to Georges Simenon's The Man Who Watched Trains Go By
New York Review Books (2005)
by Luc Sante
THE LEGEND of Georges Simenon expresses itself in statistics: four hundred books, ten thousand women, half a million pencils, some exalted quantity of pipes. The books have gone through staggering numbers of editions, been translated into every possible language, made into some sixty movies and innumerable items for television. The Simenon legend is industrial, like one of those nineteenth-century literary factories, of which Balzac and Dumas come most readily to mind. Unlike Dumas, however, Simenon could never be accused of running an atelier in which underlings came up with plots and undertook the less glamorous portions of the labor. He may have relied upon typists and secretaries, some of them cleverly disguised as wives, but every word he wrote originated in the fevered recesses of his own mind.
The first thing I ever knew about Simenon was that he had written an entire novel while enclosed in a glass booth, in full view of the public. I heard this from my father, and for some reason I was persuaded that he himself had witnessed the stunt, which did not seem implausible since our town was only ten or fifteen miles from Simenon's native city of Liège, in southern Belgium. But the feat never actually occurred, although a Parisian publicist nearly talked Simenon into pulling it off in the mid-1930s, and my father was not the only person who believed it had really happened. By that point Simenon was publishing from three to twelve books a year, which must have seemed leisurely to him after the frantic pace of his first professional decade; in 1929 he had achieved his peak of annual production: forty books, under an assortment of pseudonyms.
Perhaps because he wished to dispel the notion that he employed subcontractors, Simenon allowed his method to be known. On the other hand, maybe he told interviewers about it just because the method itself was so prodigious. On a large yellow envelope he would, over the course of a week or two, write the names of his characters and whatever else he knew about their lives and backgrounds: their ages, where they had gone to school, their parents' professions. The envelope might additionally contain street maps of the novel's setting, although it would never say a word about the book's eventual plot. Once he was satisfied with these notes he would enter the hermitage of his study and knock off the book at the rate of a chapter every morning, optimally in a week or ten days. After finishing he would be drained, battered by violent psychological storms and concurrent physical symptoms. It was a bit as if he had given birth. It should be noted that he could write books this way even when he was ostensibly on vacation.
Not all of his books were written so quickly, although the majority of them were. In this and many other countries, Simenon is best known for his detective novels, featuring the agreeable, implacable, slow-moving, intuitive, preternaturally observant Inspector Maigret. But among the novels he published under his own name, the Maigret books are outnumbered nearly two to one by the titles he called romans durs, "hard novels," hard in the sense that they are uncomfortable. In nearly all of these books a character, generally someone who has been leading a humdrum, predictable existence, is confronted by an unexpected occurrence, setting in motion a series of events that will test his limits, an experience he may not survive. These books feature a broad range of characters, in a diverse collection of settings, who are subjected to an apparently unlimited inventory of psychological torments. You imagine Simenon selecting a pedestrian seen in passing somewhere near one of his homes or on one of his many travels, speculating as to what that person's internal and external life must be like, and then devising a suitable chamber of horrors in which to release his captive specimen.
Because Simenon was so prolific and so various it is difficult to render a concise account of his work, and impossible to cite any one book as typical of him. His early, pseudonymous output is pretty crude-after reading one or two of the books signed "Georges Sim" or "Gom Gut" you cease marveling that he was able to produce so many so quickly-and several of the earliest Maigrets feature plot turns that would not seem out of place in a Philo Vance mystery, but even then, in the early 1930s, he was capable of writing emotionally demanding novels that drive the knife deep into the reader's heart. Simenon, the son of first-generation petit-bourgeois parents who took in lodgers to supplement the family income and whose idea of higher education was limited to secondary school with the Christian Brothers, entered his literary career with a distinctly working-class idea of the trade. It was a means of living by one's wits, related to show biz and not too far from simple hustling, and it required a constant output, with no pretensions and no looking back. Somewhere along the line, though, he made his signal discovery, that so much of what passes for literature merely consists of studies of people in their clothing, that is, people operating within the rigid confines of social codes. He, on the other hand, wanted to write about the naked human, who is forced by circumstances to confront life without the usual protections.
Those same social codes made him an outsider and kept him one even at the height of his fame. He had served his apprenticeship writing pulp fiction and had cemented his reputation with detective novels; furthermore he was Belgian. He also lacked a writing style detectable by the belletristic apparatus of the pre-war era. Therefore he was forever barred from being accepted as a man of letters by the people in Paris who decided such things, for all that André Gide was his great admirer and sponsor and that he enjoyed friendships with the likes of Jean Cocteau and Henry Miller. At first he chafed at this restriction, the first symptom of his discontent being that he packed Inspector Maigret off to rural retirement in 1934 although he bowed to popular demand and brought him back eight years later, and spent the last quarter-century of his career alternating metronomically between the Maigrets and the "hard novels," which he also called roman-roman, "novel-novels." The latter are so numerous-there are 117 of them-that I confess to not having read even half, but they include many that should be much better known than they are. Simenon's work, when you begin to delve into it, is unlike that of any other author except perhaps Balzac it seems less like the labor of one person than an entire, hitherto unsuspected national literature, not just in its size but in the range of its approaches and preoccupations. Simenon may be, finally, the most famous unknown writer of the twentieth century.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By was published in 1938, Simenon's eleventh novel that year. It tells the story of Kees Popinga, chief clerk of a ships' chandlery in the northern Dutch city of Groningen, a man satisfied that his life is the best one possible in the best of all possible worlds. (Simenon often depicted Dutch and Flemish characters as possessing that sort of buttoned-up smugness.) His bicycle is the finest one obtainable, his family patronizes the city's best grocery and buys only the highest-quality goods, his daily routine runs like clockwork and is a source of deep satisfaction. Then it all blows up in his face. His employer, Julius de Coster the Younger, an irreproachable bourgeois, turns out to have been cooking the books, ruining the business, and as the novel starts is on the point of fleeing the country, having faked his own suicide.
Whatever pin was holding Popinga together has been pulled out. First he refuses to get up in the morning, alarming his family, who do not yet know what has happened. Then he resolves to pay a call on de Coster's mistress, whom he now decides he deserves just as much as his erstwhile boss, but his approach is so awkward that he kills her, more or less unintentionally. He flees to Paris, and when he learns that he is wanted for murder he begins to fancy himself a criminal mastermind. He engages in what he conceives of as a cat-and-mouse game with the Parisian police, all the while writing taunting letters to the press. The further he sinks into abjection the more megalomaniacal he becomes. He resembles an automobile in a cartoon, the driver continuing to propel it forward as it loses first its roof, then its doors, hood, tires, engine, until it is finally just a board rolling on its axles. Popinga is also a bit like Flitcraft, the protagonist of the story that Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Passing by a construction site, Flitcraft is narrowly missed by a falling beam. He is shaken to his roots. "He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works." He is so unmoored that he walks out of his life altogether, leaving behind wife, children, home, business, and money. When Spade catches up with him, though, he is living in a city not far away, remarried, with a new baby and a successful business. Unlike Popinga, "he adjusted to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."*
Simenon read psychology texts for fun (he was especially fond of the works of Alfred Adler), and it is no accident that his novels can sometimes sound, in summary, like clinical case studies. He knows enough about humans, though, that his subjects can never be reduced to the sum of their defects. Here he takes several knowing pokes at the whole idea of psychological evaluation, among them by having an eminent specialist diagnose Popinga long-distance for the benefit of the newspapers he is paranoid, the great man decides, but then he quickly disavows his own diagnosis. Popinga, who has not up to then seemed especially paranoid, promptly begins imagining police spies everywhere. He is a megalomaniac, but as it were on a reduced scale. He is such a criminal mastermind that he gets fleeced by a real criminal, and nearly gets shot when he briefly and unwittingly becomes the third leg of a romantic triangle. He hates women, but does far more harm to the ones he desires than the ones he actually wishes to hurt. He makes himself most glaringly visible when he decides to vanish altogether. The collapse of his world, as heralded by the fall of the house of de Coster, prompts him to take dramatic, proto-existential action, but everything he does from that moment on results in failure -except chess, at which he is brilliant. He is, finally, incapable of filling any role other than the one he inhabited at the beginning of the story. The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is a galling book. You the reader assume the fears and tribulations of a character you cannot possibly like. You live and die (so to speak), sweat and cringe with him. You carry a knot in your chest as he drags himself around ever bleaker and more remote corners of Paris. You become almost physically uncomfortable on his behalf, even as you are repulsed by him. And then, after you have closed the book and put it back on the shelf, you realize that all along you have been reading a comedy.
*Although Simenon knew and liked Hammett's work-the admiration was mutual there is no real reason to think that Flitcraft's story inspired Popinga's, especially since Popinga is not the only one of Simenon's protagonists who walks out on his life, or whose life unravels all at once. But there is an eerie resemblance between Julius de Coster, having suddenly shucked off respectability, getting drunk in a dive, and talking like an experienced con artist, and the boss in Jean Renoir's great Popular Front fable Le Crime de M Lange (1936). When the publisher Batala (brilliantly played by Jules Berry), who has absconded in a fashion nearly identical to de Coster, comes back dressed as a priest to tease and threaten his former employee Lange, he suddenly sounds like an underworld veteran. Renoir was the first to adapt Simenon for the screen, with La Nuit du carrefour (1932), and the two remained friendly.
Luc Sante teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College. His books include Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts.