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Maigret of the Month: Maigret et la vieille dame (Maigret and the old lady )
9/8/06 –
1. Maigret and the sea: brilliant rainbows and bright bathing suits...

Our Chief Inspector is once more at the seashore. After the Mediterranean and almost summery climate (the action takes place in May) of AMI, it is the English Channel in autumn (September) which welcomes Maigret.

This sea evokes for him memories of holidays... those which it could not offer him when he was young, "when he was in school, and had seen his comrades returning from their holidays, tanned, filled with stories to tell and seashells in their pockets...," then, those which he spent at the seashore with Mme Maigret.

For Maigret, the sea is first of all odors... of kelp, of boarding houses... and then there are images, of two orders – the pictures the sea offers, "white cliffs on the two sides of the pebble beach," "the dazzling froth of the waves," the "so tasty light of the morning, especially when the moisture of the night still shimmers in the rays of the sun" (who realized that our inspector had the heart of a poet!); and vacationers... "the men in flannel trousers," "the girls who danced in the waves," "the mothers knitting," "the old couples who walked with small steps," "children squatting in the rollers," etc. And there are the sounds: "the rhythmic noise" of the waves, the "raucous calls" of the foghorn. And finally a taste, and a quivering on the skin... the taste of white wine and oysters, the fresh air of the morning, "with a tasty freshness which you breathed through all your pores."

2. A sentimental and nostalgic Maigret: small trains, a red ball and the green flash...

What I like, among other things in this novel, are the small touches by which Simenon makes his character so endearing to us. After having shown him admiring the spectacle of the sea, he shows us two more aspects which make him so human... a nostalgic and sentimental Maigret.

Maigret feels nostalgia for his childhood memories... as is evoked in more than one novel. If we already knew of his admiration, as a child, for the Countess of Saint-Fiacre (FIA), of his past as a choirboy (FIA, cho), we discover here that when he was child "he had dreamed of one day punching railway tickets" (and what little boy didn't at some time!).

In spite of his readily gruff airs, our inspector is actually sentimental – we have more than one piece of evidence of it in this novel. For example, the small train which resembles a toy, and by the door of which Maigret leans to see the sea more quickly; or the large red ball with which some teenagers play... is Maigret perhaps envious and would prefer to share their play than to listen to the empty words of this "jerk" Charles Besson... And finally, what do you think of this Chief Inspector who insists on watching for – and in vain besides – the green flash of the sunset, to the point of hurting his eyes? What could better inspire us to a sympathetic feeling for him?!

3. Maigret and drink: an investigation under the sign of Calvados

I will not redo here the analysis of Maigret's relation with drink – others have already done it – and extremely well (let us cite, among others, Courtine's classic Simenon and Maigret sit down to eat, published by Laffont, as well as the very nice work of Jacques Sacré, Bon appetite, Inspector Maigret from Céfal.).

I would just like to emphasize here how this relationship with drink is closely related to the course of an investigation. In this novel, as in so many others, Maigret is brought to drink heavily. All kinds of drinks, but one in particular... Calvados... naturally, since the investigation takes place in the area of origin of this beverage!

While waiting for the little train for Etretat, Maigret drinks a first Calvados in the station café. Later, discussing with Inspector Castaing the burial of La Rose, what brings the burial to his mind is "a whiff of Calvados." Then, it is Valentine herself who will offer him her more-than-30-year-old Calvados, "a golden old Calvados whose perfume impregnated the room," a Calvados "so very old, so famous " that we might suspect Valentine of trying to get him drunk; but he, in spite of appearances, is not affected, since on leaving he heads immediately to a bar for a cool glass of beer, so much had this Calvados "given him a thirst for something more vulgar and refreshing."

Which does not prevent him from "taking it up again" in the evening, when he goes to the casino bar: "Maigret drank a Calvados, because he was in Normandy and that's what he had started with." And he continues at the time of his second visit to Valentine: she again offers him her famous Calvados, which ends up numbing the Inspector, who even manages to fall asleep! Does Valentine thus believe to have also deadened Maigret's suspicions? She would be wrong! Even if he accepts a Calvados at the time of his third visit (and do we sense that it may be, at this time, a sort of tactic, to be able to observe the old lady, rather than a real desire for drinking!), it is during the final scene in which Maigret manifests by a significant gesture that his attitude towards Valentine has changed, and that it he will no longer allow her machinations: indeed, when the old lady tries to offer him once again the alcohol that they had shared more than once, Maigret tears the bottle of Calvados from her hands and throws it violently to the floor, symbolically breaking thus their relationship, because he has discovered her real personality, that of a solitary old woman, a poisoner who did not shrink from committing two murders to preserve her fortune.

4. Criminal women: spies, impassioned and interested parties

The portrait of Valentine, murderess for self-interest, made me think of another portrait of a murderous woman, Mme Serre, the dentist's mother in GRA. Isn't it true that Maigret met fewer women murderers than men during his career? An examination of the corpus supports this premise:

male murderers (64). e.g. VAC: Doctor Bellamy.

female murderers (20). e.g. HOL Any; TRO Mme Gouin.

both (8). 1) the case of several murders, one of which is done by a woman and the other by a man, as in LET (Pietr and Anna), CEC (Cecile and Dandurand), TEN (M. and Mme Moncin) and CHA (Fazio and Nathalie Sabin-Levesque) , or 2) a crime committed by a couple, as in COR, CLI, PAT and IND. In these four cases, it is a question of eliminating a cumbersome husband for the pair of lovers.

no murder (11). Stories in which there is no murder... can be a question of a suicide (VIE), flight (theft, robbery...) (not), or not strictly speaking murder, as MEM, LOG, MIN.

Examining the (20) murders committed by women more closely, we can see that the motives generally fall into two broad groups:

1) "murder for love." Anna in LET (she kills Mortimer "to save" Pietr), Any in HOL (love changed to hate), Anna in FLA (a quasi-incestuous love for her brother), Jaja in LIB (jealousy of Sylvie), Miss Wilfur in lun (love combined with madness), Dora in hom (the traditional crime passionnel), Isabelle in obs (she kills to defend her husband), Yvonne Moncin in TEN (she kills to "prove" the innocence of her husband), Jenny in SCR (she wanted to help Marton kill his wife)

2) "murder for self-interest." Those who kill to preserve either their fortune, or their social position, which they believe to be threatened: Mme Martin in OMB, Amélie in lar, Valentine in DAM; Mme Serre in GRA, Mme Gouin in TRO, Mme Parendon in HES. We can integrate into this group Emma Aerts in pen (where along with her love for Gradut is the desire to keep him while taking her husband's money) and Julia in ven (to retain her husband by offering him Borchain's money). The case of Lise in PRE is less clear: there is certainly the issue of self-interest, but we can imagine that she didn't really intend to kill Bob. Finally, the case of Nathalie in CHA is more complex: both murder for self-interest to eliminate her husband, and the murder of Fazio for disappointed love.

3) In a third group we can put the cases which do not fall into the above two, and which appear only rarely: Lena in arr and Germaine in owe (espionage story), Lucienne in eto (revenge), Cecile in CEC (revolt) and Paulette in TEM (self-defense).

5. Maigret's gastronomic infidelities – from Félicie's lobster to Fernande's coffee

The meal which Maigret shares with Arlette made me think of Jouanny's text of "How Maigret regards women." Many indeed are the novels where the Chief Inspector, solicited by feminine charms, could be tempted to succumb to them. But his fidelity to Mme Maigret being proverbial, he did not yield. Though... some might consider the meals which he shares with these ladies a form of infidelity... gastronomic.

We have the lobster box opened by Maigret for Else in NUI, the breakfast coffee at Fernande's in MAI, the lunch with Berthe Janiveau in SIG, and the impossible to ignore... Félicie's lobster! [FEL]

Can you find others?

Murielle Wenger

Original French

translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu 9/06

Maigret of the Month: Maigret et la Vieille Dame (Maigret and the Old Lady)
10/17/06 –
For nearly ten years Simenon lived in North America, and during that time he wrote 48 novels and 15 short stories. These included 21 novels and 5 short stories devoted to Maigret, but only two placed Maigret in an American setting – Maigret in New York and Maigret and the Coroner. To my mind these last two are not so successful, unless Simenon wanted to relate how awkward and difficult Maigret would be exploring and observing two investigations in a culture and language that were somewhat unfamiliar to him.

On the other hand, the author wrote nine other novels, out of 27, each with an American setting where he explores characters and relationships in a much more successful way. On his return to France in 1955, the first novel he wrote, La Boule Noire (The Rules of the Game) has Connecticut as a setting.

During the later months of 1949, there were two important, but very different, events that Simenon experienced.

The committee set up in France at the end of the Second World War to investigate those who were suspected of co-operation with the Forces of Occupation had now turned their attention to Simenon. This concerned the author’s connection with the Continental Films organisation that produced several films based on his work.

The committee decided that Simenon was guilty of collaboration and decreed that none of Simenon’s work, in any form was to be produced in France for a period of two years. This meant a complete ban on any printed material, adaptions for the theatre, film and radio and in any other format.

This decision was sent to him in July, but to his last address in the Vendée region of France, so Simenon was only aware of the circumstances when the information reached him in Arizona in October. Realising that it would affect his main source of income, among other implications, immediately he wrote a statement to the committee putting his side of the situation and sent it to his lawyer in Paris, Maître Maurice Garçon, who was successful in winning over Simenon’s argument, so that in December 1949 the committee retracted their decision.

The other important event was on the 29th of September 1949 when Denyse Ouimet gave birth to Simenon’s son Jean, named after his godfather the film director Jean Renoir.

At this time they were still living in Tucson, Arizona, but once more decided to move.

Simenon’s wife, Tigy, their ten year old son Marc, and Boule already had rented a house by the sea at Carmel in California, and he, Denyse and Jean (usually called John or Johnny) followed them at the end of October, renting a house in Ocean View Avenue in Carmel, which reminded Simenon of France’s Côte d’Azur.

The events that Simenon was experiencing during this time had an effect on him, which he later related in his last autobiography Memoires Intimes (Intimate Memoirs). The birth of his son Jean / John was on the joyous side, but there was a shadow cast by the French Committee’s decision, even though it was rescinded. Then there was the tension between the two “camps” in Carmel, these being Simenon, Denyse and their young son on the one hand, with Tigy, Marc and Boule on the other. The termination of Simenon and Tigy’s marriage was very much in the near future.

How much effect this had on Simenon’s writing is a matter of speculation as he has said very little about it, but his first works after moving to Carmel were two Maigret novels, Maigret and the Old Lady and Madame Maigret’s Own Case / Madame Maigret’s Friend / The Friend of Madame Maigret, written basically in December four days apart.

Several times Simenon has stated that to write a Maigret work was a form of relaxation compared to the mental strain of producing some of his other novels. So now perhaps he was turning to Maigret and his wife and their stability as a contrast to the life he was living through then.

Maigret arrives in Étretat (Seine-Inférieure) on the Normandy coast. His journey is the result of a visit by a Madame Valentine Besson (the old lady of the novel’s title) to his office on the Quai des Orfévres, as well as an independent request by Madame Besson’s stepson, Charles Besson, a Deputy in the Fécamp area, to Maigret’s superior.

The cause of the request is that Rose Trochu, Valentine’s maid, has died as a result of swallowing her employer’s nightly drink.

At Étretat, Maigret is met and assisted by Inspector Castaing from Le Havre who explains the situation to him.

Simenon deftly describes the atmosphere of the Normandy coast with Maigret for some moments transported back in his mind to his earlier experiences by the sea.

Although this Maigret novel is as long as many of the others, the structure is different. Maigret’s investigation only lasts two days, during which time he questions several members of Valentine Besson’s family, as well as travelling the few miles to Yport to visit the family of Rose Trochu. Because of this time factor Maigret’s investigation is condensed into a steady methodical routine without much time to do other things and break the steady rhythm of the story line.

It is almost as if Simenon, having worked out the idea for the novel, is going through the motions, with the result that this novel is not as interesting as many of the others.

The only translation is by Robert Brain who remains close to the author’s French text.

A map of Étretat in the 1930s (Guide Michelin, France, 1934).

Peter Foord

Maigret of the Month: Maigret et la vieille dame (Maigret and the old lady)
9/8/06 –
[original French]

1. Maigret et la mer: arcs-en-ciel brillants et maillots clairs de baigneuses...

Revoici notre commissaire devant la mer. Après le climat Méditerranéen et quasi estival (l'action se passe en mai) de AMI, c'est la Manche en automne (septembre) qui accueille Maigret.

Cette mer évoque pour Maigret les souvenirs de vacances: celles qu'il n'a pas pu s'offrir en étant jeune, quand "alors qu'il était au collège, il avait vu des camarades revenir de vacances, brunis, avec plein d'histoires à raconter et des coquillages dans les poches [...]", puis celles qu'il a passées en bord de mer avec Mme Maigret.

Pour le commissaire, la mer c'est d'abord des odeurs: celle du varech, celle des pensions de famille; c'est aussi des images, de deux ordres: le tableau qu'offre la mer: "les falaises blanches des deux côtés de la plage de galets", "l'écume éblouissante des flots", la "lumière si savoureuse du matin, surtout quand l'humidité de la nuit met encore comme un frémissement dans les rayons du soleil" (saviez-vous que notre commissaire avait une âme de poète?!); et les vacanciers: "des hommes en pantalon de flanelle", "les jeunes filles qui dansaient dans les vagues", "des mères de famille qui tricotaient", "des couples de vieillards qui marchaient à petits pas", "les enfants accroupis dans les galets".etc. C'est encore des sons: "bruit rythmé" des vagues, "appels rauques" de la corne de brume. C'est enfin un goût et un frémissement sur la peau: goût du vin blanc et des huîtres, et air frais du matin, "d'une fraîcheur savoureuse qu'on respirait par tous les pores".

2. Un Maigret sentimental et nostalgique: petits trains, ballon rouge et rayon vert...

Ce que j'aime, entre autres, dans ce roman, ce sont les petites touches par lesquelles Simenon sait nous rendre son personnage si attachant. Après nous l'avoir montré en admiration devant le spectacle de la mer, il nous le montre aussi sous deux aspects qui le rendent si humain: un Maigret nostalgique et sentimental.

Maigret a la nostalgie de ses souvenirs d'enfance: le fait est évoqué dans plus d'un roman: si on connaissait déjà son admiration de gamin pour la comtesse de Saint-Fiacre (FIA), son passé d'enfant de chœur (FIA, cho), on découvre ici que lorsqu'il était enfant "il avait rêvé de poinçonner un jour les billets de chemin de fer" (quel petit garçon n'a pas eu un jour ce rêve!).

Malgré ses airs volontiers bourrus, notre commissaire est un grand sentimental: nous en avons plus d'une preuve dans ce roman. Par exemple, le petit train qui ressemble à un jouet, et par la portière duquel Maigret se penche pour apercevoir plus vite la mer; ou encore le gros ballon rouge avec lequel des adolescents jouent: peut-être Maigret les envie-t-il et préférerait-il partager leur jeu plutôt qu'écouter les fadaises de ce "ballot" de Charles Besson...Et enfin, que pensez-vous de ce commissaire qui s'obstine à guetter, en vain d'ailleurs, le rayon vert jusqu'à s'en faire mal aux yeux ? Quoi de mieux pour nous inspirer un sentiment de sympathie à son égard?!

3. Maigret et la boisson: une enquête sous le signe du calvados

Je ne vais pas refaire ici l'analyse des rapports de Maigret avec la boisson: d'autres l'ont déjà fait – et fort bien fait (citons, entre autres, le classique Simenon et Maigret passent à table, de Courtine, aux éditions Laffont, ainsi que le très joli ouvrage de Jacques Sacré, Bon appétit, commissaire Maigret, paru aux éditions du Céfal.).

J'aimerais juste souligner ici comment ce rapport à la boisson est intimement lié au déroulement de l'enquête. Dans ce roman, comme dans tant d'autres, Maigret est amené à boire beaucoup. Toutes sortes de boissons, mais une en particulier: le calvados. Normal, d'ailleurs, puisque l'enquête se déroule dans le pays d'origine de ce breuvage!

En attendant le petit train pour Etretat, Maigret boit un premier calvados dans l'estaminet de la gare. Plus tard, discutant avec l'inspecteur Castaing de l'enterrement de la Rose, la première idée qu'évoque pour lui cet enterrement est celle d'"une bouffée de calvados". Ensuite, c'est Valentine elle-même qui va lui offrir son calvados de plus de trente ans d'âge, un "vieux calvados doré dont le parfum imprégnait la pièce", un calvados "tellement vieux, tellement fameux" qu'on pourrait soupçonner Valentine de chercher à en "saouler" le commissaire; mais celui-ci, malgré les apparences, ne s'y laisse pas prendre, puisqu'au sortir de chez Valentine, il se précipite au bistrot pour y avaler un verre de bière fraîche, tellement ce calvados lui "a donné soif de quelque chose de plus vulgaire et de plus désaltérant"!

Ce qui ne l'empêche pas de "remettre ça" dans la soirée, lorsqu'il se rend au bar du casino:

"Maigret but un calvados, parce qu'il était en Normandie et qu'il avait commencé." Et cela continue lors de sa seconde visite chez Valentine: elle lui offre de nouveau son fameux calvados, qui finit par engourdir le commissaire, qui a même failli s'endormir! Valentine croit-elle ainsi avoir endormi aussi les soupçons de Maigret? Elle aurait tort de s'y fier! Même s'il accepte le calvados lors de sa troisième visite chez Valentine (et encore peut-on pressentir chez lui à ce moment une forme de tactique pour pouvoir observer la vieille dame, plutôt qu'une réelle envie de boire!), c'est au cours de la scène finale chez cette dernière que Maigret manifeste par un geste significatif qu'il a changé son attitude envers Valentine, et qu'il ne se laisse plus prendre à ses manœuvres: en effet, quand la vieille dame veut lui offrir à nouveau l'alcool qu'ils ont partagé plus d'une fois, Maigret lui arrache des mains la bouteille de calvados et la lance violemment sur le sol, brisant ainsi symboliquement leur relation, car il a découvert la vraie personnalité de Valentine, celle d'une vieille femme solitaire, d'une empoisonneuse qui n'a pas reculé devant deux meurtres pour conserver sa fortune.

4. Les femmes criminelles: les espionnes, les passionnées et les intéressées

Le portrait de Valentine, meurtrière par intérêt, m'a fait penser à un autre portrait de femme criminelle: celui de Madame Serre, la mère du dentiste dans GRA. En y réfléchissant, j'ai eu l'impression que Maigret avait rencontré moins de femmes criminelles que d'hommes au cours de sa carrière. J'ai eu alors la curiosité d'examiner le corpus. Voici, résumé sous forme de graphique, ce qui ressort de l'analyse:

Nous trouvons 64 romans où le meurtrier est un homme (par exemple, le Dr Bellamy dans VAC), et 20 romans où le meurtre est commis par une femme (par exemple , Any dans HOL, Mme Gouin dans TRO). De plus, il y a 8 romans où on trouve des meurtriers des deux sexes: on trouve ici deux cas de figures:

1° il y a plusieurs meurtres, dont l'un est commis par une femme et l'autre par un homme : c'est le cas de LET (Pietr et Anna), de CEC (Cécile et Dandurand), de TEN (M. et Mme Moncin) et de CHA (Fazio et Nathalie Sabin-Levesque)

2° le crime est commis par un couple de complices: COR, CLI; PAT et IND. Dans les 4 cas, il s'agit d'éliminer un mari encombrant pour le couple d'amants.

Enfin, il y a 11 romans où il n'y pas de meurtrier: il peut s'agir d'un suicide (VIE), d'un vol (not), ou d'histoire où n'y a pas à proprement parler de meurtre (MEM, LOG, MIN). LETEn examinant le graphique, il nous apparaît d'emblée que les meurtrières sont nettement moins nombreuses que les meurtriers. On trouve 20 romans seulement qui racontent un crime commis par une femme. Si on examine de plus près ces romans, on verra qu'on peut classer les meurtrières en deux grands groupes:

1° les "meurtrières par amour": c'est le cas de Anna dans LET (elle tue Mortimer pour "sauver" Pietr), Any dans HOL (un amour qui s'est transformé en haine), Anna dans FLA (un amour quasi incestueux pour son frère), Jaja dans LIB (jalousie par rapport à Sylvie), Miss Wilfur dans lun (amour qui confine à la folie), Dora dans hom (le "crime passionnel" classique), Isabelle dans obs (elle tue pour défendre son mari), Yvonne Moncin dans TEN (elle tue pour faire croire à l'innocence de son mari), Jenny dans SCR (elle voulait aider Marton à tuer sa femme).

2° les "meurtrières par intérêt": ce sont celles qui tuent pour conserver soit leur fortune, soit leur position sociale, qu'elles croient menacées: Mme Martin dans OMB, Amélie dans lar, Valentine dans DAM; Mme Serre dans GRA, Mme Gouin dans TRO, Mme Parendon dans HES. On peut intégrer dans ce groupe Emma Aerts dans pen (où se mêle à son amour pour Gradut l'envie de le garder en prenant l'argent de son mari) et Julia dans ven (conserver son mari en lui offrant l'argent de Borchain). Le cas de Lise dans PRE est moins clair: il y a bien sûr une question d'intérêt à la base, mais on peut imaginer qu'elle ne voulait pas vraiment tuer Bob. Enfin, le cas de Nathalie dans CHA est plus complexe: à la fois meurtre d'intérêt pour éliminer le mari, puis meurtre de Fazio par amour déçu.

On peut mettre dans un troisième groupe les cas qui n'appartiennent pas à ces deux catégories, et qui apparaissent dans une seule (voire rarement deux ) occurrence dans les romans: Lena dans arr et Germaine dans owe (histoire d'espionnage), Lucienne dans eto (vengeance), Cécile dans CEC (révolte) et Paulette dans TEM (légitime défense).

5. Les infidélités gastronomiques de Maigret: du homard de Félicie au café de Fernande

Le repas que partage Maigret avec Arlette m'a fait penser au texte de Jouanny "Le regard de Maigret sur les femmes. Nombreux sont en effet les romans où le commissaire, sollicité par les appas féminins, a pu être tenté d'y succomber. Mais sa fidélité à Mme Maigret étant proverbiale, il n'a pas cédé. Quoique...certains pourront considérer les repas qu'il partage avec ces dames comme une forme d'infidélité....gastronomique.

Pour mémoire, citons la boîte de langouste ouverte par Maigret pour Else dans NUI, le café du petit déjeuner chez Fernande dans MAI, le déjeuner avec Berthe Janiveau dans SIG, et l'incontournable homard de Félicie! [FEL] En voyez-vous d'autres?

Murielle Wenger

English translation


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