Home  Bibliography  Reference  Forum  Plots  Texts  Simenon  Gallery  Shopping  Film  Links

Traces N° 1, 1989

We have applied ourselves to demonstrating how it is, if not impossible, at least highly unlikely that Pietr-le-Letton, the first "Maigret" signed by Simenon, was written in Delfzijl in September 1929, as our author has many times claimed, affirmed, and repeated... However, this tenacious "memory" seems to include a part of truth, according to our research. Indeed, it was in this small harbor of the province of Groningen (Netherlands) that Train de nuit (signed Christian Brulls) was written in the fall of 1929, and this Train de nuit is the first of the four "proto-Maigrets" written under pseudonyms. Netherlanders can therefore reassure themselves that the city of Delfzijl didn't usurp its title of "the birth place of Maigret", attested to publicly by the presence, very close to the Ems Canal, of the statue of the mythical Superintendent!

 

The true beginnings of Superintendent Maigret

Claude MENGUY et Pierre DELIGNY

translated by Stephen Trussel

 

In the muddle of Simenon's numerous versions of his creation of Maigret, a muddle that has led ranks of seasoned biographers to lose their way, we have tried to see clearly. To this end, we have necessarily had to do some sorting among our author's declarations, often contradictory and not always in agreement with the stated facts.

Here is how, during an explanation of the birth of Pietr-le-Letton, Simenon himself gave us, indirectly and involuntarily it is true, the key to the mystery of the origin of a troublesome confusion of novels... and of births:

"Images came into my mind. First the streets of Paris, which I had left more than one year earlier, then the silhouettes of wharf rats I had seen in ports. Then, a little like the froth on the sea, harbor tramps [...] They impressed me like those of Paris, who sleep under the bridges..."1.
Simenon commits a flagrant error here: details that he provides (close to fifty years later it is true!) about the novel composed aboard an old barge during the repair of his boat don't square at all with the beginning of Pietr-le-Letton, where it is a question of the decryption of a secret document from Interpol, and not at all of "wharf rats." On the other hand, we can affirm that these details coincide quite well with the opening lines of Captain S.O.S., a novel to which we will return, and in which a scene takes place precisely in Paris, in a smoke-filled room frequented by vagabonds:
"Then all the bums, all the beggars lined up on the benches of the big smoky room where for twenty sous they'd bought the right to spend the night, but not to stretch out, let their tired heads fall forward once more.
[...] It was in the Place Maubert, in the "Green Dog," one of the last of the tramp shelters, one of those slums which the happy perverts of Montmartre like to take a peek at after their traditional tour of Les Halles."
Now the first part of this novel is entitled "Inspector Sancette." Confusion leaps to mind: our changeable novelist quite simply transposed, onto Maigret, memories relating to Sancette, this young bloodhound on whom he'd had his heart set for a time! This confusion in the author's mind is all the more admissible and excusable, as this "competition" between the two investigators continued through 1931: On April 15 of that year, when the "Maigret" series was already well underway at Fayard, Georges Sim signed a contract with a young publisher, Jacques Haumont, for a parallel set of police investigations featuring Inspector G-7, alias Sancette!

Furthermore, consider the time which has passed — one year, Simenon tells us — since he left Paris. In fact this corresponds perfectly with our placing the composition of Pietr-le-Letton in the spring of 1930, in April, or at the latest, May. Indeed, the publisher's contract for this title was signed May 26, 1930. It is much less conceivable that Simenon wrote Pietr-le-Letton in September, 1929, since it was not his habit to let a manuscript sleep for long (in this case, eight months!) at the bottom of a drawer, while there were still more on board his cutter...

But let's return to the true beginnings of Maigret, born — whether Simenon wishes so or not — with his rival Sancette in this period of the popular novels that the author will always consider, understandably, his apprenticeship.

*

*       *

It is in 1927 that Simenon (or rather Georges Sim) introduces in his popular novels a character very close to that of Arsène Lupin and the pre-1914 detective-adventurers. Imitating his illustrious precursors Gaston Leroux and Maurice Leblanc, whom he had read in his youth, he creates in his turn a top-rank adventurer, midway between Arsène Lupin and Irving Le Roy, whom he baptizes Yves Jarry:

"When I was writing popular novels, towards the end I had begun to shape a character named Jarry who especially intrigued me. His chief ambition was to live numerous lives: A refined Parisian, a fisherman in sabots in Brittany, a peasant here, a petit bourgeois there... And then Maigret came along and supplanted him, and I noticed that Maigret was a transposition of Jarry: he also lives a large number of lives. But they are the lives of others, for whom, for a certain time, he substitutes himself"2.
Four novels written in one year introduce Yves Jarry. All appeared from Fayard in its popular collection: Chair de beauté (contract November 15, 1927), La Femme qui tue (cont. January 15, 1928), L'Amant sans nom (cont. July 15, 1928) and La Fiancée aux mains de glace (cont. October 15, 1928). We can notice, at the bottom of page 32 of this last work, a reference to L'Amant sans nom ou les débuts d'Yves Jarry, an erroneous note, but one that shows that the author had at a certain moment also considered a series of novels for his gentleman-burglar.

In L'Amant sans nom3, we witness probably one of the best adventures of Jarry, the one where the adventurer's character appears most Lupin-like. A large part of the novel takes place in Normandy, in Deauville, La Bréauté, Le Havre, and — simple coincidence? — in the region of Étretat (Bénouville in particular, where Simenon stayed during the summer of 1925), the same fief as the hero of L'Aiguille creuse.a L'Amant sans nom reserves for us an additional surprise: this novel conceals the very first draft of the character of Maigret. Simenon himself put us on the track at the time of an interview:

"He [Simenon] is clothed in sailor's trousers and a faded blue sweater, tapping on his machine on a Lyons embankment in spite of a tenacious fog, when, for the first time, the profile of Maigret ranges itself before his eyes"4.
This picturesque scene on the banks of the Saône in Lyons takes place in June, 1928. Simenon made his river and canal tour of France aboard a motorboat he had christened Ginette, a journey during the course of which he cleared some thousand locks!

The date of the signing of the publisher's contract — July 15, 1928 — permits us to identify L'Amant sans nom as the work relating to these memories. And we notice besides, that in the final pages, we follow by road the same itinerary as the Ginette: Valence, Pont-Saint-Esprit, Avignon, Beaucaire, and that the next-to-last chapter is entitled "Le rendez-vous en Camargue". The author certainly finished this novel at Le Grau-du-Roi where, due to mechanical problems, he passed the entire month of July.

In this adventure, Yves Jarry is at grips with Agent 49 (another policeman without a name), who foreshadows Maigret, as one can see in these excerpts:

"He was big, vigorous, but his face looked nothing like the image one has of the perfect detective. Nor did he resemble a detective novel hero. His face was round, a little red. A good peasant's face. His eyes were rather naive, this innocence accented by a greatly flattened nose. He nodded his head as he walked, as if he were constantly in conversation with himself. And the arms which he swung were enormous..." (p. 57)
And, farther, some character features complete this unpolished portrait, making it even more convincing,:
"It would be difficult to paint a stronger picture of the cold and quiet patience, the persistence, the self-possession of Agent 49, who, at ten o'clock, climbed with heavy steps to his room once more [...] An enormous and heavy man, with thick, immobile features, an air of awkward innocence. And a stubborn air, headstrong, obstinate [...] He stuffed his pipe with the care that he brought to all things, lit it and started smoking, while surveying the room." (p.228)
Agent 49: an enormous and heavy, stubborn, obstinate and awkward policeman, and already a pipe smoker! A perfect police-identity picture of Superintendent Maigret!!! ...who didn't need to wait, therefore, "to appear" to his "creator," through the absorption of that last of a set of small glasses of gin in a smoking-room in Delfzijl, in the north of the Netherlands! One can imagine therefore that on the banks of the Saône in Lyons, one day in June 1928 (presumably misty), one or more pitchers of local Beaujolais may well have been the origin of the first "apparition"...

After his tour of France on board the Ginette, Simenon, enamored with navigation, decides on his return to have a ten-meter cutter constructed at Fécamp, on the model of the robust Norman fishing boats.

*

*       *

His boat, which he christens the Ostrogoth, is finished in the spring of 1929. Simenon immediately decides to undertake a long cruise in the Nordic countries. In the month of July, he calls at Delfzijl, a picturesque harbor situated at the mouth of the Ems, in the very north of the Netherlands. He will spend the entire summer there.

This journey inspires our navigator to write some maritime adventure novels. We will mention Captain S.O.S.5, in which we find once more a certain Sancette, whom the author seems to have decided to give a boost up: the first part of the novel is indeed entitled "Inspector Sancette". This detail is important because this work, as we mentioned above, is a source of confusion in Simenon's memories of the creation of Maigret.

It is during the summer of 1929 that Sim also composes Deuxième Bureau, a detective novel rather than a spy story, in spite of its title. It is the first novel of its kind that received the approval of Fayard6, which won't, thereafter, become the rule... far from it! In this work, whose action takes place in Chevagnes, in the Allier (a region well known to Sim, since he stayed there several months in 1923-1924), the investigation is led by a young reporter backed up by a policeman from Moulins, Joseph Tabaret.

Outside of these novels, our prolific author honors all his other contracts as well, those for the sentimental novels that he provides regularly to Fayard and Ferenczi. It is, moreover, within these popular novels we will sense the dawning of Simenon's new orientation toward the detective novel. Thus, in September 1929, while his cutter is still immobilized in Delfzijl for repairs, he writes two novels in which appear almost simultaneously two pairs of policemen, between which he seems to have been vacillating in making his choice: Lucas-Torrence and Maigret-Torrence.

In L'Inconnue7, Superintendent Lucas — "a small, short-legged man, broad-backed, with thick eyebrows, an enormous cigar always planted between his lips" — is assisted by Torrence (who starts as a simple sergeant), "served well by his physique [...] big, thick, corpulent, but without the least atom of fat," whose "ideal was personified by American detectives".

In Train de nuit8, Torrence, promoted to Inspector, becomes the deputy of a certain Superintendent Maigret of the Marseille mobile brigade. Let's hasten to say that, in this above all sentimental novel, the role of Maigret is most unobtrusive. As for his character, there is no more than a rudimentary sketch: "he was a cool man, rough-spoken, with happily coarse manners," wrote Simenon (or rather Christian Brulls) then. A sort of cave-Maigret! Yet, he is already the understanding and magnanimous Maigret: not only will he arrange the affairs of a young Fecamp sailor gone astray in a story of sordid murder, while getting him back to his fiancée, but he will, moreover, facilitate the departure for Paris of the sailor's mistress (and the sister of the actual murderer) while carrying his complaisance so far as to let him get away with his share of the loot, admittedly, not altogether legally!

Simenon has thus taken up again his draft of Agent 49, sketched a year earlier in L'Amant sans nom: mature age, strong, stout, hardly loquacious and rather surly. Could he then suspect, while finishing this novel for shopgirls, that this new character he had just conceived was going to keep him company throughout his entire work? Certainly not. In this period of groping, where the author was trying a new genre, he hadn't yet made his choice of the policeman's character-type. He wavered for a certain time between the heavy and surly fifty-year-old superintendent and Inspector Sancette, under thirty, thin and casual, and with a chubby face!

Let's specify a detail that has some importance: the contract for Train de nuit — where the name of Maigret appears for the first time — was signed September 30, 1929 (at the same time as the one for L'Inconnue), which allows us to place the writing of this work during the same month.

However, Simenon affirmed, in a long 1966 article on the birth of Maigret9, that his first "Maigret" novel was Pietr-le-Letton, and that he had composed it in Delfzijl, in September, 1929, on board an old stranded barge very close to the Ems:

"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."
Train de nuit may very well have been written in these conditions — the date indicated by Simenon perfectly agrees — but the writing of Pietr-le-Letton, to which we will return, is, in our opinion, definitely later.

In Train de nuit, the name 'Maigret' appears only incidentally, and it should be stressed, it is no more than a simple silhouette. However, an idea will immediately begin to germinate in the mind of the novelist: to compose a series of investigations with Superintendent Maigret. This enterprise, as we will see, was still premature.

One would search a bibliography in vain for the title La Jeune Fille aux perles, the first novel proposed in the setting of a series with Maigret. It is the mysterious novel quoted by Simenon in Les Mémoires de Maigret10. This work, mired like Train de nuit in the clichés of the popular novel, and hardly fitting the criteria of the detective novel, will be refused first by "Detective," then by Fayard. This same manuscript, presented later to the same Fayard, will be welcomed into a popular collection under the title La Figurante11. In La Jeune Fille aux perles, Maigret leads his investigation alone, without his deputy Torrence. He is "a man with large shoulders, a thick face, small sparkling eyes, who ate sandwiches alone in front of a table," and who already makes us think of the Maigret of the Simenon-Fayard period.

*

*       *

An interesting article by Simenon on Maigret, appearing in the magazine "Confessions" February 4, 193712, will permit us to follow the progress of the first "Maigret". After having told the story of the schooner wallowing at the back of the harbor at Delfzijl and where, while they repaired his boat, he got settled in somehow to write his first "Maigret" novel — but with no title mentioned — the author confides:

"The novel finished, I sent it to Paris and, as the caulkers were done with my boat, I returned to sea, arriving in Wilhelmshaven, where I found it convenient to moor at a pier of a bridge to begin a new book [...] It was said that the birth of Maigret would be laborious. I wasn't up to the second chapter when a fellow from counterespionage [...] gave me forty-eight hours to leave the German waters in the company of my incomplete Maigret."
What work could this be? Two titles can be suggested: La Femme rousse and La Maison de l'inquiétude. The respective dates of the publisher's contracts not being known, we lean towards the first of these, by reason of the role that Maigret plays there, still very inconsistent as opposed to the second.

The action of La Femme rousse has for its environment the banks of the Seine close to Samois. It is an investigation lacking in spirit and in which Maigret, having recovered Torrence, doesn't play a major role, appearing only in the final third of the novel.

"It has hardly any appeal," André Jarnac tell us, while summarizing La Femme rousse, and he adds: "Very disappointing is this adventure of a father who takes off blindly in search of his mysteriously disappeared daughter. The action is disjointed and the characters don't seem to know where they're going. Maigret, smoking his pipe placidly, leads an investigation in which he hardly believes. He waits rather for it all to unravel itself. And in fact that's his best course in this preposterous story of vengeance."

We can thus understand why this Femme rousse13 didn't seduce Fayard, nor further Lucien Descaves (director of the "Journal") toward whom Sim had turned next.

*

*       *

It is during the wintering of the Ostrogoth and its captain at Stavoren, a small sheltered harbor to the south of Frieze, that must be located, in our opinion, the writing of the fourth "Maigret," incontestably the most important in this "prehistory" (or "proto-history") of the superintendent with the pipe: La Maison de l'inquiétude. This work, centered indeed on the police enigma, is the first where Superintendent Maigret is the central character, and in which he does his investigation from beginning to end, with the assistance of Torrence.

In Un Supplément aux « Mémoires de Maigret »14, the novelist Robert Vellerut delivers us with relevance these remarks: "there we are, in this Maison de l'inquiétude — a meaningful title — in an atmosphere typically Simenonian. Maigret moves in a universe where places, attitudes and looks are muted by anguish. He is vigorously portrayed, enormous, heavy, in bowler hat and great dark overcoat. We see him enter his office, remove his coat, and settle himself before his stove in an attitude that is nearly ritual. He sends Torrence off on a mission, considers visiting Judge Coméliau. He stuffs his pipe with his thick fingers in slow gestures. Should he forget his pipe, he will fall into a foul mood. He has his moments of concentration where he comes and goes, remains immobile for ten minutes, leaves, open a drawer in passing, picks up an object without interest that he puts down again elsewhere. He has his way of leading an investigation: to remain, for example, astride a chair, lost in the contemplation of a dead man, as if he were having with him a mysterious interview. He sometimes send his colleagues to the devil because he is gladly grouchy, but he appears so human, so understanding — already "repairer of destinies" — with a poor unbalanced girl, that his wife makes a jealous scene when he returns home to the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir."

In spite of the weakness of the plot and some improbabilities, this novel that reads in a stretch constitutes, despite its imperfections, a fully-fledged Maigret investigation. And Robert Vellerut is correct to conclude that "this Maigret, he is truly our Maigret".

In addition we agree fully with Robert Vellerut's remarks on the aim of Simenon — very deliberate or vaguely sensed — which was to create a genre, a style, a character.

The day Simenon reread the manuscript of La Maison de l'inquiétude, he should have given a great sigh of relief: he finally had his character, or rather this character had imposed himself on him. The character, yes, but not yet the genre nor the style. Let's let Vellerut clarify his argument:

"Certainly, since his first novels written in a devil-may-care fashion, Simenon always slipped in some scratches in his self-affirmed 'Simenon style,' and in this book they aren't lacking. But this Maigret seems, if I dare this Pirandelian image, a 'character in quest of an author'. How can we be insensitive to the discrepancy between the character and his setting? This setting of the "popular novels" that the young Simenon borrowed from authors whose level, it must be acknowledged, he never reached."

"Then, in Delfzijl or elsewhere, Simenon will take up again the plot of La Maison de l'inquiétude but transposing it into another register, expressing it in another tone. It will be Pietr-le-Letton. If one follows the step-by-step progress of the two plots, one feels this parallelism well: one could speak of adaptation. Without shame, Simenon uses the same device, a resemblance between two persons of which he acknowledged in one of his letters that "it is unimaginative enough".

"However, Pietr-le-Letton is a success because Simenon has this time created the genre and the style that suits his character. This is not the birth of Maigret; it is the appearance of a new genre, of a new style of detective novel: the Simenon genre, the Simenon style."

Which is not enough to justify the legend of Delfzijl that Simenon perpetuates in La Naissance de Maigret, written in 1966,:

"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 superintendent.
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."
And Simenon concludes: "The following day at noon, the first chapter of Pietr-le-Letton was written."

But let the novelist, in one of his dictations, twelve years later (and then the facts go back to more than half a century!) expose to us this important phase of his "years of training" as he calls them himself:

"[...] It happened that one morning, on board my boat the Ostrogoth, anchored in the harbor of Delfzijl, I tried to write a detective novel. It was a little like a step upwards toward literature, although I hate this word. There is nothing easier, indeed, than to write a detective novel. First, there must be at least one dead body, even more in the American ones. Then an inspector or a superintendent to lead the investigation and who has more or less the right to investigate anyone's past and life. And finally, there are the suspects, more or less numerous, more or less well camouflaged by the author in view of the surprise ending.
The inspector or the superintendent serves as a sort of handrail, as for a steep staircase. We follow him. We share his suspicions and sometimes the dangers he runs. Then, shortly before the last page, the truth is revealed.
Even if the novel is bad, it is rare that the reader abandons it after the first two or three chapters, wanting to see how it ends. It is not the same with a plain novel, where one has the tendency to scrap it at the end of two or three chapters if one has not been hooked.
I arrive at my first detective novel, written in Delfzijl, in the north of Holland, on board my boat the Ostrogoth. I had no idea while writing it, that this novel would be followed by many others with a number of the same characters. Even the outline of Maigret was rudimentary.
He was a thick-set man, who ate a lot, drank a lot, followed suspects patiently and arrived eventually, as he should, at discovering the truth.
My principal popular novels were published by Fayard, and I sent him the manuscript of this one [...]
At Delfzijl [actually: Stavoren], where I had to break the ice around my boat every morning, because it was the middle of winter, I waited. I didn't have to wait long. I was summoned by telegram to Paris, where I saw that he had my manuscript on his desk "15.
In fact, as we have just demonstrated, it is La Maison de l'inquiétude — where Maigret appears with all the "accessories" enunciated by the author — whose writing is evoked here... at the profit of another work! The reason for this choice, we will see shortly, is double.

At the outset, the manuscript of La Maison de l'inquiétude, where Sim had bet so much on his character of Maigret, stumbled against a refusal by Fayard. Far from being disarmed by this new failure, he next submits his text to L'Œuvre (that had published two of his novels already) where it is accepted! It is a scoop: the readers of this newspaper will be the very first to make the acquaintance of Superintendent Maigret, on March 1st, 1930, the date of the publication of the first installment of La Maison de l'inquiétude16. Indeed, the three other novels under pseudonym putting Maigret on stage will only appear later: Train de nuit in October of the same year (Fayard), then La Figurante in February 1932 (Fayard) and La Femme rousse in April 1933 (Tallandier).

It is therefore undeniable that the progress of Simenon in the discovery of the detective novel was groping and truly laborious, and that he met some stumbling blocks in placing his first titles. Fayard, in particular, showed the greatest reticence. What, in fact, was his complaint to the author? That his so-called "police" novels were not scientific, that they didn't abide by the rules of the game, that they finished neither well nor poorly, etc. In summary, the publisher didn't consider them real detective novels.

One can better understand the importance assigned by its author to Pietr-le-Letton when one realizes that it was, after three consecutive failures, the first real investigation of Maigret accepted by his main publisher, Arthème Fayard. Indeed, if the manuscript of Train de nuit, a popular novel that didn't depart in any way from the norms imposed by the genre of the collection, was accepted straightaway by Fayard17, it won't be the same with his other tries in the detective novel. His novels, as much with Sancette as with Maigret, will all collide with the refusals of publishers18.

Although La Maison de l'inquiétude has its origins blemished by a refusal, one can admit nevertheless that with this first success acquired by Maigret, Simenon took his character seriously and it reinforced his idea to make a new investigation for him.

*

*       *

It is on his return from the journey to Norway, in the beginning of the spring, that is located, in our opinion, the writing of this work that the novelist has marked as so significant: Pietr-le-Letton.

"Pietr-le-Letton was not a masterpiece. It nevertheless marked in my life a sort of turning point.
I had written dozens of popular novels and about a hundred stories to learn my profession. When I reread Pietr-le-Letton, I wondered if I had not reached a new stage, and that is what had happened," Simenon confides to us in one of his dictations19.
Pietr-le-Letton could have been written during the winter of 1929-1930 or in the spring of 1930, in Delfzijl or Stavoren (as there are also two versions given by Simenon regarding this wintering in the Netherlands!), writing which we can place, either immediately after that of La Maison de l'inquiétude, or just after the journey that he made to the north of Norway and Lapland at the end of March-beginning of April (the latter is likelier: cf. details in Pietr-le-Letton reminiscent of this journey).
But there is a second hypothesis which seems to us more plausible: Simenon is back in France with his cutter toward mid-April [according to correspondence from Tïgy, his first wife (Regina Renchon), who specifies besides that this return took place exactly one year, to the day, after their departure]. Now — and we should remember — the contract concerning Pietr-le-Letton for its serial publication in "Ric and Rac" is dated of May 26, 1930. Is it conceivable that such a manuscript, judged so important by its author, should have waited several weeks more to get this agreement after an already hardly believable "option hold" of some eight months (Sept. 1929 - May 1930)?!?!?!
One will admit much more happily that after the publication of La Maison de l'inquiétude in L'Œuvre, the project of detective novels with the character of Maigret began to arouse the interest of Charles Dillon who was particularly in charge of the popular novels at Fayard, and of Arthème Fayard himself: after all, they could offer themselves, without great risk, a bench-test in "Ric and Rac"!

Pietr-le-Letton could have been ordered (or at any rate accepted) by Fayard shortly after Simenon's return from the Netherlands. Its writing would be located therefore during the spring of 1930, presumably in May — on the banks of the Seine and aboard the Ostrogoth anchored off the coast of Morsang or La Citanguette. It is toward this second hypothesis that, we must confess, we lean the more.

Fayard accepted therefore, at first, to publish Pietr-le-Letton serially in its weekly "Ric and Rac"20; the contract was signed May 26, 1930. The persistence of Sim, at least the equal of his Superintendent Maigret, was revealed to be finally paying off.

One question has been left hanging a long time: under what pseudonym would they unveil the author of this "new-style" novel? The choice proved to be difficult, and it is the publisher who found the answer:

"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"21
*

*       *

Thus, Simenon has spotlighted this work for a double reason: Pietr-le-Letton is the first "Maigret" accepted by Fayard (if one disregards Train de nuit, where the superintendent only appears furtively), a publisher at which, everyone knows, he will have a dazzling career. But Pietr-le-Letton, is also the first of his novels that will be published under his real name, from July, 1930. From whence the importance that clothes this title as a matter of course in the author's memories, this title that he will adopt once and for all to officialize the birth of Maigret.

One will therefore gladly accept Simenon's giving preference to Pietr-le-Letton over Train de nuit and the two other clumsy tests where Maigret is not more than a shade, while regretting nevertheless that this choice was made at the expense of La Maison de l'inquiétude: this work, in our opinion, deserved a better fate; by relegating it to among what he calls his "manufactured works," Simenon commits to its consideration an immense injustice.

Why this retraction? Why this eviction of La Maison de l'inquiétude to the profit of Pietr-le-Letton to illustrate the legend of the birth of Maigret? What reasons are there besides the incentives that we have just evoked of the accentuation of Pietr-le-Letton that obliged Simenon in a way to erase from memory a work that was obviously the first to carry all his hopes?

Here also, two explanations for this eviction: on the one hand, in La Maison de l'inquiétude it is certainly a flesh and blood Maigret who walks, the pipe already clamped in his teeth, a Maigret who isn't missing any of his sartorial attributes. But this Maigret doesn't evolve in more than a work of very modest construction, of which Simenon would simply say "it was a failure!". What's more, this novel, after its serial publication in L'Œuvre, was going to end up a little later (February 1932) at Tallandier, in fact the main competitor of Fayard, Tallandier that had launched him in a collection of detective novels! One can easily understand that this novel, that was at its origin brushed aside by Fayard and then picked up by Tallandier, could not serve decently as a milepost — and even less as a starting point — to the beautiful adventure of Maigret-Fayard!!!

And when Simenon, in the numerous interviews that he will give after the commercial success that attached itself to the famous black-cover police collection (which hadn't yet been christened the "Collection Maigret"!), when Simenon will build the legend around the birth of Maigret, "feet in the water, on an old stranded barge, on the coast of Delfzijl in the north of the Netherlands," he will prefer to privilege one of the nineteen "Maigrets" of this series launched by his main publisher, rather than a humble Maison de l'inquiétude that he will cast to oblivion.

*

*       *

Pietr-le-Letton, this first "Maigret-Simenon" finally accepted by Fayard, evidently constituted for the author an encouragement to pursue the path he had drawn for himself.

Since his return to France, in May, after his journey in the Nordic countries that will have lasted nearly one year to the day, Simenon came to get settled between Morsang-sur-Seine and Seine-Port, at a site dominated by the château des Roches, in a place called Le Four à Chaux, which we located. He moored his cutter in a small sheltered cove bordering a woods adjoining the property of M. Jean-Louis Heurtin. It is there that he composes during the new summer two "Maigrets": Le Charretier de la « Providence » and Monsieur Gallet, décédé, as well as some sentimental novels, whose contracts will be signed September 24, 1930.

It is on that day that must have taken place, in our opinion, the fundamental interview that Simenon had with Fayard. Simenon, conscious that he had just reached a new landing, exposed to his publisher his new approach to the novel. In ten years, he had learned to tell a story and he wanted to now pass from the popular novel to the semi-literary novel:

"I decided," I said, "to climb up a rung."
"Explain!"
"After the popular novel, I want to try the semi-literary one [...]"
"What do you mean by semi-literary? [...]"
"A novel, a true novel, can't be written before about forty, because it supposes a maturity that it is difficult to acquire earlier. The novelist is God the Father and I am still very far.
"However, I believe myself capable of becoming liberated from now on from certain clichés, to make nearly live human characters, provided that I benefit from a support, an armature, that I can apply to a ringleader of the game, and that is the detective novel. I want henceforth to write you detective novels at the rate of one per month."
"Why one per month?"
"Because I calculated that it corresponds to my budget."
"What guarantees me that you are capable of sustaining this rhythm?"
"Here are six of them that have been written in three months."22
The last sentence contains an interesting indication that permitted us to situate with precision the dates of this important interview between Arthème Fayard and his young colt. Indeed, we noted, while consulting contracts signed at this time, that Simenon, only once, well and truly offered six novels at the same time to his publisher, and it happened on September 24, 1930. That day, Sim brought in his carton of three "Maigrets": Pietr-le-Letton (for a new contract in view of its publication in volume), Le Charretier de la « Providence » and Monsieur Gallet, décédé (novels that were originally entitled L'Ecurie and Chasse à l'ombre), as well as three sentimental novels: L'Épave, La Figurante (in fact, as we mentioned above, this was the second presentation of La Jeune Fille aux perles) and finally, Fièvre23.

*

*       *

It is the moment to conclude.

We hope that Simenon will forgive us if, in this investigation of the birth of Maigret which we have been presenting, we are — at least on one point — in disagreement with him. Since he himself confessed to us repeatedly: "I have a good memory for certain things, but there are two things for which I don't: dates and names," we tried to re-establish, on the basis of documents emanating from the author's own archives, and and certain of his supporting declarations, the truth by the way of this point of history. Task strewn with ambushes though it was, and made even more difficult as it dealt with the anecdote on which the novelist was certainly most lavish, while, alas, attempting to muddy his tracks with numerous variants!

Let's give justice all the same to Simenon, who indicated to us with accuracy, in spite of the small failings of his memory, the date and the birth place of his famous superintendent: one day sunny in September 1929, in the small harbor of Delfzijl in the Netherlands. Can we hold it against him to have cheated a little, while disowning — because of its modest origins — the true cradle of Maigret in Train de nuit (with a title yet so Simenonian!), to the profit of a Pietr-le-Letton... of nobler extraction? And to have, by way of consequence, antedated by some months the writing of this work...?

But before giving back this microphone, I must make you part of a scoop, yes! of a scoop although it is about a paper which appeared more than a half-century ago, precisely July 1st, 1932 in La République, an article by Simenon entitled, already, "La naissance du commissaire Maigret"... But it is a true scoop nevertheless, because I received it two days ago from my friend Claude Menguy, prevented to his great regret from participating in this symposium, the same Menguy that you know well and who is the co-author of this communication.

Here is an excerpt from it:

"Maigret was born for the first time the... Wait. It was three years ago. I was tormented by the desire to create a French detective, very French. I had gone to look for tranquillity in Norway, on board my boat, just as the beautiful ladies go to give birth in their castles of the Loir-et-Cher... And there, while breaking ice, I put Maigret into the world, with joy, with love..."
You will have noted in passing the affirmation of his "journey to Norway on board the Ostrogoth," where he went, certainly, but on board a boat of the regular line, he confessed to us and confirmed lately again, by letter and voice!

A remark imposes itself: this version of the "birth," given less than three years after the event, is much more believable than the one of Delfzijl concocted some thirty years later for the purpose of the foreword to the Œuvres complètes — and that, even though it suits him to replace Norway by Stavoren in the Netherlands... — and the evoked novel is without any doubt La Maison de l'inquiétude, which is effectively the first prominent and worthy Maigret to be kept...

Thus, dating thirty-four years before the summery Dutch version of the birth of Maigret in Delfzijl, I exhume here for you the wintry Norwegian version of this same birth, but by the way of another novel! With Simenon, decidedly, biographers will never run out of work!

Thank you for your attention.


NOTES
1.   Un homme comme un autre, Presses de la Cité, 1975
2.   J.-C. CASALS, Simenon en su obra y en la vida.
3.   signed Christian BRULLS, Fayard, 1929.
4.   "La Semaine", July 12, 1942.
5.   C. BRULLS, Fayard, 1929.
6.   G. SlM, "Ric et Rac," oct. 1929 - janv. 1930.
7.   C. BRULLS, Fayard, 1930.
8.   C. BRULLS, Fayard, 1930.
9.   Foreword to Œuvres Complètes.
10.   Presses de la Cité, 1950.
11.   C. BRULLS, Fayard, 1932.
12.   "Georges Simenon décide: à la retraite, le commissaire Maigret!"
13.   G. SIM, Tallandier, 1933.
14.   unpublished text.
15.   Je suis resté un enfant de choeur, Presses de la Cité, 1979.
16.   G. Sim; published later by Tallandier, in 1932.
17.   In September, 1930.
18.   All were published nevertheless, but later!
19.   Un homme comme un autre, Presses de la Cité, 1975.
20.   13 parts, from July to October, 1930.
21.   "La Naissance de Maigret" [The Birth of Maigret], text dating from 1966.
22.   Talk by Simenon at the Institut Français in New York, November, 1945.
23.   C. BRULLS, Fayard, 1932.

translator's note
a.   L'Aiguille creuse [The Hollow Needle], Arsène Lupin novel (1910) by Maurice Leblanc [in which Lupin is shot by a beautiful girl and falls in love with her, vowing to give up his life of crime]. L'Aiguille creuse is a scenic rock formation in on the Étretat coast of Normandy. Étretat is mentioned in seven Maigret episodes.).


Home  Bibliography  Reference  Forum  Plots  Texts  Simenon  Gallery  Shopping  Movie  Links