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The Bar on the Seine


'Believe me, this idea's no good,' Georges Simenon's publisher announced after reading the manuscript of Pietr-le-Letton, the first Maigret novel, which had arrived with a letter proposing a series. 'You've broken all the rules of the game. First of all, the mystery is of no significance whatsoever, just an ordinary everyday crime. Secondly, your criminal is not of the slightest interest. Worse still, he's neither good nor evil. The public doesn't like that. Thirdly, your detective is a man just like anyone else, not particularly intelligent, who sits for hours on end in front of a glass of beer. He's disgustingly commonplace. How do you hope to sell something like that?'

Arthème Fayard's response was both completely right and completely wrong. Simenon had indeed achieved something startlingly new in the field of crime fiction, but when Fayard reluctantly decided to publish it anyway, it turned out to be a huge success. The Case of Peter the Lett was followed within three years by seventeen more novels in the series, this one being the eleventh. At this point the twenty-seven-year-old Belgian 'phenomenon' had already written more than 200 novels and countless shorter fictions, covering all the popular genres from crime to romance, under more than twenty pseudonyms such as Jean du Perry, Luc Dorsan, Aramis and Miquette. His productivity was notorious even in an era when facility was not yet a dirty word. As one of his friends said, 'It takes him less time to write a novel than it would take anyone else to write it down.'

The decade before a great war always risks retrospectively basking in an unearned aura of lost content, but it is probably fair to say that this was the happiest period of Simenon's long life. When not based at his apartment in the Place des Vosges, allegedly having his way with a Don-Giovanni-like catalogue of women including the legendary Josephine Baker, he spent much of the year cruising the rivers and canals of Northern Europe in the ten-metre yacht Ostrogoth, for which he had somehow procured a berth immediately opposite Notre Dame. When the time came to start his next book he completed it very quickly, typically in a week or ten days. The Bar on the Seine was written on board the boat at Ouistreham in Normandy in 1931, and it is tempting to speculate that James, the bibulous Englishman, might have been based on some visiting yachtsman from across the Channel.

The bar of the title was in fact a guinguette, a term which briefly came into use in English at one point and which the OED primly defines as 'a suburban cabaret of a rather low class, for drinking and dancing'. Such establishments had their heyday before the First World War — in 1886 Van Gogh completed a well-known oil painting and an even finer drawing of two of them — and were to all intents and purposes killed off by the Second. A few restaurants on the Seine and the Marne still use the name but, as with the classic East End pub, what made the original unique was as much the clientele as the venue itself. Well-to-do Parisians spent the summer at their country villas while the working class had to sweat it out in the city. The cheap and cheerful guinguettes were the haunt of the intermediate class: tradesmen, artisans, small businessmen, slightly seedy 'men of independent means'; the petite bourgeoisie that Simenon, the son of an accountant for an insurance company, knew inside out, and for whom he avowedly wrote his books.

Such then is the cast and the setting. What does Simenon do with them? All too conscious of his status as an outcast in high-brow French literary life — even his admirer André Gide pointedly qualified him as 'a novelist, not a writer' — he avoided discussing his work in anything other than the most modest and craftsmanlike terms. His books were just simple stories, he claimed, written in a simple style so as to get the widest possible readership and intended, like a film, to be consumed at one sitting. On the face of it, the resulting product should just walk on to the silver screen. Only it doesn't.

On the contrary, film adaptations of the Maigret series — and of the romans durs in which he does not appear — are generally agreed to be disappointing, even in the hands of such masters as Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné (although the latter's 1938 Le Quai des brumes, a title almost certainly stolen from a very similar one of six years earlier in the Maigret series although the original screenplay is by Jacques Prévert, captures the atmosphere of Simenon's work better than any actual adaptation). The best attempt, oddly enough, was the BBC television series of fifty-one episodes aired between 1960 and 1963 and starring the Welshman Rupert Davies, to whom Simenon inscribed a copy of one of his books: 'At last I have found the perfect Maigret.'

This project, the rights to which were won directly from the author against stiff international competition, was a masterpiece of casting, direction and writing such as we are unlikely to see again from that beleagured institution, but its makers were also lucky. The scenes shot on location — as sparing, for obvious budgetary reasons, as their equivalent in Simenon's books — fortuitously captured images of a Paris that had yet to succumb to the événements of the late sixties, the grands projets of the next two decades, and the subsequent blanding and branding that has done its best to turn the city into just another international metropolis with a designer tag. Simenon's Paris, like Conan Doyle's London, is infinitely more real to us than their present-day simulacra, even though we never experienced the originals at first hand.

Despite its superficial literality, Simenon's work does not in practice translate easily to the literal-minded screen, where what you see is what you get, and all you will ever get. So what is missing? A clue to the explanation may perhaps be found in the unique allusion to his working method which the author provides in this novel, although it is of course attributed to Maigret:

He had handled hundreds of cases in his time, and he knew that they nearly always fell into two distinct phases. Firstly, coming into contact with a new environment, with people he had never even heard of the day before, with a little world which some event had shaken up. He would enter this world as a stranger, an enemy; the people he encountered would be hostile, cunning or would give nothing away. This, for Maigret, was the most exciting part. He would sniff around for clues, feel his way in the dark with nothing to go on. He would observe people's reactions — any one of them could be guilty, or complicit in the crime.

Suddenly he would get a lead, and then the second period would begin. The inquiry would be underway. The gears would start to turn. Each step in the inquiry would bring a fresh revelation, and nearly always the pace would quicken, so the final revelation, when it came, would feel sudden.

The inspector didn't work alone. The events worked for him, almost independently of him. He had to keep up, not be overtaken by them.

What an extraordinary statement this last paragraph is for any writer, even by implication! 'The events worked for him, almost independently of him.' Extraordinary, because despite our willing suspension of disbelief we are of course well aware that everything that happens in a novel has been determined by its author. 'Where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web,' asked Edgar Allen Poe apropos of one of his own crime stories, 'which you yourself (the author) has woven for the express purpose of unravelling?'

Simenon worked this trick not just once but a hundred times over, for with a very few and generally unsuccessful exceptions, he remained faithful to the structural formula implied above throughout the seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories of the entire series. We and Maigret are introduced to a milieu of no particular interest in itself, often shabby and either suburban or provincial. A crime has occurred, but no one seems particularly interested. Other things happen, apparently at random and without much relation to the main mystery. And then, just when it seems that this might go on for ever, Maigret swings into action, reveals the criminal and receives his confession like a priest. Our private screening of Simenon's novel is over and we still don't really understand what happened, but it all feels inevitable. 'He is frequently impossible,' Harold Nicolson commented of Simenon, 'but never does he allow himself to descend to the improbable.'

The lingering mystery, not least for another writer, lies in the apparent paradox that while Simenon's prose could hardly be more prosaic — short declarative sentences peppered with exclamation marks like a cartoon strip, deliberately pared and honed to appeal to the petits gens he saw as his readership — he always casts his characteristic spell from the opening lines. There is an evanescent, disjunctive, hallucinatory, almost dreamlike quality throughout. Often the weather seems to be more of a determining factor than the will or acts of any of the characters. Objects too, such as the mechanical piano in this book, assert themselves in ways weirdly reminiscent of the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who might legitimately if whimsically be regarded as the ultimate avatar of the Simenon 'method'.

Above all, Maigret himself is a satisfyingly unreliable companion. Unlike Hercule Poirot, who always knows immediately that the fact of a chair having been moved forward a couple of feet is not an oversight on the part of the housemaid but a vital clue, Maigret appears to be just as confused as we are by what is going on around him. Before long, la guinguette à deux sous, for all its tawdry setting and sleazy clientele, has taken on the mythic power of the Dark Forest in fairy tales, where the lost children — Maigret and the reader — must find their way to safety by their own wits and intuition, learning and growing as they do so.

Michael Dibdin,
, 2003

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