Maigret of the Month: La nuit du carrefour (Maigret at the Crossroads) - 1
The March Maigret of the Month, La nuit du carrefour, is another of the earliest Maigrets, from 1931. Guido de Croock has a section on La nuit du carrefour at his Maigret's journeys in France site, with a summary and maps of the area of the action. This novel was the source for the first Maigret film, made in 1932 by Jean Renoir, and starring his elder brother, Pierre Renoir, as Maigret.
Maigret of the Month: La nuit du carrefour (Maigret at the Crossroads) - 2
Most writers on Simenon seem to have concentrated on Maigret at the Crossroads as a film rather than a novel.
Jean Renoir bought the rights for 50,000 francs from Simenon, who was then living on the Ostrogoth at Ouistreham.
The film was marred by the director's failure to shoot some crucial scenes. In fact, the story was so difficult to follow that the producer offered Simenon another 50,000 francs to explain the plot on screen.
Simenon declined. (According to Assouline he said: "What kind of an asshole do you think I am?")
As for Maigret at the Crossroads as a novel, I have to say that I found it both very readable and ludicrous in terms of its plot. But the characterisation is superb, with some marvellous individual characters. The fussy M. Michonnet, the vulgar ex-boxer, M. Oscar, and most of all the enigmatic Else come to life on the page.
Motors"What fascinates me about this story is the motors.... Because when all's said and done, it's all a matter of motors...."
It certainly is. Cars are a leitmotiv in the novel.
The first crime in the book involves a murder victim in the driver's seat of a stolen car. Another car has been moved from its garage. Most of the action takes place at a busy crossroads, where one of the premises is a garage with five petrol pumps, which shine "milkily" at night. Instead of taking a train to the scene of the crime, Maigret forks out for a taxi. The gang's crimes involve spare tyres and lorries going to and returning from the vegetable market in Paris. Carl Andersen is abducted in his car and it ends up near the Belgian frontier. Mme Goldberg arrives at Arpajon in a car and is instantly shot. A car drives by the garage and riddles it with bullets. It is pursued by a taxi holding three policemen. The gang are taken away in a Black Maria.
In almost every chapter Simenon describes cars and lorries passing, their headlights and rear lights, the noise they make, the different types of vehicle.
It is noticeable that the only time the traffic disappears, as it were, is when Maigret is in the house of the Three Widows, being distracted by the eroticism of Else. It is as if this claustrophobic house belongs to a different world.
It is also interesting that in the marvellous opening chapter, showing the seventeen hours of Carl Andersen's interrogation passing in the Palais de Justice, that there are only a couple of mentions of buses and trams, and none of cars. It is as if the city is quiet while the country is made clamorous by passing traffic.
It is interesting to speculate on Simenon's motives in creating and focusing on the imagery of "motors", as they are almost always referred to in Robert Baldick's translation. Was he being determinedly modern, showing a world where peasants still rose early to milk cows and harvest crops, but which was increasingly becoming car-orientated, a social historian showing a changing world?
More on La Nuit du Carrefour
Maigret of the Month: La nuit du carrefour (Maigret at the Crossroads) - 3
The map, which is a section across part of the Essonne and Seine-et-Marne departments of France, shows various places well known to Simenon, particularly during 1930 and 1931. The section, about 30 kilometres (c19 miles) across, stretches from Arpajon (in the north west) to Morsang-sur-Loire, St.Fargeau-Ponthierry, Seine-Port and Nandy (in the north east), with Guigneville-sur-Essonne, La Ferté-Alais and Itteville (in the centre south). Also running through this section are the rivers Essonne and Loire, which Simenon knew very well, as between May 1930 and July 1931 he was living on his boat, the Ostrogoth, in this area, with periodic visits to Beuzec-Conq, near Concarneau (Finistère), and Paris.
It was a transitional period in his career as a writer, completing his contracts for his fiction under pseudonyms, and launching into the work that he was striving to write.
In the district of Nandy at Le Four à Choux, near Morsang, he wrote four novels during the spring and summer of 1930, including the first Maigret to be written and later published under his own name, Pietr-le-Letton (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett / Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett).
And it was during the night of the 20th and the 21st of February 1931 that Simenon, with his publisher Fayard, launched two of the Maigret novels (M. Gallet, décédé and Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien) at the Boule-Blanche nightclub in the Rue Vavin, in Montparnasse, in Paris, an event which created quite a stir in the press as well as in publishing circles. From then on he was published under his own name.
Returning from Paris in March 1931, he stayed at Guigneville-sur-Essonne where he produced two more Maigret novels and a lengthy short story. Following on from this, in May, he travelled the short distance back to Morsang. Once again his output included two more Maigret novels and three lengthy short stories.
All of these works, whether novels or short stories, were of the same genre, a mystery to be investigated by a police detective or a private individual. As Simenon has said, he did not feel ready at that time to attempt to write the "romans durs", as he called what was to be later labelled the "psychological novels" or "novels of destiny". In spite of his ability and skills, it must have been difficult for him to switch from the pulp fiction, with its stock characters, which he had been writing since 1924, to different ideas of characterisation and plot structure. But it can be seen in the early Maigret novels the direction in which he was going.
Simenon must have enjoyed working in this region of France and it provided him with some of the settings for his writing, which included La Nuit du Carrefour.
The location of the crossroads in this novel has been identified as the intersection where the secondary road, the D26, crosses the main N20, which passes through Arpajon (Seine-et-Oise now Essonne) to Étampes, Orléans and beyond. A short distance from the crossroads, eastwards, along the D26 is the village of Avrainville.
Simenon wrote this Maigret novel in April 1931 whilst he was staying in Guigneville-sur-Essonne, less than ten miles away from its setting, which the author establishes in a few succinct sentences in the first chapter:
'A crossroads. A garage and its five petrol-pumps, painted red. On the left the road to Avrainville, marked by a signpost.
All around, fields as far as the eye could see.
… There were only three houses. First the garage proprietor's, in plaster tiles, run up in a speculative fever. A big sports model, with aluminium coachwork, was being filled up. Some mechanics were repairing a butcher's van.
Facing the garage, a villa in millstone grit, with a narrow garden, surrounded by railings six feet high. A brass plate: Émile Michonnet. Insurance Agent.
The other house was at least two hundred yards away. The wall surrounding the park allowed only a glimpse of the first floor, a slate roof, and a few imposing trees.' (In the translation by Robert Baldick: Penguin paperback 2028, 1963, pages 15/16, which is close to the author's French text. There is an earlier translation by Anthony Abbot published by Covici, Friede in the USA and by Hurst and Blackett in the UK, both in 1933, but this is wayward and somewhat pretentious).
Within this setting Simenon places three very different sets of characters, Oscar, the garage owner, a former boxer, amiable, confident and relaxed, with his wife Germaine and a few mechanics. Then Émile Michonnet, the fussy, complaining insurance agent and his wife, and finally the placid Dane Carl Andersen, from an aristocratic family, and Else Andersen. It is the enigmatic Else who becomes the centre of attention, and who plays a psychological game with Maigret.
Just three groups of people from very different backgrounds living near each other along a main route at an isolated crossroad in the midst of large tracts of rural France. And it is around these that Simenon weaves his convoluted plot, with Maigret moving from one individual to the next.
Not only does Simenon demonstrate his outstanding gift and skill as a storyteller, but having entitled this novel La Nuit du Carrefour The Night at the Crossroads he instils into the reader's mind the atmosphere of tension and fear created by his use of light and dark throughout.
Having arrived at the crossroads on a grey April afternoon, Maigret first encounters Else in her home, the largest of the three houses set in its own park, in the twilight. The tension builds, as there is very little light to illuminate the interior of the rambling house.
In the ensuing darkness of the evening, the only lights at the crossroads come from the illuminated petrol pumps and the workshop, an occasional passing vehicle, but little else. It is Sergeant Lucas who expresses not only his theories, but also his fearful concerns of the location, while a gruff Maigret remains with his instinct. Later that evening, a visitor to Avrainville is shot emerging from a car, with Maigret trying to pursue the perpetrator across a field in the glare of the car's headlights.
Even the bright spring sunshine of the following day does little to alleviate the atmosphere. But once again the darkness of the following evening and night, punctuated by significant light, witnesses the final drama played out in each of the three establishments near the crossroads.
The film "La Nuit du Carrefour" by Jean Renoir
I saw this film last summer in a restored print from the National Film Archive. It was intriguing to see it, as I have come across quite a few references to it from various sources. The film has attracted attention for some time, as it is the first screen adaptation of a work by Georges Simenon, because of its director Jean Renoir and the first portrayal of Maigret on the screen.
Jean Renoir and Georges Simenon, together, worked on the screenplay. A suitable location was found, corresponding to the author's crossroad setting in the novel, north of Paris, near Bouffémont, which had the same bleak, isolated look to it, with the interiors being set up and filmed at the Billancourt studios just west of Paris.
The film was shot in the first three months of 1932, so that the exterior scenes at the crossroads capture the dismal atmosphere of the late winter that conjures up Simenon's prose. Renoir not only uses the physical elements to create the overall feel throughout the film, but also instils a feeling of anticipation and tension in various ways. At the garage, at times, there is almost a lackadaisical air amongst Monsieur Oscar and his mechanics, which contrasts to the eroticism of Else Andersen in the charged atmosphere of the old house in which she lives and where Maigret questions her.
Maigret is played by Pierre Renoir, the elder brother of Jean, and he brings to the role many of the qualities of the policeman that Simenon created in these early novels. Moving around the few, but varied, individuals, none of who originate from the area, Maigret attempts to get to know them, gradually recognising the veneer and play-acting that he encounters. Under Renoir's direction the film becomes less of a murder mystery than his own idea of a group of people whose lives are changed by accident, association or design, similar to the nature of Simenon's mature work.
First released in April 1932, a year after the novel on which it was based was written, the film attracted criticism as some of the plot sequences were missing. At first this was put down to reels of film being lost, or to Jean Renoir being distracted by personal problems, but it was most likely a lack of finance. By knowing the content and plot of the novel, any viewer shouldn't be puzzled by any lack of continuity within the film.
It is certainly an interesting film to see if the opportunity comes along.
at Guido deCroock's Maigret's Journeys in France