giovedì 12 ottobre 2017

SIMENON SIMENON. SIMENON AND FECAMP: THE PLACE AND THE TIME

The role of the Normandy harbour in the novelist's works 

SIMENON SIMENON. SIMENON E FECAMP: IL POSTO E L'EPOCA 
Il ruolo del porto normanno nelle opere del romanziere 
SIMENON SIMENON. SIMENON ET FECAMP: LES LIEUX ET L'EPOQUE 
Le rôle du port normand dans l'œuvre du romancier 


In her post of 22 August, ‘Un petit air de Fécamp’, Murielle Wenger explains the strong links between the setting of the 1931 Maigret novel Au Rendez-Vous des Terre-Neuvas and the author’s frequent visits to the Normandy fishing port of Fécamp during the construction of his boat L’Ostrogoth in the winter of 1928-1929. Simenon never lived permanently in Normandy but Fécamp was to furnish him with the central setting or serve as an important secondary location for no less than nine novels and stories, published between 1931 and 1963. This article and subsequent posts will consider the particular attraction of Fécamp for Simenon and the role played by the Fécamp narratives in the author’s exploration of certain of his key themes and in his development from a writer of pulp fiction to the best-selling international novelist, who in 1978 would write nostalgically in a private letter ‘I can still see the Fécamp of days gone by, so wonderful, the Chez Léon bar and its regular customers.’ Indeed, so dear to Simenon was Chez Léon (in reality the hôtel-restaurant du Progrès) that he includes it in four of his Fécamp stories – Pietr-le-LettonAu Rendez-Vous des Terre-Neuvas, ‘Le comique du Saint-Antoine’ and ‘Le bateau d’Emile’. 
Simenon’s Fécamp is the town as it existed from the years immediately preceding the Great War of 1914-1918 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Fécamp was at that time France’s premier port for cod and herring fishing and all of Simenon’s narratives refer to a greater or lesser degree to the town’s primary economic activity. The town’s relatively small population of around 17 000 inhabitants necessitated the employment of captains, technicians and crew from neighbouring regions, such as the Breton sailor Petit Louis in ‘Le comique du Saint-Antoine’, and sometimes even further afield, such as the black crewman on the Océan in Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas. Initially practised by three-masted sailing boats working on the Grand Bank of Newfoundland, by 1903 half of the French cod fishing fleet was based in Fécamp. The cod trawlers, such as the Océan, were large coal-powered ships up to 70 metres long and weighing more than a thousand tonnes, each with a crew of around 35 men. The transition from sail to steam made it possible to make two “campaigns” to the Grand Bank, rather than one, during the nine-month season, a major consideration for the director of La Morue Française in Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas. The herring boats, such as the one worked on by Rose Trochu’s brother in Maigret et la vieille dame, were smaller but were nevertheless often up to 35 metres long with a crew of up to 30 men. The herring campaigns were shorter because of the smaller distances involved to the fishing grounds in the North Sea and the English Channel with a rapid turnaround to maximise profit, hence the panic of the shipowner Pissart in Les Rescapés du Télémaque when one of his captains is arrested and charged with murder.  
With the associated activities of drying and smoking the catch, ship-building and repair, fishing in Fécamp was an industry involving the whole gamut of social classes: ship-owners and their captains (such as Larmentiel and Emile Bouet in ‘Le bateau d’Emile’), engineers and radio operators (for example Laberge and Le Clinche in Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Nuevas) , deckhands and stokers (like the two Petit Louis in ‘Le comique du Saint-Antoine’ and Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas respectively), quayside workers and shops selling fishing-related materials and goods of the kind entered by Maigret in his first visit to the town in Pietr-le-Letton. 
Fécamp also benefited, particularly following the economic boom years of the 1920s, from a significant influx of tourists in the summer months with the consequent development of economic activities such as a casino, hotels and restaurants. This contrasting face of Fécamp as a holiday resort for the well-to-do, in which the coast as a place of leisure is juxtaposed to the sea as the source of a hard and dangerously earned living wage, is to the forefront in Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas, allowing Simenon to counterpose different lived experiences of the same global reality. 
In short, Fécamp provided Simenon with a microcosm of contemporary French provincial society in which all social classes are present and in interaction with each other in a limited geographical space. The author’s focus on the lives of the fishermen, rather than the workers in the related onshore industries, gives a sense of adventure to the texts that would not perhaps be found in stories based in the smokehouses or shipyards of the port. Simenon’s emerging brilliance as a novelist can be found in this combination of making the everyday lives of working people in a realistic setting the subject matter of his crime fiction narratives with or without Maigret.   

William Alder 

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