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.
I’ve been on a bit of a Simenon kick after reading The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. Having enjoyed that book immensely, I decided to try my hand at The Strangers In the House. I’m not not to far into the book, but already in the first chapter, I found another glaring example of Simenon’s simple mastery of writing riveting prose. I’m not giving anything away, since the flap copy on the book details it specifically, by telling you that the book opens with the main character, Loursat, discovering that someone has been shot in an upstairs room of his house. In the scene below, Simenon — in perfectly crafted prose, not an extra bit of fat or superfluous description — captures the moment of discovery when Loursat first hears the sound of a gunshot. Read a bit:
Normally few sounds reached him in his study. There was Joséphine, of course, who slept in a room immediately above. She went upstairs at exactly ten o’clock every night, and stumped about overhead for a good half hour before finally getting into bed.
But Phine had got into bed at least an hour ago. The sound he had just heard was quite an unusual one, in fact it was precisely its strangeness that had roused Loursat from his torpor.
At first he thought of the crack of a whip, a common enough sound to hear in the early morning when the garbage-men went on their rounds. Continue reading
He was a quiet man. That’s what they always say about the guy who one day picks up an axe and wipes out the whole family. Kees Popinga, the central character of Georges Simenon’s The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, is just such a fellow. He’s got everything dialed nice and tight. He’s obsessed with having constructed a first rate life: a wife, a daughter, a stove, and a house all of the “highest quality.” And then in the course of one evening, as Popinga discovers that the company that helped provide this postcard-perfect life is now bankrupt, it all goes to pot. Kees Popinga snaps, kisses his whole life goodbye in one bold stroke, and embarks on a violent spree that leads him across three countries and makes him the killer du jour of the European press.
Thus, Simenon rendered one of his best roman durs, or hard novels, so named because they involve uncomfortable situations. The pacing of the novel is impeccable; Simenon allows the reader no breathing room. Perhaps it was due to the fact that The Man Who Watched Trains Go By was Simenon’s eleventh novel published in 1938. That’s right, eleventh. Simenon’s reputation for cranking out the prose is almost unparalleled. His record was 40 novels published in 1929 (all written under various pseudonyms according to Luc Sante’s introduction). Once Popinga has made up his mind to leave his old life, we are dragged by the shirt collars along with this once simple man, as he drifts further and further into madness. The bodies start to pile up and in no time, Popinga has changed from an accidental madman to a cold-calculating psychopath. Continue reading