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(N° 1350)
April 12-18, 1986
pp 58-59

Simenon tells of the birth of Maigret

Patrick LeFort

original French

The famous Chief Inspector, who, under the features of Jean Richard, continues to challenge, with success, the Sunday Night Movie, moves calmly at 57, with still many fine days ahead of him. His "father" recalls the day when he created him at Delfzijl, a little port in Holland...

Buffon Paris Match

Georges Simenon, with Teresa, his faithful companion, in their house in Lausanne. Like Maigret, he always smokes a pipe, but he no longer writes.

A little pink house at the base of a tower, in a peaceful quarter of Lausanne... the final retreat of Georges Simenon. He lives here like a hermit, in virtually one room, which serves him as office, living room and bedroom. For the past twenty-four years, Teresa is his companion. After two marriages and thousands of liaisons, Simenon declares he has found the ideal woman, loving and maternal. Together, discretely, they celebrated last month, the 83 years of the father of Maigret.

Maigret is going on 57. Fit as a fiddle, totally insensitive to attacks of the weather, the Chief Inspector is more alive than ever. How to explain such success? "Perhaps," suggests Simenon, "because Maigret is neither a detective nor a policeman. He isn't trying to figure out the solution to a puzzle by examining footprints. He tries to understand the person. Furthermore, his motto is 'Understand and judge not'. It's mine, too." Simenon, who hardly ever opens his door to the curious, has no more to say about this puzzle, leaving it for us to imagine our own explanations. But who could ever explain the prodigious career of Chief Inspector Maigret?

It started in 1929, almost without Simenon being aware of it. In four years, he had already published a hundred popular novels, each written in three days, at the rate of 24 pages a day. In the spring of 1929, he had left Paris with his first wife, Regina, his cook, Boule, and his mastiff, Olaf, aboard a fishing cutter, the Ostrogoth. Traveling the canals, he had arrived, in September, in northern Holland, at the little port Delfzijl. A leak had obliged him to put up his boat in dry dock for repairs. They'd be stuck there for at least a month.

Driven by idleness, Simenon felt growing in himself the desire to write better novels. A police story seemed like a comfortable step, before attempting a true novel...

Alain Canu

At Delfzijl, in northern Holland, where he was born, Maigret has his statue, unveiled in 1956 [1966] in Simenon's presence.

One of his neighbors' names

"A police story is easier," he says, "there's a thread, and you just have to follow it." Then Simenon, pipe in his teeth, walks the countryside in search of inspiration, and slowly, a character emerges. A massive man, of plebian build. He smokes a pipe, wears a bowler hat and a thick winter overcoat with a velvet collar. And one morning, at 6:30, Simenon sets himself up in front of his typewriter and starts the first chapter of Pietr le Letton, "Peter the Lett".

As the hammer blows of the caulkers stopped him from working aboard the Ostrogoth he brought two crates, one for his typewriter and the other to sit on, onto a half-submerged barge. And that's where, on an old crate, lapped by the water, Jules-Amédée François Maigret was born. "I'd already written a police novel, Train de nuit [Night Train], where the hero was called Maigret, but without any precise description. I used that name because it came to mind at that moment."

Moreover Simenon hadn't invented it. It was the name of one of his Parisian neighbors in the Place des Vosges. And the neighbor didn't appreciate the borrowing... When Maigret became famous, he wrote to the novelist of his unhappiness at having lent his name to a "vulgar policeman."

Pietr le Letton finished, Simenon waited three months to send it to his publisher, Arthème Fayard. He had no idea that he'd just created an "immortal". Neither did his publisher. He pulled a face at this manuscript without good guys and bad guys and without a mystery to solve. He'd only publish it on the condition that Simenon bring him six more... In the end there'd be 84.

Through the novels, in little steps, Maigret's personality becomes clear. He is more intuitive than intelligent, detests violence and only once slaps a suspect... who could have been his son. He has a very personal way of filling his pipe, and of grumbling when an investigation gets stuck. But Simenon claims to have never seen Maigret's face. In none of the novels is his physiognomy described. When, in 1956 [1966], at Delfzijl, in the presence of Simenon, the statue of Chief Inspector Maigret was unveiled, there was a massive man, in bronze, with a bowler hat and a large overcoat, but a face without truly particular features.

Mme Maigret's fricandeau

In Pietr le Letton we learn that Maigret has a wife. Her name is Louise but her husband always calls her Mme Maigret, and he enjoys "her plum brandy, made every year in her hometown in Alsace, where she returns for summer vacations." She is plump. "She's a little dumpling, as are many Frenchwomen, and she has her beauty," specifies Simenon. A good cook, she makes a great breaded fricandeau. But her presence remains so discrete that the English actor Rupert Davies, charged with the role of Maigret, couldn't imagine the relationship between Maigret and his wife. And so he asked Simenon for an explanation. The novelist was at first perplexed, for he had never reflected on the question. "When he returns home," he ends of saying, "Maigret taps his wife gently on the rear. A friendly tap, but also sensual." And to add a gesture to his words, Simenon calls in the maid. "In the beginning," he says, "he really slapped her on the buttocks. It took three-quarters of an hour for him to get it right."

Discrete, devoted, faithful, would Louise Maigret be the ideal wife?

Simenon smiles maliciously behind his pipe. "At any rate, she is the ideal spouse for Maigret."

One final question. If Maigret were to begin today, would he act the same? A moment of reflection. "I have no idea what I would write today. But I do know that, contrary to fashion, Maigret would always be non-violent."

Patrick LEFORT.

Michel Descamps

Simenon meets Jean Richard in 1967 and, finding Maigret's pipe disproportionate, offers him two!

A True Pipe Smoker

Pierre Renoir, Harry Baur, Albert Préjean, Charles Laughton, Jean Gabin... the list of those who have played the role of Simenon's hero in the cinema is long. But Jean Richard is the first and only Maigret to maintain the role for 20 years. A rare longevity which will continue with new episodes adapted from Simenon's short stories. "For the role, I had to abandon cigarettes for a pipe," he says. "It suited my taste immediately. And when I met Simenon, he congratulated me... 'Bravo, you hold your pipe like a true smoker. Gabin, you could tell that it wasn't real.'" As for the friendly tap, Jean Richard hadn't the slightest difficulty finding the proper gesture, for Mme Maigret on-screen is Mme Richard in town.

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