The pace at which Simenon wrote his novels – particularly the early Maigrets – insures that themes in them will emerge as much from unconscious processes as from intention and craft. This is why interpretations of the books must content themselves with strands that do not tie neatly into an overall pattern, and that sometimes trail off into inconsistency or inconsequence. Yet it would be a mistake to think of the novels as slipshod. They are better understood as a variety of realism, one that coherently develops the idea that reality can never be shapely or self-consistent.
I am keeping this willful inconsistency in mind when I call Liberty Bar a rumination about selves – about the way the passage of time changes one self into another, and the way potential selves exist within each person, and die off, one by one, when the conditions for their emergence no longer exist.
In the early chapters of Liberty Bar, Maigret is sent to Antibes to solve the murder of William Brown – and to solve it, his superiors say, with “no drama.” The refrain returns to Maigret’s mind again and again throughout the book, like an insipid pop hook that has taken one’s consciousness captive. After interrogating two of the suspects, he is surprised to find himself somewhat disheartened – almost personally affronted – by how the victim spent his final years.
Why should that matter to Maigret? The answer is obvious. Looking at a portrait of Brown, at the “exaggeratedly calm gaze” and “good natured but ironic curl of the lips,” Maigret has to admit: “[T]here was something about his general bearing, his expression, that reminded Maigret of himself.” The narrative reinforces this sense of identification, telling us that Maigret enters the dead man’s villa like “an owner returning home,” sits in his favorite armchair, and receives a box of his cigars as a gift. On his way out of the villa, he even grabs Brown’s raincoat by mistake. At the eponymous bar, Jaja, the owner, says:
“You remind me of William... That’s where he sat... He too put his pipe down next to his plate when he ate... He had your shoulders... Do you know you look like him?”
Thus, Maigret sees Brown as a second self – or, better yet, as one of those potential selves, somehow released from his interior into the visible world. This is why he is so disturbed by the dreary domesticity into which the dead man seems to have retired: “ʻHow on Earth did a fellow like Brown spend ten years with these two women?’” Could such a dismal fate await Inspector Maigret?
Little by little, he uncovers the man’s story. Brown was a wealthy but parochial Australian rancher, enmeshed in a world of serious responsibilities – a wife, a business, a position to uphold. A necessary trip to France became a chance to claim some freedom. He decided to stay in Europe and live as a “wild hedonist, indulging in pleasures he hadn’t even known existed until then.” This escape has a secret appeal to Maigret, who from the beginning of the novel relishes the “holiday feeling” that predominates on the Riviera:
Maigret was trying in vain to take it all seriously. Was it because of the sun, the mimosas, the oranges, the fisherman looking for sea-urchins in three metres of limpid water?
He feels the allure of this environment most keenly at Brown’s funeral, where the absoluteness of death contrasts so strongly with the vibrant reality around him. The part of him that chafes at stability and domesticity – and that feels weighed down by the order to create “no drama” – wants to emulate Brown’s flight and “let everything go.”
Yet Brown’s story did not end with that embrace of libertinism. First there was his puzzling decision to live in that dreary villa with what Maigret ungenerously calls the “two shrews” – his mistress and her mother. Then there was a second escape – to Liberty Bar, “the last port of call, when you had seen everything, tried everything by way of vices.” Hidden in a corner of Cannes “less well lit than the others,” Liberty Bar possesses an atmosphere far different from the festivity and fun along the rest of the strip. It is a crumbling and desolate place, inhabited only by the fat owner Jaja and a slovenly young streetwalker named Sylvie. Yet the oblivion inside is strangely welcoming, as Maigret immediately feels.
Everyone in Liberty Bar has multiple selves – even Jaja, whose wretched existence, Maigret learns, is a descent from the more comfortable life she lived before her husband died. Looking at the case, and thinking about Brown’s last retreat, Maigret can see his own paths forking like quantum probabilities:
There is not much suspense about which option Maigret will choose. Steady and responsible to the end, he nevertheless bristles at the sacrifices that accompany his chosen path. As in so many of the Maigret novels, the focus of his discontent falls on the rich – and, in particular, on Brown’s son, who has taken over the family business and who seems to the Inspector both unforgivably privileged and utterly untouchable. When Maigret arranges for the four disreputable women in the father’s life to attend the funeral, it is a deliberate provocation, an attempt to épater les bourgeoisies australiennes.
Yet Maigret also realizes, on some level, that his job is to protect people like Harry Brown. He may make a number of small rebellions, but ultimately he chooses to serve the status quo. This is why, at the novel’s end, he can barely bring himself to answer Madame Maigret’s questions about the case. It is all too clear to Maigret which self he has chosen – certainly not a fun-loving playboy on the Riviera, and not even a wastrel vanishing into the shadows of the Liberty Bar. Just a detective who goes home to his wife and thinks about all the compromises his day comprises.
Simenon, Georges. Liberty Bar. trans. David Watson. London: Penguin, 2015.