Notoriety and its discontents: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By

George Simenon’s Homme qui regardait passer les trains (don’t know what happened to the definite article I’d expect at the start of the title, which is supplied to the otherwise direct translation of the title into English for the New York Review Books edition as The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By—though I’d have gone for the cognate “pass” instead of “go by”) involves a previously nebbish man who changes into a murderer (as Philippe Noiret does in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981“Coup de Torchon”) and is on the run (as Jean Gabin is in “Quai de Brumes“). There is no intimation of what Churchill called “the gathering storm” of war in either of the 1938 French products (though they are visible far from the Maginot Line in Tavernier’s  movie set in a 1938 French colonial outpost in what is now Senegal, and then was French West Africa).

Simenon (who was born in Belgium, died in Switzerland, and spent some years in the US during the 1940s) often wrote about murder and policemen (most frequently Chief Inspector Maigret) identifying and catching murderers. From the relatively few of the more than 400 novels he published before retiring in 1973 (this one was the eleventh novel he published in 1938!) that I’ve read, it seems that abandoning a conventional (dully respectable) life was a recurrent theme of his. In the previous three Simenon novels I’ve read (Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Maigret and the Loner, The Cat), all have major male characters who up and leave (I’ve listed them in order from the most to the least distance they move).

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Kees Popinga is a prosperous manager in a successful Dutch shipping company in the port of Gronigen. He has a pilot’s license, but has never used it, having settled down to marriage with a woman he calls and thinks of as “Mother.” Shortly before he turns forty (and only a few days before Christmas), he discovers that the shipping company (Coster) into which he has invested all his assets is insolvent, due to massive embezzlement by Julius de Coster the Younger. Kees happens upon the malefactor after being summoned to one of the company’s ships for which fuel has not been paid and going first to the office and then to the de Coster house, where de Coster’s wife suggests that her husband must be at the office. De Coster readily admits having drained the assets of the company (and that one of the ships has been engaged exclusively in smuggling) and tells Kees that he is about to fake suicide and leave the country.

This flood of unwelcome revelations, which, among other things, tell Kees that he has neither a job nor any assets (other than the wad of cash de Coster gives him). Kees tells himself that he is not devastated (as he is sure de Coster expected), though the next day he refuses to get out of bed.

He had always been fascinated by trains—especially night trains, which struck him as “a little sordid”—and he decides that it is time for him to take one. He is about to break from his ultra-respectable life:

“Deep down, he’d always been an actor, and for fifteen years he’d been satisfied with the role of a good Dutchman, dignified and impassive, confident of his abilities, of his honor, of his virtue, of the high quality of all he possessed…. Kees had always dreamed of being something other than Kees Popinga. That explained why he was so completely the way he was—so completely Kees Popinga—and why he overdid it. Because he knew that if he gave even an inch, nothing would stop him again…. ‘It was only out of sheer habit that I stayed in my job, or stayed married, or was a father to my children. All of it—sheer habit. And who’d decided that things would be like that and not otherwise? I didn’t know.'”

He decides to take the next night’s train to Amsterdam, to take over the mistress de Coster had been maintaining there. Contrary to his expectation, instead of submitted to him, she laughs at him, and silencing her cutting laugh, he kills her.

Kees flees to Paris and kills one prostitute and frightens another. There is now a manhunt on (led by an Inspector Lucas—the name of Maigret’s subordinate in the many Maigret mysteries). The newspapers dub Kees a “sex maniac” and a “paranoiac.” He does not know what the latter word means, but does not have access to a dictionary. (Cafes have train schedules and phone books, but not dictionaries…)

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Generally, Simenon is not very interested in psychology (prefiguring Foucault and other deconstructionists) and reports human folly from some distance. in The Man Who Watched, he has Kees note things in a red notebook, and send letters to the paper trying to explain himself and correct the many mistakes about his life and character they print. (The contents of his letters supports the diagnosis of “paranoiac,”)

The novel (somewhat longer than many other Simenon ones, at 203 pages) follows Kees as he refuses to be a mouse in Inspector Lucas’s game of “cat and mouse.” The reader sees that he is not only a mouse but one with fewer and fewer options, but Kees is proud of his calm rationality that allows him to toy with the police (that is, to be the cat rather than the mouse in what is a game to him), because he believes himself “stronger and smarter than the whole lot of them.” He is pleased at the thought that “people trembled at the thought that the notorious Amsterdam sex fiend might be stalking them” and exhilarated by courting danger (and thereby showing his superiority).

Kees writes a newspaper: “I’m not crazy. I am not a sex fiend. I’ve just decided, at the age of forty, to live as I please, without bothering about the law or convention. I’d learned late in life that no one else does anyway and all that time I’d simply had the wool pulled over my eyes.”

Kees is outraged when the police do not play by the rules, and his smugness is blasted by (of all things!) an American. The ending prefigures “Psycho,” though the psychology is more the Nietzchean megalomaniacal self-image of Leopold & Loeb than the mother-haunted Norman Bates. In “Coup de Torchon,” when Lucien starts killing people, he continues in his guise as witless and lethargic. Jean in “Quai des Brumes” has a hot temper and keenly feels the danger he is in (similarly the jealous husband who is the prime suspect in “Quai d’Orfèvres”) is keenly aware of the danger of being convicted of a crime he did not commit (though he intended to).

Aside from being a skillful portrait of a worm turning (to murder), the book particularly interests me in showing a concern about notoriety (one form of public “regard”) and how a criminal with a weak ego (albeit with a superiority complex, not an unusual correlate) and no superego can be preoccupied with his image in the press. I should have realized that this was not a postwar, television-age phenomenon, but didn’t.

The introduction by Luc Sante to the 2005 New York Review Classics reprinting (freshly translated by Marc Romano and D. Thin[!}) notes that Simenon was especially fond of the works of Alfred Adler and that “you the reader assume the fears and tribulations of a character you cannot possibly like…. You become almost physically uncomfortable on his behalf, even as you are repulsed by him.” The seedy, amoral neighborhood of Simenon’s “romans durs” is (morally and physically) the same one as that of cinéma noir (and to the more rural “African noir”, “Coup de torchon”), and there is something of an existential antihero trying to prove to himself that he exists in the lineage from Andre Gide’s Les caves du Vatican through Albert Camus’s L’Ètranger—though the murders in those two books are both more gratuitous (that is, less self-protecting) and more premeditated than Kees’s.

I am grateful to the NYR series for reviving (often in new translations) many excellent 20th-century books that had gone out of print (and pleased to have caught the Luc Sante essay). It is particularly helpful to have a guide to selecting which of the hundreds of Simenon novels to read.

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

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