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43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Simenon's Existential ManApril 15 2006
d e ford jr
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This book stands as evidence of the literary crime that has been perpetrated against the legacy of Georges Simenon over the last century. Written in 1938, 'The Man Who Watched Trains Go By' predates Camus' 'l'etranger' by eight years. Simenon's work is the study of what happens when a once uber-respectable bastion of bourgeois values watches as the very foundations of his existence crumble before his eyes. The pace at which the novel's central figure degenerates from an upstanding business leader obsessed with managing appearances to a bestial creature succumbing to every whim and fancy--all the while meticulously recording each step of his progress in his little red notebook--is dizzying. The questions raised by Simenon regarding man's confrontation with the ephemeral nature of meaning in existence are addressed at least as skillfully as Camus would nearly a decade later. This work--and many of Simenon's other romans durs--remain an essential link in the chain of existential novels ranging from Dostoevsky to Camus and Sartre. The fact that Simenon's works are not celebrated as such represents a significant injustice.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Nihilism is not only despair and negationOct. 18 2006
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but above all the desire to despair and to negate. Camus.
Despair and negation predominate in Georges Simenon's "The Man Who Watched Trains Go By", a book that I considered to be darker than noir.
Simenon was nothing if not prolific in both his literary and public life. Born in Belgium in 1903, Simenon turned out hundreds of novels. Simenon's obsession with writing caused him to break off an affair (he was prolific in this area of his life as well) with the celebrated Josephine Baker in Paris when he could only write twelve novels in the twelve month period in which they were involved. Although perhaps best known for his Inspector Maigret detective novels, Simenon also wrote over a hundred novels that he referred to as `romans durs' (literally "hard novels"). As with many of his contemporaries such as Chandler and Hammett, Simenon's books were marketed and sold as popular, pulp fiction. Also like Chandler and Hammett, Simenon's books have stood up well over time. The New York Review of Books publishing division has reissued much of Simenon's books. They are well worth reading and "The Man Who Watch Trains Go By" is an excellent place to start.
The story's protagonist and narrator is Kees Poppinga. As the book opens Kees is seen and sees himself as a stolidly middle-class Dutch citizen living a life of relative comfort in the coastal town of Groningen. He is secure in his job as the manager of a ship's supply company. His sense of security is reflected in an attitude best described as smug and more than a bit conceited. On the surface, Kees' life seems well insulated from the harsher side of life. But Simenon shows us quickly that this appearance of security was really a thin veneer that could be washed away at a moment's notice. One night, Kees discovers that his company's owner has driven the company into bankruptcy. Kees will soon be out of the job and will likely lose everything he holds dear.
The rest of the book focuses on Kees' decent from smug satisfaction to nihilism and despair. Stripped of his middle-class sense of security Kees finds that he is also stripped of all those societal restraints that most civilized members of society have. Kees embarks on a journey of death, deceit, and madness. The only character trait that remains is one of conceit and superiority as he travel to Paris and falls in with the Parisian underworld.
The reader experience this journey through the narration of Kees and Simenon does an excellent job of allowing the reader to look out at the world through the eyes of a madman. It is something of an uncomfortable feeling but it made for compelling reason. I have already compared Simenon to Chandler and Hammett because they wrote in a similar genre and were contemporaries. As far as contemporary writers are concerned, the French-writer Michel Houellebecq (Elementary Particles) seems remarkably similar in both tone and style.
I have now read two of Simenon's romans durs and three of his Inspector Maigret mysteries. They have all been worth reading and if you are interested in either the detective genre or the type of dark psychological novel described here, Simenon is well worth discovering. L. Fleisig
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
So much for family valuesAug. 26 2008
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Kees Popinga, a conventional Dutch family man, learns that his employer has bankrupted the firm, thus depriving him of both income and savings. With all the underpinnings of his life gone, he suddenly takes one of those trains he had been watching for so long and goes to Paris, committing a more or less accidental murder along the way. The rest of the book shows him on the run, wanted by the police of two countries.
Although Simenon is most famous as the author of the Inspector Maigret mysteries, and there is certainly a police investigation in this book, the story is told from the point of view of the criminal, not the detective. There is no mystery here; Popinga leaves more than enough evidence to be identified easily, and he soon starts writing letters to the papers and the police. Even the term "on the run" is wrong; "on the walk" would be more appropriate, for Popinga remains icily calm. Although the press describe him as a madman, he has never felt more in control; it was his previous bourgeois life that was the lie, not this one.
Why does Simenon choose a Dutch protagonist and set the opening of his novel in the far North of Holland? As a French-speaking Belgian, it seems he despised the phlegmatic Flemish and Dutch temperament, and viewed their smug respectability as the death of the soul. For Kees Popinga, nearing 40, epitomizes the family values. He is a good provider, with a solid job; he has a good house in a good neighborhood, equipped with the most modern appliances; he has two perfectly-spaced children that he sends to good schools, and a wife who is so faceless that she is referred to from beginning to end as Mother. Yet, as Luc Sante describes it in his fine introduction to the NYRB edition (though NOT to be read before the novel itself), "whatever pin was holding Popinga together has been pulled out." Like a grenade, he explodes.
But unlike a grenade, he does so gradually, retaining traces of his bourgeois habits to the end. Clerklike, he keeps a meticulous notebook of his doings. Although described as a sex fiend, his relationships with the women he picks up are almost sexless. He approaches his life as a wanted man with the same care he might have used to organize an office. This is the second of Simenon's so-called "hard novels" (romans durs) that I have read, after his earlier TROPIC MOON. Both are relentless psychological studies of men who lose their hold on normal life. But whereas the earlier book was as hot as its African setting, the hardness here is that of ice; imagine a Balzac or a Dostoyevsky describing an inevitable degeneration, but in compressed form and without the passion. Chilling.
All the same, I preferred TROPIC MOON, because of the wider sweep of its indictment of colonialism. There is social criticism here too, of a certain ideal of respectability; but that is less easily localized . . . and perhaps just a little too close to home.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"There isn't any truth, you know?"May 28 2009
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Kees Popinga, Dutch factotum in Julius de Coster the Younger's shipping firm for 17 years, lives proudly in the nicest and cleanest development in Groningen with his wife he doesn't love and his two children he doesn't understand. One winter night, utterly bored as usual, he decides to take a walk to the dock to check out one of the ships his firm was to outfit to sail the next day. From that little walk, his carefully regulated life receives a massive shock. He discovers not only that his company has done nothing for the ship and so it will not sail, but his respectable boss is happily getting drunk in a disreputable little bar. Popinga then enters the bar and is on the receiving end of a long and incredible monologue from de Coster. The firm is bankrupt, Popinga, who has invested everything in the company, is now broke, de Coster is fleeing the country, and the Mr Popinga of the past 17 years is no more.
In this romans durs (hard novel), his second in his amazing writing career, Simenon exhibits extraordinary insight into the stresses and strains of his character's psychological demons. Popinga sees the collapse of his outward life as a great opportunity to live out the urges and impulses of his repressed inner life at last. In no time at all, he is gone, walking away from his fake proper self, letting all of it go: family, home, responsibilities, inhibitions--or is he?
In this time of failing businesses and psychological stress, one wonders how many Popingas are waiting to disappear from their current lives. What makes Simenon so interesting is how well he has captured the nihilism and repression that are intimately woven into our social networks. The pacing of this story also is exceptional, as we see Popinga slowly come undone even as, outwardly, he seems utterly in control.
The blurbs on the cover of this important New York Review Books new translation (2005) actually are true, for a change: John Banville's comments: "...tough, bleak, offhandedly violent...redolent of place," New York Times: "breath-taking, fast-paced, will hold you enthralled...." And the excellent introduction by Luc Sante (which MUST be read afterward, and not before) finely describes our discomfort and repulsion toward Popinga. Yet, even as we cringe, we recognize the truth of this creation. Perhaps it is our doorway into the inner workings of human beings such as David Berkowitz or Ted Bundy or (could it be?) even ourselves.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Go on a little trip with Mr. PoppingaOct. 5 2008
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Firstly, I must complain about this book cover!!!! Do these people actually read the books they are trying to sell? Anyway, no use getting academic about this wonferful book by the beloved Inspector Maigret author. This novel makes you forget everything around you, and you simply become part of the protagonist's luggage on his way from Holland to Paris one cold evening. I am sure many of us wish we could just get up and leave everything behind like this family man and correct employee did. Only we hope it doesn't end like his spontaneous little outing. Oh it is a lovely WINTER book. ENDULGE under a cozy quilt.