The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – Nov 7 2005
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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
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.
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.
Once Simenon establishes this premise, this novel becomes an interesting character study, with the foxy and megalomaniacal Kees locked in a game of wits with the police, who seek him for a single blundering act, which first expressed his newfound rapaciousness and rage.
In my edition of THE MAN WHO WATCHED TRAINS GO BY, Luc Sante provides an interesting introduction, which is filled with both insight and spoilers. Read it after you've finished. Then, you'll find the amazing insight that this Simenon novel is actually a comedy, with the bourgeois Kees never getting too far from his comfy roots.