Sunday, January 17, 2010

Flashback: The Sponge and the Jellyfish

Originally posted March 30, 2008

Back in my college days, during the grim summer I spent in Baltimore borrowing four or five Simenon novels a week from the downtown public library, I came up with the theory that this natural born novelist, who seemed to write as effortlessly as breathing in and breathing out, breathing in details and sense impressions and breathing out stories, had created in Maigret a detective who solved crimes with intuitions strikingly similar to those of a fiction writer; moving into a new environment, absorbing impressions, coming up with a narrative.

This week I finally got around to a Maigret written in 1943, but first translated only in 1979, L’Inspecteur cadavre, which contains the following dead-on passage:

”…at that moment Maigret was living in a world of his own and not in the present at all, and he answered [Louis] half–heartedly without really knowing what the question was.

Many a time at the Police Judiciare, his colleagues had joked about his going off into one of these reveries, and he also knew that people used to talk about this habit of his behind his back.

At such moments, Maigret seemed to puff himself up out of all proportion and become slow-witted and stodgy, like someone blind and dumb who is unaware of what is going on around him. Indeed, if anyone not forewarned was to walk past or talk to Maigret when he was in one of these moods, he would more than likely take him for a fat idiot or a fat sleepyhead.

“So, you’re concentrating your thoughts?” said someone who prided himself on his psychological perception.
And Maigret had replied with comic sincerity:

“I never think.”

And it was almost true. For Maigret was not thinking now, as he stood in the damp, cold street. He was not following through an idea. One might say he was rather like a sponge.

It was Sergeant Lucas who had described him thus, and he had worked constantly with Maigret and knew him better than anyone.

“There comes a time in the course of an investigation,” Lucas had said, “when the patron suddenly swells up like a sponge. You’d think he was filling up.”

But filling up with what? At present, for instance, he was absorbing the fog and the darkness. The village round him was not just any old village. And he was not merely someone who had been cast into these surroundings by chance.

He was rather like God the Father. He knew this village like the back of his hand. It was as if he had always lived here, or better still, as if he had created the little town. He knew what went on inside all these small, low houses nestling in the darkness. He could see men and women turning in the moist warmth of their beds and he followed the thread of their dreams. A dim light in a window enabled him to see a mother, half-asleep, giving a bottle of warm milk to her infant. He felt the shooting pain of the sick woman in the corner and imagined the drowsy grocer’s wife waking up with a start.

He was in the café. Men holding grubby cards and totting up red and yellow counters were seated at the brown, polished tables.

He was in Genevieve’s bedroom…”

And with this Maigret is back in the main narrative, spinning out his mystery-solving account of what must have happened that night, the only thing that could possibly have happened.

There can't be much doubt that Simenon is writing about himself, here. I remember reading back in the day a magazine article about Simenon, I think in Life, that described his working methods: spending six or eight weeks at a stretch just wandering around Paris every day, soaking up impressions, swelling up, until it was time to rush home and write a novel in as little as two weeks. (I suppose a comparison with the process of gestation and birth would work also.) The Life article can now be read online.)

When I finished Inspector Cadaver I decided to give Fred Vargas a squeeze, if only to test my assumption that France’s current bestselling rompol author could hardly help owing a thing or two to her legendary predecessor. The first few chapters have been enough to confirm this, although they also suggest a more au courant debt to some popular Scandinavian imports.

There are some significant differences, of course: The second in command to Vargas’ rumpled and absent-minded crime-stopper, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, also compares his patron to a deep sea invertebate, though not to a sponge; rather to “a primitive species of jellyfish, without feet or tentacles, top or bottom, a sort of transparent being, floating in the water…”

Remains to be seen how much deeper the similarities run.

May 31, 2009

In an earlier post I argued that novelist Georges Simenon modeled the methods of his signature character, Inspector Maigret, on those of a novelist. A corroborating passage turned up today in an excellent biography of the writer:

"...Maigret and Simenon did have a parallel understanding of their principal activities. They saw police work and writing as uncomplicated crafts. Both had an aptitude for living the lives of others and for immersing themselves in a milieu. The policeman felt uncomfortable between cases, the novelist when he was between books.

"...Maigret reasons as Simenon writes. Both tend to have more sympathy for the perpetrator than for the victim. The investigator often says that he knows the murderer only by getting to know the victim well, and the novelist builds his tale in exactly the same way. In the investigation itself, as in the writing that engenders it, atmosphere, milieu, and characters are more important than plot, clue and suspense."


Tulkinghorn said...

Before you go running off to the cold comforts of the New England countryside, your readers might enjoy a top-five Maigret list....

Generic said...

At any remove at all I have a hard time remembering which is which. I was reading five of them a week!

Obviously the one named above. Also, of those I've read recently (all early installments, because that's the way I roll), "Night at the Crossroads" (filmed by Renoir), "Maigret and the 100 Gibbets" (terrific opening and pay off) and "The Yellow Dog" (great atmosphere).

I recall with fondness the later "Maigret s'amuse" ("Maigret's Little Joke"/"None of Maigret's Business," 1958) in which he solves a case from his vacation spot in the south of France by reading the papers and sending anonymous notes to the officer he left in charge.

Tulkinghorn said...

(Pushed the wrong button leading to much ugliness...)

For your vacation -- Happy hunting and collect them all!

JRSM said...

I love Simenon, but his books do blur in the memory, especially the Maigrets. That newspaper clipping has an unfortunate "I'm going to the toilet to crap out another book!" look to it, though.

Generic said...

Fe MagBib: I'd had a print out of this for over a year, checking them off one by one.

I think the novels tending to blur may be our fault -- or the fault of the way we read them. There are so many that it encourages casualness. So far they seem to reward closer attention' at least the early ones do.