On some characteristics pulled from the very first portrait of Maigret
SIMENON SIMENON. LA PREMIERE APPARITION DE JULES MAIGRET
Sur quelques caractéristiques tirées du tout premier portrait de Maigret
SIMENON SIMENON. LA PRIMA APPARIZIONE DI JULES MAIGRET
Alcune caratteristiche tratte dal primissimo ritratto di Maigret
Upon discovering in Assouline’s biography Simenon that “Chief Inspector Maigret appeared in an official capacity for the first time in the novel Train de nuit,” I figured the book would be worth a read to see how the early Maigret looked. Without an English translation of this work by Christian Brulls (it would be Night Train by Georges Simenon if translated), what follows here is a complete sketch: complete’ in the sense it is based on every single mention of Maigret and ‘sketch’ in the sense his portrait turns out to be no more than a silhouette.
The first hint of Maigret comes in a newspaper article referenced just over one quarter of the way through the novel. Chief Inspector Maigret is investigating a murder on the Paris-Marseille train. Despite the pedestrian task of personally carrying a uniform many miles from Marseille to Toulon to identify the primary person of interest, this Maigret is actually “the chief inspector directing operations.” Yet, he is “not exactly relaxed” in running the manhunt for the suspected murderer.
The first word heard from Maigret’s mouth is uttered about halfway through the novel. When a gun battle erupts in a crowded nightclub, speaking for the first time ever, Maigret orders a single command: “Retreat!” Thereafter, to the reader’s disappointment, he doesn’t speak too often and, when he does, it’s not for long, not very informative, or in great depth.
The first description physically of Maigret occurs just 13 pages from the end of the novel and, consisting of just two words, it is the only one. “At this moment, a broad silhouette took shape at the end of the hallway.” Before and after that, one has to draw on the content of his clipped dialogue plus the thoughts and emotions the narrator provides to build a mental image of his character. Some dialogue examples: “After a split-second’s hesitation,” Maigret orders, “Attack!” and after the “long action” of scurrying, struggling and shooting on rooftops, he announces, “Scarface is dead!” Some narration examples: Maigret “bursts in” wearing “an animated look” that shifts into “an embarrassed look.” A description from a criminal familiar with Maigret classifies him as “a quiet man but a tough talker with a willful abrupt manner.”
This first expression of Maigret’s personality includes two key traits recurrent in the subsequent series. Patience: With the armed killer loose on the hotel roof, Maigret urges, “Patience! So far, everything’s going well. Little by little, Scarface is heading to a place where we’ll be able to hunt him down.” Later on, a tenacious Maigret advises, “Wait a little… The news is good…. Try not to be impatient.” Compassion: Maigret offers Scarface’s accomplice Rita the chance to “take off” along with some of the stolen swag without any charges. Her refusal to leave her lover both surprises and angers Maigret. Nevertheless, because the compassionate policeman “was almost as familiar with the young woman’s life as she,” he skillfully arranges for a kindly old man she knows―without knowing he is her father―to take over. “You will guide her […] you’ll be responsible for her, right?” Next, as Maigret aids the lover Rita leaves behind, Simenon adds a final brush stroke to the portrait, “He had spoken pretty harshly to him, but in such a way that one felt warm sympathy beneath that hardness.”
David P Simmons
Note: Murielle Wenger offers an excellent discussion of Maigret’s first appearance in French and Steve Trussel provides an excellent translation in English. Read it here.
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