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Simenon’s cool humanity

3 May 2012

Richard Johnstone reviews a new edition of a classic novel

The Train
By Georges Simenon | Translated by Robert Baldick | Melville House | $21.95

GEORGES SIMENON’s self-styled romans durs, or “hard” or “serious” novels – the ones that, for many of his readers, suffer the major disadvantage of not featuring Commissaire Maigret – are having something of a revival, with the New York Review of Books having already reissued several examples of these unsettling works in its Classics series. The world of the Simenon roman dur is recognisably the same one that the Commissaire inhabits, but with an even harder edge, and without the wafting smells of Madame Maigret’s boeuf-en-daube and the conviviality of a secure marriage to compensate for all the dispiriting aspects of human nature that dominate the streets outside. Madame Maigret (her name is Louise, but it doesn’t suit her as well as Madame) first appears in Peter the Lett (1931), “stirring her pots on the stove and filling a plate with some fragrant stew,” and goes on to feature in many of the succeeding seventy-five Maigrets and even to make it into the occasional title – The Friend of Madame Maigret (1950), for instance, where she provides the vital clue – without, in any real sense, intruding into the action.

This contrast, between a static, routinised home-life and the dangerous unpredictability of events, is a defining characteristic of the Simenon universe. In the Maigret novels, the two are nicely balanced; domestic life (or rather the kind of domestic life as lived by the Maigrets), serves as a welcome refuge from the constant reminders of the cruel and unpleasant things that people can do to one another. In the romans durs, however, domestic routine cannot be relied on to offer any such refuge.

In Simenon’s The Train, now reissued by Melville House in the 1964 translation by Robert Baldick, we follow an unassuming tradesman, Marcel Féron – he repairs radios for a living – as he flees south with his family ahead of the German invasion of 1940. Their day-to-day life, in which “all the familiar objects were in their places,” is no longer safe. The novel was first published in 1961, the same year, as it happens, as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and despite the huge differences between the two – short, spare and laconic as against long, exuberant and writ extra large – they can both be seen now as part of a rising mood of revisionism, by which the still recent war was cast not as a grand cause but as a confusing collection of apparently random events, to which the only sensible response was the pursuit of self-interest. The Train, like Catch-22, is notable for the way in which it makes cowardice seem not only the most rational approach to the unfathomable absurdity of war, but also, in an odd way, to constitute a kind of nobility.

When Marcel, who tells his own story, first introduces himself, his business is doing well, his house is his own, his wife Jeanne is pregnant again and due to give birth in a month or two. “I had become a happy man,” he says, not altogether convincingly, “I want to make that perfectly clear.” Simenon is adept at conveying the ways in which a life can be both reassuring and suffocating. Jeanne is of an anxious disposition, little Sophie has a “nervous temperament” and refuses to sleep apart from her parents even though they have “furnished the prettiest room in the house for her.” The source of the girl’s anxieties is never quite made clear. Do they come from inside? Are they inherited, or are they perhaps attributable to her delivery by forceps, as her mother claims? Or do they come from outside the home, from the voices on the radio, the snatches of French and German and Dutch and English that create a “sort of dramatic throbbing in the air”?

The news of the German advance throws everything into chaos. The life that Marcel and Jeanne have carefully built up, with its “standards” and its “landmarks,” seems suddenly to be slipping away. They decide to join the Belgians who are already heading south, though “decide” is perhaps too strong a word. As Simenon describes it, the small family’s departure simply happens; they go with the flow. It seems the natural thing to do. “Everything was natural now,” says Marcel, who sees the prospect of joining the other refugees as an opportunity to escape from his carefully constructed version of himself and to follow his true destiny, whatever that may be. One of Simenon’s great strengths, equally apparent in the Maigret novels, is his ability to show how changes in circumstances can change everything, and how people who seem destined for a particular path in life and a particular destiny can suddenly be led in a quite different direction, becoming someone different in the process.

The war is ever present in The Train, but always at a certain distance, in the form of those voices on the radio or the second- and third-hand reports of eyewitnesses. Nobody really knows what is going on. The fleeing villagers jostle for seats on the train going south. An official makes room in first-class for the pregnant Jeanne and for Sophie, but Marcel must remain behind to follow in a freight train. Marcel feels keenly the separation from his wife and child, and vows to find them again, but at the same time he takes pleasure in his new freedom and his new unencumbered self. In an implicit criticism of the vagaries of nationalism and of group loyalties, Simenon shows how Marcel and the other occupants of the freight car that they find themselves in begin to redefine themselves in the context of their new, travelling home. Even the “French people in the other two freight cars... were foreign to us.”

Soon Marcel’s world becomes even smaller as he falls in with Anna, a woman of not quite definable accent and nationality, who may or may not have sought him out for her own protection. “Falling in” becomes falling in love, as together they form a mutually supportive band of two. The depth and intensity of this spontaneous affair contrasts starkly with the dutifulness of Marcel’s marriage, but – in a characteristically Simenon touch – that does not diminish his parallel determination to find his family again and to resume his old life. Is it preferable to live, with Jeanne, in predictable harmony, as a “caricature of the married couple,” or to continue to invest in a relationship that belongs only to the “fragile present,” that “didn’t have any future”? Marcel’s resolution of this question is conveyed in a few almost throwaway lines towards the end. It is a mark of Simenon’s cool humanity that we are left to see his decision as a fact of life, the kind of thing that any of us might face should circumstances conspire against us. •

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Photo: Luke X. Martin/ Flickr

Photo: Luke X. Martin/ Flickr