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les mémoires de maigret

26 september 2012

Les mémoires de Maigret is a novel of bewildering mazes of self-reference, enough to make the most postmodernist narratives seem ploddingly straightforward. It's one of the later Maigret novels, in the numbered series that Georges Simenon published with Presses de la Cité starting in the 1950s. I'd owned a copy for years, but neither read it nor remembered its existence till my partner bought me a copy in a used-book store in San Diego, having checked with me to see if I'd ever heard of it. I didn't think I still owned enough books to have one on my shelf I'd never heard of. So now I have two copies of it.

Two copies seem about the minimum one should own of a novel that relentlessly doubles and redoubles its characters and concerns. The narrator of Les mémoires de Maigret is, naturally, the fictional Jules Maigret. His leading character, in many ways, is the real Georges Simenon – always allowing for the fact that Simenon's Maigret's Simenon is about as real as any other fictional character. The conceit of the novel – and I use that word advisedly – is that in the fictional world of Maigret, Simenon has been writing the same novels all along that the real Simenon wrote in the real world.

This is appealingly hall-of-mirrorsy, till one realizes that the Maigret of Les mémoires is describing a world with dynamics totally unlike those of the other hundred-and-however-many Maigret novels. In the typical Maigret novel, the commissaire is certainly a celebrity. Most barmen and streetcorner politicians recognize him at once, and even those who rarely run across him in person know him from his picture in the papers. But there's never been the slightest hint in the other novels that Maigret is well-known as the hero of a series of best-selling novels.

Suddenly, though, we are in a world where the publication of a new Maigret by Simenon is met with nudges and wisecracks by Lapointe, Janvier, Torrence, Lucas, and the whole gang down at the Quai des Orfèvres. Narrator Maigret mentions quite a few of Simenon's novels by title, comparing their exaggerations and alterations to what "really happened": because, it seems, aside from portraying everyone at the Quai by his real name, and using precise details of Maigret's life, Simenon spent a lot of time obscuring, transferring, and conflating details of the actual cases, out of a Jack-Webb like concern for the protection of the innocent.

This leaves our Maigret (but which one?) in a precarious existential position. There have been quite a few famous detectives in crime fiction. Adamsberg is as much a star in 21st-century Paris as Maigret is in this alternative Maigretian Paris. Montalbano is instantly recognized anywhere in Vigáta, except when it helps the plot for him not to be. In fact, Andrea Camilleri exists in Montalbano's Sicily, as a writer who doesn't do mystery novels. And there are many other novels where the presence of a writer who has made the detective famous is central to the milieu, and sometimes to the plot. Dr. Watson is the archetype here, and lots of other fictional detectives are supposed to be heroes of their own fictions as well as of their own realities; Jessica Fletcher made a whole career out of that shtick.

But to go, from one book to the next, from mere celebrity to meta-literary celebrity, is frankly weird – especially inasmuch as once this book closes, we never again hear of Simenon, or of Maigret's literary fame, in the course of another fifty or so Maigret novels. (But that's just the point, I hear you mutter. Of course Simenon isn't going to mention himself in a book he writes about Maigret. He's only going to mention himself in a book that Maigret writes about him.)

One of the themes of Les mémoires de Maigret is that fiction is more believable than truth – which perhaps implies that metafiction is more believable than fiction, and hence way more believable than truth. "Simenon," the character in Maigret's memoirs, has created a fictional version of his cases that is more realistic than Maigret's real life, creating some problems for the Maigret who has to live up to this parallel life in fiction.

Mes enqêtes, telles qu'il les avait racontées, étaient plus plausibles — peut-être bien a-t-il dit plus exactes? — que telles que je les avais vécues.

[My investigations, as he'd narrated them, were more plausible — maybe he'd really said more accurate — than those that I'd experienced.] (39)
But thought Maigret relates Simenon's contention, he's not satisfied with it. No, however plausible fiction may be, it doesn't correspond with reality, and in ways that are increasingly uncanny the closer it gets to reality. It's a problem akin to that of photography:
Je suppose que chacun connaît ce malaise qui nous prend devant un image de nous-mêmes qui n'est pas tout à fait exacte.

[I guess we've all experienced the uneasiness you get from seeing an image of yourself that isn't quite right.] (35)
Maigret proceeds to correct this slightly-off image by stressing the routineness of police work, the social significance of dealing with down-and-outers, indocumentados, professional criminals, and the scarcity of those cases that make for good murder mysteries, those where
ceux qui sont faits comme vous et moi … finissent, un beau jour, par tuer sans y être préparés.

[those who are put together like you and me end up, one fine day, killing somebody without forethought.] (20)
Which only happens, oh, 100 times or more in Simenon's Maigret novels.

Simenon, Georges. Les mémoires de Maigret. 1951. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1978.