I had never heard of Georges Simenon before seeing this book in my local used book concern, but I’ve lately been on the lookout for detective or mystery or crime fiction (I’m unclear as to how the genres break down, I just know something that I like when I read it) since reading The Big Sleep and John MacLachlan Gray’s The Fiend in Human last year. The blurbs on the back cover led me to believe that I’d be getting a kind of Belgian genius of the genre, Chandler meets Sartre as it were. But Luc Sante’s introduction, stressing the volume of Simenon’s output over the quality (more than four hundred books!) actually made me a bit worried. If I’d wanted to read Stephen King, I would have purchased Stephen King. My worries were quickly proven to be unfounded. How could a man knock off a book like this in a week! It’s an amazing portrait of an upper middle class man trying desperately to understand and reclaim his life after its foundation has been knocked aside. Kees Popinga was never quite satisfied, it’s true, but wasn’t a sociopath either; murder and assault and theft simply weren’t in him until he was damaged by the greed and corruption of others (and even then, his criminal activities came about, not out of malice or revenge, but rather as accidental consequences of his slow unraveling). The more appalling Kees behaves, the more confused and paranoid he becomes, the harder it is for the reader not to sympathize with him. In that way, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By actually reminds me of some of Nabokov’s better novels; the horrible, monstrous people and actions come from a place so resolutely human, so present and alive in all of us, that we can’t help but understand and connect, no matter how disturbed we are otherwise. NYRB has published several other of Simenon’s “hard” novels, and I think I’ll have to keep my eye out for them.
Next is White Stone Day, by John MacLachlan Gray.