It’s Georges Simenon week on Forgotten Books and I’ve picked what Luc Sante, in his introduction, describes as one of Simenon’s romans durs, a hard novel. It was published in 1938, his eleventh such book that year.
Simenon was a paaion in my younger days and I read everything I could get my hands on. But it’s been forty years since I read him and back then I got virtually everything of that nature from the local library. Until I picke up a few for this week, I don’t think I ever owned a copy of his books. I’m not even sure how many he read. Luc Sante says four hundred in the introduction, Wikipedia says two hundred(some folks don’t put a lot of trust in this source and I have heard more closer to the former total).
THE MAN WHO WATCHED TRAINS GO BY is the chronicle of an honest man’s descent into madness, the underpinnings of his carefully normal life kicked from under him.
Kees Popinga is an honest man, married with two children, a nice home he’s paying for, the family eats well, good at his job, and one night a week he goes down to his club for a night of chess. He’s the chief clerk of Julius De Koster and Sons, a Ship’s Chandlery in the Dutch city of Groningen, and as part of his job, one night he goes down to the docks to check on the ship getting ready to depart. Part of his job involved getting everything to the ship it needed, fuel, supplies, that sort of thing.
He arrives to a furious captain. The ship was to depart before the tides and none of it’s outfittings had arrived. Perplexed, Kees goes down to the office, Julius the Younger often worked late(the Older was a senile old man by now and merely was a figurehead as the Younger ran things). The offices were empty however, so he went to the boss’s home. The wife claimed he was at the office.
As he wandered the streets wondering what was going on, he spot the boss sitting in a pub, his mustache and beard gone. Going in, he learns that the boss was cooking the books, freely admitted, the business was bankrupt, and he was planning to fake suicide and disappear. Oh, and by the way, Kees’ life savings, invested in the business, was gone.
The faked suicide was to be a drowning, in remorse for what he’d left the business in. He strips on the dock, dons a new set of clothes and wanders off. He does give Kees five hundred Florin, or Guilders, as he left, urging him to take off like he did.
Kees decides to do more. He catches a train to Amsterdam, intent on “having” the boss’s mistress. Kees had never cheated on his wife, tempted while passing “that” house often, but knowing if he ever did, he was lost.
She laughs at him and he loses it. When he leaves, his brief case is left behind and he doesn’t even realize he’s murdered her. He takes a train to Paris(Kees, in addition to his native Dutch, speaks French, Spanish, and English).
That’s where his descent really begins. On the run, though he doesn’t clas it as that, he gets involved with a different class of people than he ever has before. He carries a small red notebook that he makes notes on what he’s done. He begins to send letters to the police commissioner heading the hunt for him, letters to the newspapers refuting pop diagnoses on him, all the while believing himself far more intelligent than anyone who comments on him in the papers. And never realizing as he slips farther and farther down the ladder. Another crime is passed off as nothing. He decides to write his memoirs to tell the true story.
A nice change of pace from Simenon’s Maigret novels.
This novel is part of the New York Review books series, one of four by Simenon(I have two others). The translation is new by Marc Romano and D. Thin and Sante’s introduction is copyright 2005.
For more Simenon reviews, and other writers I suspect, check out Patti Abbott at her blog, Pattinase on Friday.