Piquant pecans at the pyknic’s picnic

Reading a book about Søren Kierkegaard yesterday, I came across a description of the Danish philosopher as “of the pycnic type,” something that “would lend a piquant touch to his psychological profile.” The word pycnic (more commonly spelled pyknic) completely stymied me. I don’t think I’d ever seen it before, and thinking it was a typo for picnic simply didn’t make sense given the context.

Pyknic is a word that’s very rarely used today. Derived from the Greek pyknos (for dense or thick) it refers to a body characterized as short and stocky, powerful but given to fat. It’s of recent vintage, with its first recorded use being in 1925. Since then I’ve heard that it’s been replaced by endomorph (a coinage from the 1940s), but it seems to me that endomorph — round and fat — isn’t quite the same thing.

As I say, it’s a term that’s fallen out of use, along with much of the science of classifying body types. I doubt I’ll have much occasion to use it, but it’s an interesting one to file away.

Maigret: Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse

It’s sad evidence of how played out the Maigret series was getting that this one begins exactly the same way as the previous installment (Maigret and the Lazy Burglar): with the detective chief inspector being woken out of a dream to answer the phone, and a call which draws him in to deal with an especially tricky case. Plus there’s the fact that he’s starting to seem even more of a grumpy old man:

He was keen for the summer and the holiday season to be over, for everyone to be back in their place. He’d frown each time his eye lighted on a young woman in the street still sporting the tight trousers worn on the beach, feet bare and tanned, nonchalantly treading the Paris cobblestones in sandals.

If you’re so old you can’t appreciate nice things like a pretty girl in beach clothes than you really have turned a corner in life.

The title refers to a family of very good people. Things kick off with the father being found dead in his study. By most accounts he didn’t have an enemy in the world. But, as Maigret grumbles, “it’s the good people who give us the most trouble.” After a while the repetition of “good man” wears on him.

A crime had definitely taken place, because a man had been killed. Only it wasn’t a crime like any other, because the victim wasn’t a victim like any other.

“A good man!” echoed Maigret with a sort of anger.

Who would have had a reason to kill that good man?

It wouldn’t take much for him to start loathing good people.

You see what I mean about turning into a grouch?

The twist here is that there is no twist. You’ll be expecting some dark revelation about how the good people aren’t so good after all, but as it turns out they mostly are. Then the explanation for what happened only gets dropped in at the end in a tired manner, and it barely makes any sense. It also isn’t arrived at by any special power of deduction or observation, but just comes about when Maigret stops into the right bar to ask for a drink. I’m still hoping the series has a few more gems, but by this point Georges was mailing them in.

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Maigret: Maigret and the Lazy Burglar

But why is the burglar lazy (le voleur parreseux)? I only recall his mother as being described as carrying with her “a touch of laziness.” Honoré Cuendet is a hard-working professional, providing not only for his mom but for his lover too. He’s not lazy, just unlucky.

Maigret, meanwhile, is feeling more and more like yesterday’s man and griping about the new order, where beat policemen like himself have become subordinate to well-educated, bureaucratic paper-pushers.

The world was changing. Paris was changing, everything was changing, men and methods. Retirement might seem frightening, but if he didn’t retire, wouldn’t he end up adrift in a world he no longer understood?

At least in this case he’s on familiar ground, looking to find out who murdered a not-so-lazy burglar he’d known for years. Except that’s not the case he’s supposed to be working on, at least according to his so-called superiors. Instead, he should be trying to catch a gang of bank robbers.

I spent most of the book figuring the two plot lines would end up being connected in some way, but they’re not, which leaves both stories feeling rushed at the end. This was too bad, as the the burglar’s murder had some potential, relating to another rich family with some dirty secrets hidden behind the façade of their Paris mansion. By this point, however, I think Simenon was getting a bit tired of the series and was looking forward to retiring as much as Maigret.

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Internet porn, the early years

From Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) by Philip K. Dick:

“Your – everybody’s – sexual aspects are linked electronically, and amplified, to as much as you can endure. It’s addictive, because it’s electronically enhanced. People, some of them, get so deep into it they can’t pull out; their whole lives revolve around the weekly – or, hell, even daily! – setting up of the network of phone lines. It’s regular picture-phones, which you activate by credit card, so it’s free at the time you do it; the sponsors bill you once a month and if you don’t pay they cut your phone out of the grid.”

“How many people,” he asked, “are involved in this?”

“Thousands.”

“At one time?”

Alys nodded. “Most of them have been doing it two, three years. And they’ve deteriorated physically – and mentally – from it. Because the part of the brain where the orgasm is experienced is gradually burned out. But don’t put down the people; some of the finest and most sensitive minds on earth are involved. For them it’s a sacred, holy communion. Except you can spot a gridder when you see one; they look debauched, old, fat, listless – the latter always between the phone-line orgies, of course.”

Maigret: Maigret and the Old People

A retired diplomat is found dead in his study, body riddled with bullets, drawing the detective chief inspector into another one of those situations where he’s stuck among the inhabitants of a mostly closed social circle that he has trouble relating to. In this case that means a bunch of old-school aristos. Maigret’s method, or un-method, is to immerse himself in a particular social milieu so he can understand it from the inside, but rich people always put him off his game and make him feel at a disadvantage by knocking him back to his own childhood as the son of a provincial estate manager. This dynamic has been at work in so many of these novels that I’m starting to wonder why it still affects Maigret the same way. At some point, you’d think he’d get more comfortable around “these people.” I also raised an eyebrow at his own judgment that he is just a “regular” guy. We all think that, more or less.

The behaviour of this particular bunch of French aristocrats seems particularly odd to Maigret because it involves a man who carries a torch for an old love of his who went out and married the wrong guy. This isn’t that crazy, but he carries the torch for over fifty years, which is a bit much. But then “these people” (Maigret always thinks of them like this) are repeatedly likened to characters in a novel, where they are more common. Here I was thinking of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. The book begins with Maigret and Dr. Pardon musing over who might understand people the best: a psychiatrist, a schoolteacher, a novelist, or a policeman. By the end, Maigret thinks a priest has to be added to the list. By my own reading of what’s going on I’d say the novelist might come out ahead.

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Thoughts on Empire (the book)

Backyard tent.

Empire by Jeremy Paxman is a sweeping historical and cultural survey of the history of British imperialism that was published as a companion to a BBC series of the same name (hosted by Paxman). When reading it I came across the following passage about the discovery of the source of the Nile by the Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke that had some personal resonance for me:

Does any of this matter now, other than as a ripping yarn? The waterfalls which tumbled out of Lake Victoria, through which Speke intended to offer the Marquess of Ripon immortality by naming them Ripon Falls, largely disappeared when a dam was built in the 1950s. If the name of Speke is known at all, it is more likely to be as a deprived area of Liverpool, once home to the Bryant and May match factory  and the Triumph sports-car plant, both long-gone British brands. Richard Burton has his splendid tomb in a Mortlake cemetery in the shape of an Arab tent, but mention the name and you are likely to have to explain that you’re not talking about the Welsh actor twice married to the actress Elizabeth Taylor.

This made me sit up for a couple of reasons. First of all, as a schoolboy forty years or more ago now I remember writing a report on Burton and Speke and their discovery of the source of the Nile. It’s a story I’ve never forgotten, and since then I have always known about Burton and Speke. Now I’ll admit I may be an outlier, but what Paxman says is an interesting reflection on the sort of thing that falls out of public awareness and “doesn’t matter now.” And it makes sense. I mean, is there any way to quantify what parts of history matter now?

I guess knowing who these two guys were isn’t going to impact the life of anyone today, so I agree with Paxman’s wry take on matters. But isn’t he being a bit provincial, or at least limited to his own experience, in thinking that anyone outside of England would know that Speke is a neighbourhood in Liverpool? I’ve never heard of the place, or of Bryant and May matches. Even Triumph sports cars are only a name that rings a distant bell. I can’t remember ever actually seeing one, or knowing where they were made. The way we understand history is such a personal thing.

Maigret: Maigret in Court

Simenon was a machine cranking out these Maigret titles, and I have to think that all the time the chief inspector spends thinking about his retirement – two years away in this book, as he’s fifty-three – reflects an authorial burn-out as well. But then Maigret was ready to retire as early as Lock No. 1, which was still early going in the series, so there’s that.

Another incompatible couple. An older man who is a bit of a loser marries a younger woman who is “petite and very curvaceous, with a come-hither look in her eye, a suggestive pout and seductive manner.” In short, she’s trouble. In these mysteries the women either love too much or not at all, and bubble-headed Ginette falls into the latter category.

This is a weaker effort, as the crime is brutal and uninteresting, the characters dull and undistinguished, and the solution just a matter of following people around.

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Maigret: Maigret’s Secret

My hat goes off to Georges Simenon. Following Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses, a book I thought had him just going through the motions, he came up with something quite fresh and surprising in Maigret’s Secret.

At a dinner party with the Pardons, Maigret gets to reminiscing about a case that has always bothered him. A woman was stabbed to death in her home and her husband was convicted of her murder. He ended up being executed. But was he guilty?

Maigret had his doubts at the time of the investigation, but things were taken out of his hands by his old nemesis, the magistrate Coméliau, and Adrien Josset is sent off to what I assume was a date with Madame Guillotine (the official method of execution in France until the abolishment of the death penalty in 1981). Years later, Maigret’s doubts persist. Actually, Maigret’s Doubts would have been a better title here, but it had already been used. I don’t know what his “secret” is.

So this is a mystery without a solution. Or, for that matter, any way of arriving at a solution. Maigret’s method (or anti-method) of staying open-minded and allowing the case to resolve itself, takes time. But here time is the one thing he doesn’t have, as the public is impatient for Josset’s head. All we have are hints that things might have turned out differently. At one point Maigret meets a concierge who is just one of several extremely rude and antagonistic supporting players. She “looked nothing like the person he had imagined.” This is a point worth flagging, as it’s part of a theme in the book about the reliability of snap judgments. When the concierge lets him in and he goes to the apartment of Josset’s lover he is again put off.

It was all a bit of a let-down. The geraniums were there all right, but they were the only detail that corresponded to the mental image Maigret had formed of the place.

Just as with the concierge, Maigret’s mental picture is blown up. So how much else might he have been wrong, or right, about?

Once again there is something made of the fact that the married couple no longer sleep together — a point that had some weight in Maigret Sets a Trap and Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses. Is it a bad sign here too? Or immaterial? We’ll never know.

A coda suggests a possible alternative solution, but it comes by way of an unreliable narrator and is unverifiable anyway. This is deeply subversive. Closure, however ironic, is one of the essential elements of the mystery genre. But here we’re left to entertain different Jossets, a man who is either very wicked and clever or very hapless and naïve. Some lives, like that of Josset or the parallel case of Pardon’s patient, just come to a frustrating and messy end. They have their own narrative logic, and we have to take them or leave them as they are.

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Double trouble

Reading an account of the adventures of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, popularly known as El Cid, I came across a delightful bit of history.

In the eleventh century the Iberian peninsula was a crazy free-for-all and among the players were the counts of Barcelona. At one point there were two counts who were joint rulers and also twins: Ramon Berenguer and Berenguer Ramon. These brothers were the son of Ramon Berenguer I (“the Old”). Anyway, Ramon Berenguer II (known as “the Towhead”) died in a hunting accident (oddly enough, William II of England died around the same time in similarly mysterious circumstances). Brother Berenguer Ramon II (known as “the Fratricide”) then took over. His nickname tells you something about the suspicions there were at the time over his involvement in his brother’s death.

That all this was going on between twins with reversed names just seemed like too much fun for me. As things worked out, the Fratricide Berenguer Ramon was later succeeded by his brother the Towhead’s son, who became Ramon Berenguer III (and who was also Ramon Berenguer I, Count of Provence). With these unimaginative names you can tell why they needed additional descriptive monikers. Ramon Berenguer III is known as the Great on account of his success in battle. On his death he left his Catalan possessions to his eldest son Ramon Berenguer IV and Provence to his younger son, Berenguer Ramon.

Maigret: Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses

Another formerly rich family fallen on hard times, residing in a grand old house that is falling apart. I get the sense that Simenon didn’t care much for old money.

The decrepit house is a fit setting though, as Maigret himself is close to retirement and feeling out of step with modern life. The drink that will see him through the investigation is a hot toddy. He begins his day by thinking that Paris in the rain resembles a black-and-white silent film, and then the crime scene strikes him as being like one of the engravings that used to appear in the Sunday newspapers before photography.

The inhabitants of the house are just as archaic. There’s a housekeeper who has been serving the family for fifty years. There’s a pair of elderly parents who have entered a non-communicative twilight phase. And there is the next generation, one of whom has just been found dead. His brother and sister-in-law are the other reluctant witnesses, their characters infected by the moribund spirit of the place.

Everything was decrepit, the house’s contents as well as its occupants. The family and the house had turned in on themselves, taking on a hostile appearance.

Putting this musty air of decline into further relief is an examining magistrate just out of college. He’s one of a “new school” of magistrate and Maigret finds him “insolently youthful” but that just seems to come from the deputy chief inspector being out of sorts. I didn’t read him as being anything but respectful.

In any event, Maigret is in a sour mood and the murder itself turns out to be something a little less than it appears. This may be the first time in the series I had the sense that Maigret was only going through the motions, not utilizing any method (he has none!) but simply withdrawing into himself, physically and mentally, until some thought comes to him or some observation becomes significant and unlocks the case. This “formed part of a technique he had unconsciously built up over the years.” It works again here, but he isn’t feeling it and I wasn’t either.

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