Of Letters

The Madman of Bergerac

This is no madman, it is the man who invented inspector Maigret and all the world of suspense and policier thrill that comes with it. It is a man that has given thousands of pages of inspiration and mystery to the world. His creation is the perfect match of a style of writing fit for an exercise of the mind, stimulation of the senses and travels through various regions of France through a gripping and exciting reading experience.

Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon

It is all about the crimes and shivers, the webs of thoughts and human intricacies that drive these authentic french detective stories. Simenon, a Belgian of Liege at roots, seemed to have been a man of sea and rivers, loved and embraced waves of naval settings and river cruising through locks, with all the smells, decors and bars surrounding such people of the marines. He was also a man on the go, to live his life across many countries and continents; at 19 moved from Belgium to Paris to live there till 1945, escapes to Quebec, Canada and lands shortly thereafter in several places in the US, from Arizona to Florida, California to Connecticut. 1955 is the year of his return to Europe, at first in France on the Cote d’Azur, and eventually settling for good in Lausanne, Switzerland. He has also lived through the fame and adventures of being involved with the ladies, with some oddity and twists he is always in pursuit of new experiences and ends living through two marriages and many extra-marital affairs.

Simenon at work

Simenon at work

Over the course of more than 40 years, Jules Maigret appears on the covers of over 100 books and has been portrayed numerous times on screen. A respectable statistic and one that tells much about the pace at which these pages were conceived and inked down on paper. Simenon declared himself as an adept of simplicity and of cutting literary weight and poetical exacerbation. One would say it’s all about the story, the atmosphere and the characters, but for sure that is not the impression that one gets from these stories, as they still somehow manage to delve down into descriptive details, locales and situations that are of essence and substance for the reader. It certainly offers weight to the pages…

But when I am doing a novel now I don’t see anybody, I don’t speak to anybody, I don’t take a phone call—I live just like a monk. All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels.

To give the weight. A commercial painter paints flat; you can put your finger through. But a painter—for example, an apple by Cézanne has weight. And it has juice, everything, with just three strokes. I tried to give to my words just the weight that a stroke of Cézanne’s gave to an apple. That is why most of the time I use concrete words. I try to avoid abstract words, or poetical words, you know, like “crepuscule,” for example. It is very nice, but it gives nothing. Do you understand? To avoid every stroke which does not give something to this third dimension.

On this point, I think that what the critics call my “atmosphere” is nothing but the impressionism of the painter adapted to literature. My childhood was spent at the time of the Impressionists and I was always in the museums and exhibitions. That gave me a kind of sense of it. I was haunted by it.

Georges Simenon, The Paris Review No. 9, Summer 1955

Detective Maigret has a certain charm that defines him well among the ranks of the Sherlocks and Poirots of the world. It is with native intelligence and astute observation that he carries through a case and follows through ideas and traces, listens to people, pulls out unexpected details and kicks a knack for human behavior and psychology. Bold, strong and of imposing stature, loving his pipe and contemplating the windy horizons while in search for explanations, he is there to stand against time. There is certainly a lot of correlation and biographical coincidence between Maigret and Simenon.

Simenon (second left) with four actors who played Maigret, including Rupert Davies on the far left.

Simenon (second left) with four actors who played Maigret, including Rupert Davies on the far left.

Le Fou de Bergerac starts on a night train from Paris to Villefranche-en-Dordogne. A strange night in a second class couchettes where Maigret tries to take rest but encounters a sleepless and agitated presence in the bed above him. Morning arrives with Maigret looking at the dangling feet above his head with the patent-leather shoes and hand-knitted socks, a leap off the train and the inspector following his intuition and his co-passenger and ending being shot in the shoulder, to give us the beginning of the plot of Le Fou in the search of the madman.

The Madman of Bergerac (1st edition 1932 1st Paris. Fayard. {Hôtel de France, La Rochelle, March 1932}

The Madman of Bergerac (1st Paris. Fayard.  Hôtel de France, La Rochelle, March 1932)

There is a certain level of surprise and intrigue, of unexpected events that Maigret follows through and enlightens the audience, that of course when he chooses to disclose such details. This is the quintessence of a policier, the art of mastering the elements and connecting each other to form the web of facts and people that will lead to the mastermind of the mystery and crime. And as such it invites the reader to think and try and follow the clues ahead of the story to comprehend the conundrum of the puzzle. And Simenon is a true master at this, creating all these complicated threads and lines and throwing them into a mysterious atmosphere of suspense and enigma.

Simenon in real life was as mysterious and intriguing as his novels. It is said that he was the master of contradiction, onto himself, dismissive of his own work and rebellious all around for reasons hard to comprehend. He wrote 44 novels in 1928, he once wrote a novel in seven days living inside a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge to attract publicity, he had an affair with singer Josephine Baker, and in 1929 decided to move to live on a boat called Ostrogoth, and while navigating through the canals of Begium and Holland the first Maigret novel came into existence.

In a lifetime of 86 years, he wrote 193 novels under his own name and almost 200 under 24 pseudonyms. World sales of his books are said to be well over 500 million, with translations in 55 languages. His work has been admired by Colette, Cocteau and T.S. Eliot, and compared to Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Dickens, yet the majority of his novels were completed in less than a fortnight.

David Howard, Book and Magazine Collector, March 2003, No. 228, pp 18-28

Photo: Edward Quinn/Camera Press/Retna

Photo: Edward Quinn/Camera Press/Retna

The plot of the story lands in Bergerac after Maigret gets shot in the shoulder, he is received in hospital and eventually at the Hotel d’Angleterre, but not before the officials of the town conclude that he is yet another victim of the madman of Bergerac. Here enters the one madman, the suspect, the bearer of the crime conduit, the one that will be imagined to be in the shoes of many of the locals.

What unfolds then for a lot of the pages is a discreet image of the charmant but troubled bourgeoisie that live in this small provincial town of Bergerac. It is somewhat a revisit to the world of Bunuel who so well depicted a similar world in his movie The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Maigret is a prisoner tied to recuperation and the bed, and is trying to create the list of suspects and imagine places and happenings surrounding the lives of some of the people that have an interest in the plot and of lives to be lived in Bergerac.

Bergerac (also home of Cyrano de Bergerac)

Bergerac (also home of Cyrano de Bergerac)

And so the characters step into the story one by one, to build up a list of suspects in Maigret’s head while he smokes his pipe and dialogues with Madame Maigret about the possibilities. What is interesting to follow is the human dissection that the Inspector goes through trying to find not only the prime suspect but also the motive. Of course, the motive, of why did somebody do it and what in their lives and behaviors triggered such an evil action. And so it is a lot to be understood and collected from the darker side of each of the protagonists that start to parade through Maigret’s room trying to keep on their facade of normality. One comes to realize slowly that it is not so much about the crime but more about the tragic human condition that some of the people in this world have to bear and drag others along with them.

As the madman of Bergerac had 2 victims already on his hand, strangled and their hearts pierced with a long needle, and a 3rd unsuccessful attempt, it was enough for an investigation and of keeping the detective interested and intrigued. One of the first characters to come along is the Monsieur le procureur Duhourceau, an official of Bergerac, who hurries to visit the commissaire as soon as he arrives. Lonely but wealthy living in a mansion with servants wearing striped waistcoats, he has the immediate attention over Maigret. The investigation leading to him through the eyes of Rosalie the chambermaid that used to work for Duhourceau uncovers the stranger sides of the prosecutor, a very well hidden and well collected library of forbiddingly erotic materials. Loneliness and being a public figure have pushed him out to the limits of abnormality and obsession. But here is a live lesson of psychology that Simenon likes to throw into action as a weapon of intelligence and intuition, a cross section onto what is all about this man Duhourceau:

Certainly Maigret was listening, but he would have been hard put to it to repeat a single word of what was said to him. What he was really concentrating on was the face in front of him, which he studied detail by detail.
A very fair complexion, almost too fair, set off by the gray hair… Monsieur Duhourceau was certainly not troubled by his liver. Nor was he either gouty or apoplectic…
What could be the weak spot in his constitution? For after all you didn’t reach the age of sixty-five without having a weak spot.
“Arterosclerosis,” answered Maigret to himself.
And he glanced at the thin fingers, the hands with their silky skin, the veins standing out and looking as hard as glass…
A small man, dry, highly strung, intelligent, and irascible.
“And morally? Isn’t there a weak spot there too?”
Of course there was. For in spite of all the prosecutor’s dignity and arrogance, there was something vague, evasive, and shamefaced about him.

The Madman of Bergerac, by Penguin Books,  June 5th 2007

The wound and the pain of Maigret forces onto stage the presence of Dr. Rivaud. Well established surgeon, with an excellent reputation and a fame for being capable, living in a typical family house and driving a modern car, does raise questions into the detective`s mind as soon as he learns of his not-so-well-establised relationship with his wife, Germaine, and his much younger and better looking sister-in-law, Francoise Beausoleil.

There is the old friend, the retired police inspector Leduc, which Maigret wanted to visit in the countryside, and he also gets on the list, to his surprise, being questioned on his normality or abnormality  of his love encounters. What is interesting about the stories of Simenon is that it does bring the guilty to the guillotine, sort of speaking, but not always in such mysterious and unexpected as one gets from Agatha Christie’s epilogues. There are many times when the reader thinks and feels of the culprit but then the plot carries him away.

Take Samuel Meyer, who is fundamentally the veritable villain, but who enters the scene being found shot and belonging to the past. He is immediately judged to be the One, the Madman, and the officials are pushing to end and classify the case. While it eventually it is proven that Meyer is the heart piercer, he does not play the key role into the resolve, it is the coolheaded Dr. Rivaud that creates and complicates the facts and events. He is the one cold blooded and calculated mind that drives the scene of the spectacle.

The unfolding of events start to get rolling from the conversation that the commisaire strikes with Rosalie, the maid working at the hotel,  from there it all links together slowly like a chain closing in and clicking into lock. But not with ease as the abundance of possibilities seem to linger and suffocate one’s mind with choice and questions.

There was the prosecutor’s face with its mixture of fierceness and cold disdain. The doctor’s worried face. And the rather insipid features of his wife’s. What would have been treating her for in the hospital at Algiers?… Francoise, slight, pretty, and eager… And Rosalie dreaming all night – to her young man’s despair. Were they already sleeping together?… That look of hers at Monsieur Duhourceau – was there something that had been hushed up?… And the man who had jumped from the moving train, only to shoot Maigret and die himself… Leduc and his housekeeper’s niece – it can easily land you in a mess, that sort of thing… The landlord of the Hotel d’Angleterre had already buried two wives and looked hefty enough to kill twenty…
Why did Francoise – or rather why was Dr. Rivaud jealous of his wife but not of her? Why was Leduc always beating about the bush?… Why?… Why?…Why?…

The Madman of Bergerac, by Penguin Books,  June 5th 2007

 

Bergerac and the Dordogne river

Bergerac and the Dordogne river

The sleuth slowly moves in, its mind starts to push the fog out of the port of investigation and navigation proceeds with all engines at full power. One does not know when Maigret clicks in, when realization becomes confirmation, when revelation leads to reality. An ad in the Bordeaux newspapers brings madame Josephine Beausoleil, the mother, and the history and lives of the two sisters alongside Dr. Rivaud are slowly released. Doctor at the hospital in Algiers, Rivaud is the saviour of Samuel Meyer through a simulated fire, due to a simple fact – Meyer was Rivaud’s father. The escape back to France and the beginning of a new life in Bergerac, and the father being shipped off to America whereas he cannot but continue with his crimes. He eventually makes his way back to France and Bergerac and Rivaud once again tries to conceal the whole plot and forces Duhourceau to stay out of suspicion and discovery. But one does not get to breath much as tragedy intervenes and brings the curtains over the stage of the story. It is the mad love story between Jacques Rivaud and Francoise that ends in a Shakesperean way, concluding the intentions and human conditions under which the doctor has acted and reacted. Suicide seemed the only salvation for the lovers, and Duhourceau is left to seal and approve the story, his involvement and need to keep the story at bay.

It is always good to come back to a Simenon detective story, it provides the antidote to uncertainty as it guarantees the joy and intellectual travels that one is to expect from his pages. And even so it is about the darker sides of humanity there is always the thrill of resolving that case of murder while being thrown onto some unique location and with some unique characters that describe us humans so well. It is so good to know you commisaire Maigret!

Why do you think Gogol interested you?
SIMENON
Maybe because he makes characters who are just like everyday people but at the same time have what I called a few minutes ago the third dimension I am looking for. All of them have this poetic aura. But not the Oscar Wilde kind—a poetry which comes naturally, which is there, the kind Conrad has. Each character has the weight of sculpture, it is so heavy, so dense.
INTERVIEWER
Dostoyevsky said of himself and some of his fellow writers that they came out from Gogol’s Overcoat, and now you feel you do too.
SIMENON
Yes. Gogol. And Dostoyevsky.

Georges Simenon, The Paris Review No. 9, Summer 1955

While writing

While writing

Simenon is the Balzac of our day. Using the recurring motifs of violence, death, and unique psychological insight, his works form a vast mosaic of twentieth-century man and his conflicts with himself, his past, his fellowmen, his family, his loves, and his own life. Each of his novels is like a somber strain in some monumental dark symphony that delineates modern man’s tragic condition, his loneliness and inability to communicate with himself or others, and the disastrous solutions he seeks as a means of resolving his situation. A detective of man’s emotions, Simenon charts those still unexplored dark areas of the human psyche.

Felix Marti-Ibanez, M.D.

Mystery Man

Mystery Man

Le Commissaire Maigret
Police Judiciaire
36 Quai des Orfèvres
Paris…

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