Maigret and the Sociologists

February 13th 2003 heralded the 100th anniversary of the birth of Georges Simenon, the creator of one of the greatest detective novel characters, the famous superintendent Maigret.

The 400 novels of Simenon have sold 700 million copies world wide. They have been translated into 57 languages. Why this incredible success? The stories are certainly well constructed and the suspense is there, of course, but it is particularly because of his keen observation of human relationships and because of his rich portrayal of people that Simenon has become an author without equal.

The sociologist Philippe Corcuff is currently working on Simenon.

My objective is to write a book on the relationship between Simenon and sociology through the character of Maigret.

At the outset, it was an interest in the character of Maigret, in police inquiries, and then a few years ago, two or three years ago, I asked myself if there was really… by re-reading Maigret, I asked myself if there was a relationship between the sociological reasoning and the work of Simenon in Maigret?

We have made a comparison between Maigret and the new detective novels, let’s say of the left, from the 70’s in France, which commence with Manchette and then with people like Daeninckx, etc. We realised one thing, that the new French detective novel is very political, and there are immediately some political groups, notably in connection with the extreme right, or a form of radical criticism of capitalism, but at the same time it is hardly sociological, that’s to say it’s more about people from the middle classes or above who don’t have many established social characteristics in the stories, who have a political discourse, but for example the question of social classes, of the relationship between the classes, is thought about very little. In comparison with Maigret, we see on the contrary that with Maigret there is a kind of political neutrality, very little of politics, apart from notably one Maigret which is called “Maigret and the Minister” and even in this one there is a certain kind of distance with regard to politics which is still considered dirty? And on the other hand a great sociological richness, that’s to say the very perceptive descriptions of a diversity of sociological backgrounds. The question; the notion even of class, the word social class always returns, like a founding principle, and which paradoxically the new left wing detective novels who want for themselves Marxist inspiration, were from the point of view of analysis, much less Marxist than Simenon who was politically a conservative, and, in any case, who kept a distance from politics.

Through all the Maigrets, the 90 Maigrets, you move in a very big variety of social environments, in a sensitive way as does an ethnologist or a sociologist.

He returns to an inquiry, and gradually, things are vague for him, it’s always described like that, an environment he doesn’t know, and gradually, by observing the environment, it’s worth noting he does it often, because Simenon must have used it a lot in order to have a supply of social roles, it is often in cafes. Maigret drinks a lot. He is often in cafes drinking, and he observes, he discusses, but he observes a lot the social environment which is that of his enquiry, so gradually he understands the social environment. He understands better the extent of the problem, the psychology of people from their social standpoint, from the existence of a background. For example, this is a middle class background that is a popular rural background in the country; another is perhaps an environment of mostly workers from a town. So, each time we discover a very different background, and gradually you go? Maigret starts to understand the psychology of the people through the understanding of the background. And gradually, when he has well understood the background, when he is drunk with it and so better understands the main characters, in fact he understands, he resolves the puzzle, that’s to say he understands who the assassin is. It is as if the explanation is derived from the understanding.

We find some things very similar in Maigret from the advances, from the advances of the new contemporary sociology like that of Pierre Bourdieu. That’s to say you find figures similar to that which Pierre Bourdieu calls one of his fundamental concepts which is that of “l’habitus”. “L’habitus” according to Bourdieu is the way of arranging thoughts? To see things, to act in a certain way, so people gradually amass their experiences, first of all in the family, at school, at work etc.

L’habitus of class is the recognition that people who are in the same social group have probably had experiences in common, well, but each particular individual has a series of experiences, a number of experiences, in an order which is personal to him each time. Even two infants from the same family, a brother and a sister, or two brothers or two sisters in the end don’t have exactly the same number of experiences in exactly the same order.

You see with Maigret that the social experiences of one person, gradually, give a general shape to his psychology, even to his bodily reactions, independently even of his awareness or will.

And that, each time, that the social experience is conspicuous in a particular person what makes that it isn’t completely reduced to a person in the same situation.

Corcuff remembers that Simenon worked a lot on the ground to conceive his stories with good sociological effect.

He hadn’t formed good sociological knowledge but in fact he imbibed his sociology spontaneously, that’s to say he had been struck very young by the relationships between the classes, at first among the journalists, then among the writers, he went about in a lot of diverse situations. I think that, like the person of Maigret he observed well, notably in the bistros, diverse social backgrounds, because it’s a place for observation, in the bistros, of different social classes. He could observe and in his youth, I think at the start of his career he had soaked up all the range of social experiences and of diverse social backgrounds that? That in general, a person doesn’t have in his head and that after he had been working with literature.

As for the political ideas of Simenon:

He made international reports, and in the 30s he was in Turkey. He had a long interview which he had published in the French press, with Trotsky, for example. There was a meeting between Simenon and Trotsky. But he wasn’t at all affected by Marxism so much that, he remained a conservative, but he was touched by? He didn’t take a triumphant standpoint during the occupation, that’s to say he was? He did not take a position of resistance. He had um? He stayed to one side; he tried to continue to do his work.

Simenon died in 1989. And even if the world has changed a lot since the beginning of the 20’s, Corcuff thinks that his work merits not only being read but also studied today.

So is Maigret still valuable for detective story writing or for sociology? That’s to say that I, for example, I recommend that? It’s necessary that during the early years in the first two year cycle of sociology, we teach Simenon in order to show to the students at the same time the size of the comprehensive work, how you analyse social backgrounds and to show to the students a diversity of social backgrounds, and how this diversity of social backgrounds, is embodied in individual ways, unusual?

And that is always valuable. And there are still things, kinds of relationships between social groups and the effect on their individual psychology which are still valuable from Simenon today. And which can still also be material of stories. Simply today the fact of individualisation is necessarily advantageous in considering the facts that the people of our society think themselves more as individuals and that has important effects in the functioning of society.

With which of his works is it preferable to start?

Maigret and the body without a head which must be a Maigret from the 50’s and one of the most remarkable because there is that dimension, that double dimension of the social background and the dimension of understanding.

You must know that in most of the Maigrets this sociological dimension is present, that’s to say there are not any of them where it isn’t present. Since the sixties there have been adaptations for the television which have had some success? As the adaptations for the television insist on the psychological dimension and so you have the impression that they are psychological novels. But there is not much in them which seizes on the enveloping psychological dimension in the relationship of the classes and social links.

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