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

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.

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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

Maigret: Maigret Defends Himself

The shoe is on the other foot when Maigret gets called into the principal’s office (that is, the office of the prefect of police) and finds out he’s been accused of getting the niece of a prominent public official drunk and raping her. It’s a #MeToo story circa. 1964, which would be kind of interesting but we all know our hero is being set up and the scheme is so improbable that its complexity is what finally convinces Maigret as to who’s behind it (he knows the villain’s “tendency, when faced with a problem, is to look for the subtlest, most complicated solution”). Add to that the fact that Maigret only becomes “a problem” due to “an almost miraculous combination of circumstances” and we have a very whimsical plot indeed.

I was kept interested, if only because as I got closer to the end I didn’t see how Simenon was going to wrap things up in the few pages remaining (and as it is, the subplot is only resolved in the next book, Maigret’s Patience, so what we have is a rare two-parter). Suffice it to say that Maigret gets some breaks as he begins to grow in weight and density, which is an observable phenomenon with him whenever a case starts to come together.

Things kick off with the Maigrets having dinner with the Pardons. We learn Dr. Pardon has stopped smoking cigarettes at home because his wife is worried about all these nasty rumours of cigs causing lung cancer. So instead he smokes cigars! This was what (some) people thought made sense in 1964.

From there we enter into a discussion of “truly wicked” criminals, whose only motivation is an inherent spite. This is a red herring, as the bad guy in this book has a motive. I like a bit of initial misdirection though, as it’s not often what you’re expecting.

Not to say the villain isn’t wicked enough. His crimes are only briefly outlined at the end, but recalled for me Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness. As for the complainant, Nicole, she could simply be dismissed with a muttered “bitch,” but might also be flagged as another example of Maigret’s take on degenerate youth. A student at the Sorbonne, she runs with a fast crowd, comes from a family of privilege, and clearly has little respect for the law or even basic morality. I’ve flagged before how Maigret (like Simenon?) was getting grumpier as the series went along, casting a particularly jaundiced eye on flashy young people. In this book Nicole is only a tool, but it’s a point worth flagging because I don’t think the kids are going to get any better from here on out.

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From Chronicles of a Liquid Society (2016) by Umberto Eco:

A significant transformation came about in the opposition between the religious and secular worlds. For thousands of years, the spirit of religion was associated with a distrust of progress, rejection of the world, doctrinal intransigence. The secular world, on the other hand, looked optimistically upon the transformation of nature, the flexibility of ethical principles, the fond rediscovery of “other” forms of religion and primitive thought.

There were, of course, those believers, such as Teilhard de Chardin, who appealed to “worldly realities,” to history as a march toward redemption, while there were plenty of secular doom merchants, with the negative utopias of Orwell and Huxley, or the kind of science fiction that offered us the horrors of a future dominated by hideous scientific rationality. But it was the task of religion to call us at the final moment, and the task of secularism to sing hymns in praise of locomotives.

The recent gathering of enthusiastic young papal groupies show us the transformation that has taken place under the reign of Pope John Paul II. A mass of youngsters who accept the Catholic faith but, judging from the answers they recently gave in interviews, are far distant from neurotic fundamentalism, are willing to make compromises over premarital relationships, contraceptives, even drugs, and certainly when it comes to clubbing; meanwhile, the secular world moans about noise pollution and a New Age spirit that seems to unite neo-revolutionaries, followers of Monsignor Milingo, and sybarites devoted to Oriental massage.

From On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever (2021) by Andrew Potter:

For well over half a century, it’s been an article of faith, agreed to by all sides, that the right was the side of rules, order, tradition, and circumspection, while the left was the part of rebellion, individualism, freedom, and transgression. Now the political valences have reversed themselves, with the right setting itself up as the true countercultural opposition to the left’s restrictiveness and enforced conformity.


From After the Fact?: The Truth About Fake News (2020) by Marcus Gilroy-Ware:

Intolerable boredom, loneliness, precariousness and the disappearance of the future that is endemic to postmodernism, combined with a heavy emphasis on aspiration reduced to increasingly economistic terms, all produced widespread malaise that is hard to describe in specific terms for those that suffer it but is often demotivating or debilitating. The result is that we try to compensate, through the trappings of consumerism that have arisen to sell compensatory pleasure itself – the most obvious being the soaring popularity of delivery food, the seeming addictiveness of social media or gaming, or the quiet success of the sugar industry.

Maigret: Maigret and the Ghost

Inspector Luckless (that would be Lognon) gets shot in the gut while on a stakeout he’d been conducting so discreetly none of his fellow officers even knew what he was up to. So as the Paris police department’s resident sad sack fights for life in hospital it’s up to Maigret to find out what went down on the Avenue Junot.

One way that you can expect a series like this to go after so long a run is for it to become sillier. There are a lot of familiar elements in this one – Janvier had been shot in Maigret Takes a Room, a nosy neighbour played a key role in The Judge’s House, the dirty deeds done behind the façade of a great house is a staple – but they get rolled together here into a whimsical plot involving forged artwork, gangsters, and another ill-matched couple.

“You’ll find it hard to believe me because you’re not a collector,” the collector says as he tried to explain himself to Maigret. To which the detective chief inspector replies “I collect people . . .” His readers may be tempted to add, “I collect books . . .” This is what it’s sort of come to by this point.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret’s Anger

Hard to believe, but Maigret’s good friend Dr. Pardon has finally sounded the alarm about the detective chief inspector’s drinking problem. In order to spare Maigret’s liver, he’s recommended cutting down to just quaffing the odd aperitif instead of hitting the bar at all hours of the day while on a case.

Perhaps it’s the lack of lubricant that has made Maigret even grouchier than usual (as if getting old wasn’t bad enough). Whatever the cause, he does, as the title indicates, get angry at the end of this one. I had a hard time figuring out where things were going, but as it turns out the villain was running a kind of fake protection scheme, which is something Maigret takes personally as the protection being offered was from the police. To be honest, I thought it was a pretty good scam, and the guy running it was sympathetic, so maybe Maigret really did just need a drink.

A minor effort, but not bad, at least by the standards of the later books in the series. One point that caught my attention was that when Maigret, who doesn’t know how to drive, wants one of his lieutenants to take the suspect’s car he has to first check if he has “ever driven an American car.” In what way would driving an American car in 1963 be different from driving a French car? I’m guessing most cars at the time would have been standard transmission, so he’s not talking about that. I don’t think any mention is made of what make of car it is, only that it’s American and “big” (naturally). Which is, something that might have set him off too, come to think of it.

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