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La Vie du Rail
September 21, 1989
N° 2211, pp 45-49

Maigret's Trains

by Michel Chlastacz

Simenon is dead — Maigret won't take the train anymore.
Simenon — 500 million books translated into 55 languages.
Maigret on the screen had the faces of Albert Préjean and Charles Laughton, Michel Simon and Jean Gabin, in turn. And Jean Richard.
Where was Maigret born? In a train station!

 

original French

 

It was set sixty years ago, in September, 1929, in appearance, an ordinary station scene...
"No one suspected that a drama was being played out in the waiting-room of the small railway station where only six depressed-looking passengers were waiting, amid the smell of coffee, beer, and lemonade. ... night was falling ... The German and Dutch Customs and railway officials could still be seen pacing up and down in the murk of the platform."

"Neuschanz railway station is located in the extreme north of Holland, on the German frontier. It is not an important station ... no main lines pass through it. There are trains only in the mornings and evenings ... The same ritual is repeated each time. The German train stops at one end of the platform. The Dutch train waits at the other end. The officials wearing orange caps and those in greenish or Prussian blue uniform meet, and together while away the hour's wait for Customs formalities ... The passengers then go and sit in the buffet which is typical of all frontier buffets. The prices are marked in both cents and Pfennigs. A showcase contains Dutch chocolate and German cigarettes. Both gin and schnapps can be had..."

At the center, a character who will take a long time to talk about...

"Less notice was taken of a passenger ... a tall, heavy, broad-shouldered man. He was wearing a thick black overcoat with a velvet collar." [tr: Tony White]
Add a pipe and a hat — Commissioner Maigret is born. As Denis Tillinac, one of Simenon's biographers remarked, "Maigret is the pillar of the myths that surround Simenon, ... Everybody knows Maigret." Maigret is a world of his own, and in this world there are trains — though this isn't the reason that some reproached Simenon... for writing station novels!

In Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien (Maigret and the 100 Gibbets), the first of the Maigrets (written in September 1929 but published two years later), the setting is railway. And Maigret decides straightaway, in the tradition of the detective story, until then dominated by the logical Anglo-Saxon investigator, that enigmas are solved like a puzzle, that the brilliant investigator, private or official, unravels. When Maigret takes the train, it is not like Sherlock Holmes — Holmes and Watson take the train to Paddington or Charing Cross. That's all. With Maigret it's something else — we are on the train:

"... nearing Mantes, the lights had been turned on in the compartments. ... When the train reached Evreux, it was quite dark ... a dense fog ... fringed by iridescent sheen ... The rumbling wheels set a rhythm to his thoughts." (Le Port des brumes, 1931). (Death of a Harbormaster) [tr: Stuart Gilbert]
For Maigret the station is a key place — as are trains — investigations begin or develop there in part. One could even say that destiny, or at least Simenon-style destiny, always implacable, prowls there. In this geography of Maigret's stations and trains, the Gare du Nord, where, in the winter of 1922, young Georges Simenon disembarked in Paris from Liège, plays a major role. But it is also the cursed station that long evokes lengthy comments in Les mémoires de Maigret (1950) (Maigret's Memoirs):
" I was assigned to stations. More precisely, I was posted to that gloomy, sinister building known as the Gare du Nord. ... When I see the Gare de l'Est, for instance, I can never help feeling depressed, because it reminds me of mobilization. The Gare de Lyon, on the other hand, like the Gare Montparnasse, suggests vacations."

"But the Gare du Nord, the coldest, the busiest of them all, brings to my mind a harsh and bitter struggle for one's daily bread. Is it because it leads toward mining and industrial regions?"

"... suburban trains, which come, not from pleasant villages like those in the west or south, but from black. unhealthy built-up areas."

"In the opposite direction, it's toward Belgium, the nearest frontier, that fugitives for the most varied reasons try to escape. I have grim memories of the Gare du Nord. I don't know why, but I always picture it full of thick, damp early-morning fog, with drowsy crowds flocking toward the tracks or toward Rue de Maubeuge." [tr: Jean Stewart]

It is the station of dramas, and even meteorology mingles in:
"The huge glass roof of the Gare du Nored gave no protection from the gusts of wind that swept the platforms. Several panes had been dislodged and lay in fragments on the lines. ... Maigret stood at the entrance to platform 11, where a crowd had gathered to meet the North Star". ... The yellow dot of the train's light appeared in the distance." (Pietr le Letton, 1929). (Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett) [tr: Daphne Woodward]
Of course, there was a dead body on the train! When Simenon yields to the simplicity of finding a "bloody trunk" (Le revolver de Maigret, 1952) (Maigret's Revolver), it is within the confines of the Gare du Nord... a place that certainly sets a tone of sadness:
"It was as cheerful in the streets as under the glass roof of the Gare du Nord" (Maigret, Lognon et les gangsters, 1951) (Maigret and the gangsters),
remarked Maigret, who, in this novel, never took a train...

Another station, Bréauté-Beuzeville, at the intersection of lines of Le Havre, Fécamp and Etretat, doesn't particularly enjoy Maigret's favor:

"La Bréauté station, where Superintendent Maigret left the main-line train from Paris to Le Havre at half past seven in the morning, gave him a foretaste of Fécamp.

"An ill-lit refreshment room with grimy walls, and a buffet on which a few biscuits were mouldering and three bananas and five oranges were doing their best to form a pyramid. ... To get from one platform to another meant wading up to ones knees in mud. A repulsive little train, assembled from obsolete rolling stock." [tr: Daphne Woodward]

This gloomy description sketched in Pietr le Letton, is repeated, nearly twenty years later, in Maigret et la vieille dame, 1949) (Maigret and the Old Lady) :
"He left the Paris-Le Havre train at a small, depressing station, Bréauté-Beuzeville. ... The train for Etretat, please? ... There was no restaurant at the station, nor a refreshment bar, only a sort of tavern on the opposite side of the road ... Etretat? You've got plenty of time. That's your train over there. ... some carriages without an engine were pointed out to him ... of an earlier mode, painted an out-of-date green, with a few motionless passengers behind the windows, who seemed as if they had been waiting since the day before. It didn't look real. It was like a toy, a child's drawing." [tr: Robert Brain]
With Maigret, it's as if we're splashing about in the mud with him between the platforms of Bréauté, shivering in currents of air under the glass roof of the Gare du Nord, breathing odors on arrival at a lost station. Like Maigret, in some way, we impregnate ourselves! The arrival at the place of the investigation has as much importance for Maigret as the weather:
"At Poitiers, while the train was in the station, the lights went up all at once along the platforms ... The train crossed some points ... The lines became more numerous, and at last they reached the platforms, the doors with their familiar notices ... One felt a strong cool breath from the empty blackness into which the rails seemed to vanish ... " (Maigret à l'école, 1953). (Maigret Goes to School) [tr: Daphne Woodward]
The arrival may be totally unremarkable:
"Maigret got off the train at Givet station." (Chez les Flamands, 1932). (The Flemish Shop)
But more often it takes on an impressionistic hue, especially when it's a night train:
"Maigret surveyed his fellow passengers with wide-open, sullen eyes and, without meaning to, assumed that self-important look people put on when they have spent mindless hours in the compartment of a train. Well before the train began to slow down as it approached a station, men in large, billowing overcoats started to emerge from their various cells ... in order to take up their positions in the corridor. There they would stand with one hand casually gripping the brass bar across the window, oblivious, or so it appeared, of their fellow travelers."

"The train slowed down and pulled into the station at Niort. Maigret stepped onto the cold and wet platform and called to a porter, "How do I get to Saint-Aubin?" "Take the 6:17 train on Platform Three ... The little train, looking black and wet, was already at Platform Three. ... The train stopped. Maigret wiped the condensation from the window and saw a tiny station, with just one light, one platform, and one solitary railway man, who was running along the side of the train..." (L'inspecteur Cadavre, 1941). (Maigret's Rival) [tr: Helen Thomson]

The arrival can be luminous, as when Maigret goes to the south of France:
"When Maigret got out of the train at Antibes, half the station was bathed in a glare of sunlight through which the people moved like shadows." (Liberty Bar, 1932). [tr: Geoffrey Sainsbury]
On these trains, Maigret sleeps well:
"He slept and was conscious of snoring. When he woke, he saw olive trees on the edge of the Rhône and knew they had passed Avignon." (Mon ami Maigret, 1949) (My Friend Maigret) [tr: Nigel Ryan]
The "border" of awakening is also geographical:
"He awoke at dawn, as he always did when travelling south, just as the train drew into Montélimar. To him, Montélimar had always been the frontier town of Provence. From there on he couldn't bear to miss an inch of the terrain." (La folle de Maigret, 1970) (Maigret and the Madwoman). [tr: Eileen Ellenbogen]
Other arrivals are enchantresses:
"...along the Marne he saw taverns. ... When he awoke at dawn, in front of the stopped train there was a green-painted gate, a small station surrounded with flowers" (La guinguette à deux sous, 1931). (Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine)
And also in Holland:
"Right from the start he found Delfzijl disconcerting. At dawn he had found himself rolling through the traditional Holland of tulips. ... what he came to now was something ... far more Nordic than anything he had imagined. A small town. At most, ten or fifteen streets ... the stationmaster was wearing a lovely orange cap." (Un crime en Hollande, 1932). (A crime in Holland). [tr: Geoffrey Sainsbury]
The décor of dollhouse. And yet, in this same setting is another Simenon novel — not a Maigret — where the railroad serves to install an atmosphere of violence (L'homme qui regardait passer les trains, 1936). (The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By) The criminal likes night trains:
"He imagined in them something strange and vicious."
Simenon, admirable creator of harbors, stations, and night trains, described
"...these trains of the night and their agonizing humanity,"
in L'aîné des Ferchaux (1943). (The First-Born)

But Maigret doesn't share this feeling:

"At the Gare de Lyons he hesitated. Then at the last moment, he took two wagon-lit places. It was sumptuous. In the corridor they found de luxe travellers, with impressive-looking luggage. ... 'It's the Blue Train,' Maigret mumbled, as if to excuse himself. ... 'Do you sleep well on trains?' 'I sleep well anywhere.'" (Mon ami Maigret, 1949). (My Friend Maigret) [tr: Nigel Ryan]
This is not always the case. The night journey and its particular atmosphere influences Maigret's frame of mind, as in Maigret a peur (1953) (Maigret Afraid):
"Quite suddenly, between two small stations, whose names he could not make out, and of which he saw hardly anything in the darkness, except the driving rain against a large lamp and figures of men pushing trolleys, Maigret wondered what he was doing there. Perhaps he had dozed off for a moment in the overheated compartment? ... he knew he was in a train; he could hear its monotonous noise ... All this, and the smell of soot mingling with that of his damp clothes, remained real, and also a steady murmur of voices in a nearby compartment ... He might have been somewhere else, in any little train traveling through the countryside, and he himself might have been a fifteen-year-old Maigret returning from college on a Saturday on a local train exactly like this one, with ancient carriages, their couplings creaking with each pull of the engine. With the same voices in the night at each stop, the same men bustling around the mail van, the same whistle blast from the station master." [tr: Margaret Duff]
In Le fou de Bergerac (1932) (The Madman of Bergerac), the mystery takes shape straightaway, overnight on the train. Maigret, provided with a first-class ticket, comes back from the dining car to his compartment to find
"the curtains drawn, and the light dimmed. An elderly couple were stretched full length on the two seats."
The trainman proposed to Maigret a sleeping berth, and then
"peeped through door after door until he found a compartment in which only the upper couchette was occupied. Here too the curtains were drawn, and only the dim light was burning. ... The air inside was hot and steamy. From somewhere or other came a faint hiss as if one of the joints of the radiator pipes was leaking."
The passenger in the upper berth seemed ill. Maigret dozed, was awakened by his unseen neighbor. He rose, took a walk in the corridor, returned, and fell back asleep.
"The night dragged slowly on. Now and then the train stopped. There would be voices on the platform, steps in the corridor, the slamming of doors. And each time it seemed as though they were never going to start again. Was the man weeping? ... the heat was rising ... Maigret slept. The train stopped, then went on... It raced over a steel bridge, making an infernal din. He opened his eyes abruptly..."
His neighbor sat up and put on his shoes.
"They ran through a little station. Lights flicked past, showing faintly through the curtains."
The man left the compartment, opened the door to the tracks.
"A moment or two before, they had been doing fifty miles an hour. They had come down to twenty, or even less," [tr: Geoffrey Sainsbury]
when he jumped, and Maigret did also, rolling to the bottom of the embankment, pursuing the unknown man... who shoots him!

Maigret's other journeys offer fewer surprises. Day journeys are often tedious, as in the short story, Les larmes de bougie (Les nouvelles enquêtes de Maigret, 1938) (Death of a Woodlander):

"He expected to make a brief journey through space, and it proved to be an exhausting journey through time. Barely a hundred kilometers from Paris, at Vitry-aux-Loges, he alighted from a preposterous little train such as one only sees in old fashioned picture books..." [tr: Jean Stewart]

Bernard de Fallois, one of writers of the prefaces to Simenon's Complete Works, writes: "These brief and dense narratives contain, in the minimum of time, the maximum duration." In the second Maigret to appear, M. Gallet, décédé (1931) (Maigret Stonewalled), the Commissioner takes a train precipitously:

"He didn't know the train times. On arrival at the Gare de Lyon he was told the local train was leaving any minute; ... He was the only passenger to get off at Saint-Fargeau, and he had to wander up and down the soft asphalt of the platform for several minutes before he unearthed a porter." [tr: Margaret Marshall]
Even when Maigret doesn't travel, the railroad can have an importance in the case. In Maigret et son mort (1947) (Maigret's Special Murder), the victim's seeing a train ticket to a place where a set of horrible crimes has been perpetrated by a band of killers, is at once the source and solution of the problem. But in only one case, the entire episode involves a train — in the short story Jeumont 51 minutes d'arrêt (1938), (Jeumont, 51 Minutes' Stop!), the setting is completely railway, including cross-examinations in the office of the station chief where
"there was a good fire ... one of those big railway-station stoves that swallow up endless scuttles-full of coal."
Maigret's nephew, border inspector at Jeumont, discovers a body on the Warsaw-Berlin-Paris train:
"Things are always happening on the 106, a train which leaves Berlin at 11 a.m. with one or two coaches from Warsaw, passes through Liège at 23.44 (the station is empty then and closes down as soon as the train has left) and finally reaches Erquelinees at 1.57 a.m." [tr: Jean Stewart]
Verification with the 1938 Chaix shows the timetable to be nearly exact to the minute — truly Simenon used railway schedules extensively in his documentation, the famous "yellow envelopes," notes for preparing his novels. As for the Liège comment in the text, we can easily imagine that young Simenon, a reporter doing "news briefs" for the Gazette de Liège a few years earlier, knew the situation of the Liège-Guillemins station perfectly, the tour of stations and police being part of his journalistic routine...

If the train is extensively present in Simenon's universe, railway workers are rarely heroes of his narrations, the only exceptions being Theodore Doineau, "Théo," a minor station chief on the Amiens-Calais line (Le nègre, 1957) (The Negro), and Louis Maloin, switchman for the Dieppe-Maritime. (L'homme de Londres, 1933) (Newhaven-Dieppe). Two very pathetic heroes, crushed by their destiny. In the Maigrets, except for barely sketched silhouettes of a station chief and a controller, one notices only the father of a suspect, Pierre Riquain, SNCF mechanic on the Paris-Vintimille line,

"I wanted him to go into the railways,"
he tells Maigret while speaking of his son (Le voleur de Maigret, 1966) (Maigret's Pickpocket),
"he would have got a good desk job". [tr: Nigel Ryan]
The same reflection on the employment security of a railwayman's career compared to the risks of a plain salaried employee in Maigret et l'homme du banc (1952) (Maigret and the Man on the Bench) where the victim's widow won't have the right to a pension, unlike her neighbors. Because
"most of the houses in the development were occupied by people connected in one way or another with the railroad."
The visit to the family is an opportunity for a description of the marshalling yard at Juvisy,
"where an endless stream of freight cars was being shunted into one siding or another. There were twenty engines, belching smoke, whistling and panting. Cars clashed together..." [tr: Eileen Ellenbogen]
If, as wrote Bernard de Fallois, "Simenon's characters belong to the masses, the ones you meet in stations," those who worked in these same stations are rarely present. And, with the passing of time, little by little Maigret abandons the train. Besides, he travels less, his last novels having mainly Paris for their setting. When Maigret travels (Maigret voyage, 1957) (Maigret and the Millionaires), it's by plane. In Maigret et l'homme tout seul, (1970) (Maigret and the Loner), again he takes Air Inter to get to La Baule! And if still, some years later, in (La patience de Maigret, 1965) (Maigret Bides His Time), he takes the train to Meung-sur-Loire, afterwards, Madame Maigret learns to drive to go to their little house... where the two of them will retire.

Michel CHLASTACZ

 

translation: Stephen Trussel
Honolulu, June 27, 2005
translators of published texts are noted above


When Commissioner Maigret takes the train to Paris or Amsterdam the hour of departure is not invented. Simenon worked with the Chaix [containing all the train schedules of France] next to him.

On the (railroad) track of Maigret

What remains of the Delfzijl that saw the birth of Maigret? Almost nothing — the industrialization stimulated by the discovery of Groningen gas, and urbanization, have passed it by. A pedestrian street in the middle of a common shopping mall has replaced the "toy city of at most ten or fifteen streets, paved with red brick" . The station no longer has a "station chief with a pretty orange cap". Only the small yellow railcars bring a note of color to the building now become too large. Of the three lines that led there in 1929, only the Groningen still exists. At Nieuweschans, the Neuschanz of the novel, there is a great emptiness — the border station building has disappeared, replaced by a shelter on the only remaining platform.
And in the countryside, the moors have made room for cultivated immensities. It is far from the "Holland of tulips" of sixty years ago...


Jean Richard, during the filming of "Jeumont, 51 minutes stop!", at the Landy depot.

The Birth of Maigret

Maigret was born in a small harbor on the northern coast of Holland, at Delfzijl, very near to the station border of Nieuweschans (Neuschanz, the German name of the locality, is used in "Le pendu de Saint-Pholien") where Maigret appears for the first time. At the end the summer of 1929, Simenon's boat, the "Ostrogoth", was immobilized for repairs in the harbor. "Our stay at Delfzijl had to continue longer than foreseen," remembers Simenon in 1966. He gets settled in an old barge with, he says "a big crate for my typewriter, a smaller one for my behind, and two of even more reduced format for my feet". This barge "would become the cradle of Maigret"... after a visit to the tavern on the corner! "Had I drunk one, two, or three gins, with some drops of bitters? ... After an hour, a little sleepy, I began to see before me the powerful and impassive mass of a gentleman who, it seemed, would make an acceptable commissioner ... The following day, the first chapter of "Pietr le Letton" was written... ".

But some months before, Simenon had, in a popular novel which appeared at Fayard under the pseudonym of Christian Brulls, put on stage a Commissioner Maigret. This novel, "Train de nuit" [Night Train] (Yes!), begins with a traveler's murder on the Paris-Marseilles train. It appeared in September, 1930, one year after the writing of "Le pendu de Saint-Pholien" but before the launching by publisher Arthème Fayard of the set of "true" Maigrets, whose first eleven titles were published in 1931.

So the Maigret "who awaits Pietr heavily at the Gare du Nord one morning in November ... is not quite the one whose pipe and velvet-collared overcoat joined the Macintosh and cane of Sherlock Holmes in the museum of legendary detectives. He is just a sketch... but the myth is born". (Dennis Tillinac)   In fact, Simenon confesses to never having "seen" the face of Maigret, as the head of the bronze statue of the famous commissioner inaugurated in 1966 at Delfzijl in presence of Simenon, doesn't have a face with recognizable features. But, the overcoat, the bowler and the pipe are there...

M. Ch.


Simenon, surrounded by "Maigrets" Rupert Davies, Heinz Ruhmann, and Gino Cervi, at the unveiling of the statue, 1966.

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