It’s reported that Alfred Hitchcock once telephoned Simenon only to be told that he was incommunicado as he had just begun a new novel. 'That’s all right,' said Hitchcock, 'I’ll wait.' (How Georges Simenon reinvented the detective novel)
In 1931, Georges Simenon (1903-1989) published the first eleven of his still-popular detective novels featuring Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris police. Simenon was an incredibly fast writer! He kept up an amazing writing speed for around 40 years; he wrote 75 Maigret novels, plus many others. Since 2016, Penguin Books has been publishing new translations of the Maigret books, and this week, I read two of these -- they are both rather short and read very quickly. Maigret at the Crossroads is the seventh in the series; The Two-Penny Bar, which has been translated under various other names, is the eleventh. In the past, I've read various others, including some in French.
Maigret at the Crossroads (La Nuit du Carrefour)
|Original Cover, 1931.|
"The place was worse than cluttered. It was sordid. A spirit stove encrusted with boiled milk, sauces, grease, on a table covered with a scrap of oilcloth. Tag ends of bread. The remains of an escalope in a frying pan sitting right on the table and dirty dishes in the sink."
"The inn at Avrainville was empty. A zinc counter, a few bottles, a big stove, a small billiard table with rock-hard cushions and torn felt, a dog and cat lying side by side … The proprietor was the waiter; his wife could be seen in the kitchen, cooking escalopes."
At a different inn: "Maigret went into the kitchen, where the innkeeper’s wife was preparing the evening meal. He cut himself a thick hunk of bread, moved on to a terrine of pâté, and asked for a mug of white wine."
Or the behavior of some of the criminals in Paris, described by a witness: "They start drinking champagne, having a gay old time. Then they order crayfish, onion soup, what have you, a real blowout, like those people get up to: yelling, slapping their thighs, belting out a little song now and then …"
Note: the Kindle edition of this book has no page numbers.
The Two-Penny Bar (La Guinguette a deux sous)
|Original Cover, 1931.|
"The bistro was at the back. It was a large lean-to with one wall completely open to the garden. Tables and benches, a bar, a mechanical piano and some Chinese lanterns. Some bargees were drinking at the bar. A girl of about twelve was keeping an eye on the piano, occasionally rewinding it and slipping two sous into the slot. ... The old woman from the bistro waited at the tables herself, anxious that the food was going down well – salami, then an omelette, then rabbit – but no one cared much." (pp 18-19).
Drinking plays a big role in this novel, as Maigret constantly drinks with a person that he expects to be a useful informant, and with the other suspects. He drinks Vouvray, Pernod (a "cloudy aperitif"), brandy, liqueurs, and beer. He's often described as being somewhat drunk, but it doesn't seem to stop his skills at putting together the relationships of all the prospective criminals and obtaining confessions about who was responsible for the murders that he's been investigating throughout the book.
Electricity hadn't yet reached every house in France. For example, searching for a fugitive, Maigret enters a house in a village:
"‘Could we have some light?’ Maigret asked the old woman.
"‘I’ll have to see if there’s any oil in the lamp,’ she replied tartly.
"It turned out that there was. The glass was replaced with a clink, the wick began first to smoke, then to burn with a yellow flame that gradually filled the corners of the room with light. It was quite hot inside the house. A smell of the countryside, of poverty." (pp. 123-124).
Many details in the novel really highlight how Paris has changed in the past 90 years. The descriptions of the streets, the apartments, and the inhabitants of poorer quarters of Paris is vivid and interesting. I was intrigued by Simenon's descriptions of the Jewish quarter in the Marais district of Paris, where some of the crime takes place.
Simenon and Antisemitism
The Jewish characters in both the novels I read are stereotyped in offensive ways. Curious about this, I looked up the topic of Simenon and antisemitism. Evidently there are even more severe instances of caricature and racism in his other works. In one recent essay, I read:
"Time and again, Simenon employs stock caricatures of Jews to arouse suspicion and disgust in his readers. One Simenon scholar finds Jews in 13 Maigret novels, an inexplicably high ratio. Two of Maigret’s Jews are murderers. None is sympathetic.
"Simenon has form on the far right. A wartime collaborator with the Nazi occupation, he fled to North America in 1945 and stayed abroad for a decade. In France, a judicial order banned him from publishing for five years. He was, and remains, suspect." (Detecting a nasty side to Maigret, 2013)
A New York Times review of Pierre Assouline's definitive book Simenon: A Biography described how Simenon and his family stayed in Paris after the Nazi occupation:
"Their stay in France lasted through World War II, when Simenon, exhibiting the careless anti-Semitism so deeply ingrained in much of European society, prospered by becoming, Assouline writes, 'not a man of commitment, but an opportunist.' He submitted his novels to German censors, and his films were made in active collaboration with Vichy officials. He became enormously wealthy." (The Maigret Machine, 1997)
I've been reading the Maigret books for a long time, but I don't remember being aware of the author's racist attitudes. Perhaps the books that remained in print before the re-issue of the complete set of 75 Maigret novels were chosen to be the less offensive ones, and perhaps I simply did not pay attention. I definitely see why they've been popular for such a long time despite this deep flaw.
|From 1930: a wine ad that to me captures the look of those times.|
Shared with Paris in July 2022 -- where lots of people are reading Simenon!