A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: novena

Book Corner – June 2018 (1)

The Misty Harbour – Georges Simenon

A man is picked up in Paris by the police. He has lost his memory, has recovered from a serious wound to his head and has five thousand francs in his pocket. The appearance of his maid, Julie, at the police station reveals that he is Yves Joris, the harbour master of the Normandy port of Ouistreham, just outside Caen. Within twenty four hours of his return to Ouistreham, Joris is dead. Maigret sets out to unravel the mystery.

As with many of Simenon’s novels, this book, first published in 1932, is very atmospheric. When Maigret arrives at the port, he can hardly see anything in front of him because of the mist, a metaphor which is picked up throughout the book as the detective slowly and methodically picks his way to the truth, despite the best efforts of the local community to close ranks and frustrate him. Maigret has to resort to some unorthodox methods – a spot of breaking and entering – to move his investigation on but, inevitably, he succeeds and a rather convoluted plot is unravelled. Central to the story is another tale of human frailty and a set of consequences that could so easily have been avoided.

Where the book is strong is in its descriptions of the port – it was apparently quite a busy place in the 1930s with its rather complex set of waterways. Simenon also paints a tremendously vivid picture of life in a community such as Ouistreham in his usual sparse, careful language – astonishing for someone who wrote so quickly. You can smell the fug of dampness, tobacco smoke, alcoholic vapours and coffee. I found I admired this book, longer than the norm for a Simenon novel, for its writing rather than the mystery Maigret was solving.

The Liberty Bar – Georges Simenon

In terms of atmosphere, this book, also published in 1932, is the polar opposite of the Misty Harbour. Set in Antibes we have sunlight and glare. Maigret is hot and sticky, uncomfortable, a fish out of water. He is sent from Paris to investigate the mysterious death of an Australian, William Brown. The two women who lived with Brown concoct an implausible story to account for his demise. Maigret, who is under strict instructions not to cause a drama, sets out to uncover the truth.

Brown, who has worked with French intelligence, has lived a double life. He would go off for a few days a month on a bender – his novena – and hook up with two other women. A fortune, a will and the petty jealousy between two of his women lead to his undoing. Maigret follows the trail – it is a rather low-key, low-energy investigation, reflective of Maigret’s instructions and his discomfort with the heat. But he gets there in the end. As often is the way with Maigret, though, he allows natural justice rather than the judiciary to prevail, the perpetrator left to see out their remaining few months at liberty but filled with remorse.

This is one of Simenon’s better Maigret novels and provides an interesting insight into the lifestyle on the Cote d’Azur in the 1930s as well as Maigret’s investigative methods and if you were looking to dip your toe into Simenon’s work, this is as good a place as any to start.


What Is The Origin Of (127)?…


Nine days’ wonder

We use this phrase to describe something which grabs attention and then its popularity wanes after a short while – unlike this blog, I hope. A modern day equivalent would be Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame.

It is tempting when investigating the genesis of phrases to be lured into thinking that there is a historical character at the bottom of it. Take Lady Jane Grey who was named his successor to the English throne by Edward VI on his death bed. However, she lasted just nine days, the Privy Council changing sides and backing the claims of Henry VIII’s first daughter, Mary. Jane was dispatched to the Tower of London and had her head chopped off the following year. A nine days’ wonder, for sure, and in retrospect a Protestant martyr but the origin of the phrase – no.

And then there is the Elizabethan clown, William Kemp, upon whom Shakespeare is thought to have based Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. For a bet he danced a morris dance all the way from London to Norwich in 1599 – the Town Council still hold a document recording the payment of his prize money. Kemp completed the hundred or so mile journey by dancing for nine days, although in elapsed time it took a number of weeks because, sensibly, he decided to stop and recuperate after each day’s terpsichorean activity. To silence those who doubted his achievement, Kemp wrote an account of his exploits, published in 1600, entitled Kemps nine daies wonder.

Charming as this story is, Kemp is not the originator of the phrase. The Oxford English Dictionary regards the phrase as belonging to Middle English and cites as an example its appearance in the Harley Lyrics which are dated around 1325. About fifty years later Geoffrey Chaucer came up with a variant in Troilus and Chriseyde, “ek wonder last but nyne nyght nevere in towne”.  Charles d’Orleans, a French prince and poet, was captured at the Battle of Agincourt and spent a number of years languishing in an English jail, whiling away his time by writing poetry, including this extract, “For this a wondyir last but dayes nyne, an oold proverb is seid”. Clearly by the 15th century our phrase, or at least a variant of it, had attained the status of a proverb.

Shakespeare used a variant of the conceit in As You Like It, “I was seven out of the nine days out of the wonder before you came” but the first recorded version of our phrase to appear in print was in George Herbert’s poem, published in 1633, called The Temple; “the brags of life are but a nine days wonder”. Byron in Don Juan (1819) used the phrase in its modern sense of something that mercurially grabs the public’s attention and then fades quickly away; “the pleasant scandal which arose next day/ the nine days’ wonder that was brought to light/ and how Alfonso sued for a divorce/ were in the English newspapers, of course”.

So the phrase has a long pedigree but why nine days? The number nine appears in the Bible 49 times and symbolises finality. The novena, a period of devotional praying, lasted nine days and nights. But this explanation doesn’t sit well with the sense of the phrase and, in any event, a number of other phrases use the number nine – lives, stitches, possession in the eyes of the law, to name just three. And then I remembered a line from Athenian playwright, Euripides, “Since luck’s a nine days’ wonder, wait their end”, a pre Christian era usage.

The precise reason for using nine days may be shrouded in mystery but our phrase, it would seem, is anything but a nine days’ wonder.