Monday, January 13, 2014

There were no glittering flecks on the Seine

Over Christmas, as I do most holidays, I mixed up my reading patterns a little bit. I try and lighten the cognitive density a little by introducing humor and mysteries. I am particularly fond of mysteries from different places and set in past times. Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald, Stout, Simenon, Manning, etc. It is wonderful what you can pick up from some of the older books about conditions and expectations in the past and in different places.

I finished Maigret and the Man on the Bench by Georges Simenon. One of the leit motifs running through the story is the fact that the victim had recently started wearing light-brown shows. The story was published in 1953 so this reflects conditions and cultural circumstances in Paris in the immediate post-war years. As you read along, you become aware that there is a whole set of assumptions and implications associated with light-brown shoes that have evaporated completely in today's environment where fashion sense is largely dominated by the minimalist standards of California techno-geek. You have to work at recreating in your present day mind what the significance was then of light-brown shoes.
He, too, [Maigret] had longed at one time to own a pair of goose-dung shoes. They had been all the rage then, like those very short fawn-colored raincoats, known at the time as bum-freezers.

Once, early in his married life, he had made up his mind to buy a pair of light-brown shoes, and had felt himself blushing as he went into the shop. Come to think of it, the shop had been on Boulevard Saint-Martin, just opposite the Theatre de l'Ambigu. He had not dared to put the shoes on at first. Then, when he finally plucked up the courage to open the package in the presence of his wife, she had looked at him and then laughed in a rather odd way.

"You surely don't intend to wear those things?"

He never had worn them. It was she who had taken them back to the shop, on the pretext that they pinched his feet.

Louis Thouret had also bought a pair of light-brown shoes, and that, in Magret's view, was symbolic.

It was, above all, Maigret was convinced, a symbol of liberation.
Simenon is great with little details of routine, weather and environment.
And that was that. Maigret had gone down the stairs, intending to return home for lunch, but in the end he had decided to eat at his usual table in the Brasserie Dauphine.

It was a gray day. There were no glittering flecks on the Seine. He drank another small glass of Calvados with his coffee and went to his office, where a mass of paperwork awaited him.
Brandy in the middle of the day? Oh, but it is not just brandy. Beer, wine and other spirits are regularly imbibed. Partly this a contrast of attitudes between the US and Europe. But it is also between Europe today and Europe then.

By observing small elements of the routine, Simenon captures what we might otherwise overlook.
Maigret poked the fire in the stove, filled his pipe, and for the next hour or so immersed himself in his paper work, scribbling notes in the margins of some documents and signing others.
So in 1953, it was still common to have a working stove in a professional office for heat. Presumably a coal stove. When we moved to England in the mid-sixties, it was a distinctive feature for a six or seven year old that the house was heated by a coal fired furnace. There was the dark, dirty coal shed. The shuttling of coal from the shed to the furnace (and to the fireplaces in the rooms) and having to clean your boots from all the coal dust. When you went away for the weekend, you banked the coal fire in the furnace hoping it would last. If you were lucky it did. If not, the house was cold and you had a half hour or hour job of getting the furnace fire started all over again. All that went away with North Sea gas coming on line in the late sixties. So much easier and better, but there was that whole way of life pushed back down the memory hole except when reading something like Simenon.

Of even more recent times, but still now almost inconceivable and unknown to our children - smoking in the workplace.
Maigret was fiddling with the row of pipes strung out on his desk; then, although the one he was smoking was still lighted, he started to fill another.
A final extended passage. Maigret is going to interview the bookkeeper of a firm which had closed up shop. This passage is a reminder of how far things have come in such a short time. You can look at economic history text books and see that Mexico today has a per capita income equivalent of that of Britain in 1960 but it is hard to reconcile those facts and images. Yes Britain in 1960 was wealthy in world terms but compared to today? Still relatively impoverished. Here Simenon describes the fate of a solidly middle class citizen in those post war years before the mega-State with all its social safety nets.
He searched in vain for an elevator. There was none, so he had to climb six flights of stairs. The building was old, with dark and dingy walls. Right at the top of the landing was comparatively bright, thanks to a skylight. There was a door on the left, beside which hung a thick red-and-black cord resembling the cord of a dressing gown. He pulled it. This produced an absurd little tinkle inside the apartment. Then he heard light footsteps, the door was opened, and he saw a ghostly face, narrow, pale, and bony, covered with the white bristles of several days' growth, and a pair of watering eyes.

"Monsieur Saimbron?"

"I am Monsieur Saimbron, Do please come in."

This little speech, brief as it was, brought on a fit of hoarse coughing.

"I'm sorry. It's my bronchitis."

Inside, there was a pervasive smell, stale and nauseating. Maigret could hear the hissing of a gas ring. On it was a pan of boiling water.


"Were you about to have lunch?"

Next to the newspaper stood a plate, a glass of water to which a drop of wine had been added, and a hunk of bread.

"There's no hurry."

"Do please go ahead, just as if I weren't here."

"My egg will be hard by this time, anyway."

All the same, the old man decided to go and get it. The hissing of the gas ceased.


Their conversation had lasted half an hour, partly because of the old man's frequent bouts of coughing, and partly because he was so incredibly slow eating his egg.


The liquidation of the firm of Kaplan et Zanin had been a tragedy for Saimbron, as well. He had not even attempted to find another job. He had saved a little money. For years and years, he had believed that it would be enough to keep him in his old age. But what with excessive devaluations of the franc, he now literally had barely enough to stave off total starvation. That boiled egg was probably his only solid food for the day.
So recent in years and yet so long ago.

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