Maigret of the Month: Le Port des Brumes (Death of a Harbourmaster)
Most of this Maigret novel is located in and around Ouistreham (département of Calvados) in Normandy, with a visit, later, to the town of Caen fifteen kilometres to the south west.
Simenon was in Ouistreham during the latter part of August, then for September and October 1931 during the final part of his two and a half year journey on board his boat the "Ostrogoth". Early in November of the same year he took it to Caen where he sold it.
During his stay in Ouistreham he wrote two Maigret novels, At the Gai-Moulin (La Danseuse du Gai-Moulin) and The Guinguette by the Seine (La Guinguette à deux sous), but Le Port des Brumes was written three months later in February 1932, the last of four more Maigret novels, whilst he was living in his rented villa "Les Roches Grises" at Cap-d'Antibes (Alpes-Maritimes) on the French Riviera.
His reminiscence of his stay in Ouistreham is evoked near the beginning of Chapter IV of the novel (Le Port de Brumes, Paris, Arthème Fayard & Cie., Éditeurs, Mai 1932, page 68):
'Ouistreham, c'était un village quelconque, au bout d'un morceau de route plantée de petits arbres. Ce qui comptait seulement, c'était le port: un écluse, un phare, la maison de Joris, la Buvette de la Marine.
Et le rythme de ce port, les deux marées quotidiennes, les pêcheurs passant avec leurs paniers, la poignée d'hommes ne s'occupant que du va-et-vient des bateaux....'
Ouistreham was a very ordinary village, at the end of a bit of road lined with small trees. The only thing that counted was the harbour: a lock, a lighthouse, Joris's house, the Buvette de la Marine .
And the rhythm of this harbour, the two daily tides, the fishermen going past with their baskets, the handful of men only occupying themselves with the comings and goings of the boats... (translation by Peter Foord).
A recent map showing Ouistreham (Calvados) in Normandy in relation to Caen, with the canal running parallel to the river Orne. (303, Calvados, Manche, Michelin et Cie., Mai 2004). (click to enlarge)
And as a 1920s guidebook put it... 'An old seaport at the mouth of the canal.'
This canal, the construction of which was completed in 1850, made it possible for ships to reach Caen, where it ends. It runs parallel to the river Orne that frequently silts, especially as it nears the coast.
When a middle-aged man, possibly suffering from amnesia, is found wandering about central Paris, the police take charge of him and Maigret becomes involved. The unknown man is finally identified, with the result that Maigret officially accompanies him back to his home in Ouistreham. Within a short time of arriving, Maigret is plunged into the atmosphere of the canal and in wandering about almost loses himself in the fog that envelops the whole area, which gives the novel its French title.
Gradually finding his way around, Maigret becomes only too aware that the people with whom he has to deal constitutes a marine community very much closed in on itself with a well established strata from ship owner and mayor to deck hand. Unable to cover all aspects of his enquiries, Maigret sends for his colleague Sergeant Lucas who together endeavour to unravel and understand the complex relationships within the community, made all the more difficult by a wall of silence that seems to be in place. The web of intrigue seems to involve the same few people that finally Maigret discerns emanates from a long-standing family feud.
Writing this novel in early 1932, Simenon describes the area around Ouistreham, the canal with its functions, and the beach, as it must have been, probably with little change, since the canal was constructed. But scarcely thirteen years after Simenon stayed there, the events of the Second World War were to change the area. The huge stretch of coast from Ouistreham (Calvados) westwards to Les Dunes de Varreville (Manche) on the Cotentin Peninsula was the location chosen for the D-Day landings made by the Allied Forces on the 6th of June 1944. Many maps since indicate the wartime code names given to the Beaches Sword (Ouistreham), Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah.
A recent and more detailed map showing the canal from the English Channel adjacent to Ouistreham and beyond towards Caen. Also to be seen is the lock with its bridges, lighthouse, and the harbour, which are similar to those that Simenon describes in the novel. (1612 OT, Caen, Ouistreham, Institut Geographique National, 2000). (click to enlarge)
To date there is only one English translation, that by Stuart Gilbert. As with some of the earliest translations of Simenon's work, it is much freer in comparison to the author's original French text. Some of the English expressions and phrases used are somewhat quaint and dated.
Peter Foord, UK