Maigret of the Month: Chez les Flamands (The Flemish Shop)
At the request from one of the daughters of a Flemish family who visits him in his office at the Quai des Orfèvres, Maigret travels outside his jurisdiction in order to find out about the enquiry for himself. This request takes him to the town of Givet on the Franco-Belgium border in the département of Ardennes. (maps below)
Simenon wrote this novel in January 1932, whilst living at the villa "Les Roches Grises" at Cap-d'Antibes (Alpes-Maritimes) on the French Riviera.
In the spring of 1929, he had his newly acquired boat the "Ostrogoth" baptised by the curé of Notre-Dame when it was moored next to the Square du Vert-Galant on the Île de la Cité in Paris. Soon he was heading north along the rivers and canals reaching Givet on the river Meuse a few days later.
There are three main researches tracing Georges Simenon's association with the towns of Givet and Namur in connection with his novel Chez les Flamands:
1) Articles in the booklet "La Grive", N° 157 Printemps (Spring edition) 2000, L'Association des Amis de la Grive, Charleville-Mézières (Ardennes), France.
This publication contains a few small black and white period photographs related to Simenon's novel, plus the articles that contain some of the information now published in the next item.
2) Michel Lemoine and Michel Carly: Les Chemins belges de Simenon, Liège, Éditions du Céfal. 2003.
In the article entitled Chez les Flamands, de Givet à Namur, pages 61 to 72, the two researchers describe Simenon's visit and the probable locations he uses in the novel, with black and white period photographs.
3) Guido De Croock. Chez les Flamands - 1 and 2. In 2003, Guido De Croock visited Givet, posting his findings onto his website [archived] with photographs and maps.
A general map showing the position of the town of Givet (Ardennes) in France, in relation to the Belgian border, which is indicated by the meandering line of small black crosses. The "Flemish Shop" in Simenon's novel is most likely located next to the northern end of Route N51 between the two Customs posts indicated by the blue flag symbol (French) and the yellow one (Belgian). (From France: Motoring Atlas, London, Michelin / Hamlyn Publishing, 1990).
In writing this novel, Simenon used two events from his personal experience and around these he created the theme of his novel.
The centre of the town of Givet (Ardennes) in France showing certain locations Gare (railway station), the place Méhul (from which the N51 runs north), the Place Carnot with the Hötel de Ville (town hall) indicated by the capital letter H, and the main road bridge across the river Meuse. (From France, Paris, Michelin, 1962). (click to enlarge)
Firstly there are the locations, these being the towns of Givet (Ardennes) in France and Namur (province of Namur) in Belgium. As in much of his fiction, within the main locations, Simenon uses real establishments but usually with different names so as not to cause possible legal problems for himself. This is the case of those establishments in Givet whose real identity have been verified by the researchers, as well as what the town was like when Simenon reached it in the "Ostrogoth" in the spring of 1929. There was only a provisional footbridge across the river Meuse constructed of iron girders resting on wooden piles as the stone bridge had been destroyed during the First World War, and that the weather was fine and calm, but the transformations that the author made were to create the atmosphere that he wanted.
Secondly, there is the structure of the family. When Maigret arrives by train at Givet he is met by Anna Peeters, who came to see him in Paris. She takes him to her family home, the Flemish family home, by the river Meuse close to the Belgian border. This is also a shop that gives the novel its title, supplying provisions of all kinds to the river trade. On this occasion Maigret meets some of the Peeters' family, which consists of five members. Apart from the 26 year old Anna, there is the older sister Maria, 28, who is an instructress / teacher at an Ursuline convent in Namur and their younger brother Joseph, 25, who is a law student in the town of Nancy and who is engaged to Marguerite Van de Weert, the daughter of a local doctor. Then there are their parents, Madame Peeters, aged about sixty, who runs the shop and her much older husband who is suffering from senility.
Simenon based this family on that of one of his aunts. His mother Henriette was the youngest of thirteen children born to Wilhelm and Maria Brüll, but sadly, five died young. This made Marie Lambertine Joséphine Brüll (1865-1955) the eldest sister. In 1886 she married Gilles Croissant (1841-1918) and they had three children, Joséphine Croissant (1887-1946), Maria Croissant (1888-1975) and Joseph Croissant (1891-1973). This Croissant family and that of the Flemish family in the author's novel have definite similarities.
When Georges Simenon's aunt Marie Brüll married the much older Gilles Croissant, his home was at 78 Quai de Coronmeuse, Liège, then next to the Liège-Maastricht canal (in recent years part of this canal has been filled in for road widening purposes) where he carried out his craft as a basket-maker. Soon after, they turned part of their home into a shop catering for the canal trade.
A recent map of Liège showing part of the town centre, the Quai Saint-Léonard and the Quai de Coronmeuse along the left bank of the river Meuse, in relation to part of the district of Outremeuse (where the Simenon family lived) on the right bank. (From Liège, super plan N° 76, Sint-Niklaas, Belgium, Geocart-Claus, 2003). (click to enlarge)
In various works, Simenon refers to his aunt's shop:
From Destinées (autobiography), Paris, Presses de la Cité, 1981, pages 149 and 150 (written in 1979).
'If the kitchen in the Rue Puits-en-Sock (his paternal grandparent's home and shop in Liège) was in a way the centre for the Simenons, my aunt's shop on the Quai de Coronmeuse, above the lock where the barges were lined up side by side, was more or less that of the Brülls.
... She had two grown up daughters and the lounge was only in use when one or other of them was practicing the piano... I had noticed, on my left, a dark and badly lit room where a man with a white beard, who made me think of Abraham, was working with willow making baskets.'
From Je me souviens... (autobiography), Paris, Les Presses de la Cité, 1945, page 178 (written 1940-41). Here Simenon describes on a certain Sunday, with his parents and his younger brother Christian, of going to visit his aunt Marie:
'We pass our former house in the Rue Pasteur (now the Rue Georges Simenon). Then the Place du Congrès, the Rue de la Providence, the Maghin bridge (the Saint-Léonard bridge) which stretches across the Meuse.
For me, the Quai Saint-Léonard, whose end you could not see, already is unfamiliar and I look at the people and things with a little anxious pleasure.'
From Pedigree, Paris, Presses de la Cité, 1948, page 100 (a novel written between 1941 and 1943 based on and which describes the first fifteen years of Georges Simenon's life)
'The other quai began, the Quai de Coronmeuse, and with it the canal... an invigorating smell of tar and resin.
Here was the shop window, an old fashioned window cluttered up with starch, candles, packets of chicory and bottles of vinegar. Here was the glazed door and its transparent advertisements: the white lion of Remy starch, the zebra of a grate polish, the other lion, the black one, of a brand of wax.
And the doorbell, which you would recognize among a thousand others.
Finally, the unique and wonderful smell of the house where there was nothing commonplace... was it the smell of gin that predominated? Or was it the more insipid smell of the groceries? For the shop sold everything, barrels oozing American lamp oil, rope, stable lanterns, whips, and tar for boats. There were jars containing sweets of a doubtful pink and glazed drawers stuffed with sticks of cinnamon and cloves.
The end of the counter was covered with zinc, three round holes had been made in it, and out of these holes there protruded bottles crowned with curved tin spouts.'
(Note: neither Je me Souviens... nor Destinées have been translated into English, but Pedigree has been published in the translation by Robert Baldick under the same title London, Hamish Hamilton, 1962 / New York, London House, 1963 and by Penguin Books, UK, in a paperback, N° 2252, 1965).
There are other similarities between the real Croissant family and the fictitious Peeters. Simenon uses the same first names for one of the sisters, Maria, and also for her brother Joseph. Like her fictitious counterpart, Maria Croissant was a teacher, but at the Filles de la Croix, Sainte-Véronique, in Liège. Both Josephs, Croissant and Peeters, fathered a child by a local girl.
(I doubt that the personalities of the Peeters family bear any similarity to that of the author's relations. Simenon took the opportunity of creating his own characters' personalities for this novel on the structure of a family unit he knew well).
It is Maigret who learns at the outset that it is Joseph's liaison with a local girl, Germaine Piedboeuf, which is the crux of the investigation. Germaine has disappeared without trace, and the Peeters' family are suspected of being involved, of abducting her, even of killing her.
Maigret has no jurisdiction over the enquiry, but proceeds to wander about the town, visiting various establishments and meeting up with certain people who are involved in some way or other, including Inspector Machère from the town of Nancy who is in charge of the investigation. But practically everywhere he goes, Maigret is soon aware of the tension, an atmosphere of hostility, with the weather adding to it, the river Meuse is in flood and the rain and strong winds add to the discomfort of everyone.
Maigret reflects that... 'The (Flemish) house reminded him of an investigation that he had made in Holland, yet with differences that he was unable to define. It was the same calm, the same heaviness of the air, the same sensation that the atmosphere was not fluid, but was made up of a solid substance that was broken in moving.' (This being a reference to the novel Une Crime en Hollande / Maigret in Holland).
But then only a short while later... 'He was sullen. It was rare that at this point he had the sensation of the uselessness of his efforts.'
With no official authority and with little progress, Maigret begins to wonder what he is doing in this town.
The hostility and tension stems partly from a form of class structure and an undercurrent of the language divide. There is hostility towards the Flemish family partly because of them being accused, rightly or wrongly, of the disappearance of Germaine Piedboeuf, of being well off and for their Flemish background in a mainly French community. Maigret comes in for some hostility as he is seen by some as helping a wealthy family to evade a crime. Even when he visits the Piedboeuf house, and later meets up with Germaine's brother in a café near the Town Hall, he comes in for criticism, resulting in an altercation.
But he persists, doggedly seeking out various people and being drawn back to the Flemish house, where on an earlier visit he listened to Anna Peeters singing to her own piano accompaniment. The music on that occasion was Solvejg's Song, one of the incidental pieces of music that Grieg composed for the play Peer Gynt by his compatriot Henrik Ibsen.
This song becomes a leitmotiv throughout some of Maigret's visits to the Flemish house, with chapter X of the novel being entitled La chanson de Solveig (Solveig's Song). There is a parallel between the story of Peer Gynt and the Peeters' family, a story of hero worship. From his adventures, Peer Gynt is saved by the love of two women, his mother Åse and his long standing fiancée, the innocent Solvejg, in the same way the three women of the Peeters' household hero worship their brother Joseph, with his loyal fiancée Marguerite Van de Weert waiting patiently.
Finally, Maigret travels to the Belgian town of Namur to meet the fifth member of the family, Maria Peeters, who is working at the Ursuline convent there, but is laid up with a sprained ankle.
With some form of conclusion reached, Maigret is only too glad to return to his wife and home in Paris.
To date, there is only one English translation of this novel, that by Geoffrey Sainsbury, which, as with this translator, is wayward in comparison with Simenon's French text.
In 1938, Simenon wrote the novel Chez Krull. Although the author does not indicate a town or city, he does mention that the Krull family runs a shop, with a small bar, close to a Quai Saint-Léonard catering for the requirements of the canal trade. Once more Simenon must have been thinking of his aunt Croissant's shop, with the Quai Saint-Léonard, in Liège, preceding that of the Quai de Coronmeuse. The Krull family consists of five members Cornélius, the father, who is a basket-maker, his wife Maria and their three children, Anna, aged 30, Elizabeth, 17, and Joseph, 25, who is a medical student. The body of the daughter of one of bargees in discovered in the canal and the German cousin of the Krulls, who is visiting them, comes under suspicion, followed by the whole family. Simenon conjures up the atmosphere of an alarming reaction, with the thoughts and feelings of the members of the family being seen through their own eyes rather than a central figure like Maigret. (This novel was first published in the English translation by Daphne Woodward, under the same title, in the two novel volume entitled A Sense of Guilt, London, Hamish Hamilton Ltd. 1955 and as the single novel paperback Chez Krull, London, Four Square Books, N° 24, 1958. It has not been published in the United States).
Peter Foord, UK