Maigret of the Month: Pietr-le-Letton (Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett) - 1
This novel was the one with which Simenon made the transition from his popular novels, written under pseudonyms, towards those he was aspiring to write. He had been producing his popular novels for nearly six years for six publishers since the summer of 1924, as well as numerous short stories for a variety of magazines, again under pseudonyms. He had the ability to write his texts within a self-imposed time limit, and his aim was to make as much money as possible from his popular novels and short stories. His publishers were more than content to market these works as there was a steady public demand for such material, but now he was offering something different and there was a reaction, especially from his main publisher Arthème Fayard. It proved to be a difficult time for Simenon. Fayard criticised the author's approach to the characterisation and general tone of Pietr-le-Letton, doubting its acceptance with the general reading public. Fayard could foresee a possible loss of revenue, especially as he had an author who could turn out the more lucrative popular novels almost at will. But eventually a compromise was reached, publisher and author signing the contract for this novel on the 26th of May 1930 and Fayard asking Simenon to write more of these "different" novels, which he would publish at the rate of one per month, but now under the author's real name. But Fayard still hedged his bets by publishing Pietr-le-Letton in 13 instalments (19 July to 11 October 1930) in his weekly magazine "Ric et Rac", before considering its publication in book format. Even then it was the fifth Maigret book to be published a year later in May 1931.
Some years later, Simenon stated, on a number of occasions, that he wrote the novel Pietr-le-Letton and created Maigret in the small north-eastern Dutch port of Delfzijl while he was waiting for his boat, the Ostrogoth, to be recaulked. Recent research has shown that the novel he wrote there was Train de Nuit, under the pseudonym of Christian Brulls, in which a police detective named Maigret, based in Marseille, appears briefly.
In reality it took him some time before he arrived at the point where he found it possible to start writing the novels that would be published under his own name. In retrospect, it is possible to discern, here and there, what might have caught his attention as he was mulling over his ideas later on, resulting in a probable amalgam of certain existing fictional characters with some of the traits of the people he knew and had observed.
For example, in fifteen novels, written under pseudonyms between late 1927 and late 1930, there occurs the name of Judge Coméliau, an examining magistrate who later clashes with Maigret. Two members of the police force, by name, Lucas and Torrence, appear holding various ranks, and there is Maigret, who first appears in a small role as a doctor in the novel Une Ombre dans la Nuit (A Shadow in the Night) by Georges-Martin-Georges published in July 1929. All these names occur five or six times throughout the fifteen novels.
In developing his creation in Pietr-le-Letton, Simenon brings Maigret very much to the foreground of the novel so that he dominates it throughout in pursuit of the main protagonist, Peter the Lett. Although Maigret has the assistance of certain members of his team of detectives, such as Torrence, Dufour and Bornier, they appear only briefly from time to time.
Displaying his storytelling skills, Simenon gives the novel momentum as the storyline moves back and forth from Paris to Fécamp in Normandy, with the constant pitching of one mind against the other. The pace is also aided by the author dividing his text into 19 titled chapters (18 in the Penguin paperback English translation).
Although it is a novel of crime and detection, there is a feeling throughout of it being like a rather far-fetched adventure story.
In gradually attempting to write in a different way, Simenon was not to know what sort of reception the novel would receive when presented to a publisher, and Pietr-le-Letton also has the feel of being one of a kind, with Maigret at the end convalescing after having surgery for a bullet wound, as well as having earlier one of the members of his team of detectives murdered.
What turned out to be the first appearance of Maigret written under Simenon's own name is generally sketchy, with the author deciding on certain attributes and leaving other factors to be defined.
The settings are handled with the now familiar distinctive and succinct way whether of luxury, commonplace or seediness.
As on other occasions throughout his work, Simenon alters a name, in this case of a hotel. The Majestic hotel which is present in this novel did exist at that time, but was in the Avenue Kléber. The author definitely had in mind Claridge's, the luxury hotel situated at 74 Avenue des Champs Élysées, with the back entrance in the Rue de Ponthieu, an establishment that Simenon stayed at on a number of occasions. He was to use the same hotel, again renamed the Majestic, in the Maigret novel Les Caves du Majestic (Maigret and the Hotel Majestic), written in 1939. Today the site of Claridge's hotel has been converted into several shops including FNAC.
Simenon was still producing his popular novels and so he was dividing his energies between the two types of work.
It is intriguing to read in sequence the four Maigret novels and one other that Simenon wrote between May and December 1930 in order to discern any developments that took place between them.
The novels are:
Pietr-le-Letton (Maigret and the enigmatic Lett translated by Daphne Woodward).
Le Charretier de la "Providence" (Maigret meets a Milord translated by Robert Baldick).
Monsieur Gallet, décédé (Maigret Stonewalled translated by Margaret Marshall).
This was one of two novels that was launched on the night of 20-21 February 1931 at La Boule Blanche nightclub in Montparnasse in Paris.
Le Passager du "Polarlys" (The Mystery of the "Polarlys" / Danger at Sea translated by Stuart Gilbert) non-Maigret.
Fayard played safe by publishing this novel in the daily "L'uvre" in 32 instalments (24 November to 25 December 1930), but under the title "Un Crime à bord" (A Crime on board) by Georges Sim. It was not published in book format until June 1932.
Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien (Maigret and the Hundred gibbets translated by Tony White).
This was the other novel launched on the night of 20-21 February 1931.
Pietr-le-Letton has been translated into English on two occasions:
1. New York, Covici, Friede 1933 under the title of The Strange Case of Peter the Lett translated by Anthony Abbot.
And, London, Hurst & Blackett Ltd. 1933 under the title of The Case of Peter the Lett in the two novel volume entitled "Inspector Maigret Investigates" with the same translation.
2. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, G.B., Penguin Books N° 2023, 1963 under the title of Maigret and the enigmatic Lett translated by Daphne Woodward.
The second translation is much closer to Simenon's French text, the first being wayward at times.
The communications that went backwards and forwards from Simenon and the publishers at this time are well documented in the two biographies that are listed below:
1. Eskin, Stanley G. SIMENON. A Critical Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 1987. ISBN 0-89950-281-4.
Chapter VIII The Birth and Triumph of Maigret 1929-1932, pages 74-97.
2. Assouline, Pierre. SIMENON, Biographie. Paris, Julliard 1992. ISBN 2-260-00994-8.
Chapter 6 En attendant Maigret 1928-1931, pages 140-154.
3. Assouline, Pierre. SIMENON. Édition revue et augmentée. Paris, Gallimard, Folio 2797, 1996. ISBN 2-07-038879-4. This is the same as item 2, but with corrections and updates.
Chapter 6 En attendant Maigret 1928-1931, pages 193-215.
4./5. Assouline, Pierre. SIMENON. A Biography. New York, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1997. ISBN 0-679-40285-3. / London, Chatto & Windus 1997. ISBN 0-7011-3727-4. Translated from the French by Jon Rothschild.
Chapter 6 Waiting for Maigret 1928-1931, pages 86-95.
Note: The text of the English translation of the whole volume is very much abridged in comparison to Assouline's French text.
Maigret of the Month: Pietr-le-Letton (Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett) - 2
Fenton Bresler, in The Mystery of Georges Simenon, writes:
The second effect upon Simenon of his mother taking in students [the first being that he was sent early to convent nursery school] was that it opened his eyes, at a very young age, to a whole new world outside the restricted area where he lived. The students, three or four at a time, some staying only for a year, others for three to four years, all attended Liege University. They mainly came from Eastern Europe, Russians and Poles for the greater part, drawn to Liege because it was the least expensive of the French-speaking universities. Some were there also to pursue their revolutionary activities, and they filled the young Georges's ears with tales of their remote homeland and of their exciting lives. Their counterparts are later to appear in many of his novels, especially the early ones. Maigret's adversary in the very first Maigret story to be written is "Pietr, the Lett", an international villain of indeterminate origin, from Latvia or Estonia, who has for years been clocked across the European frontiers by Interpol. (Bresler, p19)
Maigret of the Month: Pietr-le-Letton (Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett) - 3
Stanley Eskin remarks:
The story of two brothers, one getting the better of the other, recurs in Simenon's fiction -- Pietr-le-Letton, Le Fond de la bouteille, Malempin -- perhaps a transposed reflection of Henriette's [Simenon's mother] favouritism. (Eskin, p17)
Eskin relates the horrific anecdote that when Simenon's brother died, Henriette told Georges: "What a pity it was Christian who died."