Novellas in November: Translation Week: Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon, Translated by David Bellos

This week’s  Novellas in November is Translation Week and I’ve chosen Georges Simenon’s Pietr the Latvian, translated by David Bellos (165 pages). It is officially the first Maigret book, although it was originally published in instalments in the magazine Ric et Rac between July and October 1930.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jules Maigret is a Detective Chief Inspector of the Flying Squad in Paris and we get a really detailed description of him – he was a broad heavy man, aged forty-five:

His clothes were well cut and made of fairly light worsted. He shaved every day and looked after his hands.

But his frame was proletarian. He was a big bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers.

He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues.

It was something more than self-confidence but less than pride. He would turn up and stand like a rock with his feet wide apart. On that rock all would shatter, whether Maigret moved forward or stayed exactly where he was.

His pipe was nailed to his jawbone. (page 21)

He has received messages that Pietr the Latvian, an international criminal, is en route by train from the Netherlands to Paris. He has a description of Pietr and went immediately to the Gare du Nord to intercept him. But on spotting him he had to let him go because a man had been murdered on the train – and that man also matched Pietr’s description. From that point on. I became increasingly confused. Who is Pietr the Latvian? Was he the man who got off the train or the man who was murdered?

There are many characters and for quite a lot of the book I struggled to work out who was who. Maigret spends his time going from place to place and interviewing many people and I really had little idea of what was going on. The question of identity plays a major part. Pietr was thought to be the head of a major international ring mainly involved in fraud, counterfeit money and forged documents and his known associates seem to be mainly British and American. The setting in the 1930s is a mix of glamorous hotels and bars in Paris, seedy back streets, and the seaside town of Fécamp in Normandy. The book does feel dated now along with the anti-antisemitism some of the characters voiced.

If you haven’t read any of the Maigret books I suggest you start with one of the later books, which are much better. What I liked about it is that it establishes Maigret’s character and appearance right from the beginning. He feels like a real person with solidity and presence. He’s also tough, carrying on chasing around after Pietr even after he’s been shot. I think it’s an interesting story, in which a lot happens and even if I was mystified at first it did become clearer as I read on and I was pleased to find that I had worked out Pietr’s identity before it was revealed.

Pietr the Latvian is included in the Inspector Maigret Omnibus 1. The four titles are Pietr the Latvian, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, The Carter of ‘La Providence’, The Grand Banks Café.

Previously I’ve read:

and

My Friday Post: Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses by Georges Simenon

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses is one of the novellas I included in my Novellas in November post. It has 172 pages and is Simenon’s 53rd Inspector Maigret book, first published in 1959.

It begins:

‘You haven’t forgotten your umbrella, have you?’

‘No.’

The door was about to shut, and Maigret was already turning towards the stairs.

‘You’d better wear your scarf.’

His wife ran to get it unaware that this little remark would leave him out of sorts for some time, melancholy thoughts churning through his brain.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

My job is to look for the truth, and that is what I’m doing. Your presence in fact would incline me not to look very far, because it’s very unusual for the relatives of a murder victim to send for a lawyer before they can even be questioned by the police.

Blurb:

When the head of a powerful Parisian family business is murdered in his bed, Maigret must pick apart the family’s darkest secrets to reveal the truth.

“The curious thing was that there seemed to be no grief here, only a strange dejection, a kind of uneasy stupor…”

Maigret is called to the home of the high-profile Lachaume family where the eldest brother has been found shot dead. But on his arrival, the family closes ranks and claims to have heard and seen nothing at the time of the murder. Maigret must pick his way through the family’s web of lies, secrets, and deceit, as well as handle Angelot, a troublesome new breed of magistrate who has waded into the case. And it’s the estranged black sheep of the family, Veronique, who may hold the key to it all with her knowledge of the depths to which the family will sink to protect their reputation.

Maigret’s Holiday by Georges Simenon

I am way behind with writing about the books I’ve read, so I thought it’s best to start catching up by writing about the last book I finished, whilst it is still relatively fresh in my mind.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Maigret’s Holiday, translated by Ros Schwartz, is one of Penguin Classics’ new translations of the entire series of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels. This edition was published 4 February 2016. It was first published in French as Les Vacances de Maigret in 1948 (the 28th book in the series) and has previously been published in translations as No Vacation for Maigret and A Summer Holiday.

It is August; Maigret and his wife are on holiday in the seaside town of Les Sables d’Olonne. On their first evening they’d eaten a huge dish of freshly caught mussels and they’d both been ill. Maigret quickly recovered but next day on the beach Madame Maigret complained of vague pains and their second night she developed a fever. Admitted to hospital the next day, she was still there nine days later after an emergency operation for acute appendicitis. When a young woman in room 15 in another ward died, Maigret was unable to resist investigating the circumstances of her death, especially as he had received an anonymous note that had been slipped into his pocket; the words irritated him:

For pity’s sake, ask to see the patient in room 15.

The young woman had died after being flung from a moving car. Of course, it is not a straightforward death and the mystery deepened with the disappearance of her brother.

Maigret visited his wife everyday for half an hour. But he was bored with his routine as he strolled around the resort, along the promenade, Le Remblai, feeling he couldn’t go and sit alone on the vast beach among all the mothers and their children. He wandered from stall to stall in the covered market and stopped at cafes and various favourite places for a glass of white wine or of Calvados. Each afternoon he went to the Brasserie du Remblai, overlooking the beach, where a group of important men, including the local chief inspector of police, Monsieur Mansuy, met to play bridge. Maigret sat and watched them play. And it is through Mansuy that Maigret learns about the local characters, which proves essential for him in solving the mystery.

I loved the way Simenon sets the scene. His writing is direct and lucid with just the right amount of description. I could imagine myself in Les Sables d’Olonne, walking on the narrow cobblestone streets and going into the hospital with its atmosphere that reminded Maigret of his childhood when he was a choirboy – ‘the purity of silence had a quality that cannot be found anywhere other than a convent.’ A hospital where the nurses were nuns.

Maigret relieved his boredom by investigating the mystery surrounding the patient in room 15. He gradually peeled back the layers and without him, no one would have had any idea what had really happened or why. Maigret worked methodically and thoroughly, as he tried to understand the locals and their reactions to the police. In the end he painstakingly visited the shops and cafes asking questions and realised that there was at least one other person in danger. But he knew nothing about that person, not even whether it was a man or a woman and he couldn’t guess their age or profession. As he got closer to the solution he became agitated, so much so that it seemed to him that he was no longer breathing, as he tried to avert a further tragedy.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It is perfectly paced, building in intensity and complexity, over just 199 pages. A note about the author reveals that Simenon acknowledged that he and his fictional detective shared an important characteristic:

My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in certain points … ‘understand and judge not.’

I think that is exactly what Maigret does in this book.