Sunday, January 12, 2014

From time to time the breeze blew open his unbuttoned jacket

I started Maigret and the Bum by Georges Simenon last night. One of the things I like about Simenon is that he is such the master of capturing a whole environment in a few deft observations. Simenon does weather particularly well. From the opening passages.
It was probably due to the quality of the air, the brightness, the smell, the taste of it. There had been a morning like this, other mornings like it, when as a young detective, newly appointed to the Police Judiciaire, which Parisians still called the Surite, Maigret had belonged to the Public Highways Squad and had walked the streets of Paris from morning till night.

Although it was March 25, this was the first real spring day, especially clear after a last heavy shower that had fallen during the night, accompanied by the distant rumble of thunder. For the first time that year, too, Maigret had left his overcoat hanging in the closet of his office, and from time to time the breeze blew open his unbuttoned jacket.

Because of the breath from the past, he had unconsciously begun to walk at his old pace, nether fast nor slow, not exactly the pace of an idler pausing to watch trivial incidents in the street, nor yet that of a man making for a definite goal.

His hands clasped behind his back, he looked about him, to right and left and into the air, mentally recording visual images to which he had long ceased to pay attention.
That attention to observed and recollected detail brought to mind a piece I was reading by Thomas Edison yesterday, They Won't Think (an online version here) from 1921. Here is Edison on observation.
By developing your thinking powers you expand the capacity of your brain and attain new abilities. For example, the average person's brain does not observe a thousandth part of what the eye observes. The average brain simply fails to register the things which come before the eye. It is almost incredible how poor our powers of observation--genuine observation--are. Let me give an illustration: When we first started the incandescent lighting system we had a lamp factory at the bottom of a hill, at Menlo Park. It was a very busy time for us all. Seventy-five of us worked twenty hours every day and slept only four hours--and thrived on it.

I fed them all, and I had a man play an organ all the time we were at work. One midnight, while at lunch, a matter came up which caused me to refer to a cherry tree beside the hill leading from the main works to the lamp factory. Nobody seemed to know anything about the location of the cherry tree. This made me conduct a little investigation, and I found that although twenty-seven of these men had used this path every day for six months not one of them had ever noticed the tree.

The eye sees a great many things, but the average brain records very few of them. Indeed, nobody has the slightest conception of how little the brain 'sees' unless it has been highly trained.
Simeonon notices and then uses that observation to trigger our own memories which in turn create a whole environment of associations. The cleansed air, the freshness, the invigoration of a still lightly chill wind on an otherwise warming morning. I can associate myself with Maigret. Thus are you drawn in to the writer's created world, through small felicitous observations.

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