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Friday, July 27, 2001 (p 24)
The Summer Series

by Baudouin Bollaert
translated from the French by Stephen Trussel
1. Maigret in the land of windmills
2. The Stagecoach of the Norwegian Sea
3. Honningsvåg, or Paradise lost




From Holland to the Polar circle, the genesis of Commissioner Maigret

Seventy years later, the coastal express is still there. Stopping at 34 harbors, eleven ships ply the Bergen-Kirkenes route. (Photo Dave Barcruff/Corbis)

The Stagecoach of the Norwegian Sea

"It is the most charming journey of the world!" (1) Behind his provocative words, Georges Simenon wasn't lying, having returned from a journey that led him beyond the Polar circle in March and early April of 1930. Hitler was not yet in power in Germany, and no one dared to imagine a second world conflict; there was no television, nor computers, nor Internet. Planes hardly ventured into these frozen regions. The Latham, in which the explorer Roald Amundsen had taken off in search of his friend, Italian Umberto Nobile, had itself crashed close to Tromsø in 1928. National mourning in Norway. But nothing stopped the curiosity of Simenon, in full gestation with the character who would make him famous:  Maigret...     [Photo:  Fonds Simenon]

Baudouin Bollaert


What? The Lofoten Islands, North Cape, Lapland and this mining city of Kirkenes, on the Russian border, where the winter hardly ends and the temperature doesn't rise above 5° F? What lunacy! A consul and a few good friends had tried to dissuade him from going, forgetting Simenon's love of the sea, sailors, navigation, discovery... His distant Breton origins and, especially, the need to serve what he called his "apprenticeship," like playing scales, were always there to push him irresistibly farther.

And before him, Norway had excited the imagination of three great French novelists of the 19th century:  Victor Hugo with Han d'Islande [Han of Iceland] in 1823, Honoré de Balzac with Séraphita in 1835 and Jules Verne with Un billet de loterie [The Lottery Ticket] in 1864. Of the three, only this last had actually traveled in the country. But he had stopped in the south, in Telemark (2). Simenon himself would go to Finnmark, the extreme north.

For this rough winter he quit his cutter, the Ostrogoth, as too frail to face the Norwegian Sea, with her 35-foot length and 12-foot beam. At Bergen, he and his wife boarded one of those "little steamers" that, he writes, "every day that God makes" put in their eight days to go up to Kirkenes. A kind of sea-going bus or, if you prefer, the stagecoach of the Norwegian Sea. "An excellent steamer with comfortable cabins" that, with the lack of roads and railroad lines, assures the passage of the mail, supplies, goods and travelers.

Has much changed since then? Not really. The coastal express is still there, as well-described by Simenon:  "A true chain, whose rings meet, and salute each other with a siren." Today, eleven ships follow the Bergen-Kirkenes route, six days and five nights round-trip. They stop in 34 harbors, 365 days per year. Not counting the ferries that serve only some small hamlets.

Certainly, in 70 years, the road network has improved, and the twin-engine Dash-8s of Wideroes Aviation are unsurpassed for landing on the short runways of the villages of Finnmark. In summer, one surely meets fewer Norwegians on the coastal expresses, overrun with tourists, than on these small propeller-driven planes – this Lutheran pastor, for example, untroubled by the view of North Cape from the sky, or that tall young blonde who, since our departure, has yet to set down the fishing rod with which she will no doubt try for some Vadsø capelins...

But what would the life of villages of the north of Norway be like without the coastal expresses which so often offset the failings of the other means of transport? On the oldest vessels of the fleet, we gather again, as wrote Simenon, "around a captain with the air of a patriarch". On this June morning, the Harald Jarl, constructed in 1960, has just left Honningsvåg for Hammerfest. It smells good, this "steamer" of the past. The bearded captain absorbs at least three soft-boiled eggs at breakfast and then joins some passengers in the gleaming paneled lounge. Two women knit – they have the beauty of maturity under their gray hair and, heads tilted, they watch the captain over half-moon glasses... A gentle cruise.

The waters of the Elbe

Simenon loved the sea, but he also knew its foibles. In Escales nordiques, he describes a departure from Hamburg harbor that will serve as a draft for the prologue to Passager du Polarlys

You have to have lived a departure from Hamburg in a small boat – the dull waters of the Elbe, agitated by a thousand screws... the docks thinning out... the sky spitting out a dirty and frozen humidity... and ships of all tonnages following each other in lines of four, six, in both directions – ships arriving from South America, English coalers, Finnish wood transports, Australian ocean liners...

A cacophony of sirens, whistles, motors and creaking chains... a light bump... some angry words... fog horns moaning endlessly... bells sounding somewhere, and aboard a luxury ship, a steward rushes about the bridge calling his world to table with a gong.

In winter as in summer, the coastal express continues to provide a rhythm to local life. "This is not so astonishing," Simenon had noted, "for the government pays the deficit of the companies!" It is still true. But consider:  we are here at the extreme northern limit of Norway, in a mineral landscape perforated by 176,000 lakes, along a jagged coast. The immense distances and the interminable polar night oblige the state to increase subsidies to support the population. Hardly 76,000 people live in Finnmark, only 2% of the national population. A trifle when one realizes that the province represents 15% of the Norwegian territory!

A little further south, but nevertheless at 69° N, is the capital of polar Norway, the university city of Tromsø, population 60,000. In an admirable site that recalls Sydeny for its expanse and Venice for the bustle of its water taxis, Tromsø is a major center for Arctic expeditions, and prides itself on an intense cultural life... Simenon had been seduced:  "In the stores, there are the latest disks from Paris, London and Berlin. I can find three movie housess already equipped for the talkies, and a poster advertising Marlène Dietrich."

A major center for Arctic expeditions, Tromsø had seduced Simenon with its intense cultural life. (Photo Pictor)

One of those theaters is still there, on Storgata, the main street. Cast into the stone of its preserved facade is the inscription:  "Kinematograph, 1915". Steven Seagal has replaced Marlène Dietrich, but not so long ago, it was the members of the male choir of Berlevåg, pure Norwegian, who headed the bill. The movie about them is a great hit – already more than 600,000 viewers!

Berlevåg is a small port of Finnmark with 1,100 inhabitants. Wind-beaten, all is sea and stone, not a tree in sight. Karen Blixen situated her austere novel, Le Festin de Babette [Babette's Feast], here. Cutting across the story of the 25 "boys" of the choir – of whom the eldest is 96! – is the rough life of Berlevåg, which is represented by director Knut Brik Jensen with tenderness and irreverence. The film's title could be translated as "Peaceful and Unreasonable." It deals with everything – from love to fishing to politics. And of course there is singing, in the wind, the snow or the sun. And the choir chief in his paralytic's wheelchair is not the least picturesque element of the film.

One of tenors is Leif Ananiassen. Sixty-eight, retired, he had gone several times around the world in the merchant marine before finishing his career with the Coast Guards. "For rescuing sailors, not policing," he is anxious to specify. Since the movie, for which they didn't receive a penny, the singers of Berlevåg are asked for everywhere... "We're famous!" jokes Leif. In his Xantia Cirtoën, he takes me to his summer cabin – "my dacha", he says – 24 miles away. Same tundra desert, same moonscape. He speaks of de Gaulle and the English, Brigitte Bardot and baby seals, of Gérard Depardieu who he saw in The Count of Monte-Cristo on television. Ah, the castle at If! Ah, Marseilles! He remembers a faraway stopover as if it were yesterday...

"The Norwegian is not rebellious," writes Simenon, "he is serious, respectful of others." Here, in this Finnmark of extreme conditions, he is as depicted in the film – somewhat frost-covered, but serene and endearing. Like the bearded, unrepentent Communist giant who cries like a child before the monument to the deaths at Mourmansk, on a noteworthy tour of the choir in Russia... "I like them," confides a Frenchman from Lorient, Ludovic Besnard, who owns a 40% share in a Bervelåg fishery, and transports close to 2,000 tons of fish per year to France – black halibut, pollock, haddock, brosmes, northern rockfish, and of course cod in season... "It is one of the most fish-filled seas of the world, kept from freezing by the Gulf Stream," he says. "And as Norway is not a member of the European union, there are no quotas to share with the Spanish or French fishermen! So long as that lasts!"

When Simenon ranged these same coasts, he was only 27 years old, with already an incredible production of articles, stories and novels published under pseudonyms. He was in full gestation with "Maigret" and, he himself, "the admirable creator of harbors, stations, streets, night trains and sluices" (3) undoubtedly found in these landscapes and men of the tip of the world, the polar night and aurora borealis, the necessary distance to his character's development that would render him famous on all continents.

The Kinematograf which, in 1930, offered Chaplin's Gold Rush. (Photo DR.)

When he stopped at Tromsø in 1930, the box-office hit at the Kinematograf was Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush. A foreshadowing of things to come? Forty years later, Norway would hit the jackpot with the black gold of the North Sea – unexpected manna for this country of 4.4 million, for whom fishing and iron mining were, until then, the only riches. Did life become any less expensive for all that? At the time, Simenon complained:  "They get 16 francs for a package of ordinary tobacco!" Prices haven't gotten any lower, and a liter of gas today is even more expensive than in France...

Just rewards:  the free services – health, education – are first quality, and it is not rare to find heated swimming pools in schools of townships with hardly a thousand people. Prosperity is seen in the dapper wooden houses, the powerful 4×4s that furrow the roads, and the snowmobiles that await the winter under awnings. Even 70 years ago, Simenon had been struck by the sight of a "Harley-Davidson motorcycle, tires wrapped in chains, supported on both sides by skis," attached to a sleigh.

Strictly speaking he will extract from his journey to the Pays du froid [Cold Country] only one novel, Le Passager du Polarlys [Danger at Sea / The Mystery of the Polarlys] (one of the coastal expresses still bears this name). The book was written in November 1930, near Concarneau or in Morsang-sur-Seine, on board the Ostrogoth, at the same time Simenon was writing the first Maigrets signed with his true name. Published first in serial under the title Un homme à bord [A man on board], in the Works, Le Passager du Polarlys would appear in 1932 from Fayard.

Like Le Château des sables rouges, it marks a stage in the author's career. "All Simenon is there already with the twin paths of his inspiration:  the old fighter, suddenly weary of his triumphs, who would like to return to his childhood, to put an end to his roaming life, and the confused teenager, rage-filled, who is serving his apprenticeship for becoming a man." (3) The father is again an educator, and the young lieutenant of the Polarlys needs the serene strength of his Captain Petersen to surmount his first tests.

In short, like Simenon...

  1. All the quotes are taken from a series of articles collected in Mes apprentissages [My apprenticeship] (Omnibus, 2001):  Pays du froid [Cold Country] (signed Georges Caraman for the review "Police et reportage," but not published by reason of the disappearance of this weekly) and Escales nordiques [Nordic Stopovers], articles which appeared in Le Petit Journal (March 1 - 12, 1931).
  2. Passions boréales (Caen University Presses).
  3. Simenon, by Bernard of Fallois (Gallimard, 1931).

or:  Paradise Lost

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