation of poverty, the hopelessness and deprivation it means to so many, and the motivation it often brings towards a life of crime. Both the life of the slums and the newspaper milieu are vividly bought to life.
Maigret in Exile, Penguin Books, 1983: Maigret in Exile, 1942, rated ◊◊◊; Maigret and the Toy Village, 1944, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊; Four Days in a Lifetime, 1949, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊.
Maigret at the Crossroads and Other Stories
Maigret at the Crossroads was first published in 1931 as Le Nuit du carrefour, and was translated into English by Robert Baldick. Strong on atmosphere and landscape, this story has a rather incredible cast of characters sounding like refugees from James Bond (the movie franchise). As in other Maigrets, Simenon puts together an intriguing puzzle, but has recourse to outrageous coincidences and unlikely characterisations in order to solve it. Lots of shootouts, a femme fatale, a madman, sinister villains, and everyone breaks down and confesses after Maigret lets them know he’s on to them. A bit silly really, though it starts well.
Maigret Stonewalled was first published as Monsieur Gallet décedé in 1931, and was translated into English by Margaret Marshall. Simenon does Agatha Christie. A most ingeniously constructed detective story in which nothing is what it seems, and nobody is whom you think they are. A rather different Maigret is the investigator in this early story, stern and harsh and unsympathetic to the pair of villains who operate just within the law and take advantage of a man for whom nothing has ever gone right. Despite its adroitness it is a triumph of ingenuity over common sense. I suppose most detective stories are, come to think of it. Not much of the famous atmosphere, or compassion, or empathy, nor understanding of the plight of the poor that mark so much of Simenon’s work. But entertaining.
Maigret Mystified was first published as L’Ombre chinoise in 1932, and translated into English by Jean Stewart. Raymond Couchet was a man everyone liked, cheerful, generous and kind. When he is shot point blank in his office in a lower middle class district apartment block Maigret tears off the facade adopted by the residents to expose some nasty things beneath. The more he finds out about Couchet, the more he likes the man. Slowly he focuses on a suspect clinging to his respectability but dominated by a shrewish, bitterly disappointed wife. The couple are being consumed by past mistakes, and violence is the result of greed and resentment. This is a story which seamlessly combines a densely plotted and intriguing detective story with a deeply compassionate study of loss, deprivation and poverty, and the effects those states can have. Exact observation of the milieu give an effect of almost photographic realism. One of the best Maigret stories.
Maigret at the Crossroads, Penguin Books, 1983: Maigret at the Crossroads, 1931, rated ◊◊◊; Maigret Stonewalled, 1931, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; Maigret Mystified, 1932, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊.
The Second Hamish Hamilton Omnibus
Chez Krull was first published in 1939 as Chez Krull, and was translated into English by Daphne Woodward. This is a story about racial prejudice, its origins in the deprivations of poor people’s lives, and the imperceptible steps by which it can explode into violence. Told coldly, almost clinically, it is a work for all that of passion and outrage at the injustice that rules most people’s lives. The Krull family have migrated from Germany to France. It is suggested at a climactic moment in the story they might have been fleeing prejudice in that country. Now they are naturalised citizens, and operate a store near a lock on a river in northern France. Their only customers are the bargees, who are so poor the Krulls have to give them credit on their purchases. They have remained foreigners for years, despite all the kindness they have shown to neighbours. Hans, a cousin from Germany, comes to stay. He is a refugee, and also a swindler and a thief, young enough to see himself as an adventurer. When a young girl is raped and murdered in the area Hans stirs up trouble by taking an interest and talking to local people who want nothing to do with him. His interference stirs up attention and resentment towards the Krulls, and a near riot occurs. The only victim is Cornelius, the father of the family. Outwardly calm, he commits suicide. He has hardly ever spoken during the course of the story, yet we are left to imagine what nightmares he has experienced and tried to survive. The whole household, his wife, the two daughters, the son Joseph who is an unwitting trigger for the riot, all are depicted in depth, with masterly reticence yet with immense insight. A Simenon masterpiece.
The Heart of a Man was first published as Les Volets Verts in 1950, and was translated into English by Louise Varèse. The story of Emile Maugin, a peasant from the Vendée who has become famous, first as a singer, then a stage actor, and finally as a film star. It is supposedly based on the life of the French actor Raimu, a close friend of Simenon’s. The child of drunken parents who lived in abject poverty, Maugin has seen it all, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, along the way been married three times, the third time to a much younger woman with whom, late as it was, he had at last found love. Maugin is bitter, cynical, rude, and underneath his bearish facade he is honest, caring and a consummate professional. He has a big heart. Now his heart, at age 60, is starting to worry him. His doctor gives him a warning, but Maugin goes on, looking after family, staff, hangers on, business associates. He moves to the Cap d’Antibes, slowly withdrawing from his life as film star, after one final triumph. There, while fishing, he contacts an infection from a cut which slowly destroys him. In a superb closing scene Simenon evokes the fine gradations of feeling, contradictory, inconstant, that motivate Maugin, and the memories with which his life becomes filled. His death is enormously moving. This is indeed a book with an accurate title, one of Simenon’s best novels.
Striptease was first published as Striptease in 1958, and translated into English by Robert Brain. It’s the story of Célita Perrin, a downwardly mobile young woman who started life as the bastard of a since famous film star, was bought up in genteel poverty with her mother, and now, with the to her terrifying abyss of prostitution always threatening her, earns a precarious living at the Monaco, a seedy cabaret in Cannes. Simenon creates the milieu of the striptease artists and other personnel of the Monaco with mesmerising skill. It’s so real the reader feels trapped among the petty intrigues and rivalries that rule the girls’ lives. Monsieur Léon the proprietor has sex with the girls as he pleases, but is married to the cashier, Florence. When Florence falls ill, Célita takes the opportunity to up the rivalry she feels with her for Léon’s favour. She tells herself it is not security she wants, but the ever present contest between male and female. This momentary self deception, a product of both her pride and her fear, brings Célita to life for the reader. Just for a minute her plans look as though they will succeed, until a new girl, Maud, comes along, and Léon becomes besotted with her. What happens next is a tragedy, a small scale one it is true, but the sense that Fate controls our lives without much we can do about it has seldom been put more powerfully. Although a woman’s alternatives are no longer merely between marriage or prostitution, we all must choose some time between personal integrity and selling ourselves.
The Widower was first published as Le Veuf in 1959, and translated into English by Robert Baldick. This is the story of Bernard Jeantet, a graphic designer and a very isolated man, who lives a regulated and lonely existence which yet satisfies him. Jeantet is married, even though he is impotent, his wife forming the only human contact he has with the world. His wife, Jeanne, had been a prostitute who had broken free of her pimp. The pimp had retaliated, knifed her and left her wounded in the street below Jeantet’s window, which is how he had come to care for and eventually marry her. Now Jeanne has disappeared. The Widower is about Jeantet’s search for his wife, and the discoveries he makes about her. He eventually finds he is a widower, and that Jeanne has committed suicide. Jeantet is blamed for this act of despair by those who know the couple, and he cannot understand why. It is here, at a crucial point in the story, that Simenon fails to make that motivation plain. Both the reason for the suicide and the reaction of Jeantet are far from clear, and what has been an absorbing and even moving story ends in an indecisive and obscure manner which lessens the impact of the novel considerably.
The Second Simenon Omnibus, Hamish Hamilton 1974: Chez Krull, 1939, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊; The Heart of a Man, 1950, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊; Striptease, 1958, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊; The Widower, 1959, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.