Maigret: Maigret and the Wine Merchant

These English translations of the Maigret corpus are very much English translations, meaning that they take certain British terms and usages for granted. Like the first floor being what Americans call the second floor. Or having meals like skate and black butter being served with beverages like grog. Or calling the island between the lanes of a roadway a “reservation.” I’d never heard of this meaning of “reservation” before, but found it defined in the O.E.D. as “A strip of land between the carriageways of a dual carriageway.” This made me wonder if people in the U.K. still call roads carriageways.

One particular Britishism that gets a workout in this book is “rise.” What this refers to is what on this side of the Atlantic we call a “raise.” That is, a bump in pay at work. I think I first heard “rise” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album in the song “Money.”

Money, so they say,
Is the root of all evil today.
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away.

Just putting those lyrics in this post, “rise” came up as a grammar error. Whenever I listened to that song as a kid I always thought Roger Waters was just pronouncing “raise” in a funny British accent. But it’s actually spelled “rise” over there.

Well, the translator of Maigret and the Wine Merchant is Ros Schwartz, who has done more than a dozen of these Maigret books for Penguin, and she’s a Brit so it’s all fair. I sometimes wonder about translations of certain expressions though. Maigret often tells his inspectors to search a crime scene “with a fine-tooth comb.” Is that expression the same in French? I don’t know. (It is called a “fine toothcomb” in the next book, Maigret’s Madwoman, but I’m sure that must be a typo.)

I spent my time making notes on things like this because there’s no mystery at all to be solved in this book. The titular wine merchant is shot dead outside a Paris bordello, and it turns out that he’s a guy who everybody hated. The killer eventually gives himself up. That’s it. Maigret is under the weather throughout, grumpy and woolly-headed, but Madame Maigret is there to fetch his pipe, turn down his bed, and cook and serve his meals, like the aforementioned skate and black butter (which sounds disgusting) and braised calf’s liver à la bourgeoise (one of Maigret’s favourites).

Once again, our hero is looking into the lives of the morally degenerate upper class, which makes him uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the killer is a downwardly mobile (rapidly downwardly mobile) loser who might be a sort of class avenger but for the fact that he’s so pathetic. Even the wise and understanding Maigret can’t wait to see the last of him.

Is the killer a bit like a squirrel Maigret encountered once while on holiday? That’s the analogy that’s made. But it’s a strange one.

One day, in Meung-sur-Loire, when Maigret had been lounging in a deckchair, a squirrel had come down from the plane tree at the bottom of the garden.

At first, it had kept perfectly still and he could see its heart pounding beneath the silky fur on its chest. Then it crept a few centimetres closer and froze again.

While Maigret hardly dared breathe, the little red animal stared at him fixedly, seemingly fascinated by him, but its entire body remained taut, ready to flee.

It all unfolded as if in slow motion, step by step. The squirrel grew bolder, reducing the distance between them by a good metre. This cautious approach had gone on for more than ten minutes, and the squirrel had ended up barely fifty metres from Maigret’s dangling hand.

Did it want to be stroked?

Now this really did make me think that there’d been some mistake in the translation. I had to go back and re-read it several times to make sure I was getting it right. Barely fifty metres? I’d have trouble even identifying a squirrel at fifty metres, much less see its heart beating beneath the silky fur on its chest. In my daily walks squirrels often come up to within a couple of feet of me (that is, a single metre or less). I thought England was on the metric system, so there shouldn’t have been a problem there. Or is it just that squirrels, and French squirrels in particular, were more standoffish fifty years ago?

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8 thoughts on “Maigret: Maigret and the Wine Merchant

  1. Re. metric system, we transitioned to it in the 70’s so if this was written before then she should have put feet, (although that is only 15 and a bit meters) which is only 3 car park spaces length so you’d see a squirrel easily.
    We use raise and rise for upping the pay.

    Liked by 1 person

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