One of the many good things about my local library is the way that books are sometimes shelved in unexpected sections; so that people who might be stuck in their ways and reading habits might pick up something refreshingly different by mistake.
This afternoon the three Maigret novellas that I picked up from the crime section just before Xmas – and read one after the other as an immersion in another time and place -had been replaced by a discerning librarian on the “classics” shelf – a smaller and slightly stuffier enclave populated – this being England – largely by Dickens, Hardy and Elliot – with token spaces for mighty Russians like Tolstoy and – this being Brent – rebellious black voices like James Baldwin and Jean Rhys.
The three slim Simenon volumes looked like cheeky interlopers, with their CRI sticker with revolver logo clearly branding them as a lesser breed of text to be rubbing shoulders with these portly Victorian gentlemen and socially significant voices. And yet…
If the definition of “classic” literature is that it takes the reader into another time and place in their imagination and challenges them to think and feel on a deeper level and that this still works regardless of how long ago the work was written, I don’t think these books were mis shelved.
As a child, the 1960-63 Maigret BBC TV series was my first inkling that France existed as somewhere specific and apart. Chiefly the accordion heavy tango of a theme tune (by Ron Grainer – who also composed Dr Who and The Prisoner) accompanying Rupert Davies as Maigret in stylish mac and fedora striking a match on a wall to light his pipe; served as a meme for all things French in 1961 that weren’t actually General de Gaulle. That a Tango should be considered evocatively French is probably a tribute to English insularity. Paris, Buenos Aires …what’s the difference ? All sort of Latin and across the channel somewhere; and its an accordion for goodness sake.
As a detective hero, Maigret has got to be the least sexual of any detective other than Hammet’s Continental Op. A middle aged, married man in a childless marriage of unreconstructed patriarchy and affectionate bovine routine; in which he goes home for lunch whenever possible and Mme Maigret anticipates his arrival sufficiently to open the door before he gets to it.
There is a much sharper edge of social critique than I expected. Ian Rankin has argued that his Rebus series has been the best vehicle he could devise for running a series of stories about what’s happening in Scottish society. Andrea Camilleri would probably say the same about Montalbano. Reading Simenon is like that but also locked into a time and place that has gone. In 1950s Paris, if the Chief Inspector of the police Judiciare couldn’t commandeer the one car attached to the station, he would take the bus. I like that. He also spends most of the day having discreet and civilised nips of calvados or glasses of beer while ruminating in Bistros or cafes (putting away quite a bit but with no sense that he’d ever end up passed out on an armchair instead of in bed like Rebus does more often than not) which would now have him up on report.
There is an explicit statement in one story that the purpose of the police and the law is the upholding of power in the first instance, the rights of property in the second while the rights of people, especially those without wealth or power come a very poor third; and plenty of references to higher up judicial indifference to crimes affecting the lower orders, especially if they were ethnic minority.
This is a more effective look at themes of alienation, and the anxiety that human intuition, skill and empathy was being replaced with machines and systems, that ran through a lot of popular culture at the time. Comedy films like Jaques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) Spike Milligan’s Postman’s Knock (1961) or Norman Wisdom’s Early Bird (1965) – the last of which I recall queuing round the block for at the State cinema in Grays with hundreds of other school kids for the Saturday matinee (stall tickets 3d) – were built around this, with a backward looking nostalgia for small business as an embodiment of human quirkiness in the process of being buried by huge conglomerates with standardised systems.
Attempts by Maigret to use his weight to humanise the impact of the legal machine by turning a blind eye are a all part of the empathy he uses to solve problems of motive and method – most of which are bound up with human relationships. He does the job – when it comes to the crunch – because he finds the people involved interesting in a ruefully accepting kind of way. There is no Manichean sense of good and evil, though no sympathy for the corrupt and powerful. Wrong doing is seen as a social activity – one way of surviving and fitting in. No one is inherently a bad ‘un. This is quite refreshing after reading too much Harry Bosch – because if you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
Simenon’s motto was to seek to understand without judging – something anyone concerned with the increasing impact on our personal and collective mental health of systems that judge without understanding will find quite contemporary.