The Sounds of Maigret
by Murielle Wenger
"...to get back into the atmosphere of the street, to hunt about in corners, to go into local bistros and listen to people..." (Maigret et l'inspecteur Malgracieux [mal])
After the world of colors and that of odors, the time has come to study Maigret's relationship to sounds. While we recognize that he works primarily with his vision, and that he permeates himself with the atmosphere of odors, the world of sounds has its share of importance as well.
Sounds play a dual role in the text. On the one hand, they're used by the author to elaborate a setting, to show the subtleties. Particular sounds of the street, familiar echoes of home...
But Maigret also utilizes sounds as part of his detective work it's often someone's tone of voice that reveals to him their state of mind, that refines his perception of their feelings. And it's also the sounds that may have been heard at the scene of a crime, by witnesses interviewed during the course of an investigation... the sound of a departing car, shots fired, a door opening or closing, a falling body, or the sound of footsteps... Sounds are also a sign, the acoustic symbol of an object, whose nature is thus clarified. And further, hearing is the sense Maigret uses to supplement the others when they can't be called on, as the sound of an object that must be guessed at because of the darkness of night, or something outside, heard through a window, or sounds heard from behind closed doors.
Sounds are used by Maigret as tools in his understanding of the world around him, in search of truths which might otherwise elude him...
Let's enter into the world of Maigret's sounds, and try to find the ways his author uses to describe them, how he animates this world and makes it come alive.
- An effective sound-track
When Maigret goes to a place, the visual scene set by the author is complemented auditorily. Simenon knows well how to bring a setting alive with an auditory description, often as clearly as by a visual one. And when we speak of the famous "Simenon atmosphere", no doubt we are not simply thinking of the scenery, but also adding a full symphony, a sort of "sound-track", something scenario writers attempting cinema or television adaptations must find very useful.
Thus, at the time of the "first appearance" of Maigret at the beginning of the corpus (Pietr le Letton [LET]), when he goes to the Gare du Nord to await the arrival of Pietr, Simenon describes the station platforms in the storm, and then the arrival of the train... "The yellow speck of the train's headlamp appeared in the distance. Then came the usual hubbub, with porters shouting and passengers tramping and jostling their way towards the station exit."
Here, a morning in Sancerre (Monsieur Gallet, décédé [GAL])... "In all the greenery outside the window there was a confused murmuring made up of birdsong, rustling leaves, the buzzing of flies and the distant clucking of chickens on the lane, all of it punctuated by the rhythmic blows of the hammer on the anvil in the forge."
Here, in Le pendu de Saint-Pholien [PHO], a "morning concert of Liège": "For that morning the air was like a tonic that grew more bracing as the sun rose higher into the sky. A delightful cacophony reigned, of people shouting in a Walloon dialect, the shrill clanging of the red and yellow streetcars, and the splashing of the four jets in the monumental Perron Fountain doing its best to be heard over the hubbub of the surrounding Place du Marché." And, still in the same novel, the sound scene of a German brasserie, with "businessmen talking loudly over the tireless efforts of a Viennese orchestra and the clinking of beer mugs." And, in La tête d'un homme [TET], at the Coupole... "Four waiters were all shouting at once, accompanied by the clatter of plates and tinkling of glasses. Snatches of different languages broke in on all sides."
In Le chien jaune [JAU], here is the soundscape of the evening after the attack on Mostaguen, while silence reigns in the hotel, and Maigret smokes placidly, watching Emma and Dr. Michoux... "The clock in the Old Town sounded the hours and the half-hours. On the pavement, the shuffling footsteps and talking died away. Then there was nothing but the monotonous moan of the wind and the sound of the rain beating on the windows."
In La nuit du carrefour [NUI], early morning after an long interrogation at the PJ... "Footsteps sounded in the corridors. Telephones ringing. Voices calling. Doors banging. The charwomen's brooms."
The novel L'affaire Saint-Fiacre [FIA] opens with these words, which plunge the reader directly into the hushed atmosphere in which Maigret will operate during this investigation which he conducts in search of his childhood memories... "A timid scratching at the door; the sound of an object being put on the floor; a furtive voice."
In Le fou de Bergerac [FOU], Maigret, in bed, listens through the window to "the sounds which made the start of a day's activity doors opening and shutting, the early traffic in the street, the footfalls on the pavements sounds which would steadily increase in volume to their midday climax."
In L'écluse no 1 [ECL], it's the entire landscape which comes alive with sound... "The pavement was a welter of heat, light, noise, colored dust, and bustle. The No. 13 car stopped and moved off again. The bell of the café on the right rang out, while the pebbles rattled down the chute of the stone-crusher, and a small tug with a blue triangle screeched with rage behind the lock-gate which had closed in front of its very nose."
In Maigret se fâche [FAC], here is a morning at Orsenne... "The wide open window had long since let in the noises from outside, the clucking of hens as they scratched about in the poultry-yard dunghill, the clank of a dog's chain, the persistent hooting of tugs and that, more muted, of motorized barges."
In Le voleur de Maigret [VOL], with one sentence the author puts us into the auditory ambiance of a restaurant... "This whole conversation had been accompanied by the sound of glasses, knives and forks, the buzz of voices, the bustle of the waiters and the high-pitched tinkle of the cash register bell."
These sounds heard by Maigret are often the way to supplement a scene which he cannot see, but which he reconstructs "by ear". Thus, in Pietr le Letton [LET], when the Chief Inspector visits Mme Swaan, it's the whole life of the family revealed completely by sounds, and which is thus made more meaningful – and more moving - than an ordinary description... "Maigret heard noises coming from the first floor. A baby could be heard crying through one of the ground-floor walls; someone else was mumbling something in a soft and even voice, as if to comfort it."
In Le charretier de la Providence [PRO], here is the night that Maigret spent at the Dizy lock... "He had had a disturbed sleep, full of the stamping of horses, vague shouts, footsteps on the stairs, clinking glasses down below."
In L'affaire Saint-Fiacre [FIA], he listens to the sounds of the house in the early morning, and immediately the scene is set... "Now, while he was getting dressed, he could hear Marie Tatin coming and going in the main room of the inn, rattling the grate of the stove, moving crockery about, and turning the handle of the coffee-mill."
The novel Les caves du Majestic [MAJ] opens with a sound suite... "A car door slamming. The first thing he heard each day. The engine ticking over outside... Then the taxi drove off. Footsteps. The sound of the key in the lock and the click of the electric light switch. A match being struck in the kitchen and the slow 'pfffttt' as the gas came alight." In the same novel, here is a carnival scene at Cannes... "And from outside, from far and near, on all sides, came echoes of the brass bands, and a stale whiff of mimosa, dust kicked up by the feet of the crowd, shouts and the honking of horns..."
In Cécile est morte [CEC], here is the scene where Maigret questions the concierge, set against a sonorous background... "The cat, a tom, was stretched out in front of the stove, purring... From somewhere came the sound of rain dripping into a zinc bucket, and, every few seconds, the roar of a car speeding along the highway, or the screeching of streetcar brakes.." A little further along, in the same novel, here is Dandurand's arrival... "The soft swish of an umbrella being closed was followed by the careful scraping of shoes on a mat... A dry cough. Slow, measured footsteps."
In Maigret voyage [VOY], during Maigret's insomnia at Nice, the sounds described evoke well the idle and restless nights of the French Riviera... "Cars stopped and started up again, performing complicated maneuvers. Car doors slammed. Voices sounded so distinct that he felt like an eavesdropper, and there were still some noisy buses bringing batches of gamblers and taking others away, while the music went on playing on the terrace of the Café de Paris across the street. When, by some miracle a brief silence fell, he could hear in the background, like the sound of a flute in an orchestra, the faint anachronistic noise of a carriage."
In Maigret se défend [DEF], the scene at the end of the novel, of waiting for the arrival of Dr. Mélan, who'd been called by Mlle Motte, is rendered in a few short sentences, describing only sounds heard, thus acquiring more dramatic weight... "A car stopped... A slight grating of brakes... Steps on the pavement, then a distant muffled ring. The door shutting in the gateway. Steps on the rugged cobbles in the courtyard, the glass door opening, the stairs..."
In L'Etoile du Nord [eto], Céline's interrogation unfolds in a sonorous scene... "The various noises of Police Headquarters could be heard vaguely, phones ringing in neighboring rooms, footsteps down the long corridor, and in the background the hooting of cars on the bridge nearby."
And we find that to denote his sounds, the author uses a simple vocabulary, without metaphor, and a short, almost constant range of synonyms. For example, to designate a noisy scene, he uses the same words... 'hubbub', 'racket', and 'din', with a predilection for 'hubbub'... and sometimes also 'rustling', 'crackling', 'scratching', 'grating'.
But if the vocabulary is concrete, the effect, through the arrangement of his words, is no less effective. Here, for example, are some examples of the noises of Paris he hears through the windows of his office and his apartment... "the confused murmur of Paris" (La tête d'un homme [TET]), "the thousand familiar sounds of the street" (La guinguette à deux sous [GUI]), "the windows were wide open and the hubbub of Paris vibrated in the office" (Maigret et la Grande Perche [GRA]), "He heard, outside, Paris awakening little by little, isolated sounds, more or less distant, spaced out at first, then finishing by forming a sort of familiar symphony." (Maigret et la jeune morte [JEU]), "the rustling of Paris which had just taken on its unique sound of hot summer days" (La colère de Maigret [COL]); and this sentence describing a morning at Aiguillon (La maison du juge [JUG])... "The hubbub of life filled the room, a tumult of a thousand sounds coming from everywhere.". And further, to describe the ambiance of a lock... "everyone working at the same time in the din of cranks and rusty bubbling water" (Le charretier de la Providence [PRO]).
- Cries, tears, murmurs and laughter... the sound sets the tone
Expressing the cries we hear, the tears or murmurs, allows the author to set the tone of a situation, to refine a particular atmosphere in the same way as noting the sounds of the environment in which his character operates allows him to detail an image, to set a scene.
One way to evoke the hubbub of a place is to mention all the sounds which can emerge from the human mouth... not only the cries, but the laughter, tears, whispers, murmurs, or shrieks... Here, for example, in Pietr le Letton [LET], in the Majestic lobby... "excitable society ladies scattered trails of perfume, tinkling laughter and loud whispers amidst the unctuous compliments of impeccable flunkeys.", and, in the same novel, at the beginning of a theatrical performance... "The curtain rose on a sunlit garden. Shushes, murmurs, footsteps. Finally the actor's voice could be heard, wobbly at first but then more confident, creating an atmosphere. Latecomers were still taking their seats. More shushing. Somewhere a woman giggled."
Maigret is very attentive to the tones of voice of others, which gives clues about their feelings and moods, and about how they react to their contact with the Chief Inspector. Thus the "soft, even voice" of Mme Swaan (Pietr le Letton [LET]); Radek's "grating laugh" (La tête d'un homme [TET]), the "drawling, hoarse, vulgar, but self-confident" voice of the garage owner Oscar (La nuit du carrefour [NUI]), the "low, beautiful voice, deep and warm, made even sweeter by a slight Flemish accent" of Mme Peeters (Chez les Flamands [FLA]), Judge Forlacroix's "dull little voice" (La maison du juge [JUG]), the "dry, cold, intentionally impersonal" voice of Judge Coméliau (Maigret et son mort [MOR]), M. Pykeʻs "precise voice" (Mon ami Maigret [AMI]), the "soft, somewhat muted voice" of Steuvels (L'amie de Madame Maigret [MME]), Arletteʻs "tired" voice, "the voice she had early every morning, from too much smoking and drinking" (Maigret au Picratt's [PIC]), the "funny voice, both childlike and happy" of Mlle Clément (Maigret en meublé [MEU]), the "young, happy, cordial voice" of Jimmy MacDonald (Maigret, Lognon et les gangsters [LOG]), Roger Prouʻs voice, "with its drawling, aggressive tone" (Maigret et le client du samedi [CLI]), Jacqueline Rousseletʻs voice "with its low, very pleasant intonation" (Maigret et le clochard [CLO])...
But also high and low voices, muffled voices, piercing or muted, voices resonant with anger, voices hoarse with emotion, the thick voices of people awakened from sleep, conversations out loud, in a low voice or in an undertone, and then the sobs, groans, sighs, grunts, howls; and then the accents, which place someone in his milieu, in his origins... thus the "singing" accent of the Brussels sailor in Le charretier de la Providence [PRO], or Mme Kirby who "talked without stopping, mixing English and French with an inimitable accent and a high-pitched voice by which you could have picked her out anywhere" (La tête d'un homme [TET]), or the "sonorous Toulouse accent" of Inspector Méjat, who "was insensitive to subtlety" (La maison du juge [JUG]), Nouchiʻs "voice spiced with a slight accent" (Cécile est morte [CEC]), "the Vaud drawl" of Justine and Honoré Cuendet (Maigret et le voleur paresseux [PAR]), the "pronounced Flemish accent" of Jef Van Houtte (Maigret et le clochard [CLO]), the "spicy" accent of the Amsterdam switchboard operator (Maigret et l'affaire Nahour [NAH]).
Among the sounds produced by human beings, there is one which appears frequently in the corpus, that of footsteps. Footsteps on the stairs, footsteps in hallways, on the sidewalk, the heavy steps of the massive Chief Inspector, steps which crunch the gravel of lanes or the sand of beaches, muted steps heard sliding behind doors, comings and goings, the stamping of a crowd, evidence of human presence, of agitation, of life…
Here, in Pietr le Letton [LET], a mini-portrait of a traveler waiting in a station... "A young woman clad in mink, yet wearing only sheer silk stockings walked up and down stamping her heels." In La tête d'un homme [TET], while Maigret was following Heurtinʻs escape... "The sentryʻs steps still tapped out the passage of time.", and, in the same novel, during the final scene, Radekʻs execution... "At last the sound of a van drawing up, the slam of a door, the tread of heavy boots, some orders given in an undertone." In Le chien jaune [JAU], the evening after the disappearance of Servières... "That evening, it was deserted, dead silent. It was as if all the strollers had passed the word. In less than a quarter of an hour, the streets had emptied out and when footsteps sounded, they were the anxious steps of someone seeking the shelter of home."
In La nuit du carrefour [NUI], after the attack on Mme Goldberg... "The shot had come from the field, on the right of the road. As he ran along the chief Inspector drew his revolver from his pocket. He could hear something, a soft thud of footsteps in the clay." In Un crime en Hollande [HOL], the sound of footsteps gives emphasis to Maigretʻs "pursuit" of Cornelius... "The fact remains that their footsteps on the cinder path were exactly in step with each other, so well that the sounds couldnʻt be separated... When the boy quickened his pace, he quickened his too... At first the stride had been long and regular. Little by little the steps had shortened and quickened... On again. But the steps were more irregular. Sometimes one foot seemed to hesitate in the air. At other moments two or three steps so rapidly that it looked as though he was going to break into a run." In L'affaire Saint-Fiacre [FIA], here is the arrival of the Countess at the Mass... "The sound of a car outside. The creak of a door. Some light footsteps, and a lady in mourning walking the whole length of the church." In Le port des brumes [POR], during the evening of the death of Captain Joris... "Each went homewards in his own direction. Across the baying of the foghorn footsteps rang, receding. For a while Maigret stood listening to the footfalls scattering in all directions: heavy steps, sometimes slowing down abruptly, sometimes flurried…".
- The mooing of cows and stamping of horses
We also encounter in the corpus, though rather rarely, mentions of sounds produced by animals. We find birds chirping in the leaves of trees, horses stamping and neighing on canal barges or harnessed for funerals, herds of cows mooing in the countryside, and here and there, a few geese, donkeys, frogs croaking, flies buzzing, dogs barking and cats purring...
Some examples... "Seagulls screeched overhead, and every now and again he could make out a white wing flapping against the black sky." (Pietr le Letton [LET]); "It was morning. It was sunny and the air was vibrant with the singing of invisible birds." (La nuit du carrefour [NUI]); "The horse, which was not used to funeral ceremonies, neighed every minute, and they echoed in the vaults like a joyous appeal to life..." (Cécile est morte [CEC]); "The window was wide open on the deep, velvety blue of a night peppered with stars. Unseen, the crickets chirped to one another, and the frogs croaked in concert." (Félicie est là [FEL]).
- The din of vehicles
Among the characteristic noises of Maigret's investigations are those produced by vehicles the buses of Paris, barges and tugs on the Seine or the canals in the heart of France, trains with their whistles, and all the cars with their horns, screeching brakes, rumbling engines, doors slamming filling the scenes of his cases.
In La nuit du carrefour [NUI], this "automobile story", the noise of traffic is a continuous background in the novel. "And, from time to time, a light hum pierced the silence, intensified, a car swept by on the road, and the sound of the engine died down."
Here, a little train at Ouistreham (Le port des brumes [POR]), which "announced itself in the distance, stopping in front of the port with a din of hissing steam and brakes.", and the train yard at Juvisy (Maigret et l'homme du banc [BAN]), where "twenty locomotives belched out their steam, hissed, panted. The carriages clattered."
And the boats... hoists creaking, engines coughing, puffing and throbbing, whistles from the tugs, whose passage under the Pont Saint-Michel punctuated Maigret's days in his office.
And the "ringing racket" of the streetcars (La tête d'un homme [TET]), the sirens of fire engines, police, and ambulances, "the din of old metal" of the trucks (La nuit du carrefour [NUI]), "taxis honking and buses surging, making their breaks scream at each stop" (Maigret au Picratt's [PIC]).
- The melody of the elements
Sometimes sounds come from things other than objects... this is the case for the sounds of water in general, and especially that of the sea, but also those sounds provoked by meteorological events... rain pattering on windows and sidewalks, wind, gentle breezes or the din of a storm, peals of thunder...
Mentions of maritime sounds are numerous in the corpus, above all in the earlier years, when Maigret's cases often took him outside of Paris. Here, some examples... "You could hear the sea tumbling the pebbles along the jetty." (Fécamp, Pietr le Letton [LET]); "Ahead, the sea, a pale green fringed with white, and the regular murmur of the ripples on the shore.", "Above all, the regular rustling, wave after wave, shifting the pebbles." (again Fécamp, Au rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas [REN]); "The white fringe of the shore tumbling with the rhythm of breathing, with the sound of grinding shells." (Ouistreham, Le port des brumes [POR]).
Here, mentions of the rivers... "Outside, the wind, the sound of the swollen flow of the Meuse, the clashes of boats moored side by side." (Givet, Chez les Flamands [FLA]); "You could hear the crisp lapping of the Seine nearby" (Paris, Maigret et son mort [MOR]).
And some meteorological examples... "You could hear the rain drumming on the roof, tumbling through the gutters." (Mon ami Maigret [AMI]): "During the ten or twelve hours the interrogation had lasted, you'd heard the rain beating against the windows, and the gurgle of the water in the gutter." (L'amie de Madame Maigret [MME]); "You could hear the rustle of the breeze in the tall trees of the Bois de Boulogne." (Maigret et la Grande Perche [GRA]); "Two brief, rending claps of thunder had rung out, and at last the clouds had emptied themselves, not in rain but in hail... while white bullets rebounded on the paving-stones like ping-pong balls." (Maigret a peur [PEU]).
- All in music
Another sound which furnishes the scenes of the novels is that of music. It may be from an instrument (as the violin of Belloir's son in Le pendu de Saint-Pholien [PHO], or Anna's piano in Chez les Flamands [FLA]), or, often, from radios, which can be heard through apartment doors or open windows. Sometimes, it's the music coming from the ballroom of a grand hotel, or escaping through the door of a Pigalle cabaret ("A raised red curtain and an outburst of tango." in Pietr le Letton [LET]). Or it's a phonograph playing on the terrace of an inn at the edge of the water, accompanying couples whirling to the sound of the music. Or it may be the organs accompanying the masses in churches...
Here, several examples where music is mentioned...
"You couldn't actually hear the music. You sensed it. Above all you perceived the beat of the bass drum's rhythm scattered in the air, evoking the room with the scarlet booths, the clinking glasses, the woman in pink dancing with her tuxedo-clad companion." (La danseuse du Gai-Moulin [GAI])
"Organ music broke forth, the precentor's bass, the deacon's falsetto." (L'ombre chinoise [OMB])
"A sound of muffled music. Somewhere in the basement, an orchestra languidly stretched out a tango." (Les caves du Majestic [MAJ])
"The piano, above their heads, still released the notes and chords of Chopin, harmonizing beautifully with the atmosphere of this great bourgeois house, where life should have been so sweet." (La maison du juge [JUG])
"Someone had brought out a phonograph onto the terrace, and for a long while you heard soft and easy music, the crunch of gravel under the steps of the dancers." (Signé Picpus [SIG])
"From a corner of the distant street came the the sounds of an accordion, and a couple on the neighboring balcony were talking softly." (Le revolver de Maigret [REV])
"The Place du Tertre looked like a fairground, there were crowds round the little tables where people were drinking vin rosé; music blared from every corner, a man was eating fire, and another, amid all the clatter, was patiently playing some tune of 1900 on his violin." (Maigret tend un piège [TEN])
- The objects of everyday sound
Sometimes, the author makes his sound descriptions more precise by indicating the source, that is, the object which produces it. And so we find, throughout the corpus, familiar sounds coming from objects. The first sound we'll hear in the corpus will come from an element sui generis of the Maigret saga, since it concerns the "roaring" of the famous cast-iron stove found in the Chief Inspector's office. [LET]
The novels are scattered with other sounds found throughout the corpus... the squeaking of bed springs, the hissing of radios, the rustling of papers or silk clothing, the rustling of leaves, the clinking of coins, the hiss of gas stoves, the clash of billiard balls, the clicking of elevators and light switches, the lowing of fog horns, the crackle of logs in fireplaces, the creaking of willow chairs, the sounds of flushing, the snapping of handcuffs, the ticking of clocks, the ringing of alarm clocks, shrill whistles, and the tapping of typewriters, one of the more familiar sounds of the PJ, along with "footsteps and clinking glasses", which you hear behind the doors when the waiter from the Brasserie Dauphine brings beer and sandwiches to sustain the Chief Inspector and his collaborators.
And there are also staircases with creaking steps, and innumerable doors opening and shutting, which slam, which squeak, the keys turning in the locks, bolts thrown, and the knocks on doors, not to mentions the bells, like Cageot's (Maigret), with its "enormous braid cord, which only activated, inside the apartment, the sound of a child's toy", or that of the Andersen's (La nuit du carrefour [NUI]) , with "beautiful and low resonances of bronze", or that of Campois (Maigret se fâche [FAC]), which let forth "a pleasant chime, which made you think of the bell of a presbytery."
A special mention for the bells which tinkle in at the doorways of shops, the shrill bell of a bakery, "which reminded Maigret of his childhood" (L'inspecteur Cadavre [CAD]), that of the Peeters shop, whose sound provided a background accompaniment for the investigation Chez les Flamands [FLA], or that at Mélanie Chochoi's (Félicie est là [FEL]), made of metal tubes, and which "hit against each other, making a chime, emitting ethereal music". And we can add the bells of hotel rooms, hospitals, electric bells, like that which called the Chief Inspectors to "Report" at the PJ, as well as those of streetcar conductors, choirboys, and above all, the bells which evoke so many memories for Maigret, which can be the bells of clocks announcing the time, like that opening the novel La tête d'un homme [TET]: "Somewhere in the Santé prison a clock struck two. The condemned man was sitting on his bed. Two large, knotty hands gripped his knees."; or that in Sables-d'Olonne (Les vacances de Maigret [VAC]): "Before putting his foot on the threshold, he took out his watch, and looked at the time. It was exactly three o'clock and at that very moment two bells struck the hour, one with a thin, tinny note from the chapel inside, the other in a graver tone floating over the roofs from the church of Notre-Dame. ". But also church bells, in Paris or elsewhere, ringing for the mass or sounding the death knell of a funeral. "The bell of the church which announced discretely, with little, unpretentious rings, the seven o'clock low mass." (Le port des brumes [POR]).
It's the sound of bells which announces Sundays, as described in a very Proustian way at the beginning of Chapter 8 of Mon ami Maigret [AMI]: "One could distinctly hear the hammer striking the bronze, which gave out some sort of a note, but it was then that the phenomenon would begin: a first ring would carry into the pale and still cool sky, would extend hesitantly, like a smoke ring, becoming a perfect circle out of which other circles would form by magic, ever increasing, ever purer... the hammer struck the metal once more and other circles of sounds were born so as to reproduce themselves, then others, which one listened to in innocent amazement, as one watches a fireworks."
It's the sound of bells which punctuates the novel L'affaire Saint-Fiacre [FIA]: "The first bell for mass… The bells ringing out over the sleeping village… When he was a boy, Maigret did not usually get up so early… He would wait for the second bell, at a quarter to six, because in those days he did not need to shave…". We find the same theme in the short story Le témoignage de l'enfant de chœur, where the rhythm of time given by the bells plays an important role in the case... "The bells of the parish church rang first, at a quarter to six... Then a few minutes later came the shriller, more silvery sound of the hospital chapel bells, like those of a convent."
In Le pendu de Saint-Pholien [PHO], the scene in which Maigret goes into the café where he finds the ex "Companions of the Apocalypse", and where he studies their reactions, is rendered in a uniquely dramatic fashion by the description of the sounds of a clock... "Silence reigned. They waited even without any idea of what they were waiting for. They were waiting for something, and nothing was happening! With each passing minute, the hand on the clock quivered as the mechanism within creaked faintly. At first no one had paid any attention. Now the sound was incredibly loud and the event had even separated into three stages: an initial click; the minute hand beginning to move; then another click, as if to slide the hand into its new slot. And as an obtuse angle slowly became an acute angle, the clock face changed: the two hands would eventually meet."
In L'écluse no 1 [ECL], here is Maigret at his arrival at scene of the crime; once the scene is set up of the quay where the barges are moored, it's the sound description which completes it... "But the soul, or rather the heart, of the place was elsewhere, and its beats made the vary air pulsate. The heart was at the edge of the water, a high irregular building, a rickety iron tower, which by night could only be a gray blur, but which during the day spewed out noise from every metal sheet, girder, and pulley, as it crushed the stone which went clattering down onto the sieves, only to move on and end up finally in smoking heaps of dust."
We note that these "melodramatic" scenes, composed of lengthy descriptions, are primarily an aspect of the early part of the corpus. Relatively frequent in the novels of the Fayard period, they become rarer and rarer, especially in the second half of the Presses de la Cité period, when the author concentrates the action more and more on the psychological aspect of the investigation, focusing on the characters, and where the scene is more and more often reduced to brief mentions, familiar to the regular reader.
- Tobacco crackling, gun shots, and telephones ringing... the sounds of the métier
During the investigations which Maigret leads throughout the corpus, it is sounds which recur regularly, which are even an integral part of the investigations, and which cannot be skipped in this soundscape. We mention the sound of the tobacco crackling in the pipe of the Chief Inspector, the detonations of fire arms, and the ringing of the telephone.
I've already spoken elsewhere about the sounds of Maigret's pipe, so there is no need to repeat myself here.
Gunshots are naturally a part of the sounds of police investigations, but their mention in the corpus is less frequent than you might imagine. Which, upon reflection, is not too surprising, when we consider that the novels of the saga tend less towards dramatic police action than to a psychological examination of the characters encountered by Maigret…
The scene of the suicide of Hans Johannson (Pietr le Letton [LET]) is only experienced through the sounds heard, which gives it a rare dramatic intensity... "But Hans went on past him as stiff as a pike and sat on the bed, making its springs creak. There was still a drop left in the second bottle. Maigret took it, clinking its neck against the glass. He sipped it slowly. Or was he just pretending to drink? He was holding his breath. Then the bang. He gulped his drink down."
The ringing of a telephone is a sound recurring frequently in the corpus. It could be the phone ringing at Maigret's home in the middle of the night, calling him to the scene of a crime, or a telephone ringing in his office, when someone, witness, potential victim, or collaborator, calls to give him information. It's the sound which fills, along with the clicking of typewriters and the slamming of doors, the corridors of the PJ, as we have seen above.
As it's a fairly characteristic sound, the author does not seek any special connotations, satisfied to use some words, always the same, to describe it, faithful in that to his use of simple words, the "material words" identifiable by everyone.
We find a succinct formula, "ring of the telephone", sometimes used without a verb, sometimes with, of which the list is short... "jingle", "sound", "echo", "vibrate", and more rarely, "function".
- A policeman listening
If Maigret is sensitive to the sounds around him, it's because he uses them to lead his investigation. But he uses them in his own way, absorbing them, as he imbibes atmospheres. It's the "back side" of things, what the sounds say about the people he encounters and the places into which he immerses himself, which interest him. Which is why, in spite of his sharp hearing and receptivity, he can sometimes give the impression of not listening. Often, he seems not to be listening, while in fact he is taking it all in, immersing himself in an atmosphere. More than the words, it's the tone of voice to which he is sensitive, it's in their meaning that he's interested, and he only reacts to the sounds of a setting which pertain the world of the people who inhabit it...
That's why we can see him settling into a café and listening to the conversations around him, imbibing the atmosphere of a place to understand its essence. In that, he is probably a reflection of his creator, who, he too, knew how to impregnate himself with the places he frequented, to use them in his writings.
Here, for example, in Pietr le Letton [LET], Maigret in Fécamp, where "for two hours, he waited in a port café, listening to sailors discussing their herring catch which was in full swing.", and at Ouistreham (Le port des brumes [POR])... "A Maigret well-seated on a straw chair, pipe in his mouth, a glass of beer in his hand, listening to stories told around him by men in rubber boots and sailor's hats."
In Le pendu de Saint-Pholien [PHO], we revisit the scene, mentioned above, where Maigret has entered a café. Attentive to the people around him, he feels them literally alive... "Every once in a while, Maurice Belloir would swallow, and Maigret would know this without even looking. He could hear him live, breathe, wince, carefully shift his feet now and again"... In Le fou de Bergerac [FOU], it's the personality of the prosecutor Duhourceau who Maigret seeks to unravel with the words... "Certainly, the Chief Inspector was listening. But he would have been incapable of repeating anything of what was said to him. He was concentrating, actually, studying feature by feature, both physical and psychological..."
In Chez les Flamands FLA], while questioning the Peeters, he stays attentive to the sounds of the environment... "Maigret was thinking of other things... There was something overpowering about the atmosphere of this house... Not a sound escaped him a little squeak from the wicker chair, a gentle snore from the old man, the drops of rain on a window sill..."
In La maison du juge [JUG], Maigret visits Didine, who spills out her information... "Maigret gave a start, becoming aware, suddenly, of his own train of thought. For several seconds now, he had only been half-listening to the droning of the old woman's voice, and meanwhile, very gradually, an absurd idea had begun to take shape in his mind. It was merely the ghost of an idea so far, but if he were to let it be, might it not take on some substance?"
We find the same idea in Félicie est là [FEL]: "The card players chatted intermittently. To Maigret, who was not listening, their voices provided a background murmur to his thoughts... He was drifting. Impressions formed and dissolved. He had lost all sense of time and place...", and in Maigret se fâche [FAC]... "Was Maigret listening? If so, he wasn't conscious of it. And yet the spoken words were engraved automatically in his memory."
- The Chief Inspector's silences
After all these sounds, it's good to rest our ears a bit to examine silences… Silences also play a role in the soundscape of the novels, like a break in a symphony, and similarly, silence has a meaning. Maigret tracks, in the silence of locations and characters, the unsaid, feelings, the significance of which will help him advance his investigation.
But silence is also a "weapon" used by the Chief Inspector, when he becomes heavy, impermeable, opposing a mass of silence against the agitation of a witness or an accused.
Here, in Pietr le Letton [LET], a silence, during which Maigret is deep in thought, and this silence furnishes the soundscape of the scene... "And, during the long silence which followed, you could clearly hear the sounds of the storm which shook the windows and and the roaring of the stove."
In Au rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas [REN], in the scene where Le Clinche attempts suicide, Maigret analyzes the silence which precedes the shot, and it's this silence which gives him the intuition of what will happen... "Maigret saw only Le Clinche, close up. His head was bent slightly forward. His eyes were still closed. But tears spurted one by one from his closed lids, made their way through his lashes, paused, and zigzagged down his cheeks. It wasn't the first time the Chief Inspector had seen a man cry. It was the first time he had ever been effected to such an extent, perhaps because of the silence, the immobility of the whole body... Then, a second later, Maigret had an intuition... Just as the Chief Inspector stood up, a shot rang out..."
In L'affaire Saint-Fiacre [FIA], it's the scene of Maigret's entry into the library, where he finds the Curé and Maurice de Saint-Fiacre; "What were the two of them doing there, neither speaking nor moving? It would have been less embarrassing to interrupt a pathetic scene, than to break into a silence so profound that the human voice seemed to trace concentric circles in it, like a pebble in a pool of water.". This entrance is resented as an intrusion, and Maigret plays the role of a foreign and disturbing element. A few lines further..."Silence. The scraping of a match and the puffs of smoke which the chief Inspector blew out one after another as he asked...". The sound of the match breaks the silence, and at the same time, this match going up in flame is symbolic of clarifying the situation...
In Le port des brumes [POR], here is the scene where Maigret attempts to make Grand-Louis speak in the presence of his sister. The Chief Inspector acts as orchestra conductor, directing the sounds and the silence to arrive at his ends... "'To the memory of Captain Joris,' said Maigret raising his glass. There was a long silence. As the Chief Inspector had intended. it gave time for the restful atmosphere of the little kitchen to take effect on Louis and his sister.
And gradually the steady clicking of the clock, the drone of the stove, acted like music on their jangled nerves." and, some lines further along... "But the Chief Inspector knew where he was getting. He went on in a low voice, lingering on each word. There was very little play-acting in it; he was genuinely affected by the emotional atmosphere of the little room. A picture of the short, sturdy harbor-master was hovering before his eyes as he conjured up the past."
In La maison du juge [JUG], silence punctuates the "third degree" that Maigret is giving Albert Forlacroix. The silences of Albert, marking his refusal to "sit at the table", are countered by the actions and attitudes of Maigret... "Silence. A heavy look of Maigret... More silence. The town hall had, as usual, prepared bottles of wine on the table and Maigret poured himself a drink... Silence. A new pipe. Some more coal in the stove."
In Signé Picpus [SIG], here is a silence heavy with meaning on Maigret's part, to which Janvier comes asking... "You have an idea? Maigret's silence. He fills his pipe, lights it, contemplates the burnt out match..."
In Maigret et la jeune morte [JEU], it's the scene of Albert's interrogation... "Maigret puffed at his pipe and gazed silently at the other man. You might think, if he took the time, that he was putting on an act, to give weight to what he was going to say. But it was not theatrics. He hardly saw the barman's face opposite him. It was of Louise Laboine that he was thinking. All the time he had passed, silently, at the bar in the Rue de l'Etoile... he had been trying to picture her".
In Maigret et le corps sans tête [COR], here is the scene of the second conversation between Maigret and Aline Calas... "It was, all in all, one of Maigret's most frustrating interrogations. Not that one could call it an interrogation in the accepted sense, with life going on as usual around them... He would ask a question, she would reply, briefly, then there would be a long silence, during which she completely ignored him."`
In Les scrupules de Maigret [SCR], it's the beginning of the interrogation of Mme Marton, during her first visit to the PJ: "He made her wait for some time, deliberately letting the silence deepen, drawing on his pipe", and at the time of the final interrogation, after Marton's death... "while he remained silent before her, drawing on his pipe, she slowly came back to life, gradually coming out or her torpor, or rather, her rigidity."
Here is the final scene of the interrogation in L'inspecteur Cadavre [CAD], characteristic of the "methods" of Maigret... "Only at this point, and for the first time since he had become involved in this case, did he play Maigret, as was said at the Police Judiciaire... Pipe in his teeth, hands in his pocket, his back to the fire, he talked, growled, poked at the logs with the end of the tongs, and moved with bear-like gait from one suspect to the other, either firing questions at them or suddenly breaking off so that a disturbing silence fell over the room."
Silence and noise, sounds and voice, music of the earth and of men, the world of Maigret is also a sound world, as it is filled with colors and odors, and its Simenon's talent to have known how, by all these "quasi-material" notations, to make this world come alive for the reader...
translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu, Nov. 15, 2014
(including numerous quotations
from published editions)