Maigret: Maigret’s Pickpocket

Thank goodness! I don’t consider Maigret’s Pickpocket to be one of the best Maigret books, but considering how dull and contrived the series had been getting, it was nice to have one that I enjoyed. There were lots of questions to ponder, not just whodunit, but whether Ricain had talent or was just a poseur, and how loyal his wife actually was. That these ancillary questions are never answered didn’t bother me a bit. In fact, they made me like the book even more.

François Ricain is the pickpocket, a young man of modest means trying to make it in the film business in Paris. The odds of him getting a break seem long indeed, and he’s settled down into a shabby Bohemian existence, living with his wife in an oddly-appointed apartment and scrounging among friends to make enough money to pay his rent. One day he steals Maigret’s wallet but returns it the next day. This is because his wife has been shot and he needs Maigret’s help.

(As a quick aside, Maigret has his wallet stolen because he keeps it in his back pocket. Madame Maigret has told him not to do this but he doesn’t listen. For the life of me I don’t know why anyone keeps their wallet in their back pocket. I have never in my life kept my wallet in my back pocket. That’s just stupid.)

As you’d probably guess by this point, Maigret doesn’t like this particular crowd. Nor do any of the other upstanding citizens of Paris. After making inquiries, the words that come up most often to describe them are: “savages, badly brought-up people, no morals.” And it’s not just the young people. The older producer who takes advantage of the system crosses a line with Maigret:

“Tell me, Monsieur Carus. I imagine that you have a procession of pretty girls coming into your office every day. And most of them would do anything to get a part in a film.”

“Very true.”

“And I’m guessing that you may sometimes take advantage of your visitor.”

“I don’t hide it.”

“Even from Nora?”

“Let me explain. If now and then I take advantage, as you put it, of a pretty girl, Nora doesn’t worry too much, as long as it doesn’t last. It comes with the job. All men do the same thing, though they don’t all have the same opportunity. Yourself, chief inspector . . .”

Maigret looked at him forbiddingly, without smiling.

“Oh please forgive me if I shocked you. Where was I? . . .”

The killer is the sort of loser that Simenon seems to have had a special dislike for: intelligent but bitter about going nowhere and carrying about a sense of grievance and humiliation. The thing that’s new here is that this is a description not only of the killer but of most of his friends as well. Which makes you think that a larger breakdown was occurring in Paris in . . . 1967. The shit was about to hit the fan.

Maigret index

Celebrity bios, the early days

Michelangelo (or is it?) by Daniele da Volterra, c. 1545.

Regular readers of this irregular blog will know that I have a passing interest in the way celebrities or people in positions of power seek to manage and control their image or “narrative,” both in their dealings with the media and with biographers. For earlier takes, see here and here. It really is a fascinating subject.

Giorgio Vasari may have invented the biography of the artist with the publication in 1550 of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, English translations of which are still in print. This is a collection of biographies or biographical sketches of famous artists of the Italian Renaissance, many of whom Vasari knew. Vasari thought of the arts as progressing, mainly through the technical achievements, and as the culminating figure of the story of Renaissance art he placed Michelangelo, someone who he considered to be sent by God, if not divine himself.

That wasn’t good enough. It never is.

I was reading The Lost Battles by Jonathan Jones recently and had to smile at this:

Michelangelo read this [Vasari’s book] and was ambivalent. Having sent Vasari a poem praising him for bringing so many dead artists back to life, he got his own pupil Ascanio Condivi to take a break from making paintings based on Michelangelo’s drawings in order to write an official life of his master.

Condivi’s Life of Michelangelo, published in 1553, set out to correct errors in Vasari – and to overturn facts Michelangelo didn’t like, such as Vasari’s entirely accurate claim that he had been Ghirlandaio’s apprentice.

I love it! Imagine being so upset at a hagiographical life that you assign a subordinate to “correct” it by falsifying the record.

As I’ve said before, if you’re reading the bio of a living celeb (meaning one who still has the ability to have any influence over what someone is writing about them) you have to assume that it’s going to be, at best, only the loosest facsimile of the truth. It has always been thus.


“Glass of Water and Coffee Pot” by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1760)

“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams (1923)

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Prize culture

Earlier this month it was announced that the Griffin Poetry Prize, which for its twenty-year history has been a double-barreled affair with a $65,000 award for the best Canadian book of poetry and another award for the same amount in an international (English-language) category, would be rolling the two prizes together into one open category worth $130,000 for the winner.

This was big news in Canadian poetry circles, but I can say with some confidence that nobody outside of those small circles cared. Indeed, I’m sure nobody outside of those same small circles has ever heard of the Griffin Prize. And that’s the problem, or at least a big part of it.

Put simply: people don’t care very much about any awards in the arts. It used to be presumed that a prestigious award would lead to some sort of bounce in sales, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. From what I’ve heard, even winning top literary prizes won’t move many, or in some cases any, more units. And this isn’t just the case for books. How many people saw CODA, last year’s Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards? How many people could see it? Will Smith slapping Chris Rock received more coverage.

The reason this is important is because arts awards are meant to be advertising. That’s really all they’re meant to be. But how do arts awards advertising themselves? Throwing a huge party with lots of celebrities is one way, but basically unless you’re the Oscars all that can be done to grab eyeballs is to bump up the prize money. So the Griffin Poetry Prize is now (the press releases tell us) the richest for a single book of poetry written in or translated into English in the world. Headlines!

Unfortunately for the Griffin, the headlines weren’t all good. The prize’s founder, Scott Griffin, justified the move by explaining why Canadian poets no longer needed a prize of their own. In short, it’s because the prize’s work is done: “now that a lot of Canadians have been recognized in the poetry world, we felt it was time they had to compete on the international stage with everybody else.”

Now? Why only now has the time come? From what I’ve read, which admittedly isn’t as much as I’d like, I think Canadian poetry has been very good for at least the last couple of decades, but I don’t see it as being any stronger today, or more visible internationally, than it was at the beginning of that period. So what has changed?

Nothing Griffin had to say about the move made sense to me. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if somebody like Anne Carson wins that top prize?” he said. Such a comment was revealing, to say the least, about what its founder sees the purpose of the award as being. Carson has won the Canadian prize twice already and is one of the most celebrated and recognized poets in the world. The list of rich and prestigious international prizes she’s won is as long as my arm. Why does Griffin feel it’s such an imperative that she (now!) “get a lot of coverage worldwide”? How many poets get more coverage worldwide? It must be a short list.

This all smacks of the Matthew effect. As I said of the Nobel Prize a year ago:  “Such awards are in no way, and never have been, meant to provide any kind of objective or even rational assessment of achievement. They continue only as a way of credentialing celebrity or the professionally well-connected and as an exercise in branding.” You can call this a cynical take, but is it any wonder nobody pays attention to prizes anymore?

I don’t like the change to the Griffin’s prize structure. The rationale makes no sense to me even on the face of it. It leads one to question why there should be national arts prizes at all. I’m no cultural nationalist myself, but I can see the point of having awards for Canadian writing. I don’t have any problem with the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) either, even though you could make at least as strong an argument about women writers being able to compete with everybody else. What the Griffin looks like now is just a big pot of money without any identity. I guess what they were trying to do is spark some interest in a prize that had fallen off the media radar but I’m not sure they’ll get more than a blip. Eventually another prize will offer more money, turning the whole thing into a game of paying for clicks in the attention economy.

Observers of the literary scene have often suggested better uses for the cash doled out on literary awards. In the 1990s Philip Marchand asked “Are Literary Prizes Necessary?” and thought the prize money might be more profitably be directed at literacy programs. In response to the Griffin Prize announcement, poet and critic Jason Guriel tweeted: “Prizes are nice, but if I had $ to burn, I wouldn’t bankroll a book prize, I’d bankroll a book review section in a major newspaper.” Another good idea.

It’s great when arts awards sometimes direct attention to work that’s otherwise likely to be overlooked, or feed a bit of money to filmmakers, novelists, and poets who might be sleeping in their cars. There’s also a dinner for guests. Unfortunately, in their bid to appear relevant in some way awards increasingly feel bound to play to a global media market that’s not very interested in the product that they’re selling. Put another way, if you’re talking about money, you’re losing. And money is all we’re talking about.

Maigret: Maigret and the Nahour Case

I really should have enjoyed this one, and the fact that I didn’t was a clear indication to me that the series is played out.

The reason I thought I should have liked it is that it has such a narrow focus. Maigret is woken from a dream (he has an active dream life) by a phone call from his friend Dr. Pardon, who has had to do some emergency surgery on a mysterious couple who then disappear as soon as he sews the patient up. It turns out she had been shot. The next day her husband is found to have been shot as well, only fatally.

So the question is Who killed Félix Nahour? The wife? The wife’s lover? The maid? The seedy secretary? It’s a neat little mystery involving conflicting passions and loyalties, with all of the suspects lying to Maigret about pretty much everything.

Unfortunately, it’s a neat little mystery without a neat little solution. This is another one of those Maigret stories where the detective chief inspector just gets a feel for what’s going on and nails it. But how are we supposed to play along? What clues were tipping Maigret off? Especially since the double shooting was such a bizarre event in the first place. I also didn’t understand the motivation of the killer. They should have resolved their personal issues with Nahour long before things came to the point they did.

Maigret index

Party leaders

Right place, right time? (CP – Sean Kilpatrick)

After a couple of elections tacking (somewhat) to the left, the Conservative Party of Canada has chosen Pierre Poilievre, in a landslide, to be their new leader. Poilievre is widely seen as a pugnacious type who likes to hit on various, not always consistent, right-wing/neo-populist talking points, like the presumed influence of the World Economic Forum on Canadian politics. I think Poilievre’s policies, at least the ones I’m aware of, are mostly bad — making Canada the crypto capital of the world, doing more to promote the fossil fuel industry, appointing “free speech guardians” to oversee campus free-speech issues — but he does seem to be a politician in the modern mold, meaning that he does Twitter well. He is also likely to benefit from a growing sense of anger at the inevitability of Justin Trudeau, a prime minister who has lost the last two elections to the Conservatives in terms of the popular vote. There’s a wave of backlash coming, and Poilievre wants to be the guy to ride it. With the NDP under Jagmeet Singh having thrown in with the Liberals after the last election, for which I think there will also be reckoning, Poilievre has to like his chances.

This same weekend, Lorraine Rekmans, the president of the Green Party, resigned in the midst of the process of selecting a new federal Green leader after Annamie Paul stepped down following the disastrous 2021 election (Paul placed fourth in her own riding).  The Greens in 2021 blew up in part due to in-fighting around Paul: a lot of squabbling which is too complicated and in some cases too petty to bother with sorting out, but revolved around a raft of identity issues. Paul (a Black, Jewish woman) found herself at the center of charges and counter-charges of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism.

Well, in 2022 racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism have become old hat, and the latest controversy, the one that led to Rekmans’ resignation, had to do with a letter signed by several party big-wigs complaining of the misgendering of interim Green leader Amita Kuttner, who is transgender and nonbinary, in a Zoom event. This is a bit confusing since: (1) the misgendering seems to have been an accident; and (2) Kuttner had previously responded to an interview question as to what her preferred pronouns were as follows: “They/them. But when I write my pronouns, I sometimes write all of them: they/them, she/her, he/him, because I don’t care. There will be days where I’m not always even aware of what my gender is.” Apparently this was not one of those days, as Kuttner later described the misgendering as revealing a “system of oppression” that led to feelings of hurt and isolation.

In her letter of resignation Rekmans wrote that “there is no vision [in the party] for a better future, but only an effort to look back and settle old scores, while the planet burns.” I share her concern. As I said in my thoughts on the 2021 election, “The environment as an issue simply isn’t a priority for any appreciable part of the electorate.” I get that. What’s depressing is that what is a priority is this gender labeling.

In her resignation letter Rekamans writes that her “optimism has died.” Right-wingers are gleeful at the woke revolution eating its own children, and for good reason. For the left this is a disaster. In fact, I think it’s a disaster for all of us.

There’s an expression you often here among “Never Trump” Republicans that they didn’t leave the party, the party left them. It’s a line that actually predates Trump, with another version of the same phenomenon being “I didn’t change, the party changed.” What’s more, this is something you hear just as often on the left as on the right.

I’ve always voted for leftist parties, but I grew up at a time when the NDP still had its roots in the Co-operate Commonwealth Federation (a Western, agrarian party) and the Canadian Labour Federation. Whatever the NDP is today, its base isn’t farmers and blue-collar workers. I’ve also voted Green (at least on the provincial level), but what is the Green Party today? Is it honestly more worried about pronouns than about pollution and climate change? My priorities haven’t changed, but it seems that in both cases the party’s priorities have.

I can understand having to change with the times. There aren’t as many farmers or union workers today. But these gender issues aren’t big vote getters, and indeed are probably counterproductive in that they turn people away. Given the current status of the Green Party, its latest round of virtue signaling may be  just another twitch of the death nerve, as I’ve suggested has been happening in universities. If so, that’s depressing. Meanwhile, I know many old-school Tories who are disgusted by Poilievre and almost everything he stands for. Unfortunately for them, “firing up the base” is seen as the party’s only way forward. So far, the Liberals have been winning by just standing in place without actually standing for much of anything, but that’s not going to last.

I’ve never felt so personally alienated from politics. I know that I’m not alone, but, like Rekmans, my optimism has died.

On the misuse of Dante

Filippo Argenti is down there somewhere.

In an earlier post I commended the analogy made by a First World War airman between the appearance of a battlefield and the geography of Dante’s Inferno. What I particularly liked was its literary precision. It didn’t just use “Dante’s hell” as shorthand for something very bad, but specifically drew a comparison between the tortured landscape he was flying above and the place where punishment was meted out to heretics.

I was thinking of that correct use of Dante recently while reading Sara Gay Forden’s The House of Gucci. In the first of two references to Dante in the book Forden pulls a line from Inferno to shine some light on the “bizarre Florentine or Tuscan spirit,” which is a very literal translation of some words (fiorentino spirito bizarro) used in Canto VIII that are used to describe Filippo Argenti.

That’s all Forden says, and it surprised me a bit because all I could remember of Filippo Argenti is that he was someone Dante (the poet) really hated, and who Dante (the pilgrim) found drowning in the bog of the Styx. I thought the use of the word bizarro probably meant something a little different than “bizarre,” at least as it was being used in the poem. On looking into the notes in Robert and Jean Hollander’s English translation of Inferno I found this:

The word bizarro, explains Boccaccio’s comment to this passage, in Florentine vernacular is used of people who “suddenly and for any reason at all lose their tempers.”

This makes sense in context because the Styx is where the wrathful are being punished. But I don’t think it’s what Forden meant. Especially since in the poem it refers to Argenti going into a kind of fit where he starts biting himself in rage.

The second time Forden mentions Dante made even less sense to me. Talking of the building that Guccio Gucci bought as a workshop, she quickly gives some of its history: “In 1642, the building was acquired by the cardinal and then the archbishop of Florence, Francesco de’Nerli, whom Dante mentions in his Divine Comedy.” How could Dante have mentioned a cardinal who was alive in 1642 in a poem written in the early years of the fourteenth century?

I’m not a Dante scholar. I never studied anything by him at school and I don’t know Italian. I shouldn’t be stumbling over things like this.

Maigret: Maigret’s Patience

I mentioned in my notes on Maigret Defends Himself that it was basically the first of a two-part story arc, which concludes with Maigret’s Patience. The action picks up here a week later, with Maigret still on the trail of a gang of Paris jewel thieves, and re-visiting the Rue des Acacias apartment that’s home to the crippled ex-gangster Manuel Palmari and his saucy girlfriend Aline. Alas, it’s not a happy occasion, as someone has just shot Palmari and it’s up to his old not-quite-friend but not-quite-adversary to find out whodunit.

This turns out to be not much fun. The fact is that in these later Maigret books none of the killers are terribly interesting case studies. Here they are just the same “wild animal” types we met back in Maigret and the Saturday Caller. I even thought I was well on my way to figuring things out ahead of schedule, but then things took a bizarre swerve into a crazy back story and it turns out I was wrong. Though the explanation I was coming up with would have been better. I hate it when that happens in a mystery novel.

Some odds and ends: (1) Champagne is “more or less the only drink that doesn’t tempt” the hard-drinking Maigret. (2) Palmari has a maid in to clean his apartment two hours a day every day, and all morning on Mondays and Saturdays. That seems like a lot of maid service. (3) Maigret, as is often noted in the series, can’t drive, and we’re told here it’s because he has a tendency to let his mind wander into reverie while working on a case. He’s a man who knows his limitations. (4) The concierge in an apartment building is a ubiquitous figure in many of these novels. It’s a job that never seems to have caught on in North America. Given how grumpy they all seem to be in Paris, that may be for the best.

Maigret index

The Marvel Age

Can’t remember this guy’s name. He’s a talking raccoon.

I grew up on Marvel comics, and still have some old favourites stored in my basement. I don’t think they’re worth anything though because they’re not in the best of shape. But despite this background, I was never a huge fan of the way Marvel/Disney took over the movie business in the twenty-first century.

It’s hard to overstate just how central these movies have been. Their box office success ensured countless imitators, and the Marvel style became ubiquitous. What this meant, primarily, was: (1) the creation of a totally plastic, CGI “virtual” reality, making nearly every blockbuster movie over into a cartoon and every action star a superhero, and (2) the evolution of franchise filmmaking into various “universes,” given over to an even more assembly-line serial format. This latter development would, in turn, help with the transition away from cinemas to streaming platforms in need of a constant supply of new content. The comic-book form was particularly well-adapted to all of these developments, something the triumph of Marvel clearly underlined.

Meanwhile, the Marvel formula in terms of writing didn’t change much. Scruffy, ordinary-guy heroes with self-deprecating senses of humour and bulging biceps save the universe from supervillains intent on world domination (or world destruction). Lots of A-list talent. Lots of big action. Lots of CGI.

Some of the movies were entertaining, but the formula started to feel played out by the end of the 2010s. This is something I think everyone was aware of. Spinning off into the multi- or metaverse was one attempt at trying to make things new, and it worked to some extent. But my bottom line is that I really don’t want to see any of these movies, even the best of them, again, and I’ve already forgotten some of them completely. I was surprised, when compiling this list, to see that I’d reviewed Ant-Man and the Wasp. What had that been about? I have no idea now.

In any event, here’s the line-up of the Marvel movies (not all of them MCU) that I’ve written notes on over at Alex on Film. I’ll keep this index current with new postings, but I think it’s going to be slow on the Marvel front from here on out.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The Avengers (2012)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)
Fantastic Four (2015)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Deadpool (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Black Panther (2018)
Deadpool 2 (2018)
Venom (2018)
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Black Widow (2021)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Venom: Let There be Carnage (2021)
Eternals (2021)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)