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The birth of a passion or Why I love Maigret

by Murielle Gigandet Wenger

[original French]

Flashback. The 70s. I'm 10. I discover television. The set is black-and-white, and it's a time blessed with the great and beautiful series as they knew how to make them then – Oh! Les faucheurs de marguerites [The Reapers of Daisies], Les Brigades du Tigre [The Tiger Brigades], La filière [The Network], Les cinq dernières minutes [The Five Final Minutes], and I'm just getting started...

Among all the characters I like to watch, there is one who has a place apart – it's Maigret, it's Jean Richard, reassuring, his smile filled with calm irony and good-naturedness... in short, a paternal face that a little girl of 10 or 12 can dream of... (Am I fantasizing? Maybe, but I accept it!) I follow the series religiously, cutting out newspaper photos and episode summaries....

A little later, I discover Simenon and I read my first Maigrets. Super! I take to them as much as to the TV series.

I'm 16, and I enter the Gymnasium (the equivalent of the bac years in France). At the first meeting of French class, the prof polls the students on their readings. Needless to say, I haven't had much of a broad exposure to literature (at 16!), but I mention Simenon among my favorite authors. Ah! The professor's ironic and scornful smile! Do I have the impression of hearing him think, "Simenon? Train station literature! Apparently his pleasure is to spend most of the time of his lessons reading us excerpts of the works of Rabelais as expurgated by Lagarde and Michard – cleaning up the smutty passages... Each to his own...

I'm 20, beginning my studies of literature at the university. Among all the French authors that I discover, I fall in love – Proust and Remembrances. Of course I can't bypass this masterpiece. Simenon will have to take a back seat for a while, but I continue to read Maigrets for fun...

Time passes, numerous occupations take my time – study, children... Then, toward about 30, when I have a little (too little?) time for reading, I rediscover Zola, Balzac, Dumas... And one day, (I no longer know under what circumstances – the stimulus doesn't resurface in my memory), I start devouring Simenon and Maigret all over again. I run to bookstores, flea markets and second hand stores to assemble a complete collection of Maigrets... resulting in a very heterogeneous shelf in my library, where low-priced Presses de la Cité editions stand beside volumes of the Editions Rencontre.

And then another "eclipse" of Simenon. I read him from time to time. I must say that I reread at this period Proust's Remembrances – in full – for the 4th or 5th time... that clearly takes some time...

And one day, arriving at 40, a bit of luck (but is it just chance? Is there any luck with Maigret?) has me discover in a newspaper kiosk the first two DVDs of the collection "Maigret - Jean Richard ". A puff of nostalgia of my televisual childhood comes on so strongly that I don't hesitate for long – I buy the DVDs, telling myself, "I'll see if I still feel the same pleasure watching these movies, or if they've aged too..." A little apprehension nevertheless at the starting of my DVD – should I stir up old memories at the risk of ruining them?

And then, there is the miracle – I like it just as much! In spite of the passing of the (30!) years, although I've changed in many ways, I recover my pleasure intact! Viva Maigret!

And of course, I won't delay trying to obtain the follow-up DVDs of the collection! Since I live in Switzerland, and they might be a little hard to find in a kiosk, I decide to surf the Net to see if it there isn't a way to obtain this collection through the expedient of the Web...

And there, my second piece of luck (?) comes into play – typing the magic word (Maigret) into my search engine, on what do I fall? The first site to be referenced is one of a certain Jacques-Yves Depoix, who speaks of his admiration for Bruno Crémer (I know this actor of course, whom I saw, among others, in White Wedding), who plays in a Maigret series.

"What!" I tell myself, "they've made a new Maigret series!" (I have to say that I no longer have a television, so indeed I'm not currently "televisual"). My first reaction, while browsing the site of JYD, is, I confess, rather negative. I like Jean Richard so much in this role that I have difficulty imagining someone else in his place. Nevertheless, the praises I read of Bruno Crémer intrigue me. After all, to be able to give an opinion, we have to be able to judge on actual evidence... Not one, not two, I obtain the first two collections of the Crémer series. On watching the first film, "Yes, not bad, but..." On the second, "Well, why not?" By the third, "Hmm, actually rather good..." And at the fourth: "A winner! Crémer convinced me! He is a very good Maigret!"

This opinion will only reinforce itself with the passing of episodes: the immense talent of Crémer is there, incontestable. He undoubtedly is Maigret. And further, he is a character both attractive and paternal, an addition to my collection of fantasies...

But what then, of Jean Richard? Doubt settles over me, yet is quickly swept away when I again watch an episode of his. Jean Richard, especially in the early years of the series, also is Maigret. How is that possible?

Meanwhile, I naturally start rereading Simenon, and of course with even greater pleasure when I see the movie constructed on the corresponding novel. Interest changes to passion, and I devour the novels as I devour the films. And then the click – I decide to watch, one after the other, the same story told in the Jean Richard series and then with Bruno Crémer. Bingo! And suddenly it's more than passion!

In the majority of episodes, the Jean Richard version pleases me greatly, but then the Bruno Crémer pleases me just as much! What does that mean? Thinking it over for a long time, I find the beginning of an answer – if two actors as different as Richard and Crémer can be believable in the same role, it's probably that the character they embody is himself strong enough to permit different interpretations.

It is also Bruno Crémer, who in the course of interviews that he gave, puts me on the track, when he says, for example, (in substance – I don't remember his exact words) that he "rediscovers" Maigret with every new episode, and that he illuminates his character's new side by playing him a little differently every time.

And that's what it's about – the Maigret of the novels is a multi-faceted character – we find various strong and different aspects in him. Watch him put on a false gruffness in certain novels, shout his head off in another, or play like a child elsewhere. Consider At the Gai Moulin – doesn't he have the air of a kid who's pulled off a great joke when he reveals his identity to Commissioner Delvigne? He's far from the almost monolithic Maigret who settles himself into the Majestic in Pietr-Le-Letton, or the nostalgic Maigret who rediscovers his childhood in The Saint- Fiacre Affair. And yet, he is always Maigret.

There is something indefinable in him that you can't mistake, and that we recognize no matter what, as unique. That is why Jean Richard can make him more good-natured, with bursts of not-so-believable anger, while Bruno Crémer can play a subtler version, sometimes more troubling, sometimes with very diverse nuances, even almost opposite in appearance, in every episode, and yet in spite of everything we always believe and recognize that it is truly Maigret before our eyes.

What makes the richness of such a character, what makes him haunt us so much more than any other novelistic hero? Whereas we can close, at the end of our reading, any volume where we liked, suffered, lived with a hero, be he Monte-Cristo or Jean Valjean, while telling ourselves merely that the adventure is over – why, having finished any Maigret, does the Commissioner continue to haunt us in spite of ourselves, and create the need to return there?

Are there many characters for whom so many researchers have expended so much energy to establish a biography, a menu of his culinary tastes, an inventory of places that he frequented or an explanation of his relations with women? Are there many characters to whom someone can dedicate an entire web site over several years, in a language other than the original of the novel, and where one always finds new things to treat? Are there many characters – or series on the small screen – to which one can dedicate a whole site which is visited by more than 65,000 web-surfers in a mere three years? Are there many characters who invaded their creator to this extent? We all know anecdotes like Dumas crying while writing the scene of the death of Porthos, or Balzac asking on his deathbed for Dr. Bianchon, but is there another author besides Simenon able to say of a character that he created of whole cloth, "With time, it is I who grow to resemble him."?

If Maigret is so familiar to us, in the first sense of the word, if he is closer to us than any other character whose adventures we read, to the point of nearly becoming for us someone that we know in our daily life, isn't it because he is atypical, that he has – like everyone – strengths and weakness, contradictions, feelings, desires, as "Everyman" and none of the infallibility of a "super hero," that he therefore resembles us, like a brother, or moves us like a father... isn't it because he is – irreparably – and dreadfully... human?

December, 2005

translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu, June 2006

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