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Paris Match   (N° 445)
October 19, 1957. p 98-109

 

Simenon in Maigret's Trap

by Guillaume Hanoteau

photos: Pierre Vals

original French

 

These twin brothers are a novelist and his character, Georges Simenon and Commissioner Maigret.
We no longer know if the author, pipe to lips and inquisitive look, made "his" hero in his own image,
or if it is he who copies his commissioner, that Jean Gabin will portray in "Inspector Maigret" [Maigret tend un piège]


 
Sometimes, early in the morning, at the hour of the first trains, at the time when the heavy barges glistening with tar were moving away from the banks, when the nearby slaughterhouse was filled with bellowing, young Georges, his grandfather and some of his friends, went to a bathhouse on the Meuse. Everyone undressed in a vast wooden cabin, on a floor full of splinters. While arranging his effects, an old gentleman with skin as white as paper told stories of thefts, crimes, murders. He was an old police commissioner...

From those half-forgotten images, childish memories, those confidences hardly understood by a child of eight, Georges Simenon, many years later, created one of the rare romantic heroes of our time: Maigret.

Simenon always carries a policeman's badge, presented to him by the Prefecture of Police. It is not an imitation, but an authentic badge, with its registered number and, on the reverse, an engraved name, that of its owner, Commissioner Maigret. For Simenon, this charm has more value than a Nobel prize. It is a constant reminder to him that he has succeeded at what all novelists attempt: to create a character that, escaping from the pages of the book, starts living his own proper existence, like père Goriot, cousin Bette, Fabrice del Dongo, Julien Sorel, the Duchess de Guermantes, or Baron Charlus.1

In the halls of the Judicial Police, in Paris, there is an office on the ground floor with an old cast-iron stove. When a visitor asks who occupies this somewhat forlorn room, they are told in all seriousness: Commissioner Maigret. But Maigret's fame doesn't stop at our own borders. President Roosevelt, a great admirer of Simenon, gave copies of the famous policeman's adventures to the agents who guarded him, to inspire them with his methods. In Sweden and Denmark there have been theses written about him. Maigret, in thirty-three different countries, spoke twenty-eight languages. The most famous actors, Harry Baur, Pierre Renoir, Charles Laughton, Fernand Ledoux, lent him their faces.

Still today, Gabin is going to interpret the role of the pipe-smoking policeman in a film by Delannoy, Inspector Maigret [Maigret tend un piège].

When Simenon wrote the name Maigret on a sheet of paper for the first time, he certainly never dreamed that one day his hero would attain such renown.

In 1928, Georges Simenon already had a hundred thousand readers, yet none of them knew his name. If you had put all the lines that he had written in newspapers and low-priced collections end to end, they would have added up to the equivalent of 350 novels. But on the gaudy covers or below of articles were printed the pseudonyms Georges Sim, Christian Brules, Georges-Martin-Georges, Jean du Perry, Jon-Gut, or Luc Dorsan. [sic]2


1928. Simenon, at his typewriter,
has just created Maigret.


1957. The writer has the same pipes as his hero,
who has become his double.

This writer, who was going to become the father of Maigret, was a popular novelist, meaning an author working for publishers specializing in 75-centime books, capable of writing a complete novel in 48 hours while respecting all the rules of the genre. And were they ever numerous! The first was never to surprise the reader, to always offer him what he expected, what he had seen the night before, and what he would read again the following day. So, nothing daring, no invention, no literature, but a lively style.

Certainly, Simenon had no complaints about his profession. He had achieved the most pleasant of lives – an apartment in the places de Vosges, a heavy fishing boat, the Ostrogoth, christened on the banks of the Seine, in front of Notre-Dame – in short, freedom, a total freedom that allowed him to pursue his metier as well on a canal of the Ile-de-France as on a field in Holland. But Simenon had greater ambitions. For him these pot-boilers were merely an apprenticeship.


Maigret 1934: Harry Baur.

Without the mustache: Abel Tarride.

And sometimes, without the knowledge of his publishers, sometimes, right in the middle of the most worn-out clichés, he slipped in a perfect description, a dialogue with an authentic sound. And then, one day, he decided that he was ready for other tasks. But Simenon had been born in Liège, a country where one doesn't adventure lightly. To jump straightaway into literature seemed to him an enterprise too loaded with risks. And so he decided to write a book that would not be simply a pulp novel, but which would still not yet be, or so he believed, a work of art.


Without the pipe: Pierre Renoir.

Classic: Michel Simon.

The stories related by M. Saint-Hubert, the police commissioner with whom he had bathed in the Meuse, returned to his memory. He had read neither Conan Doyle nor Gaston Leroux, but while quite young, at the shop of M. Dentz, a Liège bookseller who had turned out badly – sentenced to life imprisonment after a famous trial for a triple murder – he had discovered a treatise on criminology which had fascinated him. Later he had attended audiences at the Palace as courtroom columnist for the Liège Gazette.


English version: Laughton.

American TV: Manson.

His choice was made. His first work of semi-literature – a word that he had invented himself – would be a detective novel.

On a beach in Holland, at the bottom
of a stranded barge: Maigret

 
Sometimes seagulls dived at him and touched him lightly with their big gray wings. Sometimes rats ran the beach from one wreck to another. Simenon paid no attention. On this Dutch shore, squatting in the bottom of a stranded barge, he wrote. Some steps away, sailors caulked the hull of the Ostrogoth in dry dock.

Simenon had decided to give all the novels of his new series the same hero, a police commissioner, a good man, a pipe smoker and beer drinker. He put him in the service of the Judicial Police, gave him a wife – but no child – and the name Jules Maigret. In truth this Maigret had already existed, before the stranded barge on the shore. Simenon had only taken him up again. Maigret had led his first investigation in a pulp novel from Tallandier, Matricule 12.3 Certainly, this was just a roughly sketched silhouette. But Simenon had found that this Maigret suited his new character, whose overcoats always smelled a little like rain. In fifteen days the two first "Maigrets," Pietr le Letton and Monsieur Galais [sic]4 décédé, were written.

Arthème Fayard was a major publisher. It is he who, with Candide, had invented the literary weekly, followed by Les Œuvres libres. But in the course of his long career, one man would divert him. When Simenon entered his office, he was full of optimism. He had given the publisher Pietr le Letton and Monsieur Galais [sic]4 décédé to read. He arrived light-heartedly, expecting to receive congratulations and to affix his signature on a freshly inked contract.

The publisher's greeting stopped him in his tracks: "My dear Sim, you must be mad!"

Simenon started to protest but Fayard gave him no chance. "A collection of detective novels? But it will be a disaster. How many times have I told you that our readers don't want to use their brains? They want to reread what they have already read a hundred times."

Another attempt by Simenon. Another failure.

"Besides," pursued Fayard, "your novels aren't real detective novels. There's no mystery to solve, your good guys aren't really good, and your bad guys aren't evil. The best I can do for you is to put 20,000 francs into this bad business, not a sou more."

Simenon could finally get a word in. "Why don't you think about this? I want to launch these in a way that's never been done. Something that will surpass even Grasset's publicity campaign for Radiguet's Devil in the Flesh.

Fayard persisted but Simenon was sure of his plan. Very well, he would assume the risks himself. He would take from his own pocket the funds necessary to assure the great publicity.

Without a doubt, the offering of those first Maigrets will remain a significant event in the history of the publishing. There were innovations in every area: For the first time, a photograph was used for the cover of a book. For the first time, radio was used to launch a novel. For only the second time – Marcel Arnac had shown the way with the publication of his Brelan de Joie – the movies were used in the same way.

But it was the fancy dress ball that pulled off the success. Organized by the poster designer Paul Colin and the artist Don, it was held in La Boule Blanche, a cabaret in Montparnasse – then the fashionable pleasure capital of the city.

One morning, everyone who was anyone – the smart set of Paris – received a card which seemed to come from the Criminal Records Office of Judicial Identity. In one corner, a fingerprint. Some moments of observation were necessary to perceive that this stern cardboard was actually an invitation to the Bal de l'Anthropométrie – the Anthropometric Ball – given in honor of Maigret and Simenon.

It was a noteworthy evening. They had sent out a thousand invitations. Four thousand people invaded La Boule Blanche. There was a contest for the most beautiful anthropometric head. The painter Kisling won first prize in the men's category, Suzy Solidor for the women. By two o'clock in the morning, Fayard's 20,000 francs had been swallowed up. Simenon had to assure the owner of La Boule Blanche that he himself would guarantee the remaining costs. At four o'clock, the cellars of the cabaret were empty. They had to cross the boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse to search for whisky and champagne at La Coupole.

The following day Simenon and his Commissioner Maigret were famous. They were in every newspaper.

And a few days later, in the halls of Fayard, an old gentleman with the air of a dandy, the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, was asking Simenon, while twirling a golden bangle between his fingers, "So tell me, my dear fellow, just what is this 'semi-literature'?"

 
In all of literature there is not a character whose civil condition and descriptive identity have been drawn up with more care. About Maigret, we know everything. His origins: peasant. What his father did: manager of a vast estate. His place of birth: a village in the Allier. Where he did his studies: lycée in Moulins, then at Nantes. His first ambition: to become a physician. His beginnings in the police: an agent in uniform before becoming secretary of a district police station. We know the circumstances of his marriage, his promotion to the Judicial Police, his habits, his foibles, the size of his shoes, the quality of his tobacco, his favorite café: the Brasserie Dauphine.

Simenon never intended such rigor. It was imposed on him. Maigret is the most oppressive of novel characters. He invaded his author's life, appropriated a part of his freedom.

Does Simenon make Maigret poke his stove? A hundred letters reprimand him, reminding him that the offices of the Judicial Police have central heating. Does he want to put his commissioner into retirement? Procure him a house in the country at Meung-sur-Loire? There's an outcry! Does he want to make him disappear? It's a scandal! In some novel does he forget to mention Mme Maigret? Everyone worries. Will the housework go less well? And furthermore, why don't the Maigrets have any children? Simenon is put on the spot. Everyone blames him for this absence of offspring.

One day, Simenon yielded up his pen to his troublesome character. It was Maigret himself who wrote the first person Memoirs of Maigret and rectified some mistakes concerning his life that had slipped into the previous books. Simenon received several letters starting like: "Ha! He really put you in your place, didn't he!"

But Simenon isn't the only one to fall under Maigret's influence. If the policeman's profession is a profession, nowadays, less maligned, if the crowd in the street doesn't take the side of the thief anymore, as it did some years ago, it is to Maigret that we owe this change in public opinion. And the highest personalities of the judiciary and police agree heartily.

In 1930, the prestige of anarchy was not yet quite extinct. Certainly, people had condemned the cowardly attempts of Bonnot's gang, but their exploits were still surrounded by a vague aura of the romantic. The vogue of detective novels didn't in any way modify this frame of mind, just the opposite. Fantomas and Arsène Lupin, princes of crime, were prestigious heroes. As for Sherlock Holmes, detective of genius, he was too exceptional a being to have an influence on the public, especially if this public was French.

Maigret, on the other hand, was a policeman like those that you met in the street. But suddenly people discovered that he wasn't a ruffian, much less a braggart, that he was human, and that he more often felt sorry for the criminals he made confess than despised them.

 
In a book soon to appear from Presses de la Cité, André Parinaud gives an explanation of this power of persuasion that Maigret possesses. This scholarly explanation he found in a Simenon novel, one of this author's rare novels to exceed two hundred pages, Pedigree, whose story is very curious.

It was during the occupation. Georges Simenon, of Belgian nationality, was considered under house arrest by the occupation authorities, in the chateau that he then possessed in the Vendée, close to La Rochelle.

One day when he was carving a stick for his son Marc, then age five, the knife which he was using slipped from his hands, and its handle hit him full in the chest. Feeling a sharp pain, Simenon believed he had cracked a rib, and so he went to the nearest village to be examined by a physician who had an x-ray machine.

 
When the novelist had passed before the device, the physician looked at him in silence. Then he asked in a serious tone, "What did your father die of?"

"A heart attack."

"At what age?"

"Forty-four."

The physician became quiet once more. Worried, Simenon asked urgently, "What is it? Is it anything serious?"

"If you give up to smoking and drinking you may be able to live another two or three years. You have an incurable heart disease."

Simenon went home and shut in himself into his study to think. What was he going to do during this reprieve that had just been granted him? He thought of his son. When he died, Marc would hardly have known him. He decided to write for him, and for him only, a book in which he would teach him about his family and his childhood.

Simenon had just finished Je me souviens [I remember] – the title of his Memoirs written in a single copy – when a physician friend came to visit. He confided to him the radiologist's diagnosis. The friend was surprised. He listened to Simenon's chest. Nothing seemed to confirm the severe sentence. Nevertheless, not possessing the devices necessary to be sure, he advised Simenon to go to Paris and consult a specialist.

Simenon took his advice. Hiding from the Germans, he made his way to the capital and was examined by a professor of the medical faculty.

During the consultation, Simenon's two most intimate friends, Jean Cocteau and Marcel Pagnols, waited for him in the lobby of a hotel. The novelist came back with his pipe in his mouth. There had never been the least thing wrong with his heart. The country doctor had been mistaken.

It was Cocteau who had to be confined to bed. The emotion of the waiting, the draft in the frozen hotel hall, had inflicted him with pulmonary congestion.

And since that day, Marcel Pagnol likes to speak of "Simenon's heart condition of which Cocteau almost died."

 
Today in Switzerland, in the chateau of Chandons [sic],5 a vast home flanked by a dungeon and a jail (which once served the Lord of the area) where Simenon, his wife Denise and two youngest children have come to live, Maigret has his place once more.

Three times a year, when Simenon has just finished a serious novel – his last are Le Fils [The Son] (published), Le Nègre [The Negro] and Strip Tease (to appear) – he shuts himself into his study, and in eight days he taps out a new Maigret on his machine. For him this is not a work, it is relaxation.

Suddenly, the bright beautiful house that smells like milk and fields of grass, fills itself with the mists of Paris, the odors of the Prefecture in the wee hours. And Simenon feels something like a break, like a rest. Then one day the book is finished. It is Mme Simenon who takes charge. It is she who will correct the proofs. It is she who will deal with the publisher.

Simenon, his work finished, takes his car and a big shopping bag, sits one of his children close to the wheel, and leaves for the market of the nearest village. And when the kids coming back from school see him, they shout, "Bonjour Maigret!"

G. H.

 
translated by Stephen Trussel
June 2003


translator's notes:
  1. Le père Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac (1835); La cousine Bette, by Honoré de Balzac (1847); Fabrice del Dongo, from La Chartreuse de Parme [The Charterhouse at Parma], by Stendahl [Henri Beyle] (1838); Julien Sorel, from Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal (1830); la duchesse de Guermantes, from À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrances of Things Past), by Marcel Proust (1913-1927); le baron Charlus, from À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrances of Things Past), by Marcel Proust (1913-1927).
  2. Some of these pseudonyms are incorrect: Christian Brules should be Christian Brulls, Georges-Martin-Georges should be divided: Georges Martin-Georges, Jon-Gut should be Gom Gut.
  3. Actually, this was an Inspector Sancette story, one of the precursors of Maigret. Maigret did appear under his own name in four "pre-Maigrets", see The other Maigrets. For more on the Maigret-Sancette connection, see Claude MENGUY et Pierre DELIGNY: The true beginnings of Superintendent Maigret.
  4. An error for "Gallet." Possibly Hanoteau transcribed from a recording and didn't check the actual spelling.
  5. An error for "Château d'Echandens"


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