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Maigret and memory

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arts and theatre, creative writing

Between 1931 and 1972, the French writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989) published 75 novels featuring the celebrated Detective Chief Inspector Maigret. Simenon was incredibly prolific and produced several hundred books, though it is through Maigret that he is best known. There have been numerous films and also two British TV series, starring Michael Gambon and (later) Rowan Atkinson as the master sleuth. The whole Maigret series is available in English in a fairly recent issue from Penguin.

While the nation has been doing various obsessive pastimes during lockdown, like running from Land’s End to John O’Groats without leaving the house, or bingeing on masses of TV boxed sets, I set myself the task of reading the entire Maigret series from 1 to 75. At this moment, I am midway through #74, with a slight sense of sadness that I shall soon reach the end.

I’m sure that the series isn’t intended to be consumed all in one go in less than 6 months. At a conservative estimate, this equates to over 12,000 pages. However, it has been interesting to move through time with the author and his characters in a period of over four decades. Maigret is a large man often seen smoking a pipe. A raincoat and a hat are also part of the image. Simenon was anxious to get away from novels that glorified the criminals, gentlemen thieves and aristocratic murderers, and wanted to portray the decent but difficult role of the police, as they operate between the criminal fraternity on the one hand and the upper class establishment of the judiciary, so Maigret himself comes from rural stock, his father having been an estate manager at a chateau.

In contrast to, say Sherlock Holmes, Maigret relies more on instinct and getting to know his victims and suspects, rather than on brilliant leaps of deduction. As a result, there is a characteristic cycle where at first he is not sure in what direction his enquiries are leading. This makes him appear ill-tempered and taciturn. Later, things start to fall into place, though often he is left weary or saddened by the outcome. He makes it clear that he does not wish to judge the actions of others: that is for the courts.

Although we occasionally encounter Maigret’s first name, Jules, we are not told the given name of his wife, who appears as Madame Maigret throughout. She has extreme patience for all his foibles, cooks devotedly and usually manages to greet him by opening the front door when she hears him on the stairs coming home. I imagine that there has been plenty of feminist analysis of her contributions to Maigret’s life and well-being.

Over the 40 years of action, there are some small changes. There is the occasional mention of technology, like a computer, in the later books. When makes and models of car are mentioned, these probably move with the times. However, most of the collection is in a largely undefined temporal space of mid-twentieth century Paris. Sometimes other parts of France, or even abroad: Belgium (early works – Simenon was born in Belgium), England and the USA. Each book is firmly set in a month of the year and the weather is often described. So too, is the food and drink that Maigret and his colleagues consume at the host of bars and bistros they frequent. In the later books, Maigret is drinking less alcohol, just as well as his levels of consumption are at times alarming.

What’s missing almost entirely from this chronicle of Maigret’s career is World War 2 and the German occupation of much of France. WW2 is hardly mentioned. In one book, the German bombing of a railway station in northern France is a key event, but otherwise you would hardly know. To some extent, this may mirror an awkward period for Simenon himself. Because of his surname, it was thought that he might have Jewish ancestry, but after the war he was in trouble from the other side as he had negotiated some film rights with German studios. He was notionally banned from publishing for five years but seems to have eluded this by moving to North America from 1945-55. He lived mainly in Switzerland after returning to Europe.

To write 75 novels about one character must have required an amazing ability to retain the details from each book. I’m not sure how Simenon remembered all the details about Maigret and his colleagues, so that they maintain a consistent identity through the series. Maybe he had a card index? Maybe just in his head? Nonetheless there are very few inconsistencies that I picked up in reading the series. Occasional details, so that an injury to the right eye later seemed to affect the left, but very little else.

The other element that relates to ageing and cognition is how the output of artists changes over time, and sometimes how this appears to reflect incipient dementia, for example in the case of Iris Murdoch. Simenon was publishing Maigret novels from the age of 28 to almost 70, so you would expect some changes in his writing style and choice of subjects. Some of this appeared to have been reacting to his market. For example, earlier books are more likely to have artisan settings, whereas later ones feature more cases among high society or very rich people. Later books are perhaps more likely to be set in Paris, especially Montmartre, laced with pimps and prostitutes, and one imagines that these were especially popular themes with his readership.

Simenon did publish a few books after the end of Maigret but at a slower rate. What caused him to stop writing Maigret novels, I don’t know. His later years were blighted by the suicide of his daughter in 1978 and surgery for a brain tumour in 1981. Whether the antecedents of either of these events contributed to the end of Maigret, we cannot really tell.

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