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Maigret in the métro

by Murielle Wenger

Original French

Jérôme has raised an interesting question:

"One point I was wondering about is why we never (?) see Maigret in the subway? The subway had existed for a long time in the 1930s when Simenon wrote his first Maigret but neither Maigret nor the gangsters took the subway in the novels....."

My first response is from Michel Carly's book, "Maigret across Paris" (Omnibus, 2003):

"Not much métro for the Chief Inspector… With Mme Maigret, he takes it primarily when it's cold. (ed. note: in CLI; or for an evening out in DEF). … To travel in Paris, Maigret prefers the taxi, for most of the drivers know him, and he can enjoy both his pipe and the bustle of the streets. The same reason for mounting the rotunda of a bus. … Maigret doesn't belong to the subterranean world... too dark, too cooped up. …"

This short extract deserves to be expanded, and so I've scanned the Maigret corpus in search of the meaning of Maigret's relationship with the métro.

A first surprise: I found no trace of a mention of the métro in the Fayard series (in which, however, Maigret's cases are more often outside of Paris than in the capital).

Second surprise: contrary to what you might think, Maigret sometimes does take the métro in the course of his investigations, but when he does, you could say that it's always "under duress". Each time he takes it, it's because he can't avoid it: whether because no car is available at the PJ (pau, REV), to gain time (MIN, VOL), because he's going out "unofficially" (MIN, COR), or because it's just a matter of transportation, with no thought of taking any pleasure in the trip (VOY).

Maigret, as Carly has said, prefers taxis or the bus to the métro. Why? For a number of reasons:

– First of all, because Maigret enjoys the spectacle of the streets, which he can discover from the windows of a taxi, or the platform of a bus:

"He was lucky. An old platform bus stopped by the sidewalk, and he could continue to smoke his pipe while watching the scenery and the silhouettes of the people in the streets slide by." (PAT)

– This spectacle Maigret savors even more if he's on foot; Maigret is a stroller, as is also his creator ("Glorious morning. An interest in going to town, to find myself in the streets, meeting people, entering shops." In Footsteps), as was Désiré, Simenon's father, one of the sources of inspiration for Maigret ("He was very sensitive to the quality of the air, to slightly more or less coolness, to distant sounds, moving patches of sunlight." in I Remember), and that's why he so often goes on foot from his home to the office.

"Maigret, who loved to stroll about when Paris was getting up in the morning…" (SIG)

"he loved to travel on foot the fairly long way from his home on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir to the Quai des Orfèvres. Basically, in spite of his activity, he'd always been a stroller." (NEW)

"Maigret had arrived at his office on foot, as he often did; today he had done so intentionally, as if to give himself a break." (BRA)

"It was still good to walk the sidewalks, where the awnings of the shops cast darker rectangles…" (PAT)

"Like him, others walked along the sidewalks for the pleasure of blinking their eyes in the sun and breathing the occasional warm puffs of air." (HES)

"It was so clearly spring that he had walked the whole way from the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, sniffing the air, the odor of the shops, sometimes turning at the bright, gay dresses of the women." (TUE)

"Maigret, in a good mood, watched the passers-by, the shop windows and cars."(SEU)

– If he prefers the platform bus, it's because he doesn't like to be closed in: witness his propensity for camping himself in front of windows ("In his office, as at the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, Maigret had the habit of walking up to the window and installing himself there, watching anything at all…. Was it perhaps a sign of claustrophobia? Everywhere he went, he instinctively sought contact with the outside." DEF), or his need to often leave his office to roam the streets of Paris ("He liked his office well enough, but after two hours there he felt the need to escape." VOL; "He had a need to escape from his office, to breathe the air of the season…" CHA).

– And, in the métro, it was too hot, everyone was too crammed together:

"Hey! Taxi… Never mind about the expense voucher! It was too hot to rush into the métro…" (pau)

"He took the métro, which was jammed, permitting him to maintain his bad mood." (REV)

"Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, he took a taxi. There was no direct bus and this was no weather for shutting himself up in the métro." (COR)

"As for himself, he never took the métro except when he had to, as he found it suffocating" (VOL)

– And besides, in the métro he had to put out his pipe (which was already hard enough to have to do in a bus without a platform!: "soon he would have to empty his pipe before shutting himself up in one of these enormous vehicles of today where you felt like a prisoner" VOL), and in addition, there were none of the good odors of the street, those of the shops, the little handcarts of the Rue Lepic and the markets, "the flavorsome odor of morning Paris" (HES), nor the lights and colors of the Parisian streets; just the opposite:

"the métro, which smelled of bleach and where Maigret had to put out his pipe."(pau)

"the smell of detergent the moment he descended into the métro, … a long trip in the colorlessness of the underground, … the faces eaten away by the electric light…" (PRE)

"The métro smelled of detergent. The advertising posters in the stations, always the same, sickened him." (REV)

And so we can conclude from all this that when Maigret takes the métro, it is always for a practical purpose, never for the pleasure of the voyage, a pleasure he can find in slumping in the seat of a taxi, or in smoking his pipe on the platform of a bus, while regarding the spectacle of the teeming streets of "his" city ("colored images which he let slide voluptuously over his eyes" PAT). And it's the same for several other characters, who only take the métro for reasons of convenience: Mme Maigret to arrive earlier at the Square d'Anvers (MME), Lucas (MEU) or Janvier (FAN) to return home in the evening. The métro, it's true, is the fastest method of locomotion. But Maigret is not a man of speed, he had need of all his ponderousness, of his slow rumination to bring his cases to a successful termination. So:

"Taxi. Too bad about the problems with the accounts clerk, who believed that the métro was the fastest way to get from one point to another."

And yes, too bad, isn't it really best "to stroll the quays, staring vaguely at the Seine, his pipe in his mouth, hands in his pockets" (CHA)?!

translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu, Nov. 2006

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