Friday, October 31, 2014

My father smoked a pipe

To my great delight, Penguin is rereleasing all the Georges Simenon Maigret mysteries, some 75 in number. Simenon was extraordinarily prolific, having written some 400 books in his lifetime, of which the Maigret series were but a subset. Jake Kerridge discusses the series in In praise of Georges Simenon's French detective.

I came across Simenon in a used bookstore some time in the past five years and have read perhaps a dozen since my first discovery. My enjoyment has been, I think, primarily due to Simenon's beautifully effective descriptions of ephemera; the rain on a particular Parisian autumn day, something about someone's clothing, a smell in a restaurant. I also enjoy the little insights to how things used to be back in 1930's France.

I have so far purchased the two books, Pietr the Latvian and The Late Monsieur Gallet, the first and third in the series.

In the first, Pietr the Latvian, the writing is a little rougher than it will become and there is more focus on Maigret and his physical attributes than will be the case later. By the third book, The Late Monsieur Gallet, Simenon has hit the stride and style that will be familiar through the rest of the series.

Here are some passages that caught my attention from Pietr the Latvian. First an example of Simenon's eye for the ephemeral detail.
The gurgle from Maigret's pipe was getting so annoying that the inspector took a swatch of chicken feathers from another drawer, cleaned the shaft, then opened the stove door and flung the soiled feathers in the fire.
My father smoked a pipe. It was occasionally my job to clean the stems/shafts of his pipe collection. It was fascinating. The dark, sticky tar residue in the stem, the acrid odor. I used a pipe cleaner for the task. My father always had packs of pipe cleaners, perhaps eight inches long, a soft fuzzy clothlike substance covering a bendy wire. On rainy days we occasionally took out a pack and made wire animal forms, planes, cars or whatever else caught our imagination, bending them in to shape, twisting them together to make longer lengths.

It never occurred to me to wonder what pipe smokers used to clean pipes before there were pipe cleaners. Chicken feathers make perfect sense.

And then there's this complex description with details not normally noticed or recorded but also delivered in a fashion that wouldn't pass muster today.
Maigret was looking without thinking at Anna Gorskin's ankles and noticed that, as her mother feared, the young woman already had dropsy. He scalp was visible through her thinning hair, which was in a mess. Her black dress was dirty. And there was a distinct shadow on her upper lip.

All the same she was a good-looking woman, in a common, feral way.

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