The subtitle of Dirty Snow should have been, Take That Camus! While not a specific counter-punch to Camus’ L’Étranger, Simenon’s dark story of a murderer with no regrets shares a similar bent, neither pulling any punches with the reader. Maybe that is why the book, along with Simenon’s The Widow, which was published in the 40s as well, is so often compared to Camus first masterwork. While L’Étranger is infused with Camus’ humanistic worldview and the influences of his Algerian upbringing, Dirty Snow one-ups the score with Simenon’s cold remove and stripping of existential underpinnings. There is no philosophy to be had here — the world is an ugly place and that’s the short of it.
To call Dirty Snow bleak would be an understatement. It makes Simenon’s own The Man Who Watched Trains Go By read like a Sophie Kinsella novel. You leave this book covered in a disgusting film of human degradation (and yet somehow, all credit to Simenon, eagerly along for the ride). This is a testament to Simenon’s skill at trapping us in the head of man we detest, unable to look away as he drags us through one vile act to the next. There is no letup. We are never given leave of his gaze, never allowed a moment to gasp for clean air. And when the tables are finally turned on this horrible creature, we see the downfall through the antagonist’s eyes, causing our perception of him to change.
Set in an unnamed country occupied by an unnamed aggressor post an unspecific war, the book introduces us to one Frank Friedmaier, a young man who would like nothing more than to make his mark by murdering one of his fellow human beings. And down the toilet of human emotions we go. Frank is in some ways the definitive Simenon antagonist and we’re stuck with him, because there is no protagonist for readers to cheer on. A thug and a petty thief, he is cold, self-centered, childish, and hell-bent on being the black hole in the lives of anyone he comes into contact with. From the moment in the opening chapter where he jams a blade into an officer from the occupying forces, there is no turning back. Having lost his “virginity,” Frank is unleashed. His ego inflates, leading to more emotionless acts of cruelty that he inflicts on anyone in his path.
Simenon’ genius — and what ultimately sets Dirty Snow above L’Étranger in my eyes — comes in the final third of the novel. It was only a matter of time before Frank butted heads with the occupying forces. And here we discover who the true bad guys are. That scumbag Frank, who we’ve grown to hate in the first 2/3 of the book, now seems small compared to these oppressors and what they do to their captives on a daily basis. Simenon is almost responding directly to Camus: sure, anyone can be a murderer, but there is always a bigger thug with a larger stick waiting in the wings. Having been written in the time of Gulags and Nazi camps, Simenon reminds us that there is murder and then there is Murder.
A slight spoiler warning here: At the end of the book, there is a weird note, which William T. Vollman points out in his afterword (and somewhat defends). While some may take this as a poor attempt at a silver lining, I think one could see another reading of it: Frank is out of his head. What he sees is not there, having been pushed to the limits by his aggressors, and knowing full well what fate awaits him. In those final moments, he is dreaming of the only positive future he can conjure. Whereas Meursault found happiness in the indifference of the world, Herr Friedmaier finds no such solace.
Pair with: Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 2 by Earth – The perfect bleak soundtrack to Simenon’s stark, snow-bound nowhere Eastern-bloc country in occupied territory.