Reflections on Doing Less With More


THEY were making a movie, but it seemed more like an invasion. Trailer trucks clogged three full blocks along Hudson Street in Manhattan's West Village, supporting a small army of operatives and technicians. Wires and cables overran the sidewalk, and klieg lights assaulted nearby apartments and shops. A small fortune was being spent to produce a minor scene in a local deli. It would probably be a few minutes on the screen, if that. So much paraphernalia and money to achieve so little. As imperious assistant producers shooed residents off the sidewalk (``We're filming here.''), I thought of an individual who captured scenes in a very different way.

It was Georges Simenon, the Belgian author who had died just a few weeks before. Simenon was a prolific writer, with over 400 books to his credit. He was best known for the Inspector Maigret mysteries, which were translated into 32 languages and have filled the empty hours of train journeys and sleepless nights for millions around the world.

The Maigret mysteries are unlike just about everything in the American crime-writing tradition. There are no chase scenes or gore, no low-life glamour or leggy blondes on the detective's arm. Where Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade are hard-fisted, Lone Ranger types who live on the fringes of society, Maigret is a bureaucrat, a French civil servant, who muses on retirement as he does paperwork at his desk. A hulking bear of a man, he is a loyal husband who craves nothing so much as to leave the office on time to spend a quiet evening with Mme. Maigret.

Simenon was what might politely be called a ``man about town,'' no less after his marriage than before. In one view, the author created in Maigret the steady domestic character that he himself perhaps wished he could be. Today the Old World domesticity - the sense of life rooted in tradition and culture - is part of the appeal of the Maigret mysteries in an age in which things seem to be coming apart.

In one respect, however, Maigret and Simenon were one. Maigret's investigative ``method'' is to immerse himself in the atmosphere of the crime. There is no orderly mustering of clues; often, there are few clues at all in the conventional sense. Rather, Maigret is the novelist as detective, observing and brooding until he makes the final intuitive leap that solves the crime.

He sits in local cafes, walks the streets, dwells in the tactile experiences of everyday life. Crime is part of life, in Simenon's view, and so is the inspector. He stops for a drink in mid-morning, has irresistible cravings for a favorite chicken dish at noon. In one case, he is accompanied by an official from Scotland Yard, who has come to observe the master at work. A man of instinct, Maigret feels lumpen and plodding next to his British counterpart with his efficiency and crisp deductive insights.

Simenon produced the Maigret mysteries on contract, 87 in all, in grueling bouts that could be as brief as two weeks. His prose is workmanlike and spare, and taken out of context his descriptions of character and scene can seem unexceptional. Yet somehow, with a few swift strokes, Simenon evokes an entire atmosphere - an opulent Paris apartment building, the clique at a village inn, the languid decadence of a Mediterranean resort. Perhaps these vivid images arise from the keeness of the underlying observation; what lives in the mind are not the words but the scenes.

Simenon wrote wherever he happened to be. He wrote some stories on a wooden crate as he navigated his boat through France's inland quays. I thought of Simenon's typewriter on the crate as I passed the commotion on Hudson Street. Would this army of assistant producers, equipped with truckloads of video gear, render the scene as well as Simenon could? Would it produce characters that live in the imagination like Inspector Maigret?

I doubt it. As the visual culture overtakes the written word, the locus of activity shifts from the mind that imagines to the technology that reproduces. Although the technology has become more elaborate and the graphic images even sharper, somehow they have less life in the mind. We are doing less with more. Possibly we are becoming less as well.

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