Maigret: Inspector Cadaver

Either these books are growing on me or they’re getting better. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Inspector Cadaver has a lot of familiar ingredients. We begin with Maigret taking another trip out of Paris to visit a provincial town that he finds disturbingly alien and depressing. Saint-Aubin is a typical Maigret destination in its crappy weather and secretive attitude toward outsiders. Worst of all, “As for his name, who knew if anyone had heard of it in this village surrounded by slimy bogs and pools of stagnant water?” Not heard of Maigret!

Looking out on the empty, rainswept streets and “houses like blind people,” Maigret is driven to wonder at how there are people who spend their whole lives in Saint-Aubin. But by the end of his visit he will experience a remarkable moment of epiphany: “Now he was almost like God the Father. He knew this village as if he had lived there, or better still, as if he had created it. All the life going on in these small low houses hidden in the dark was familiar to him.” Try keeping your dirty little secrets from God!

Also carrying over from the other novels is the interest in looking behind the façade of bourgeois life (those blind houses, those twitching curtains). There’s always something nasty going on in these sleepy little towns, some dark secrets being kept. Also, as in The Yellow Dog and The Misty Harbour, the notion of justice being done is stretched quite a ways. Only, as in Signed, Picpus, here it’s less about being forgiving than it is a cynical shrug at the evil of the world. What’s the point of holding the leading citizens of Saint-Aubin to account? What good would it do? As for poor Albert Retailleau, he suffers a fate not unlike that of his father, killed off by accident and converted into a payout to his mom. He is, in fact, the story’s punchline: “There’s always got to be some poor fellow who carries the can for everyone else!” Ha-ha! The leading citizens are then free to head to Argentina, where they can enjoy lives of wealth and decadence in a place where it doesn’t rain so much.

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Narrative control

Master of her domain? (Roberto Dell’Olivo)

Tennis player Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open after saying that she would not participate in mandatory press conferences. Osaka considers the conferences to be bad for her mental health and focus, causing her “huge waves of anxiety.”

I don’t think many athletes like doing media, but in most cases, like this one, they are contractually bound. It is then part of their job if not part of any competition. In most ways this seems to me to be a pissing match between a star athlete and the tournament about who needs the other most and I don’t care who wins. What I find more interesting is what’s being said about the contretemps in the press.

In general the media response has been quite supportive of Osaka, though she has certainly had her critics. I found a few articles written in Osaka’s defence noteworthy though for how they characterize what is going on.

Cate Young concludes by finding the whole thing a little old fashioned in 2021. “In a landscape where most public figures have a direct line of access to their fans and supporters, the traditional media conference is nothing more than an outdated formality. If sports media wants to prove its necessity, it needs to demonstrate that it can do something an athlete with an Instagram account can’t.” For his part, Chris Jones congratulates Osaka on being part of “a huge transfer of power from fusty, historically patriarchal institutions, be they Broadway Leagues, awards committees, movie studios or governing bodies of sports, to individuals, especially those who have allied themselves with the struggles of their fans.”

Jemele Hill, continuing the theme of how progressive all this is, puts Osaka in the company of other Black athletes, particularly NBA players. She mentions Kyrie Irving as one such, as he had been fined for not speaking to the media, saying that he wanted “to perform in a secure and protected space.”

The nagging suspicion that leagues and reporters alike fundamentally misunderstand athletes of color makes these athletes still more determined to cultivate their own image with fans. That’s why so many prominent athletes — including the NBA stars Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant — have opted to launch their own media companies. With their massive social-media followings, they can take their message directly to the public. Many of them don’t need press conferences to promote or build their brands, and the establishment is having trouble adjusting to the new normal, in which it can’t make players do what it wants simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

The issues that Osaka has raised aren’t going away. These days athletes would much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them. Not long ago, players couldn’t win any power struggles against the media, much less their own league. Now they can.

Does this sound familiar? A celebrity with a (real or imagined) grievance at how they are being treated by the mainstream or established media leverages their fame to take their message and brand directly “to the people” by way of “their massive social-media followings.” In doing so they hope to establish “a secure and protected space” and control the narrative around their brand.

Yes, it’s the Trump playbook. Remember that Trump just wanted to be treated fairly. He just wanted to protect himself. He would still appear on Fox News, just as Osaka clarified that she was OK “with all the cool journalists.” If one is forced to deal with the press, it’s best if they’re the tame variety.

Three points stand out from these interpretations of the Osaka affair.

In the first place, both Young and Hill make this into a pissing match not between an athlete and her sport’s governing bodies but between a celebrity and the media. Why? What did the media do wrong in attending these admittedly silly dog-and-pony shows? Are they responsible for Osaka’s anxiety? Aren’t they just doing their job? A job, I might add, that few of them enjoy any more than the athletes.

The second thing I find remarkable is that Young, Jones, and Hill represent the mainstream media. Jones is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Hill was writing in The Atlantic, which is about as traditional or establishment as you can get. That is, they are going out of their way to slam their own side while championing Twitter. At what point does this denigration of the media stop?

Finally I want to express my concern at the way a widespread anger at and distrust of the media has become cover for those in positions of wealth and power who want to take control of the way they’re presented. To ask the obvious question: Who wouldn’t “much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them”? How brave is Osaka in ditching press conferences for social media platforms where, as Jones puts it, “she can control the conversation without risk to herself”?

Everyone wants that kind of control. But who has that privilege? Only the most powerful. Billionaires. Those with “massive social-media followings.” Celebrities who own their own media companies.

I recently updated an earlier post I’d made about the way celebrities seek to control their public image, in particular through their dealings with biographers — which may be said to be the ultimate example of controlling one’s narrative. I’ve made it clear what I think of this. I’m left to wonder if Young sees a difference between a press conference and an Instagram post, or if Hill considers it a good thing that athletes (or powerful people more generally) can now crush the media and control their image and narrative. Does she feel the same about Bill Cosby or Donald Trump doing this as she does about Kyrie Irving and Naomi Osaka?

I have as many misgivings about the media as the next person, but I’ll take the side of professional journalists asking questions, even the same ones, however many times, over that of celebrities looking to cultivate their brand on social media. The wealthiest and most privileged among us are in no need of a safe space. Journalism, as the old saw has it, is writing stuff that someone doesn’t want you to write. Everything else is advertising. I’m afraid that if this sort of thinking is allowed to continue then advertising is all we’re going to have left.

Maigret: Signed, Picpus

A game of connect-the-dots so playfully rendered I have to wonder if Simenon was just having a bit of fun with these stories now. How far was his tongue in his cheek when he served up this description of the chief inspector: “In the course of his thirty years in the job, Maigret has seen all kinds of everything. He has sniffed the air and smelled the odour of human passions, vices, crimes and manias, the entire ferment of massed humanity.”

All the fun and games come to a dark end indeed though, as this is the most bitterly ironic of all these novels thus far. Madame Le Cloagulen is a figure so vicious the other characters, including Maigret himself, are shocked that she can even exist. She is unnatural, a harpy, someone who leaves Maigret at a loss for words. He can only expostulate “What a bitch . . .” And yet even though he “has it in for her” his plans to nail her for something other than walling her dead husband up fail in the face (and laughter) of an insouciant heiress. Maigret’s “amazing intuition, his frightening ability to put himself in the shoes of other people” isn’t up to the task of dealing with either woman. Perhaps because they are women? I don’t think that’s quite right. But they are modern women, and that’s something he doesn’t seem capable or willing to understand.

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Cryptoscepticism

Looks bright and shiny. But what is it?

A recent news report out of the UK had the police raiding a property in the Midlands with suspiciously high energy usage. They figured it was a grow-op. Instead, it turned out to be a bitcoin mine.

I’ve never given a lot of thought to cryptocurrencies, but this piqued my interest. There are a lot of primers and basic introductions to the subject online so I tried to get somewhat up to speed. I was not entirely successful. I still don’t know what, exactly, a blockchain is, or what bitcoin mining involves. Yes, the former is a ledger and the second refers to the process of validating transactions (which is what I believe takes so much energy), but that doesn’t help a lot.

As with anything involving a lot of tech, a lot of money, and a lot of secrecy, I am suspicious of all of this. “Cutting out the middleman” and facilitating faster financial transactions may be of some value, but they don’t seem like really pressing needs for anyone. Meanwhile, avoiding any oversight is the kind of thing mostly bad actors want to take advantage of.

We know a lot of sketchy businesses exploit the crypto part of cryptocurrency, as it keeps shady dealings hidden in dark markets. Throw in the energy consumption (with cryptomining generating some 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, which is as much as some small countries), and illicit cryptomining (through “permissionless blockchains”) and I’m not sure why governments aren’t cracking down more.

But as I said, it’s a subject I know little about. Given that this is where things are heading I’m going to try to learn more. Not to invest in bitcoins but to better understand what’s going on.

Maigret: The Judge’s House

Are these Maigret novels really that well written? They’re prefaced in this series by testimonials from authors ranging from William Faulkner to John Banville, so Simenon clearly had, and has, a lot of prominent fans.

I have to say I’ve been less impressed by the literary quality of the series thus far, but in chapter 6 of The Judge’s House the abbreviated style achieves a remarkable effect as Maigret follows up the leads given to him by Judge Forlacroix the night before. Maigret himself recognizes that “it was a little like the reality of a film. A documentary film, for example. Images unreel on the screen. At the same time, the voice of an off-screen narrator comments on them . . .” That’s a passing of the narrative guard that was still pretty new, I think, in 1942.

Unfortunately, the plot here is nonsense from start to finish. I wasn’t even sure what Lise’s problem was. Nymphomania? Whatever. The old busybody Didine was a bit of fun, but in the end she’s tangential to the melodramatic goings-on in the judge’s house.

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The golden calf

New type of tree, wearing a towel.

I made a comment a while back where I mentioned Jamie Dornan’s calves. Here’s a picture of what I was referring to.

Jamie Dornan is a model/actor/musician whose best known turn was playing the kinky billionaire in the 50 Shades franchise. I haven’t seen any of those movies (or read the books) but thought Dornan was great in The Fall. I even preferred his performance to that of his co-star Gillian Anderson.

Dornan’s a good-looking fellow, and apparently was named “the Golden Torso” by the New York Times. What surprised me the most, however, were the scenes in The Fall where he shows his calves. I mean, they really stand out. I don’t think you can get calves like that from doing anything in the gym. They have to be genetic. And while they’re impressive, they are kind of weird to see on a model.

Can we just get rid of the Nobel Prize?

Reports have recently surfaced that Bill Gates befriended the notorious Jeffrey Epstein in the hopes of being given an award somewhere down the line. And not just any award. According to an ex-staffer at the Gates Foundation “He [Gates] thought that Jeffrey would be able to help him, that he would know the right people or some kind of way to massage things, so he could get the Nobel Peace Prize.”

I think a story like this just underlines how silly the business of such awards is. They are subjective, and what’s more based on whatever the whims of a handful of not very knowledgeable or well-informed individuals happens to be feeling at the moment. Of course Barack Obama had done absolutely nothing to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 except replace George W. Bush as president, but that was enough at that particular historical moment.

But the Nobel name, for no good reason whatsoever, continues to have enough cachet to make people like Bill Gates, who should know better, want to pursue it. I gave up long ago trying to find any rhyme or reason to the Nobel Prize in Literature. But why should there be any rhyme or reason? The handful of members of the Swedish Academy who do the picking might as well be throwing darts at a wall as naming some writer whose work they will in most cases be entirely unfamiliar with. Bob Dylan one year. Kazuo Ishiguro the next.

I don’t understand why anyone still buys into this, or into prize culture in general. 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. Bill Gates should have just been allowed to buy a Nobel Prize for a billion dollars, and the money given to charity.

Maigret: The Cellars of the Majestic

Upstairs-downstairs at the swank Hotel Majestic, and you know what side Maigret – “plebeian to the bone, to the marrow” – is on. Meanwhile, the rich guy (American, so you know he’s really rich) is an asshole even if he is innocent.

The class divide played a bigger role in some of the earlier books, like The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, but you definitely feel its presence resurfacing here. Still, the social order is never fixed: a dancer can marry a millionaire. This upward mobility is seen in several stories, where we find a character with  proletarian/plebeian/peasant roots who has risen in the world. And, as Balzac put it, the secret behind many a great fortune is a crime that was never found out.

It seems Simenon was hitting his stride around this time. The characters are all interesting and the plot is relatively tight. I’m not sure what to think of Maigret’s outburst of violence at the end, but maybe that’s his peasant blood reasserting itself. Plus he’d earlier shown that he could take a punch himself and shrug it off. If you’re going to dish it out you have to be able to take it.

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Maigret: Cécile is Dead

I guess Maigret didn’t retire, as he’s back as Paris’s celebrity police investigator here. Even to the point where a young man has come all the way from Philadelphia just to learn about his “method.” Good luck with that. “How can I explain it to you?” Maigret asks. “I feel it.” But then how can you explain anything to a man who won’t wear a hat, even in the rain? Americans!

Though one of the longer Maigret mysteries I still felt shortchanged. I thought there was so much more to say about what was going on in that Neapolitan ice cream apartment building. As it stands, it’s pretty clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, though the focus on a smaller cast of characters and a single setting gives you more to sink your teeth into. The idea of love changing to avarice, “one passion chases out another,” made me think of Trina in Frank Norris’s McTeague. I love these pocket case studies in abnormal psychology.

As I say, I would have been happy with a few hundred pages going deeper into all this. But Simenon seems to have had a kind of attention-deficit problem when it came to these books. He’ll set the hook with a delightful opening, as he does here with an evocation of the foggy Paris streets to kick things off, or again at the beginning of Chapter 8:

It was still raining in the morning, a soft, dismal rain with the resignation of widowhood. You didn’t see it falling; you didn’t feel it, yet it covered everything with a cold film, and the surface of the Seine was pitted with thousands of little circles. At nine, you still felt as if you were off to catch an early train, for day was reluctant to dawn, and the gas lamps were still lit.

But he never continues in this vein for more than a paragraph or two. He’s impatient to get on with the story. Why the rush?

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The high price of living (somewhere)

In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about the affordability of homes in Canada, and whether we are experiencing a real estate bubble. A lot depends on location, as always when talking about buying a house. But the numbers on the ground where I live are concerning.

In March 2020 the average resale price of a home where I live was $590,176. A year later, March 2021, the price had risen to $744,775. A 26.2% increase in one year, which is a record-setting pace. The average house was appreciating in value over $10,000 a month. That makes for a very fluid marketplace. I was recently informed by a real estate agent that one local home had sold for more than $300,000 over asking. I do not live in Toronto or Vancouver, by the way.

I don’t know if this is a bubble, but it is a run-up that has to stop at some point. I don’t see how such inflation is sustainable. But will there be a collapse, or just a freeze or gentle deflating? And who is buying all these million-dollar homes anyway?