This story is no doubt one of the most moving of the Maigrets, and for a number of reasons... it brings us into the private life of the Maigret couple, recalls the "nostalgia for paternity" from which the Chief Inspector suffers, and it takes place at Christmas, by definition a period when high emotions rule.
And furthermore, it's a text where we feel the rapport between Simenon and his character, and the bonds which unite them in their ways of apprehending the world.
1. Mme Maigret in the stories
When I noticed that this story unfolded almost entirely in the Maigrets' apartment, I decided to do a small analysis of the 28 stories, with regard to where they take place, and the presence or absence of Mme Maigret. Here, summarized as a table, are the results:
|Paris and/or PJ ||outside Paris||in retirement ||at home and/or w/Mme|
|amo ||yes ||no ||no ||yes|
|arr ||no ||yes ||no ||Mme M. at beginning|
|bay ||no ||yes ||no ||no|
|bea ||yes ||no ||no ||no|
|ber ||yes ||no ||yes ||no|
|ceu ||no ||yes ||yes ||yes|
|cho ||no ||yes ||no ||yes|
|err ||yes ||no ||no ||no|
|eto ||yes ||no ||at 2 days retirement||Mme M. by phone|
|fen ||yes ||no ||no ||no|
|hom ||yes ||no ||no ||no|
|lar ||no ||yes ||no ||no|
|lun ||yes ||no ||no ||no|
|mal ||yes ||no ||no ||no|
|man ||no ||yes||yes ||yes|
|men ||in part ||in part||no ||a little|
|noe ||yes ||no ||no ||yes|
|not ||no ||yes ||yes ||Mme M. at beginning|
|noy ||no ||yes ||no ||no|
|obs ||yes ||no ||no ||no|
|owe ||no ||yes ||yes ||no|
|pau ||yes ||no ||no ||yes in part|
|pei ||yes at beginning ||yes ||no ||no|
|pen ||no ||yes, near Morsang ||no ||no|
|pip ||yes ||in part, at Chelles ||no ||a little at beginning|
|pig ||yes ||no ||no ||no|
|sta ||yes ||no ||no ||no|
|ven ||no ||yes ||no ||no|
We see that Mme Maigret appears relatively infrequently in the stories, and that the majority of them take place in the Chief Inspector's "normal" Parisian surroundings.
The story "Maigret's Christmas" is especially interesting, not only because Mme Maigret is present from start to finish, but also because it takes place in the "familial" setting of their apartment on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, and not in the Chief Inspector's office. This creates a feeling of intimacy, reinforced by being set in the Christmas season.
2. Simenon and Maigret at Christmas
The theme of Christmas is taken up several times by Simenon in his work. It's a time which has for him a particular resonance, recalling memories both bright and painful. If he remembers with a certain pleasure "the most extraordinary month, the most mysterious of the year" (in [I remember]), as he'd lived in his childhood, or such as he'd prepared for his own children, it's also the month of the orgies of "La Caque" in Liège (cf. [My friends' three murders]), the month of the murder of Mortier by the Compagnons of the Apocalypse in PHO, the month of the "more than turbulent New Year's parties" organized by Simenon at the height of his fame, and yet the month where solitude is the hardest to bear ("I won't speak of Christmas 1922. I know of nothing grimmer than to be alone in Paris… one night like that, brushing against people having a good time, seeing them through restaurant windows..." (in [A man like any other]). For Simenon, Christmas is in the end a period of melancholy. "The big flaw in what's called the holidays, is that they automatically recall all the holidays of the same type that you've ever known... including those you don't want to remember." (in [Beyond my French windows])
It's also something of this sentiment of melancholy that grips Maigret in the story. For the Chief Inspector too, Christmas evokes nostalgia for his childhood, reinforced by the snow. But at the same time it's a difficult period for the Maigrets, an "old couple… with no one to spoil."
3. Simenon and Maigret in the snow
The writer and his character share the same feeling about snow, that of a child filled with wonder by the magic of the white flakes.
"Who has seen the first flakes? … You have to look hard to distinguish the minuscule bits of snow falling slowly from the sky. And that's enough to give us the fever. … It's sticking! The snow is sticking, at least between the cobblestones!" (in [I remember])
"Each year… I still keep watch with the same joy for the first snow, which has always held for me something magical." (in [The price of a man])
"You… almost have to stick out your tongue to trap one of these tiny bits of ice which float in the air, whose lack of taste you still remember." noe
"The snow gave him pleasure also, because it reminded him of his childhood." PIC
"The snow was falling heavily enough and started to stick to the rooftops, though not in the streets, unfortunately. Maigret was always disappointed to see the snow melt on the sidewalk. " PAR
4. The "nostalgia for paternity" (VIE)
"I've often been asked why Maigret has no children, since he wishes he had. It's his great regret. Well, it's because when I started the Maigrets I must have written at least 30 before having a child of my own my first wife didn't want children. She made me promise that we wouldn't, before we were married. Which was very painful for me, because I adore children... like Maigret. I was incapable of showing Maigret returning home to one or two kids. What would he say, how would he react to their cries, how would he give them a bottle at night if Mme Maigret wasn't feeling well? I didn't know. As a result, I had to create a couple who couldn't have a child." (Extract from Francis Lacassin's interview of Simenon in 1975).
And so the Maigrets had no children, to their great regret, emphasized by the season of Christmas – the children's holiday by definition. We can probably understand from reading MEM and BAN ("The Chief Inspector had to repeat aloud that he'd had a baby daughter who hadn't lived"), that Mme Maigret had probably had a still birth, or at any rate, an infant who'd died soon after birth.
It's also a great sorrow for the Chief Inspector, "who would so much have wanted a son" (MEU), which no doubt explains his particularly indulgent attitude towards young delinquents, like, for example, Paulus (MEU), Antoine (COR), or Lecoeur (BAN). And why he "compensates" by calling his inspectors "my children"... they're a little like his "spiritual sons", particularly young Lapointe.
That's why this Christmas story is so touching, because this young motherless girl whose father is unable to care for her, arrives in the Maigret home a little like a "gift from heaven", a "Christmas present". And the child will actually stay with the Maigrets for some time, because even if there's no mention in any of the other investigations in the corpus, Simenon has nonetheless taken care to clarify her time in the life of the Maigrets, for in the novel following noe (written in May, 1950), that is, MEM (written in September of the same year), Maigret explains, "We had with us a young girl, whose mother I'd sent to prison for life, but we knew that her father would come for her once he'd become a normal man again. She still comes to see us. She's now a young lady, and my wife is proud to go around with her to the shops in the afternoon."
5. The intimacy of an apartment
The Maigrets' apartment, hardly mentioned in the Fayard series, little described in the Gallimard period, will take on more and more importance in the course of the Presses de la Cité work, where its furnishings will be more than once described in detail. If, most often, Maigret only stops at his apartment at meal times, or to sleep (several novels open during the night, with Maigret asleep next to his wife, awakened by the ringing of the phone, for example PAR, NAH and IND), he sometimes spends more time there, as when he has the flu (MOR, VIN), or when he's on vacation (AMU). The cases where he sets up a kind of "branch office", as in noe, are rarer, but he sometimes has visits there from "clients" he would usually see at the PJ... the killer in TUE, Pigoud in VIN, and Planchon in CLI.
In noe, the case is special in the sense that the Christmas season somehow "forces" the story to take place in the setting of his "muffled apartment". Outside the agitation of the PJ and the official milieu, events can take on a much more personal hue, with the accent on the family life of the Maigret couple. However, so that the story remains a "police story", an investigation, the link with the PJ will be by telephone, and Lucas's coming to the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir.
6. "A confused and moving dream"
At the beginning of the story, Maigret has just had a dream, which leaves him "very on edge", and makes him even more sensitive to the Christmas atmosphere. Maigret's dreams are relatively important in the corpus and always have a connection with the investigation at hand. They are the "mises en abyme, the telescoping mirrors of the story of the case; they recapitulate the particulars, but regrouping the elements… as of function of Maigret's interior life, his unconscious" (in Els Wouters, "[Maigret: I never deduce; Simenon's abductive method]).
These dreams, which grant us entry, in a way, into the thoughts of the Chief Inspector, bring him even closer and make him even more human, in what they reveal about his character. Here are some of Maigret's dreams, drawn from the corpus:
- in JEU, Maigret dreams that he's playing chess with Lognon, "who awaits, confidently, the opportunity to put Maigret into checkmate", as in reality Lognon was trying to find Louise's murderer before Maigret.
- in NEW, Maigret dreams of a red-headed giant with an enormous cigar, while in reality, Captain O'Brien was a red-head.
- in VIE, Maigret dreams that he's a little boy surrounded by old people... in reality he was trying to understand the bygone world which was that of Princess V.
- in TEM; the long dream where he explains to the judge about the house and life of the Lachaumes, as he would have liked to explain in reality.
- in PAR, a little the same sort of dream, where Maigret tries to explain the murder of Cuendet to the Prosecutor.
- in FOU, Maigret, immobilized in bed by a wound, dreams that he is a beached seal, immobilized at the edge of the sea.
7. Odds and ends
- "Later, in the drawer where Mme Maigret tossed odd pieces of paper that might be left lying around, Maigret would find an old envelope, on the back of which, mechanically, during the course of the day, he had summarized the events". A wink at the famous "yellow envelopes" on which Simenon prepared the frameworks of his novels….
- "They were going to the theater, the following evening." If Maigret more often takes his wife to the cinema, where he likes "popular" (LOG), if he likes to watch westerns on television, for once he'd like to make an exception and go to the theater. It's Christmas, after all!
- One distinctive thing about this story is how it is punctuated by time, with precise indications (at the beginning of Chapter 1: "he noticed that it was just 8:10"; in Chapter 5: "In Maigret's notes, we read: 10:38 – She talks."; end of Chapter 5: "When Maigret left, towards 1:15 in the morning…"), which is normal, considering that the action takes place on Christmas Day.
- One last remark: if you have the opportunity, I recommend the television episode of this story with Jean Richard. It's a very successful performance, and Annick Tanguy (Jean Richard's wife) is particularly moving in the role of Mme Maigret.