by Georges Simenon
176 pages, Penguin Classics
Review by Pat Black
Penguin has done alright by Georges Simenon. Perhaps sensing an opportunity alongside a new series of TV adaptations starring Rowan Atkinson, they’re currently reissuing the Maigret stories.
All of them. Seventy-six novels. That’s beaucoup de books. I…
Look, I’m not a racist, but I dunno if I can be bothered with these italics. My “I” key is taking a fearful beating and we’re only two pars in. From now on, I might go easy on the Franglish - and the emphasis. Spare us all some grief.
Penguin has reissued a lot of the author’s other stuff as well, though they surely can’t get around to it all – because Georges Simenon wrote almost 500 novels. The Belgian’s prolific literary output was perhaps only matched by his infamous sexual appetite. Mick Jagger’s pointy-finger dance had absolutely nothing on Simenon’s rigid digits machine-gunning the typewriter. Did he take a shagbreak from all that writing, or a typing break in between all the shagging? Mais be oui’ll never know.
God, I’m so sorry.
Pietr The Latvian is the first Maigret novel, originally published in 1930. The Parisian detective is introduced as a burly fellow in a bowler hat with a pipe clamped between his jaws, as broad as he is long. He’s the type of lump who doesn’t really fight that much, because he doesn’t have to. If you smacked him one, he might frown a bit, and take a few seconds to decide what to do with you.
Maigret works hard, but usually finds a bit of time to warm himself by an open fire that’s kept well stocked in his office. There’s something about that big old fire, which Maigret rubs his hands in front of as he ponders his next move. I fancied I felt warmth seeping into my bones whenever it flickered into life on the page; there’s something very clever going on there.
Pietr the Latvian of the title is a master counterfeiter, who’s been spotted on a train into Paris. On a tip from a primitive form of Interpol, Maigret is on hand to arrest him… so it’s tres embarrassing when he discovers his target has been murdered on the train.
Things get even odder, as the late Pietr the Latvian is clocked by witnesses just a few hours later at a swanky Paris hotel, alive and well and supping alongside an American millionaire.
There is some suspicion that Georges Simenon knew nothing about police procedure – that he made it all up on the hoof. He happens to have a crime, and he happens to have a detective on hand to solve it. That’s all he really needs for his tale to be told. I’ve no way of knowing if that’s true, but things do seem quite haphazard, even for a detective novel which first appeared as a serial in 1930. It’s short and pacy, with time for a couple more murders as Maigret attempts to uncover the mystery of how Pietr the Latvian managed to cheat death, and just what he’s up to in the five-star hotel.
Perhaps Simenon didn’t have time to finesse the detail, as he was too fully immersed in the story… or maybe he was banging. “I think I’ll take a walk down to the police station and ask a gendarme for some tips… Cripes, I’ve ended up banging instead. Zut! I’ve done it again! Au secours ma Boab!”
Breakfast: banging. Lunch: banging. Extended two-hour lunch: extended banging. Dinner: banging. Cheeky petit digestif? Cheese et bisquets before bedtime? Not before some banging. And so forth.
He must have had a few days like that, because it seems that Georges Simenon was a veritable Duracell Bunny when it game to Le Banging. He claimed he had slept with 10,000 women. Even if he’s telling les porcees, and say it’s just half that… blimey… even a tenth of that… folks, admittedly I’m no James Bond, but that still seems like an unfeasibly big final score to me. To even compute it is an act of lunacy. A simple numerical representation seems insufficient. It would send anyone of a mathematical bent, never mind puritanical, into a rubber room.
He claims he began his banging career at the age of 13, but for the sake of clarity let’s condense the stats into a peak period, aged 20-60. That being the case, his scorecard breaks down to more than 240 different women – that’s different women shagged, not the actual amount of shags – every year. That’s 20 a month. That’s five a week. Five different women every week! Even that number assumes a smooth, even distribution in bangs. If he had a super peak period, he could have been banging 2-3 different women every day at the top of the graph.
It seems unfeasible, but in interviews, Simenon’s son has corroborated the long-standing myth of his father’s swordsmanship. It seems the Buoyant Georges would bob off down the brothel on his lunch break every day… so it seems seduction wasn’t the whole story. But even if he was using prostitutes, that still seems rather a lot. You’d think he would get tired; some nights, instead of a bang, he might fancy watching the snooker. Dipping his balons in an ice bucket, perhaps. But non! Nous allons bang on! Je pense, donc je bang!
If you express it in fractions or decimalise it, it gets worse. How many nights did he do half a bang and give up – say, at the end of a big session, and he’d already gotten through 99% of his daily ammunition allocation? How many centilitres per bang, per day? What was the probability of him running into women he forgot he’d banged in the street? What percentage of his mates’ wives and girlfriends did he bang? Did he get bored, seek out a bloke and get banged himself on rare occasions – expressed as binary figure 0, and not 1? Did he ever do four-fifths of a bang and stop suddenly, for a laugh? It’s not like he was worried about where the next one was coming from. Did he overbang it in fact – revving up to 150% and passing out?
If he had a Fitbit, would it calculate he had banged for ten miles per day? What was the probability of him not having a bang one day? Minus or equal to 0.0000005 to the nearest 0.1 percent I reckon. What was the standard bangiation? Could the exact figure be turned upside down, to spell out “boobies” on a calculator? Did he buy his French letters in hundreds, tens or units? Statistically, if one in a hundred johnnies is a potential felt-ripper, how many split parachutes did he get over a lifetime? Can we represent his banging coefficient in any given social situation with the Greek letter Shagma?
…Paris between the wars comes across as a damp, seedy place. Maigret tails Pietr in and out of various bars, watching him drink heavily, gaining a picture of the man and his movements. Most controversially, le Commissaire heads into a Jewish ghetto and the author states some racially unpleasant things. “Different races have a peculiar smell,” Simenon says, before hinting that the Jewish smell isn’t very nice.
Usual flimsy excuses apply – it was the 1930s, and racism was a hot topic for the chattering classes, a bit like fleek eyebrows and really bad beards these days. I think.
Maigret doesn’t give a lot away about himself. A taciturn gargoyle taking a keen note in everything which occurs beneath his high cathedral perch, his method is all in the observation of behaviour. He’s looking for that one little detail which can unlock character, and ultimately crack the case. We know little of the detective’s personal life and only meet his wife at the end. Among the sparse character details, we find out that he likes to refuel during long, sleepless investigations with piles of sandwiches and bottles of beer poured into a glass - best consumed, of course, in front of that roaring fire.
Surprisingly, there’s no bed-hopping, although Maigret is particularly interested in a poor Jewish girl who has some connection to the man in the title. Maigret doesn’t process her in entirely complimentary terms, but there’s an undercurrent of raw attraction there. During a scuffle in one of the climactic scenes, Maigret manages to tear her dress, displaying her “magnificent” bosom. I heard a sleazy saxophone lick when this happened; I wondered if we’d taken a hop across the Channel for a hit of extremely low farce.
It was all too telling. The bloke doth protest too much. Maybe when you’re as oversexed as Georges Simenon, the idea: “Could I have sex with this woman?” has been completely usurped in favour of: “How long do I have to wait before I can get her clothes off?”
Maigret is tough. He gets shot at one point, but has the wound bandaged up and carries on with the job. He’ll worry about changing his dressing and mild inconveniences such as blood loss and infection much later. Again, rather than striking back hard, Maigret is a brooding goat instead of an angry bear, mulling over situations and possibilities as he chews on the end of his pipe.
There are many parts where I said to myself: “That’s so French!” Part of my understanding of what constitutes “French” comes from Allo Allo!, Inspector Clouseau and art house films shown way past my bedtime on Channel 4 in the 1980s, so we should tread warily here. All the same, there are some bungling policemen who allow people to slip away during surveillance for the daffiest reasons. There’s wildcattish hysteria from some unfathomable women. And there are lots of exclamation marks, raising their hands brazenly amid the quiescent sea of text.
The climax to the story was remarkable. Maigret tails his quarry to the seaside, and they have a sloppy, indistinct fight on a sighing shingle beach which takes on the tones of foreplay. It’s a kind of Olly Reed/Alan Bates wrestling match scene (all it needs is a roaring fire, in fact). There’s even a point where the villain has a chance to kick Maigret into the sea, but doesn’t. Out of a sense of resignation? Or fraternite? Who knows? It’s a wee bit like the Musketeers, drawn into friendship after an original arrangement to cross swords.
It gets stranger still, as the two men check into a hotel and get out of those wet things. The man Maigret is chasing reveals all, explaining what he did, how he did it, and why he did it. This might be the most French part of all – love affairs are detailed, follies are regretted, and motive is tenderly exposed. We are treated to the sight of the hulking police inspector and his adversary, fluffy and dry in soft cotton dressing gowns, going over the whole story like a pair of old ladies preparing for a spa day. More than anything else in the book, this total oddity of a scene will bring me back to Maigret. It was quite incredible.
Ah, go on then. Incroyable.