I’m making it a rule now always to have something French on my ereader. Earlier in the year it was Simenon’s Maigret’s Little Joke, which I blogged about in June, and I have just finished Maigret in Vichy. I loved them both. Simonen wrote over eighty Maigret stories – that is quite some going for a serial detective and I think it must be pretty much a record. Though come to think of it, John Creasey wrote some 560 crime novels (as well as founding the Crime Writers Association). I don’t know how many featured the same detective, but I expect he clocked up a fair few featuring Gideon of the Yard or Inspector West, English equivalents of Maigret. I remember finding them still readable some years ago, but he was nowhere near as good a writer as Simenon. I particularly admire the way that Simenon managed to keep the series fresh. Maigret’s Little Joke and Maigret in Vichy both see Maigret helping to solve a crime which he is not officially investigating, one in Paris and one in Vichy where he has gone with Madame Maigret for the sake of his health. The atmosphere and the routines of the Spa town are wonderfully evoked: the ritual of taking the waters, the little band stand in the park, the avenues of trees. I always enjoy the novels that feature Madame Maigret – for me one of the most interesting marriages in fiction – and as they stroll around, seeing the same people again and again, they make up stories about them. Then one of these people, ‘the woman in lilac,’ is murdered, and it turns out that the Inspector in charge of the case is Lecoeur, who used to work under Maigret in Paris, and is only too glad of the opportunity to consult him . . . Great stuff, and I think I enjoy them even more in French than I do in English. Next up is Maigret and the Ghost.
Or in the original French, Maigret s’amuse, and, yes, I am reading it in the original French – on my Kindle with the aid of an electronic French dictionary. It’s wonderful: all I have to do is touch a word for a definition to appear. Mind you, it’s not perfect. It sometimes doesn’t have a definition and it translates into American English. When ‘boondoggle’came up I was none the wiser and had to look it up in my Concise Oxford Dictionary to discover that it means a useless undertaking or fraud. Still, it’s good enough for me to be grasp the gist of the novel fairly easily most of the time. I’ve been meaning for a while to brush up my French – years and years ago I did ‘A’ Level French – and the Maigret novels are perfect for this. They are quite short and fairly straightforward in their syntax, not too many past historic tenses or present subjectives. And they are good stories too. I think Simenon too must have amused himself with this one. Maigret has had quite a serious illness and has been told by his doctor that this year he must have a holiday. When their plans fall through he and Madame Maigret decide to spend the time having days out in Paris, and he promises not to go into the office. But of course his interest is piqued when he see in the newspaper that a woman’s body has been found stuffed into a closet in a doctor’s surgery. He sets himself the task of solving the crime without taking part or interfering in any way with the police investigation. How this will work out, I don’t yet know as I am only a fifth of the way through. Reading it in French has revealed some interesting aspects that you really wouldn’t be aware of reading it in translation. I am fascinated to see that Maigret addresses his old friend Dr Pardon as ‘vous’ even though they have dinner at each other’s houses every month. The novel dates from 1957, more formal days. Of course it makes ‘tu’ that goes back and forth between Maigret and his wife seem all the more intimate. I am confident that I can get to the end of Maigret s’amuse, but I am not sure that I am up for reading Camus’s La Peste in French. That is our book group choice for July. We’ll see.
I’m returning to a lot of old favourites at the moment – I might explore the reasons for that in another blog – and as I planned another raid on the shelves of the London Library for Maigret novels I reflected not for the first time on the discrepancy between the man and the books. It is telling that I do think of Maigret novels rather than Simenon novels. Simenon was fantastically prolific: according to the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Murder he wrote 84 Maigrets, over 500 pulp novels under pseudonyms, and around 350 darker psychological thrillers, usually featuring people on the verge of moral and emotional collapse. I much prefer the Maigret novels. Simenon himself certainly had a dark side. He behaved badly to the women in his life, particularly his daughter, and was a compulsive womaniser, claiming to have had sex with hundreds of women. He may or may not have been a collaborator during the war, but he certainly did not cover himself in glory. In short he was not much like his most famous character, Maigret, who is devoted to Madame Maigret, lives a solid bourgeois existence, and provides the moral touchstone of the novels. Maigret is empathetic to a high degree, with a deep understanding of the hopes and fears of the people he moves, the petty criminals, the prostitutes, the working classes and the struggling lower middle classes trying to cling to gentility. So, have I stopped reading Maigret novels because I disapprove of Simenon? Of course not. And I haven’t stopped reading Dickens because he treated his wife appallingly, either. So where would I’d draw the line and is there even a line to be drawn? I think there is, that I can conceive of a writer whose character and behaviour was so repugnant that I wouldn’t want to read his or her novels.