Maigret and the Elements|
by Murielle Wenger
"It was raining. The weather was grey and mild."
(Madame Maigret's Friend, Ch. 9)
In this study, I'd like to analyze Maigret's relationship with the weather. We know how important the weather is for our Chief Inspector's moods, and the importance he attaches to the elements at the time of his investigations. At least that's the feeling we get after reading several Maigrets, but what exactly is the place of meteorology in the novels, what is the weather that Maigret encounters most often, which season is evoked most, how does Simenon describe the seasons, a particular month of the year... Such are the questions to which I'd like to provide some response.
Once more, I've ranged through the corpus, attempting an analysis of the Maigret cycles at a time quantitative, statistical and semantic. I hope that you, dear Maigretphile friends, will find in reading this study as much pleasure as I've had in researching it...
2. Season of writing and season of the action
"Simenon had no memory for dates, as he himself recognized. But he retained a precise recall of circumstances, seasons and atmosphere down to the least detail: colors, odors, lighting…" (Lacassin in "Métamorphoses de Maigret", an essay written for the  Omnibus edition, "Maigret entre en scène" [Maigret takes the stage]).
We can, justly, it seems to me, wonder about the influence of the season in which Simenon wrote a novel, on the season chosen for the action of the novel itself, so much does the weather described in the Maigrets play an important role in the unfolding of the investigation. In other words, is the season selected by Simenon for a novel dependent on the season in which it was written? Is it the same? Or on the contrary does he select a season unlike that in which he lives, in a sort of nostalgia for a past season?
To answer this question, we have to examine the corpus. For this study I have only included the novels, ignoring the stories, considering the quantity of these to be representative. I've included 74 novels, leaving aside Maigret's Memoirs (which is a unique enough case since it's not limited to the telling of a single investigation), and Maigret's Christmas, whose length hovers between that of a novel and a story (cf. the study by Steve Trussel).
Here is a graph summarizing this analysis:
correspondence between the writing and the action
We can conclude from this analysis that the season of the writing has a clear influence on the season of the action of the novel, but with some nuances...
- of the 14 novels written in autumn, 7 (50%) take place in autumn. The remaining novels occur mainly in the summer, as if the memory of the season just gone by influenced the novelist's writing.
- of the 16 written in the spring, 13 (76%) take place in the spring. It's apparently more difficult for Simenon to impose on his Chief Inspector another season when he is living in springtime, probably his favorite season (see below)…
- for the 27 novels written in winter, the division is more equal... 10 novels (38%) take place in winter, 8 (31%) in spring, and 7 (26%) in autumn. Winter seems to have less influence on the author than the other seasons.
- of the 17 novels written in the summer, 10 (58%) take place in summer. Here the season of the writing has a double influence, since none of the novels written in the summer are set in the winter, the most distant season and perhaps more difficult to describe when you are living in the midsummer heat…
3. My favorite season…
"They often write that I was a novelist of the rain. That's not true. I've written as many novels which take place under the sun, including the oppressive tropical sun, as novels taking place in rainy weather." (Simenon, in "Le prix d'un homme" [The price of a man], in "Mes Dictées" [My dictations])
When we think of Maigret, we often imagine our poor good Chief Inspector, hands shoved into the pockets of his overcoat, the pipe in his mouth having been extinguished by a fall downpour… But is that really a permanent reality in the Maigrets?
Once more, let's examine our corpus:
And there a surprise is in store for us the majority of Maigret's cases take place in the spring! A springtime often described by Simenon as a mild and sunny season (see below). So we are reassured: our Chief Inspector has not passed his career uniquely under wintry weather and autumn rain…
So where does the "myth" of a Chief Inspector devoted to autumn come from? One element of an answer might be found in a chronological analysis of the corpus. So here is an analysis of the season of an investigation as a function of the three publishing periods of the corpus, Fayard, Gallimard and Presses de la Cité. And here are the results:
The graph speaks for itself of the 19 novels of the Fayard period, 8 (42%) take place in the fall. Of the 6 novels of the Gallimard period, 3 (50%) take place in the winter. As for the 49 novels of the Presses de la Cité period, 20 (40%) take place in the spring and 13 (26%) in the summer. It seems that as Simenon advanced in age, he deepened his relationship with his character, and more often presented him the opportunity to work in the "fine" season, offering him the joys of springtime, puffs of bright sunshine instead of the cold of winter or an autumn drizzle...
Doesn't the legend of a Maigret living only under the autumn rain find its origin in the fact that most readers and perhaps critics have the idea that the Fayard period is the essential one for the Maigret character? I don't share that opinion at all, but think rather that the Presses de la Cité period offers us numerous occasions to discover other facets of our Chief Inspector...
4. Through the months…
Up to this point, we have spoken of the seasons in a general way, but it can also be interesting to see which month best represents each season in Simenon's imagination.
So let's examine the investigations as a function of the months in which they occur ("indet." indicates that the month is not made clear in the text of the novel):
Let's note the following elements:
- the month which seems the most characteristic of spring, in Simenon's eyes, is the month of March (11 cases out of 27 40%); an opinion shared by Mme Maigret in MME: "For me, March is the most beautiful month of Paris, in spite of the sudden showers… Some prefer May or June, but March has so much more freshness."
- two months "share the spotlight" to describe summer, June and August (each is found in 6 cases out of 17, 35%), both described as months dominated by the heat... "It was June. The day had been stifling " (DEF); "the hottest day of an oppressive August" (FAC). July is less present, no doubt because Maigret is most often on vacation during this month, and to take on an investigation is an exception! (VIC)
- as for autumn, it's hard to miss the month of November (10 cases out of 18, 56%), described by Simenon as a month of rain, wind and fog, as for example in FAN: "It was the middle of November. It had been raining all day."
- the month at the heart of winter, the month of January, is the most present in this season, 6 cases out of 12, 50%. Simenon readily describes it as a month dominated by the cold, and sometimes the snow... "It was January 14... and the temperature in Paris had been around 10° F. all day. Snow... had been falling abundantly the preceding days" (NAH)
5. I love Paris in the springtime…
In the cycle of Maigrets, the weather is often rendered by a description of the landscape, in particular the streets of Paris. In fact, how are the streets of Paris most often described? Sidewalks drenched with autumn rain? Asphalt softened in the summer heat? Let's examine the corpus under this "Parisian" angle...
Here again, we are brought face-to-face with our potential clichés... the greatest percentage of investigations conducted by Maigret in Paris is in winter (9 cases of 12 occurring in winter, 75%), whereas we might perhaps have imagined a Chief Inspector passing the brightest of his time in the autumn fog of the capital city, such is not the case: 8 investigations of 18 (45%) in the fall take place away from Paris. Maybe not so astonishing after all... it's often in autumn that Maigret investigates in the Fayard cycle, and it's also in that cycle that he is often found outside of Paris.
After winter, it's spring which is most represented in Paris (18 cases of 27, 66%), and this will be the chance for Simenon to describe the distinctive atmosphere of springtime in Paris (see below).
6. Weather Report
Now let's go into the meteorological details of the seasons, to see if we can find, if they exist, any constants for each of them. In other words, how did Simenon see a season in general, rather sunny, nice weather, or rainy and intemperate?
To do this, I've considered each novel of the corpus, extracted the meteorological indications, and classed each investigation according to whether it took place under mostly sunny or rainy skies. It goes without saying that this is a general tendency, and that a case can have both sunny and rainy days, one following the other, and that sometimes there is a connection with the action itself (thus, the fine weather at the beginning of a case can turn to rain as Maigret "settles into" a new milieu and he makes discoveries about the suspects. See, for example GAL, GUI, SIG, MME, MEU, VOL, VIC, ENF, FOL. In the other direction, an investigation begun in the rain can end with the return of sunshine... as in ECH, VOY, ASS, CLI, TUE). I've regrouped these results according to the season, and here is what we find:
Analysis of these results
- in the springtime, 21 novels of 27 (78%) occur in basically sunny weather; rain dominates 6, and there is a marked alternation between the two in one novel (MEU). The sun and fine weather certainly seem characteristic of the springtime Simenon conceives of and represents. We note, with no great astonishment, that an analysis as a function of the month gives the same result (72% sunny cases in March, 60% in April, 100% in May, and 75 % when the month is not indicated).
- this is even more the case in summer... the 17 novels of the cycle are all marked with the sign of a blazing sun reigning supreme... until a storm breaks out (a frequent occurrence in the novels).
- autumn is synonymous with rain (dominating 16 of 18 novels, 88%)... but could it be otherwise? We note that the two cases in September (BRA and DAM) have more sun (it's still the end of summer), while 75% of the cases in October, 100% of those in November and 100% of the 'undetermined' cases, take place mostly in the rain.
- finally, winter sees intemperate weather more often (10 out of 12 novels, 83%) than the sun, but here the rain can be replaced by snow. While investigations in December (VIN) see as much sun as rain, and above all the wind, those in January and without a specific month are marked 100% by snow or rain, while two cases (MAI and MOR) in the three in February unfold for the most part under the sun (spring is coming…), while the third in this month (MAJ) shows an alternation between the two.
This part of my study will be devoted to presenting some extracts from the novels of the corpus, to illustrate with examples the elements examined above.
a) spring sun
"A month of March spiced with a foretaste of spring, with a bright sun, sharp, already warm." (FOU)
"The sun was bright, the air blue in the patches of shade, with whiffs of springtime." (MME)
"Maigret… looked up at the sky… an ingenuous blue, with gold-fringed clouds and a sun which streamed over the rooftops" (JEU)
b) Parisian springtime
"Paris smelled of spring. The buds of the chestnuts burst, showering miniature leaves of fresh green" (MEU)
"That morning, a sun bright and light, which had the gaiety of a lily of the valley, shone over Paris and made the pink chimney pots on the rooftops gleam." (ECO)
"It was May... the sun was vibrant and Paris was colored in pastels." (FOL)
c) summer heat
"The end of a radiant afternoon. An almost syrupy sun in the peaceful streets of the left bank." (GUI)
"Paris sizzled in the sun." (DEF)
"A triumphant sun shined down on a teeming Paris." (SIG)
"Until 3:00 o'clock each day, the sun was blazing over Paris. At that moment, the sky covered up. There was electricity in the air, unexpected bursts of wind. The dust of the streets was suddenly set to swirling. At cocktail hour it was the rule: a rumble of thunder, then torrents of rain splattering on the asphalt" (GUI)
"A gust of wind swept the boulevard… raising whirlwinds of dust…, and suddenly a torrent of water came crashing down, sputtering, forming a moving pool on the sidewalks." (SIG)
e) autumn rain
"At 3:00 o'clock in the morning, a fine rain was falling, hardly visible, but sufficient to gloss the streets and to give, like tears in your eyes, more brilliance to the lights." (VOY)
"A fine rain started to fall, and each drop, as it passed before a streetlamp, became a star." (PHO)
"It was just falling, from a sky low and uniform, one of those rains which, above all early in the morning, seem more fluid and more treacherous than others." (TEM)
"The first fog was a surprise as pleasant as the first snow for children, above all since it wasn't a nasty yellow fog of certain winter days, but one of a milky vapor in which hovered halos of light." (CEC)
"Then, towards 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon, a little before nightfall, the same yellow haze as in the morning descended on Paris, blurring the lights of the streetlamps and shop windows." (BAN)
"The morning fog put pearls of humidity on the overcoats." (MOR)
8. Simenon, Maigret and the weather: heat and cold, colors, odors and perfumes
Simenon gave Maigret his own sensitivity to atmospheric conditions. The author, like his character, savors the weather through all his senses.
"Basically, I love the passage of the seasons and I savor them all equally, greet with as much joy the sun of March or April, or even May, if it's late. I don't balk at the rain, nor against excessive heat." (Simenon, in "La main dans la main" [Hand in hand], in "Mes Dictées" [My dictations])
"I love… the fog, probably because it deforms reality enough to give it another dimension and another poetry. I like the rain too, for somewhat the same reason, above all in cities, in the evening, when all the lights are reflected zigzagging across the wet cobblestones… The snow transforms the landscape. The sun itself, as the Impressionists understood so well, decomposes it into specks of color and light," (Simenon, in "Le prix d'un homme" [The price of a man])
"[Maigret] liked all the seasons. He liked most of all extreme weather... torrential rains, tornados, severe cold or torrid heat." (PIC)
a) impressionistic visions
"The sun was as vibrant as in the illustrated fairy tales"; "The chalky ground, very white, vibrating under the smallest ray of sunlight."; "A clear sky, the square yellow with sunshine" (FOU)
"To see the garlands of the lights of the Champs-Elysées which, in the rain, had always made him think of tearful looks" (MME)
"The streets were deserted, wet with fine drops which put a halo around the gas jets"; "Above, the clouds were not yet white and gold, but of a bluish gray, and the rain fell at a slant, spattering on the windowsill." (JEU)
"The buds had burst that very morning, speckling the trees with a fresh green." (CLO)
"And now the drops of rain cross-hatched the last rays of the sun." (PRO)
"The sky was covered with light, spongy clouds, of a beautiful pale grey, and it was going to rain for the first time in ten days, in showers, in long lines of luke-warm rain." (PRE)
"The sky was always the same white, both luminous and murky, like a sky you see reflected in a pond." (PEU)
"He saw across the hardly moving foliage the sky a blue still so pure, in which floated a small cloud of dazzling white." (VIC)
"The sun shone, the sky remained a clear blue, not a cloud to be seen, while long drops of rain fell on a slant, each separate from the others, and on hitting the ground, painting large black splotches." (ENF)
Some large white clouds had invaded the sky, and in the east, there was one heavier than the others, with a greyer center, which made you think of a growth ready to burst. The air was hot, unmoving." (AMU)
"It wasn't raining. There was only, in a blue sky, some light white clouds that the sun edged with pink." (SEU)
"Paris had its gloomy look of the nasty days of October... a raw light fell from the sky like a dirty ceiling. On the sidewalks remained the traces of the-night-before's rain." (TET)
"It wasn't raining this morning. It was so cold that you'd say it would freeze, and the sky was the color of a tin roof." (LOG)
"The rain started to fall again, a fine rain, a kind of fog which softened the light. The clouds in the sky hardly moved, transforming themselves little by little into a skullcap of plain gray. (FAN)
"The sky… was a neutral grey, more or less the same grey as the cobblestones. " (SCR)
"The sky was white, and the air seemed white too, the white of ice." (CLI)
"The sky was even more leaden that the night before, and the white of the flakes made the black of the glistening roofs even blacker." (PIC)
"The sky was the color of steel, and in the streets the roadway was so black that it seemed covered with a coat of ice." (PAR)
b) odors, sensations tactile and gustatory
"Even though it was still March, your skin was sticky, with a smell of summer."; "There are those little puffs of mild air which caress your cheeks." (LIB)
"The air was still fresh, an air which you wanted to drink like a little vin blanc, and which tightened the skin of your face.." (ECO)
"It was bright and sunny, with a little dry cold that put steam in front of your lips, and froze your fingertips." (MME)
"He found the sun once more, outside, the scent of the first beautiful days, with already a whiff of dust in the air." (HES)
"Rain was falling in bursts, freezing, whipping about your face and hands, gluing sodden clothes to your skin" (TUE)
"Every morning for the past ten days, there'd been this same sun with the acid aftertaste of gooseberries." (ECL)
"Of his afternoon, he retained a radiant memory, that of the most beautiful springtime in Paris, and of an air so soft, so perfumed that you stopped to breathe it in." (PRE)
"On a very hot day like today, softening the asphalt beneath the soles of your shoes and impregnating Paris with the odor of tar..." (GRA)
"The air was savory like a piece of fruit, with fresh puffs over a base of heat." (FAC)
9. Lastly, some poetic images
I'd like to end this study with several extracts which show how Simenon, with the simplest words, succeeds at evoking meteorological imagery in a very poetic form.
"The chimney pots were no longer the same pink as this morning, but had turned to a dark red under the rays of the setting sun, and in the sky now, you could see traces of a pale green, the same green, or almost, as the sea takes on at nightfall." (COR)
"A purple sun was setting over Paris, and the view of the Seine straddled by the Pont-Neuf was smeared with red, blue and ochre." (ECL)
"The sky was tinted pink. The chimney pots above the roofs were the first things to take on life and color in the scene, while on the slate and tiles, as on certain stones of the roadway, the cold of the last hours of the night had put a delicate coat of frost, which was starting to disappear." (COR)
"The window was open onto the blue of the night, which became like star-studded velvet." (FEL)
"Through the open window you could sometimes glimpse the moon between two black clouds, which it bordered for an instant in white." (DEF)
d) a shower
"It was 6:30 in the afternoon when it started to rain; the sun, already red above the roofs, wasn't hiding... the base of the sky was still incandescent, windows here and there continuing to shoot out rays, while a single pearl-grey cloud, its center hardly darker, edges luminous, passed above the quarter with the lightness of a balloon." (CON)
e) November cold
"Dead leaves fluttered on the ground. Their dry rustling indicated that there'd been a freeze during the night." (FIA)
"The fog had dissipated, leaving on the trees and each blade of grass… pearls of white frost. In the pale blue sky shone a shivering sun, and the frost, minute by minute, transformed itself into droplets of water which fell, limpid, onto the gravel." (PHO)
"You might think day was dawning, it was so bright. But it was February and it was the night itself that was the color of silver. Each blade of grass wore its drop of frost. The apple trees in the neighboring orchard were so white with frost that they seemed as fragile as spun glass." (MAI)
In this study, we've rediscovered the relationships of Maigret and Simenon with the seasons, retouched certain clichés about the famous "Simenon atmosphere", and shown off once more the poetic art of Simenon... his use of the simplest words to paint a very colorful picture, also underlining his "filiation" with the Impressionist painters.
The study isn't closed, far from it, and it could be followed further in many ways. For example, in analyzing the unfolding of a novel while watching the parallel development of the weather and the evolution of the investigation itself... Or comparing the description of a meteorological event (rain, heat-wave, etc.) and its influence on Maigret's feelings, unless the reverse is true too... the state of Maigret's spirit influences his vision of the weather.
The interrogations remain open, and that's all for the best, because the corpus of the Maigrets holds many more secrets for us...
translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu, March 2007