giovedì 15 dicembre 2016


Social dimension in the Maigret short stories/3

La dimensione sociale nei racconti di Maigret/3 
Dimension sociale dans les nouvelles Maigret/3

In ‘Les larmes de bougie’/‘Death of a Woodlander’, Maigret is called to a small village in the forest of Orléans. An elderly woman, Marguerite Potru, has been stabbed to death and her sister, Amélie, who has not spoken since the attack, has knife wounds. Share certificates and money are missing. The principal suspect is Marguerite’s son, Marcel. Basing his deduction on a close reading of the report by the local police and a thorough examination of the scene of the crime, including the discovery of drops of candle wax near a barrel in the outhouse, Maigret decides that Amélie has killed her sister, hidden the valuables in order to implicate Marcel and that her wounds are self-inflicted to divert suspicion.
Again, it seems like an ingenious story of deduction, in which the solution can be attributed to Maigret’s impeccable logic and analysis of the evidence. In fact, as in ‘La fenêtre ouverte’, the story has a strong underlying social theme and Maigret’s solution of the enigma owes as much to his understanding of French rural society – its material backwardness and the limited horizons of its poorest inhabitants – as to his reasoning. The narrator reminds the reader that ‘Maigret had been born forty kilometres away’, but he is, nevertheless, unprepared for what he finds: "He expected to make a brief journey through space, and it proved to be an exhausting journey through time. Barely a hundred kilometres from Paris, […] he alighted from a preposterous little train […], and his request for a taxi was taken as a joke […]. He nearly had to complete his journey in the baker’s cart, but at the last minute he persuaded the butcher to drive him in his van."
Maigret ‘knew that certain hamlets still live today as they did in the thirteenth and fourteenth century.’ An exaggeration, perhaps, but it is nevertheless significant that much of the area is given up to hunting by the local aristocrat rather than to agricultural production and the economic activities of the local population reinforce the impression of backwardness: Marcel is a woodcutter, Yarko hauls timber with horses, the husband of Madame Lacore is a blacksmith, implying that horses are more common than machinery. Social conditions are primitive. The hamlet consists of: ‘Some thirty low, poky little houses […] Every one of these houses must have been at least a hundred years old, and their black slate roofs added to their grimness’. Apart from the few items sold by the Potru sisters, there are no shops, the butcher visits only twice a week, the baker arrives in a horse-drawn cart and there is no telephone service. Significantly, there is no electricity in the hamlet and it is the drips of wax from Amélie’s candle which provide Maigret with a critical clue for his resolution of the case.
Amélie’s motives in killing her sister and trying to implicate her nephew are personal – greed and hatred – but these sentiments have been nurtured in the claustrophobic world of an obscure hamlet: ‘The basis of his theory was hatred, a hatred exacerbated by long years spent tête à tête, by life together in this constricted house.’ In a less isolated setting, the two sisters would not have been obliged to pass their whole lives in such close proximity; opportunities for them to find husbands and to live lives apart from each other would have been greater. With their own homes, husbands and jobs, and with greater access to the modern patterns of consumption that were becoming available in the 1920s, it is unlikely that the avarice which fed the hatred of Amélie for her sister would have developed to such a degree: ‘A hatred fomented by the countless incidents of daily life, such as Marcel’s killing of the rabbit, his eating of the cheese which was there to be sold
The causes of the crime are, then, as much social as personal. Where in L’Affaire Saint-Fiacre Maigret had shown a nostalgic longing for the rural life of his childhood, here his response to life in the depths of La France profonde is a negative one. He feels so sickened by ‘the scene [that] seemed to belong to a different era, to a different world’, that ‘he would have liked to leave immediately, or else […] treat himself to a hefty draught of rum straight from the bottle’. Maigret’s sentimental boyhood memories are stripped away and replaced by a brutal vision of the harsh realities of life in the most isolated regions of the French countryside.
In ‘Les larmes de bougie’, Maigret’s ability to resolve a mystery is as much a function of his social awareness as of his deductive logic. If Chesterton’s Father Brown is able to unravel problems using an understanding of the human soul gained in the confessional, then Maigret’s success is based on an awareness of capitalist society, the relations based on social class that it creates and perpetuates and how these relations influence the behaviour of individuals.

William Alder

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