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Foreword to the Complete Works, 1966

 

The birth of Maigret

Georges Simenon

original French

 

Why Jules-Amédée-François Maigret, Divisional Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire, Chief of the Crime Squad, Quai des Orfèvres in Paris, one hundred percent French, was born in the harbor of Delfzijl, in the most northern part of the Netherlands, very close to the Ems, is what I would like to try to explain, without being at all sure, however, that the reader will find the same pleasure in these reminiscences as I do.

I am now sixty-three years old, Maigret about fifty-two.

When I created him, at twenty-five, he was forty-five.

So has he has had the luck to age less quickly than I, and I will probably keep him at his present age for even longer.

Why Holland? Why Delfzijl? It is necessary to go back to a year earlier...

At twenty-four, the desire had come over me to investigate France in her deepest recesses, and I had discovered that cities or villages only show, at the side of the highway or the station, their more banal or frowning faces, reserving their intimacy and their secret lives for the rivers and canals.

So I bought a 15-foot boat, the Ginette, which must have served formerly as a lifeboat for some prestigious yacht. I had a complicated awning installed, allowing me to transform the craft into a canvas cabin at night.

A three-horsepower outboard motor. A dinghy towed behind for the typewriter, clothes and pots and pans. It was under these conditions that I made, in 1927, my tour of France, from the north to the Midi, from the east to the west, clearing about a thousand locks of all types, some dating back to the time of Vauban1.

Every day, under a tent that I set up at the edge of the water, I wrote two or three chapters of my romans populaires, popular novels. Camping was not so common at that time, and I was often surrounded by farmers or bargemen who came to contemplate the eccentric, bare-chested and in shorts, who tapped furiously at his machine on a tow-path or the edge of a wood.

I was not a little proud, I confess, of the numerous official papers that had been given me before my departure. As I had to pass by sea to go from one estuary to another, one of my documents began with: "We, president of the French Republic...", and, concerning my modest craft, prayed that foreign rulers would offer suitable help and aid in case of need.

Did this go to my head? By October, I was in Fécamp, having a cutter constructed on the model of the fishing boats of the English Channel. It was a boat some thirty feet long, twelve feet wide, with six feet of draft, and a strong hull framed with thick oak.

Finished in the spring, I brought her first to Paris, where I moored at the square of the Vert-Galant and where, without modesty, I had her baptized with great pomp by the vicar of Notre-Dame.

My new ship was called the Ostrogoth. Some three months later, we entered the harbor of Delfzijl, which hadn't yet its importance of today.

I was moored in the fore-harbor, facing the pilot boats, and I especially remember the discovery of that pink city, surrounded by dikes, with its gates that were not designed to discourage potential attackers but rather, in bad weather, to prevent the sea from engulfing its streets.

I retain another memory of this first contact with a region I was to revisit several times thereafter. Passing by Sneek, after having crossed what was called the Zuyderzee, we had bought, my wife, our cook/cabin-girl and myself, thick, well-designed outfits that the Dutch had developed for sailing. It was in these clothes, which of course included pants, that the three of us made our first incursion into the streets of the city.

Was it this clothing, the fact that they were unaccustomed to seeing women in trousers? Children followed us, more and more numerous, sometimes venturing very close to shout, before escaping to a prudent distance, "Puts lydt!" Which, I later learned, meant, "Have mercy!"

Our stay in Delfzijl had to be unexpectedly prolonged, and today I'm eternally grateful for that leak which I had discovered after a few days. A fine ship's carpenter, Mijnheer Roels, came to examine the injury, and with the gravity and authority of a physician, declared that the Ostrogoth needed a complete recaulking, so that I had to bring the boat into a dry-dock alongside the old canal.

I had maintained, as during my tour of France, the habit of writing two or three chapters a day. I quickly realized that this was impossible in a hull resonating like a bell from the caulkers beating it from morning till night with great sledgehammer strokes.

I would have felt myself dishonored to rent a room in a hotel. By luck I discovered, half stranded, very close to the canal, an old barge that seemed not to belong to anybody. One splashed about there in a foot or so of this particular reddish water of the old canal, still covered with trunks of trees that freighters had brought from Riga and which drifted lazily toward Groningen.

This barge, where I installed a big crate for my typewriter, a slightly less important one for my behind, two others of more reduced format again for my feet, would become the true cradle of Maigret.

Not immediately, however. While Mijnheer Roels and his men took care of my boat, dressing her in white to replace the black she wore before, varnishing with perfection the gunwales, the mast and yards, and finally installing a sumptuous compass of copper that I had bought at a ship chandler's near the lock, I gained, little by little, knowledge of a country that enchanted me.

This country I then tried to depict in one of my last popular novels, Le Château des Sables rouges [The Red Sand Castle]2.

What was I going to write now? For some time, I had sensed the end of my training, having composed many tales and written novels under fifteen or sixteen pseudonyms. I hesitated to tackle a more difficult kind, more serious.

I can see myself, one sunny morning, in a café that was called, I believe, the Pavilion, where the patron passed the hours, every day, polishing his wooden tables with linseed oil. I've never seen tables as shiny in my life.

At that hour, there was no one around the big central table, familiar to Dutchmen, where the well-folded newspapers waited on their customary copper rods.

Did I drink one, two, or maybe even three small gins tinged with a few drops of bitters? Still, after an hour, a little drowsy, I began to see drawing itself the powerful and impassive mass of a gentleman who, it seemed me, would make an acceptable commissioner.

During the remainder of the day, I added a few accessories to this character: a pipe, a bowler hat, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar. And, since it was cold and humid in my abandoned barge, I granted him, for his office, an old cast iron stove.

The following day at noon, the first chapter of Pietr-le-Letton was written. Four or five days later, the novel was finished.

If, in the order of publication, it was not the first of the set, but the third, that was merely due to chance.

There were other matters of luck in this affair. Maigret had not only just been born in Delfzijl because of a leak, but, because of him, I was going to use my real name, which I had never used for my popular novels.

We looked, the publisher Fayard and I, for a definitive pseudonym. We had found and considered a good forty when Fayard asked me, "Actually, what's your real name?"

I answered, almost ashamed, "Georges Simenon."

Because I considered this name banal and difficult to pronounce, because of the silent e"

It is true that I didn't think less of Jules Maigret for it.

GEORGES SIMENON

Epalinges, March 24, 1966.

 

see The true beginnings of Superintendant Maigret

 


NOTES
1. French military engineer, 1633-1707.
2. Novel published in 1933 by Tallandier under the pseudonym Georges Sim. (G. Sx.)

 

translated by Stephen Trussel

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