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LE FIGARO
Thursday, July 26, 2001 (p 28)
The Summer Series

by Baudouin Bollaert
translated from the French by Stephen Trussel
1. Maigret in the land of windmills
2. The Stagecoach of the Norwegian Sea
3. Honningsvåg, or Paradise lost

 

IN THE TRACKS OF...

SIMENON TO NORTH CAPE (1)

from polders to the Polar circle, the genesis of the famous Commissioner

Maigret in the land of windmills

His works, published under his true name or one of his seventeen pseudonyms, total 550 millions copies, translated into some sixty languages: Georges Simenon is the most prolific French-speaking writer since Balzac. One character emerges from this immense (in all senses of the word) œuvre: Commissioner Maigret. It is between 1929 and 1930, after various sketches, that the young Simenon – he was not yet 30 years old – put the finishing touches on his hero. During a journey that would lead him to North Cape.

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Delfzijl :
Baudouin Bollaert

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It is a bronze hardly four feet tall, set on a stone pedestal in the middle of a shady lawn. Beneath the foliage of fifty-year-old ash trees, a few steps from a canal, we find Maigret, solid, slightly grumpy, with his hat and pipe, and a heavy coat over his shoulders. His statue has stood here since September 3, 1966, at the corner of Ruksweg and Jaagpad streets, in a strange incognito of greenery...

The statue of Maigret at Delfzijl

The most famous policeman in French literature is supposed to have been born in this maritime city of 18,000. (DR)

Does anyone still come to see the famous commissioner in Delfzijl, this port in the extreme north of Holland? This work of sculptor Pieter d'Hont is spared from pigeon droppings, but not from spider webs. The curious are rare, and no postcard representations of Maigret can be found in the shops. Yet this most famous policeman of French literature is supposed to have sprung from the fertile imagination of Georges Simenon in this maritime city of 18,000 souls...

And the author supports this premise unequivocally. In a text written March 24, 1966, introducing his complete works, he describes this birth as a sort of inspiration (see box, below). But was it actually as he claimed, that the Maigret of Pietr-le-Letton was truly written in Delfzijl harbor, with Simenon installed at the bottom of an old barge?

In mists of gin

This is how Simenon, in 1966, describes the birth of Maigret at Delfzijl in a text written for Volume 1 of his Complete Works, edited by Gilbert Sigaux for Éditions Rencontre [The birth of Maigret]:

"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 ... 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. ....

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. ... This barge, where I installed a big crate for my typewriter, ... would become the true cradle of Maigret..

I can see myself, one sunny morning, in a café that was called, I believe, the Pavilion .... 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. ... The following day at noon, the first chapter of Pietr-le-Letton was written. Four or five days later, the novel was finished."

The Dutch, prudently, make no attempt to decide this quarrel of experts. Close to the commissioner's bronze, they are content to indicate that Simenon was on holiday in Delfzijl in 1929, and situated the action of A Crime in Holland there... To this, no argument is possible. But the Maigret in question is only the seventh of the official set launched by Fayard with a big splash on February 20, 1931... And that doesn't help to solve the mystery.

On that day, an "Anthropometric Ball" was organized by the publisher and his protégés at La Boule blanche dance hall in Montparnasse. All the Paris smart set were asked to have their fingerprints taken at the entrance. A guaranteed success! Francis Carco, Colette, Marcel Achard, Sennep, the Figaro caricaturist, young Pierre Lazareff – would not have missed the event for anything.

At the time Simenon was only 28 years old. After having served his apprenticeship on the roman populaire, he was finally publishing under his real name. He was finished with pseudonyms used according to his mood of the day! He was ready to tackle great literature. Even via the police genre, which had the merit of assuring him the necessary "safeguards" – the setting and the comfort of an intrigue through which, truly, he would very quickly become free to devote himself to the human depths of his characters and to develop the inimitable "Simenon atmosphere"...

It was in the spring of 1929, two years before his "Anthropometric Ball," that Simenon had decided to leave by boat for Holland, Germany and Norway. In one year, he had published the trifle of forty novels... With money from his publishers – Tallandier, Ferenczi, Fayard – he arranged for the construction at Fécamp of the Ostrogoth, a 20-ton, 35-foot cutter with a 30-hp engine. Before casting off, he would have it baptized with great pomp by the abbot of Notre-Dame de Paris!

At the helm of the Ostrogoth, the 35-foot cutter (below) that Simenon had baptized by the abbot of Notre-Dame de Paris, and which he launched onto the Dutch canals, the first stage of his journey to North Cape. (Photos Sipa-Press and Fonds Simenon.)

A few weeks later he was in Delfzijl. Holland, with its canals, dikes, sluices, and maritime folk, gave him feelings he loved – to live on the water – with his wife Tigy – and to write during stopovers, a grog within reach of his hand, pipe in his teeth, while the Ostrogoth with her powerful frame and oak hull pulled safely at her anchors...

From the banks of Delfzijl today, on a clear day you can always see the German coast. The city is modern, slightly cold. Its fortifications are gone, and probably its charms of yesteryear. It offers a curious impression of active harbor and deserted sea-side resort. Youths in dreadlocks, natives of Surinam, rub shoulders with great, strapping blond men in the pedestrian mall; impeccable brick pavilions, well shorn gardens, big healthy girls rolling on bicycles in the wind... 18 miles to the south, in that region of polders, gas and peat-bogs, Groningen (pop. 170,000) seems far more lively.

In A crime in Holland, Maigret is sent to Delfzijl to investigate the murder of Conrad Popinga (a name borrowed from a policeman whom Simenon actually met in the Netherlands!). As always, the enigma is less important than the psychological study. And Simenon delights in describing the Dutch middle class. If he likes the rigor and honesty of it, he underlines its rigidities. We are in the thirties: cannabis is not yet over-the-counter in Amsterdam, and no one would consider a marriage between priests...

Simenon watches and evokes. He doesn't give us fresco, but reduces the proportions of the canvas. "He has the clarity of the minor Flemish painters, their love of exact notation, of a universe in order. But malaise can slip suddenly into a world too reassuring, too wise, too confident in its daily rituals," notes Bernard de Fallois (1).

In fact, his first attempt in Holland, entitled Le Château des sables rouges [The Red Sand Castle] is a roman populaire, this one actually written in Delfzijl in 1929, in which the hero – Inspector Sancette – is the antithesis of Maigret. Simenon wavers between the two models. He paints skillfully, with minuscule strokes, the atmosphere of the region. Here, a fat "singer of psalms" (Protestant) who makes him think "of a cheese merchant supervising the loading of his red wheels on a barge"; there, a waiter who offers "boiled fish, with mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables, mashed chestnuts and, then, as dessert, a sour orange to set your teeth on edge."

Today in Delfzijl, you can buy hot meatballs from vending machines, fast-food hamburgers with the intolerable odor of stale grease, and sandwiches everywhere. A Greek restaurant – the Athene – has become implanted in the main street. But nothing to indicate that the quality of the cuisine has actually improved in 70 years...

Le Château des sables rouges is supposed to take place between Groningen and Delfzijl, in the hamlet of Roodezand about two miles from Slochteren, a borough of 600 inhabitants unserved by the railroad. I followed the line and the bus stopped at Sauwerds, Bedums, Stedums, Loppersums and other localities. But not at Roodezand or Slochteren, unfindable on any map... Ah, artistic license!

When Simenon left Delfzijl, he had finished Le Château des sables rouges. But had he also written Pietr-le-Letton, his first "official" Maigret? He will pretend so 37 years later. But as seductive as this version may be, it doesn't withstand examination. Two specialists (3) have reconstructed what appears to be the truth: in September 1929, he wrote Train de nuit [Night Train}, signed Christian Brulls, wherein Maigret appears, for the first time, at the end of the novel. Then, in January 1930, he began, at Wilhelmshaven, Germany, the first "true" Maigret, where the commissioner is present from start to finish: La Maison de l'inquiétude [The House of Anxiety].

In his floating home, writes Pierre Assouline (4), Simenon "seemed to immerse himself in geography, the better to flee history. The circumstances were as romantic as could be, and outside events generally had little effect on him. But at rare moments they caught him unawares." This was the case in Hindenburg's Germany, just before the start of the Allied withdrawal from the left bank of the Rhine. Suspected of spying (sic!), he had to leave Wilhelmshaven and finish La Maison de l'inquiétude at Stavoren, in the Netherlands.

Benchmarks
1903
1919
1922
1924
1929-31
1945
1955
1957
1972
1989
birth of Georges Simenon at Liège
enters La Gazette de Liège, in charge of lost dogs
arrives in Paris
publishes his first roman populaire, Le Roman d'une dactylo
the birth of Maigret
leaves for the United States (October 15)
returns to France (March 19)
settles near Lausanne, at Echandens
gives up writing novels; dedicates himself to his memoirs
death of Simenon at Lausanne

In the end, it is not until his return to France from Norway, in April, that he writes Pietr-le-Letton, using again the theme of the double, present in La Maison de l'inquiétude...

Then why this little lie? Why disown Train de nuit, La Maison de l'inquiétude and two other Maigret 'prototypes', La Figurante [The Extra] and La Femme rousse [The Redhead]? Because Pietr-le-Letton was signed, for the first time, with his true name and, published first in the magazine Ric & Rac from July to October 1930, it would be part of the series launched with great fanfare by Fayard at his "Anthropometric Ball."

And so the birth of Commissioner Jules-Amédée-François Maigret takes place over the months from September 1929 to April 1930. Not in a spontaneous way, but thanks to the "eighteen characters who preceded him in as many sketches" (2). A process of slow maturation – that the commissioner himself would not have disavowed – and of which the Nordic journey of Georges Simenon will have been the catalyst.

In Holland, this journey is just at its beginning. But Simenon is already storing pictures that he will regurgitate in his novels. He doesn't tire of canals nor of the sea, whose colors and odors are constantly renewed. But conditions are not always easy. "The Elbe enlarges, the water becomes billowy, one shore disappears, then the other," he writes. "And it is the North Sea, sad, raging, strewn with treacherous banks." (5) The Ostrogoth sometimes gave him the impression of being a "toy" on the unleashed waves. But he must pursue his route and his dream, the two intimately bound...


Notes
  1. in Simenon, (Gallimard 1961).
  2. in Sancette contre Maigret, Francis Lacassin (Omnibus, 1999)
  3. Claude Menguy and Pierre Deligny in The true beginnings of Commissioner Maigret (Traces, n°1, 1989)
  4. in Simenon (Juilliard 1992, Folio 1996)
  5. in Escales nordiques, in Le Petit Journal March 1-12, 1931 and in Mes apprentissages (Omnibus 2001).
*polder – A piece of low-lying land reclaimed from the sea, a lake, or a river, from which it is protected by dikes: so called in the Netherlands.



TOMORROW:
The Stagecoach
of the Norwegian Sea



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