1. A fine novel
This novel is one of my favorites, but for reasons which are hard to explain. Nonetheless, here are some... first, it's a story with a rather sad tone, very much like Simenon's "gray novels" (of the non-Maigrets), but with some lighter touches (Santoni, Schrameck), a mixture which leaves us with a strong and lasting impression. Then, the characters evoked by Simenon are well-drawn, and the author shows us once more his talent in the art of presenting a procession of well-rendered protagonists. And lastly, the plot is woven between these quite different characters, but linked to the central figure of Thouret. He's an example of a character often portrayed by Simenon, the "poor soul", whose commonness is apparent, but who, thanks to – or at least because of – particular circumstances, reconstructs for himself a life of his wishes, but a life which, inevitably for the novel, he cannot enjoy for long... for Maigret to discover the originality of this life, he has to be brought to know the person who led it, and for this he has to be inevitably murdered... that is the price for the Chief Inspector to make contact with him…
2. I like to stroll the Grand Boulevards…
For the most part, the action of the novel takes place in one of Maigret's favorite Parisian locales... "Maigret had always had, without trying too hard to understand why, a certain predilection for the portion of the Grand Boulevards between the Place de la République and Rue Montmartre." (beginning of Ch. 2). It's a chance for Simenon to evoke, through several street names, a characteristic area of Paris. To help you find your way, I've presented a simplified map of the area:
In Ch. 1, Louis Thouret was killed in a cul-de-sac off the Boulevard Saint-Martin, behind a building on Rue Meslay (to the left on the map). The local police station is but a few steps away, on Rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth (letter A on the map). Mme Thouret tells Maigret that her husband worked at Kaplan et Zanin, on Rue de Bondy. Rue de Bondy has become today Rue René Boulanger (at the X on the map). Monique Thouret sometimes lunched with her father in a restaurant on Boulevard Sébastopol (C on the map). In Ch. 2, we learn that Maigret goes to the movies with his wife almost every week on Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle, which adjoins Boulevard Saint-Martin. Maigret goes to Kaplan et Zanin, coming to the intersection in front of the Théâtre de la Renaissance (marked by on the map). In Ch. 3, Maigret meets Neveu in a bistro on Rue Saint-Martin (between C and A on the map). Neveu tells him that Thouret bought gaufres (pastry) on Rue de la Lune (E on the map).
3. Variations on a theme
The theme of the "poor soul" who invents a parallel life for himself has already been done by Simenon in the Maigrets, in the short story, "Death of a Nobody" (1946), whose framework is very similar to that of the present novel. It's a theme which comes often from the pen of Simenon, and which haunts him to the extent that he used it twice with his Chief Inspector. Just for fun, I've made a little table to compare the story (pau) and the novel (BAN), to show their differences and similarities.
| ||Death of a Nobody||Maigret and the Man on the Bench|
|Differences||Juliette Tremblet is "disoriented by events"|| Emilie Thouret wants to control the entire life of her family|
| Francine, the daughter, is "softer"; her father gives her money so that she doesn't have to work ||Monique, the daughter, is "hard", she blackmails her father for money|
|The Tremblets live in an apartment, in a popular quarter in the heart of Paris ||The Thourets live in a house in the suburbs|
|Tremblet's money came from the lottery ||Thouret's money came from thefts|
|The investigation takes place in fine weather||The investigation takes place in bad weather|
|Tremblet's killer is a "friend", who kills him out of "annoyance" ||Thouret's killer is a "low-life"; he kills him for his money|
|Similarities ||The two are married to women who "don't suit them"|
|Both daughters are aware, at least in part, of the double lives of their fathers|
|Both men have a "banal" and routine job (cashier, shopkeeper), and both pretend to their family that they continue to work at it|
|Both men have a second lodging|
|Both men keep canaries|
|Both men have a mistress|
|Both men have in their second home piles of books, which they can read "in peace"|
|Both men wear different clothes for their second life|
4. Objects which speak to us
Two objects in this novel have an importance equal to that of the characters... these are, of course, the brown shoes and the bench where Thouret sat. Their appearance returns as a leitmotif and at the same time as a marker of the action throughout the novel. In Ch. 1, the brown shoes of the corpse "clash" with the rest of his aspect, and then Mme Thouret claims that her husband had never worn brown shoes. The "incongruity" quickly gives Maigret an indication that Thouret's life may not have been so commonplace, and each time he questions a witness he asks the question, had they ever seen Thouret with these shoes. In Ch. 2, the concierge and Léone talk to him about it. In Ch. 3, Maigret is set on the trail of a second lodging for Thouret because of the brown shoes, because he had to leave them somewhere before returning home; in the same chapter, Maigret understands, because it had been the same for him long ago, that the brown shoes were for Thouret the symbol of "freedom". In Ch. 5, Maigret discovers, in a closet in Thouret's room, three pairs of brown shoes. IN Ch. 6, Monique claims to have seen her father with brown shoes (and to have thus discovered his double life). In Ch. 8, Jorisse tells Maigret "You were bound to find that he had a room in the city... because of the brown shoes."
Similarly for the bench: In Ch. 2, the concierge tells Maigret that she'd seen Thouret on a bench "in the middle of the day", like a man with nothing to do, and who was enjoying himself. In Ch. 3, it's Saimbron who tells Maigret that he'd seen Thouret on a bench, and he adds that he'd seen him with a companion. As the brown shoes had put Maigret on the trail of a second lodging, so the bench and the companion allow the Chief Inspector to question Thouret's activities... what was he doing on a bench, and who was his companion a potential killer? That's why Maigret sends Neveu to "sit on benches and make connections". And the Inspector didn't realize that Maigret would happily take his place, for Maigret needs to "put himself into the skin" of the victim to understand what's happened. And perhaps, if he had spent the time on the benches himself, he'd be able to understand Thouret's double life without the need for additional clues…. In Ch. 5, Maigret asks Antoinette if she had ever seen Thouret on a bench, and she also tells of a man with the face of a clown. In Ch. 6, it's Monique who says she'd seen her father sitting on a bench. In Ch. 7, Schrameck tells how he'd made Thouret's acquaintance on a bench, and we will learn that the bench is essentially the key to the affair, as from a simple "resting station", the bench had become an observation post permitting the planning of the thefts.
5. Numbers and letters
In Ch. 5, Mariette Gibon gives her telephone number, "Bastille 22-51". Intrigued by this form of number, met elsewhere in other novels, I searched for information, and here's what I found on the history of the telephone...
The first applications of the telephone were devoted to basically local communications, or within a restricted group of users. An operator manually established the connections between the various subscribers. And as these weren't so numerous, the operator knew them all. When the government decided to establish the first "general public" network, it became necessary to codify the users, in other words, to assign them a telephone "address". The simplest system was to give a number to each in the chronological order of their subscribing. And that's the method that was adopted. Further, as the number of subscribers increased, they set up new centrals. Subscribers were thus identified by a number within a central. For example, if M. Dupont was the 273rd subscriber in the central Opéra à Paris, he would be accessed by requesting "Opéra 273".
6. A walk through the corpus
We can find a few allusions scattered through the text:
- the allusion to MME at the end of Ch. 3: "Wasn't it while chatting with the mother of a little boy, on a bench in the Square d'Anvers, while she was waiting for her dentist appointment, that Mme Maigret, without wanting to, had discovered the trail of a murderer?"
- the allusion to CHE in Ch. 8: "the Chief Inspector remembered the six-footers he'd met on the ranches of Texas and Arizona."
- the "nostalgia for fatherhood", a recurrent theme, found in the relationship between Maigret and Lecoeur, and between Maigret and Jorisse
- two allusions to Maigret's youth, little touches by which Simenon anchors his character in a "biographical reality": In Ch. 4, we learn that the Maigrets had had a baby girl, but she hadn't lived, and in Ch. 8, in response to Jorisse, who told of his troubles with his mother, Maigret replies: "As for me, I didn't have a mother."
7. Video and a riddle…
I'd like to end this text with a suggestion and a little unpretentious game. The suggestion is to invite you to watch the two television versions of the novel, the first that of Jean Richard, whose adaptation "sticks" strongly to the text, and where you will find "real" images of Boulevard Saint-Martin, filmed in the actual locations of the action, including the famous bench! The second, that with Bruno Crémer, who takes certain liberties with the text, but which is one of the better episodes of the series…
The little game is this: just a simple invitation to scan the text of the novel with "an eye for detail": it's about the response to the following question... In Ch. 4, Maigret asks Mariette Gibon the number of her "borders", and she replies "For the moment, there are three." What are the names of the three women? (careful, there's a trap!)
Solution: actually, four names are mentioned:
- Lucile (in Ch. 4, Mariette Gibon tells Maigret that Lucile sometimes played belote with Thouret)
- Yvette (end of Ch. 4: "It's not Vice, Yvette!")
- Olga (Ch. 5, one of the girls, Olga, received a phone call; Ch. 9, Olga, the brunette, went out to do her marketing)
- Arlette (the one Maigret makes talk in the final chapter, and who reveals the name of Thouret's murderer)
We can suggest several explanations for the little "mystery":
- simple negligence on the part of the author (we know that sometimes Simenon changes the name of a character in the course of a novel)
- a lie by Mariette Gibon: in fact, she has four lodgers, but doesn't want to say so; Yvette doesn't live in the house and is only there to turn a trick…
- it's Lapointe who will be charged with protecting the women who comes to "give up" the murderer... is it at the moment that he "entrusts" her, that Simenon remembered more or less unconsciously "Maigret in Montmartre", and Lapointe's first love, who was also called Arlette? We note in passing the strange fact that Maigret "forgets" to liberate Lapointe from his care of Arlette, and leaves them to pass the night together…