1. Immersed in a new world
This is a very fine little novel, with our Chief Inspector thrown into a world he rarely enters, where the suspects and witnesses he must confront are children. It takes time for Maigret to enter into this world of childhood, and also to arrive at understanding the life of a little village and its inhabitants. He is aided in this by both his faculty of empathy, and by a return to his own childhood memories, which permit him to find his own childish feelings, and stories he knew in his own village.
He can understand the feelings of Jean-Paul, because he had experienced a similar situation: "'Do the other boys hold it against him that he's the teacher's son?' Maigret knew about that too. He remembered it from his own childhood. The tenant-farmers' sons had held it against him that his father was the estate manager... " (Ch. 1).
He can understand the stories and rivalries of the villagers... "Hadn't there been a woman like that in his own village? In his day, it was the woman who ran the notions shop, Tatin's mother, who had that role..." (ibid.)
Finally, he can understand the stories the children had among themselves, by recalling his own childhood "It came back to him from so far that he was surprised. This was the first time, it seemed to him, that he had ever recovered such vivid memories from his own childhood..." (Ch. 6)
However, fascinated as he'd been from the beginning of his investigation by this world he was trying to understand, there would come a moment when he'd discovered its secrets, when there would be born a feeling of "disgust" which he knew often at the end of a case, and when he only wanted to return to his world of Paris, his city.
Maigret "escapes" from Paris for a time, attracted by the odor of a memory of oysters and white wine, and images of the sea.
But in the end, he literally flees the village – and his childhood memories, to return to Paris, the only place where he feels truly at ease to best ply his trade, where he is completely himself.
2. Oysters and white wine: or, when an almost trivial motive moves you to investigate elsewhere...
The theme "oysters and white wine" is like a leitmotif throughout the novel, spanning the investigation from beginning to end.
If Maigret decides to go to Saint-André, it's less for the generous motive of helping Gastin than because he feels an almost palpable desire for the air of springtime, "an air you wanted to drink in like a little white wine, and which tightened the skin of your face" (Ch. 1). To learn that Saint-André was in the Charentes, reminded Maigret of "the beach at Fourras in the sun, the oysters he'd eaten... on the terrace of a little bistro, washed down with a bottle of local white wine, in the dregs of which there'd been a little sand." (Ch. 1). "If the sun hadn't been as it was on that morning, if a little later, the Chief Inspector hadn't caught a whiff of Fourras, oysters and white wine" (ibid.), no doubt Maigret would not have gone, announcing to his wife gaily, "I'm going to the seashore, in the Charentes. To the land of oysters and mussels." (ibid.)
Unfortunately, he hadn't counted on the fact that it was time of the neap-tide, was disappointed to discover that Saint-André wasn't at the seashore, and that it "was like any country town and a poor match for his picture of oysters accompanied by white wine, on a terrace by the sea." (Ch. 2), to which was added the bad news:
"What would you like to eat, Chief Inspector?
"Do you have oysters?"
"Not during the neap-tide."
"How long will that last?"
"Another five or six days."
Since Paris, he'd been thinking of eating oysters and drinking white wine, and now he probably wasn't going to get any during his stay." (Ch. 2)
If he recognizes that he'll have to do without the oysters, (he's still trying, in spite of the evidence, in Ch. 4: "The rabbit will be ready." "Still no oysters?" "No oysters", finally obliged, in Ch. 5, to be resigned and to tell his wife on the phone, "No, no oysters... Because there aren't any..."), happily, he can drink the white wine... offered to him by Dr. Bresselles, a wine "with greenish reflections... dry and light, with a pronounced earthy taste." (Ch. 2)... at Paumelle's bistro, which seemed "almost exactly the idea he'd had of his trip to the sea. The air was the same color as the white wine, with the same taste" (Ch. 4), and with Julien Sellier, the pleasant "We could hear the sound of the cork being pulled from the bottle, the gurgle of the golden wine splashing into the two glasses." (Ch. 5)
Reduced to giving up on his oysters, Maigret sets himself to learning the little world of the village, and meets Mme Gastin, to whom he didn't dare "admit that it was because of the first spring sunshine in Paris, a memory of oysters and white wine, that he had suddenly decided to come." (Ch. 3)
From Ch. 6, after his dream and Léonie's burial, and above all the interview with Jean-Paul, his mood changes, and he forgets - a little! - his desire for white wine and oysters to concentrate on the children's stories which preoccupy him. After having gotten the doctor to talk when they met for lunch (we note in passing that meals with a witness are often also, metaphorically, for Maigret, a way of getting them "to sit down at the table"). Once the Chief Inspector has understood why Marcel lied, he no longer thinks of drinking... "Even the smell of wine made me sick " (Ch. 7).
Having discovered the truth, and so having fulfilled his mission, without having satisfied his desire... "Maigret seemed a little sad, or tired, like almost every time he'd finished with a case. He'd come to eat oysters and drink local white wines." (Ch. 8), the Chief Inspector wants only to be back with his wife, with the brightly lit Grands Boulevards, and to forget as quickly as possible this little lost village, his spoiled trip to the seashore. He hurries to buy the Paris newspapers which finally talk to him about his city...
3. From the glass cage to purgatory, or how to let suspects simmer well before cooking...
The novel opens with the description of the waiting room, the antechamber where visitors to the P.J. wait before being seen by the Chief Inspector. This room is described here in detail, but this is not the first time in the corpus – nor the last.
You know my "mania" for collecting recurring elements in the corpus, and needless to say, I haven't resisted this time either...
The waiting room is cited in numerous novels, and if sometimes Simenon merely mentions it, he gives a more detailed description in 21 novels, PHO, OMB, CEC, MAJ, SIG, FEL, pip, AMI, PIC, GRA, BAN, TRO, JEU, ECH, SCR, VOL, BRA, ASS, CLI, ENF and VIN.
If you will, let's take a tour of this room, applying the elements found in the corpus.
First, we find it at the top of the stairs at the PJ, on the second floor, on the left, at the beginning of the hallway along which the Chief Inspectors' offices are aligned.
Maigret calls it the "glass cage", because one side is glass. The door beging situated on this side, it is also.
On the three other walls, covered with light green wallpaper, are aligned black frames (sometimes only one is mentioned, sometimes two (as in ECO), sometimes more) containing in little circles the photographs of policemen "fallen in the line of duty".
We note that, according to the novels, the layout of the room varies... there are sometimes three glass walls (VIN) and just a single masonry wall (PHO).
The room also has a fireplace, on the mantle of which is enthroned "a Louis-Philippe clock, exactly the same as the in Maigret's office, and running no better than his " (MAJ).
In the middle of the room, a table covered with green cloth, which made it look like a billiard table (OMB).
Visitors could sit, as they chose, on chairs or in armchairs, equally covered in green velvet, equally uncomfortable. Women visitors to Maigret, especially those who "maintained their dignity", generally chose the chairs, where they sat stiffly upright. Their attitude in the waiting room was enough to give the Chief Inspector a clue to the type of women they were. So had he found seated on chairs, Joseph's mother (pip), Mme Serre (GRA), Monique Thouret (BAN), and Arlette's aunt (PIC)... their physical stiffness a reflection of their moral stiffness...
In spite of the windows, a lamp is always lit in the room, as is mentioned in ECO and BRA.
And this electric light, no doubt fairly dim, made the room "poorly lit" (PIC), with the green of the furniture and the walls, giving everything a "gloomy, depressing" atmosphere (BRA). Maigret even wondered why they'd chosen that green shade "whose reflection gave faces a cadaverous tinge" (CEC).
In fact, this depressing green tint and the glass walls were not inutile to the police: overwhelmed by this atmosphere "yellowish and sad like in a little provincial railway station" (SCR), witnesses – and above all suspects – became more talkative, relieved at finally being seen after having been left simmering long enough for them to become well-done and ready to spill the beans...
And so it's often intentional that the Chief Inspector lets his visitors stew in this room to which the inspectors have given various names... "the aquarium" (CEC, SCR, ENF), because of the glass walls and greenish tint, and from the impression the police must feel of watching their visitors like "in a goldfish bowl", they come to observe as you'd observe "beasts in a cage" (SIG); or the "lantern" (FEL), the "glass cage" (AMI, ASS), or even "the icebox" (VOL), a metaphor which, like "purgatory" (ECO), suggests well this idea of the interminable wait which the visitors suffer, a wait imposed and desired by Maigret, to the end of "making people talkative" (VOL) and "having them reach the end of their resistance" (BRA).
4. Maigret enters the Seine (a title "pinched" from Michel Carly's "Maigret, across Paris")
"It was five to nine. The window was open wide and a light mist, of a blue mixed with gold, rose from the Seine. ... The brilliant yellow in the air won out little by little over the blue, and the facades on the other side of the Seine took on a creamy color." (Ch. 1)
I really like these "poetic" sentences which Simenon scatters throughout his narratives, his impressionistic way of describing a scene. This is particularly the case when he describes the view Maigret has from his office, and the Chief Inspector experiences the weather by planting himself in front of his office window, his eyes searching the Seine, whose color will tell him the forecast for the day.
Here also, I'd like to give you a little selection, culled from throughout the corpus, of these "views of the Seine" born under Simenon's brush...
Here first is the Seine in springtime, brilliant and vibrant in the sun...
"In his office too, he found that light of the beautiful days, above the Seine, a mist which didn't have the density of fog, millions of tiny particles bright and alive, distinctive to Paris." (VOL)
"[Maigret] chose [a pipe] with care, going to light it before the window while regarding the Seine which glistened in the morning sun" (TUE).
The same vibration of light is found in summer...
"To watch the Seine flow in the dazzle of the morning sun." (amo)
At least the summer heat doesn't "stifle" the light, rending the Seine "flat and smooth like silk" (SEU), or while emanating a sort of warm fog, of "steam" (SEU)...
"The air was as hot as the day before, with a light mist, like a brilliant vapor, above the Seine." (pau)
"The windows were uselessly open, refreshing nothing, for they let in a hot air which seemed to come from the softened asphalt, the scorching paving stones, from the Seine itself, from which you waited to see smoke rise like water on a stove." (TEN)
When autumn arrived, the bad weather could give the Seine "a nasty color" (TRO), "a cruel gray" (TEM), or "the gray of lead" (TET).
With winter, the color of the river changes again...
"The Seine was a dark green, sprinkled with blocks of ice which glided slowly with the flow of the water." (NAH)
"The sky was still white and hard , the Seine an evil gray" (CLI)
But the most beautiful "views" are those which Maigret captures at dusk...
"A purple sun set on Paris, and the view of the Seine straddled by the Pont-Neuf was daubed with red, blue and ochre." (ECL)
"The Seine took on the aura of a milky fog which whitened and became day, lighting the empty quays." (NUI)
"It was not yet day, but the cold gray hour which preceded the rising of the sun. In a sort of murky dust, the Seine flowed, almost black..." (REV)
"He kept in his eyes the vision of the Seine flowing in a fine blue and gold fog." (MAI)
Finally, let's look at the Seine under the spring rain...
"The Seine was gray like the sky; the barges, the roofs, the sidewalks had wet reflections." (MME)
"For four or five days it had been raining like that, and the roofs, window ledges, umbrellas had the same reflections as the water of the Seine." (AMI)
and in autumn...
"It was still raining, that morning, a fine rain, gloomy. You couldn't see it falling, nor feel it, but it covered everything with a cold gloss, and on the Seine there were millions living little ripples." CEC).
5. Maigret enters the station
Chapter 2 of the novel begins with the description of a train station and the train Maigret has booked to go to Saint-André. This is not the first time that we see the Chief Inspector grappling with the railroad atmosphere. This chapter beginning is very reminiscent of the beginning of POR, which also begins with a train scene where we trace a nocturnal landscape...
"Then, towards Mantes, the compartment lamps were lit. After Evreux, it was completely black outside. And now, through the glass where drops of mist streamed, you could see a thick fog which muffled the lights of the route in halos."
It's the same for the beginning of CAD, where, once more, we find Maigret travelling on the night train...
"[The window] was streaked horizontally with great drops of rain. Through this transparent water, the Chief Inspector first saw the light of a signal box burst into a thousand rays, for it was now night. Then, without transition, lower down, streets in straight lines, glistening like canals, houses which appeared to be absolutely the same, windows, doorsteps, sidewalks".
This is also the case for the beginning of PEU:
"Suddenly, between two little stations whose names he hadn't heard and of which he could see almost nothing in the darkness, except for lines of rain before a large lamp... every now and then, across the dark expanse of the fields, the lighted windows of an isolated farm"; it was a train which reminded him of the one he had taken to return from school on Saturdays, "with antique cars whose walls creaked with each effort of the locomotive."
We can refer here to the text "Maigret's Trains" which has been on this site for some time. I'm not going to redo what has already been written in this article, but I'd like to make a quick tour of certain cases in which Maigret has been confronted by the world of the train.
From the beginning of the corpus, Maigret splashes about in the rain of poorly lit quays; that's the case in LET, when he goes to Fécamp, on a "nasty little train, made up of cast-off cars", "in compartments filled with bursts of air", by windows through which he sees "badly drawn farms in the early light, pale, half-obscured by the streaks of rain." He also sometimes takes a "little train... black and wet. Maigret installs himself in the humid cold of an old-style compartment trying in vain to completely close the window." (CAD) On the same train, Maigret discovers "the black [which] streamed behind the windows, with sometimes the flickering point of a roadside light, the passage of automobile headlights, or even, more mysterious, more attracting, the yellow rectangle of a window." (ibid.). Sometimes Maigret rides in a car "of an old model, with an unfamiliar green, [which] resembled a toy, a child's drawing [and] which was difficult to take seriously" (DAM).
The contrast between the heat of a compartment "white hot" (OMB) and the cold air outside created a mist which "transformed itself into great drops blurring the windows" (POR). If Maigret wipes away this mist, he sees "a tiny construction, a single lamp, the end of a quay" (CAD), then, a little further, "a farm, here and there, near and far, always below, and when you saw a light, it was invariably reflected on a surface of water, as if the train were running alongside a lake." (CAD)
Sometimes the landscape is more humorous: "The grass of the embankments was yellow, the little stations with their flowers streamed by... A man, in the steam of the sun, agitated ridiculously his little red flag and blew a whistle, like a child." (FAC), or the landscape of the Midi... "the houses of pale pink or a lavender blue with roof tiles cooked and re-cooked by the sun, villages planted with sycamores" (FOL).
Alas! The heat of the car is suffocating... "The curtains were closed, the windows lowered, but it was only occasionally that you received a little spurt of cool air"(GAL). It's no better in the train which brings him to Bordeaux (FOU), where "a muggy heat reigned", and "it was Maigret who tried to adjust the radiator! The device was out of order!" (FOU). And "when you lowered the window, it was too cold" (MAJ). On the return from Cannes, it was the same... "the compartment, once more, was overheated, or rather you had the impression that a special heat, the smell of the train, sweating from everywhere, the walls, the floor, the benches" (MAJ). And if Maigret finally finds sleep, he awakes "at every stop, confusing the noises of the train and the jolts with his nightmares." (MAJ)
So then it's better to stay in the corridor, "regarding the confused landscape which the night erodes little by little" (LET).
And when he gets back to his compartment, after having drawn some puffs on his pipe in the corridor, or paid a visit to the dining car to soothe his thirst, the Chief Inspector makes all sorts of acquaintances... "a livestock salesman from Yvetot undertook to tell Maigret his stories in a Normandy patois" (TET), "two NCOs who, along the route, had recounted racy stories" (OMB), and "a woman who kept a horrible Pekinese on her lap" (MAJ).
6. Reminiscences and diverse allusions
Let's finish by extracting from the text some memories evoking other novels:
* The Pointe de l'Aiguillon, mentioned in Ch. 1 and 6 of course reminds us of JUG
* the story of the wallet stolen by Thérèse's girlfriend recalls the same thing happening to Ernestine in GRA
* the theme of Marcel, choir-boy, is certainly a theme dear to Simenon, for it's found, among others, in FIA and cho, and elsewhere in the work of the author; for example, one of his Dictées is entitled "I'm still a choir-boy"
* in Ch. 7, Dr. Bresselles tells Maigret that the motorcyclist of Joseph's accident was a mussel farmer who had been raised by his aunts. That reminds me of the story Les demoiselles de Queue-de-vache (published in 1940 or 41 and appearing in La rue aux trois poussins, Presses de la Cité 1963), in which we meet a mussel farmer, raised by two sisters, and who's going to get married
* finally, note the description of the journalist in Ch. 6... "a young man who... was wearing a belted raincoat, ... a pipe too big for his mouth. ... He was thin, with long hair, his mouth twisted in an ironic smile." Doesn't that remind you of a certain Sim making the acquaintance of Maigret... "[a] young man of about 24, who was thin, his hair almost as long as that of the boss", "a great big pipe in his mouth" (MEM)
* and to end the allusions, what do you think of the "yellowish dog" Maigret meets in Ch. 1?