This is a roman durs, or hard novel. Which is not to say that is is difficult reading, it’s not, rather that it is about a hard life. Roman durs, at least the ones by Simenon that I have read, are about lives led on the wrong side of the tracks, typically criminal in some aspect. They do not end happily.
They are a dark sub-set of crime fiction for readers willing to walk the really mean streets. Think film noir without any glamour, not a hint of glamour.
Their purpose, if they have one, is to ask just how do people end up in such bad states.
In Simenon’s novel The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, translated from the French by Marc Romano and D. Thin, the subject is Kees Popinga, a respectable Dutch businessman, who one day finds his entire life has been based on another man’s fraud, that he is broke, probably soon to be arrested, completely ruined all through no fault of his own, unless you call trusting your boss is a man of his word is a fault.
Rather than do what he might be expected to do, the right thing whatever that is, Popinga takes out all the money he can from his own accounts, abandons his wife, and pursues his employers mistress, a woman he has loved in secret for many years. When she rebuffs him, he kills her and flees to Paris where he falls in with several underworld characters. His plan is to escape from the police, who are now looking for him in several countries, and take on a new identity. His new underworld connections promise to help him, but after he kills a second woman, they begin to turn on him as well.
That’s the basic outline of the story, a good one for Simenon and his 200 page novels. Simenon’s novels are always 200 pages long give or take a few. In The Man Who Watched Trains Go By Simenon delivers one of his better books, certainly one of his better roman durs. Fans will find plenty to like.
In the last third of the novel, Popinga loses interest in his own future when he becomes obsessed with the news coverage he has been getting. The papers are not getting the story right, he thinks. They do not understand his motivation, they keep calling him a sex criminal, they don’t see how much smarter than the police he is. He even writes a lengthy corrective letter to the main newspaper in France, letting them know just exactly what happened, why they cannot trust his wife’s opinion, why they are wrong to think of him as crazy.
I thought this was an interesting idea, an interesting twist in the tale. It’s also a clear sign of Popinga’s growing madness. As long as he had a role in the respectable world, a secure place in a secure business, a decent if not excellent home life, Popinga could function. Once those are taken from him, he descends into madness.
Are we meant to ask just how much the expectations we meet on a regular basis are what keeps us sane in the end? Aren’t those the very things that drive us crazy?