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The Madman of Bergerac


The Madman of Bergerac is an early Maigret novel (published a year after the first and forty years before the last), but it has all the reassuringly familiar features. The setting, a small provincial town, is typical territory for Maigret on the occasions, quite frequent in the early novels, when he leaves Paris. The fact that the suspects are local notables, and especially that one of them is a doctor, is also typical. Medicine was important to Simenon. Jules Maigret would have become a doctor if the death of his father had not forced him to leave medical school after two years. Some of Maigret's most dangerous opponents are doctors – as, incidentally, is Simenon's great-niece, who was convicted of murdering her lover in 2002.

The other classic features of the Maigret story are here too. The Dordogne, which flows just behind the Hotel d' Angleterre, provides the water that is almost always present. Simenon, the grandson of a Belgian Dijkmaster, was fascinated by rivers, canals and boats, and claimed that Maigret first came into his imagination while he was writing aboard an abandoned barge in the Dutch port of Delfzijl. Maigret himself is a semi-aquatic creature – in The Madman of Bergerac he dreams that he is a seal -- whose natural habitat in the Paris police headquarters overlooks the Seine. Madame Maigret gives the story its domesticated air which is reinforced by the endless references to food, and by the fact that an important part of the story revolves around birth.

There is another feature of The Madman of Bergerac that is familiar from other early Maigret novels, but which may strike the modern reader as being less reassuring than the other landmarks of Simenon's world: anti-Semitism. Maigret identifies the murderer as being Jewish and this provokes a long aside about Jewish migration from central Europe:

Eastern and Central Europe between Budapest and Odessa, between Tallinn and Belgrade, an area teeming with a mass of humanity. In particular, there were hundreds of thousands of hungry Jews whose only ambition was to seek a better existence in some other land ... France alone had absorbed trainloads.

Another passage deals more specifically with Maigret's feelings:

People like this Samuel -- he had dealt with hundreds in his time. And he had always studied them with a curiosity that was mixed with some other feeling -- not quite repulsion, as though they belonged to a different species altogether to the one we call human.

Simenon was especially fascinated by the Jews of central Europe during the 193os and often wrote as though Jews and Poles were almost synonyms for each other. The madman of Bergerac is presented as being of central European origin, even though he comes from Algeria (where the majority of Jews were actually Sephardim who had been established there for hundreds of years before the French arrived).

Modern readers may find the sentiments expressed by Simenon and Maigret particularly sinister because we look at them through the prism of events since The Madman of Bergerac was first published in 1932 (the year before Adolf Hitler came to power). Well-informed readers will also now know that Simenon's own career contained episodes that he was reluctant to discuss and that cast an interesting light on his novels. As a young journalist in Liege, Simenon had published a collection of articles on the 'Jewish peril', and the journalism that he later produced on provincial France during the 1930s was full of references to the threat that 'foreigners' posed to an authentically French economy. In 1943 Robert Brasillach, one of the most articulate French apologists of the Nazi new order, wrote that Simenon's novels of the 1930s, especially the Maigrets, would provide the future with 'a clear and vigorous depiction of our society and the degradations of the social order'.

During the occupation Simenon himself enjoyed good relations with the German authorities. A number of his novels -- including Les Inconnus dans la maison (1940), another story about a Jewish criminal in a small provincial town -- were made into films by the German Continental company. Simenon's decision to move to America in 1945 seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by a desire to escape from people who knew too much about his wartime activities. His brother, a member of the collaborationist Rexist movement in Belgium, had to join the Foreign Legion in order to escape retribution.

Simenon's anti-Semitism was not, however, simple. Some of his most striking books -- Les Fiançailles de M. Hire (1933) or Le Petit Homme d'Arkhangelsk (1956) - are about Jews who seem obvious suspects for murders, but who turn out to be innocent. Furthermore, though Simenon romanticized a France profonde of certainty, stability and racial homogeneity, he did not belong to such a world. He grew up with men from central Europe, his mother kept a boarding house in Liege, and he was himself constantly on the move until settling in the antiseptic anonymity of Lausanne.

Maigret, of course, was not Simenon. One might suggest that Maigret is a kind of anti-Simenon and that his creation filled two related purposes, one psychological and one sociological. On a psychological level, Maigret had all the qualities that Simenon so conspicuously lacked – he was chaste, unassuming, and sure of his place in the world. On a social level, Maigret provided an icon of pure Frenchness. An Auvergnat of ancient peasant stock, Maigret is the kind of 'real' Frenchman that would be celebrated by the Vichy government in 1940.

Maigret's Frenchness is underlined because his work so often brings him into contact with people who are not French. In the 1930s the French police were obsessed with the surveillance and control of foreign immigrants. This was the age when identity papers became a matter of life and death. (The madman of Bergerac has begun his criminal career as a provider of forged papers.) In Les Mémoires de Maigret (1951) we learn that 'sixty-five out of every hundred crimes in Paris' are committed by foreigners and that in the Quai des Orfèvres there are maps with the various centres of foreign population in Paris – the Italians around the Hotel de Ville, the Russians in Ternes, the Jews in the rue des Rosiers – marked in colour. Even after the Second World War French policemen remained concerned with the threat posed by foreigners: the policeman in Le Petit Homme d'Arkhangelsk, an intelligent and sensitive man who bears some resemblance to Maigret, seems to be made more suspicious of the central character when he learns that he managed to avoid wearing the yellow star during the occupation.

Maigret does not, however, hate the Jews (in the way that, say, French Maurrassians often did); nor does he treat them as a problem that requires a 'clean, clinical' solution (the attitude adopted by the most sinister anti-Semites of the 1930s). Maigret's skill as a policeman comes precisely from his ability to sympathize with criminals. He solves crimes by understanding the world from the criminals' point of view and this often means that he feels some degree of respect, or even affection, for those that he hunts.

Matters in The Madman of Bergerac are made all the more complicated for Maigret because he has to understand not only Samuel, a desperate and mad Jew on the run from his criminal past, but also Samuel's son, Rivaud, who is, as Maigret puts it, 'pas le type israélite très prononcé'. Samuel's son, successful, confident and established in haut bourgeois society, is conspicuously different from the terrified, impoverished Jews that Maigret has encountered in the hotels meublés of the rue du Roi-de-Sicile. His death at his own hands in the arms of his lover is a romantic one (curiously, one is left with the feeling that Rivaud is an attractive character even when one knows him to be guilty of horrific crimes whereas in Les Fiançailles de M. Hire Monsieur Hire remains unattractive even when one knows him to be innocent).

Any reader of Maigret today will have one particularly pressing question: what did Maigret do during the German occupation and, in particular, what did he do when the Paris Police helped the Germans to round up Jews for deportation? Simenon provides no answers to this question. Occasionally, the post-war Maigret novels refer to the resistance records of characters (resistance veterans are as likely to be villains as heroes in Simenon's world), but there is no reference to Maigret's own career. An American admirer has ingeniously proposed that Maigret must have been in London carrying out secret work for de Gaulle, but this is an unconvincing explanation, if only because the Gaullist secret service spent most of its time spying on the British and Maigret speaks almost no English. Besides, Maigret is not a rebel. He defers to authority even when he despises those who exercise it. The attitude of Simenon, and Maigret, to the Jews is governed by a sense of inevitability or of `le tragique de son destin', as he puts it in The Madman of Bergerac.

The historian Annie Kriegel describes a striking scene in her memoirs. On 16 July 1942 walking along the rue de Turenne (an area of north-eastern Paris quite close to Maigret's home), she saw a column of shabbily dressed people being led by a policeman. The policeman was carrying two suitcases, presumably belonging to people too frail to carry their own, and he was in tears. This sight probably saved Kriegel's life because it warned her that the deportation of the Paris Jews had begun and that she must run for her life. The crying policeman's combination of anguished sympathy for individual victims and unquestioning acceptance of authority will seem uncomfortably familiar to many admirers of Simenon's work.

Richard Vinen, 2003

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