The great French occupation novel, Dirty Snow

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was a phenomenon. Between the ages of 21 and 27 (during the years 1924-1931) he churned out around 190 pulp novels under at least 17 pseudonyms. Between then and his retirement 1973, he published at least as many more novels under his own name (and twenty volumes of memoirs after his retirement). Roughly half of the novels bylined Simenon were cases solved by Inspector Maigret of the Paris police. The rest were “psychological novels” (not that Inspector Maigret was anything but a keen deployer of psychological insight into killers’ minds…). Of the non-Maigret novels, Dirty Snow (La Neige était sale, is widely considered Simenon’s masterpiece, twice as long as most of the others, dealing with the very painful subject of disreputable conduct in an occupied country.

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Simenon told the story of a 17-year-old boy who was doing just fine during the occupation of his country by a rather Nazi-like power. The location is not specified as being French, and could as easily be Poland under the Nazi yoke, or most any country under brutal occupation. The names of the characters, both occupiers and occupied, are German. According to the jacket of the New York Review reprinting, Hans Koning described Dirty Snow as “one of the very few novels to come out of German-occupied France that gets it exactly right.” Simenon lived through the Nazi occupation and was regarded by some of his countrymen as a collaborator. He decamped to the United States for the decade after the end of the war, and Dirty Snow is date- and time-stamped, “Tucson, Arizona, 20 March 1948.”

(The jacket also asserts: “Dirty Snow, widely acknowledged as one of Simenon’s finest books, is a study of the criminal mind comparable to Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. The very noirish, very cinematic novel was filmed, apparently badly. in 1950.)

The story is told somewhat obliquely (though not requiring as much effort to put the boy’s life story together as it takes to put together that of the title character in Simenon’s later anti-narrative Betty), but more or less chronologically. The winter seemed endless, adding to the general feeling of oppressiveness: “There was still the dirty snow, piles of it that looked like they were rotting, stained black, peppered with garbage. The white powder that loosed itself from the sky in small handfuls, like plaster falling from a ceiling, never managed to cover the filth.”

Frank is the spoiled son of Lotte, who runs a small bordello, masquerading as a manicure shop, from her apartment. Frank uses the bodies of the staff when he is so inclined. A high-ranking police officer, who may be Frank’s father, provides protection. The other residents of the apartment building hate Lotte and Frank and the young employees less for the prostitution than they resent them for having more and better food as a result of collaborating with the invaders.

Bored with his privileged but vacuous existence, freed from the struggle to survive that most of his countrymen and -women are engaged in, Frank is in the tradition of the antiheroes of Gide’s Les caves de Vatican and Camus’s L’étranger, performing a gratuitous murder. At the start of the novel, Frank lies in wait for a particularly corpulent and corrupt noncommissioned officer of the occupying army, whom he calls “the Eunuch” because of how he plays with the women he feeds in an off-limits nightclub. After stabbing to death “the Eunuch,” Frank makes sure that one of his neighbors, Holst, sees him and can place him at the scene of the murder. Holst’s daughter Sissy is infatuated with Frank. Soon enough Frank finds a way to outrage her (plot-spoiling details suppressed!).

With the pistol taken from the corpse, Frank goes on to a robbery that further exposes him by putting others in the know about his crimes. The crime echoes that in Crime and Punishment, but Frank feels no guilt, not the slightest remorse. Indeed, he does not seem able to feel anything. He believes that “destiny was lying in ambush somewhere. But where? Instead of waiting for it to appear in its own good time, Frank went out looking for it, poking around everywhere in his search…. He had searched for destiny in every corner and it was in none of the places he’d looked.”

A destiny does find him, one that surprises him, and which some readers understand as redeeming his adolescence of banal attempts at evil. I found the second half of the novel more interesting than the first (though no more twisted), but any discussion of it would constitute plot-spoiling. I can say that it vividly illustrates (14 years before Hannah Arendt coined the phrase) “the banality of evil” in the bureaucratic order of the occupying power that bears considerable resemblance to the Third Reich.

©2005, Stephen O. Murray

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