Tag Archives: French literature

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).


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…)


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

Chabrol’s film of Simenon’s Betty

The 1992 movie adaptation by Claude Chabrol [1930-2010] of Georges Simenon’s 1961 mysterious (but not detective) novel Betty reminds me of some of the aspects of French culture and cinema that I like and some that I don’t like.


Paramount in my dislike column is the ubiquity of cigarettes: the title character chainsmokes. Something I alternate between admiring and being appalled by is the extent to which families make decisions about intimate relationships (and this is very much central to the movie).

Among the aspects that I like is the matter-of-factness about older women not only having sex but being desirable. Here, Chabrol’s wife of many years and star of many of his movies (especially notably in “Les biches” and “Le boucher”), Stéphane Audran, who was 60 at the time, is sexually active without this being the focus (the problematic even) as it is with Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give” (which prompted at least some to express repulsion at the very idea of a sex scene for a woman of her age).

This is not to say that the French are “casual” about sex. The title character, who would be diagnosed in American culture du jour as suffering from “low self-esteem” fucks around in part trying to feel something (anything) and, it becomes clear, was courting danger/disgrace (ultimately successfully) when she was suffocating in a gilded cage, after serving her purpose of birthing babies (who were then put in charge of a very efficient nanny). That is, Betty’s sexuality is not healthily integrated into her life.

As for French cinema, I like that not every “i” is dotted, every “t” crossed…. but sometimes wish that a few more were. The viewer (and/or) Simenon reader) has to do some work to put together the story of this woman in white who is first seen careening through the streets of Paris, going into a bar, and is then taken to a Versailles bar and restaurant called “Le Trou” (the hole) by a physician who picked her up and who turns increasingly creepy (and needle-wielding, which has a special power to creep me out!).

Over the course of the movie, the woman in white, Betty (Marie Trintignant), tells a rich widow—who is a regular customer at Le Trou Laure (Stéphane Audran) and who is sexually involved with the proprietor, Mario (Jean-François Garreaud)—the story of her life (the early parts of which were hard, the more recent parts too easy) and the story of what happened earlier on the night she fled into the street. That is, there is a “plot” but it is what led up to the present (as, say, the flashbacks of “Sunset Boulevard” lead up to the body seen floating in the pool at the outset).

As in such a New Wave classic as “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” there is a somewhat oddly matched pair of adults with flashbacks (some of them narrated to the other person, some memories internal to the consciousness of the younger woman). These flashbacks and reminiscences show how the young(er) French woman got to where she is (psychically, not geographically). More of Marie Trintignant is displayed (it seems to me casually; others can rule on the prurience) than Emmanuelle Riva’s body was in “Hiroshima” (in which the sex scenes mostly focused on the back of Okada Eiji). The flashbacks are not in chronological order, and some scenes flash back more than once. In that the viewer knows nothing of this past at the start of the movie, any filling in constitutes “plot spoiling” (even though neither Simenon nor Chabrol was focused on plot in either version of Betty).

By the end, the viewer (at least this one) has some understanding of Betty and has seen formative experiences (I would not call them “highlights,” some of them are quite unappetizing). The viewer (at least this one) is left wondering why Laure took such an interest in Betty and undertook salvaging the chicly dressed but mangy and quite possibly rabid dog (b____ and lush) Betty. (Similarly, the viewer must puzzle out the motivations of the never-named Japanese man in “Hiroshima” almost no help from the film-makers.)

I don’t like the ending or the coda, though I have to admit that they make sense. Also, knowing that Mlle. Trintignant, in real life, was beaten to death by her boyfriend (Bertrand Cantat) in a hotel room (in Vilnius in 2003) casts a dark shadow back on her prolonged residence in a (Versailles-Trianon) hotel room in this movie (intertextuality in a very unpleasant sense).


(Chabrol directing Trintignant)

Although there is high contrast between the nightmarish night-time scenes and the chic Versailles hotel interiors, there is no particularly arty framing or lighting from cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann (whose previous work that most impressed me was in “Molière” way back in 1978, though I also liked the lush rural images in “Olivier, Olivier” and in “Angels and Insects,” even if I found the last movie sleep-inducing). also shot “L’enfer” (1994) “La Cérémonie” (1995) for Chabrol, whose recent movies seem less interesting but no less craftsmanlike than his perverse masterpieces of the late-1960s and early-1970s (mostly with Audran (they divorced in 1980 and Audran married Marie Trintignant’s father, Jean-Louis—more offscreen intertextuality! Plus the contrast between her ready nudity and his turning down “Last Tango in Paris” because he did not want to do its nudity…).

The title comes from a review of the movie by John Simon.

©2005, 2019, Stephen O. Murray


Late Simenon dysfunctional marriages

One of the last of about 400 novels by Belgian-born writer in French Georges Simenon, the 74th of 76 Paris Chief Inspector Jules Maigret novels (there are also 28 short stories featuring him), Maigret et l’homme tout seul (Maigret and the Man All Alone or Maigret and the Loner, published in 1971) is one of the more complicated of Maigret’s cases.


The body of fastidiously coiffured man who has been shot (three times) is found amidst a vast accumulation of junk in a house slated for demolition in Les Halles one muggy Paris summer day in July of 1965. There are no clues about who the dead man is, so before trying to find out who killed him and why, the 50-something Maigret must first figure out who the well-manicuredand –coiffed corpse was, and how he came to be where he was shot. Like M. Monde, the man had cut himself off from family (a wife and a son) and society, albeit without embezzled funds, as M. Monde vanished with.

There is a very bitter wife (a recurrent figure in Simenon fiction) and some long-ago passions, and a long-ago (just after WWII) unsolved murder case that Maigret reopens in his quest to understand why (as much or more than who) killed the derelict. The investigation involves Maigret going to the Mediterranean coast in a quite humorous sortie. As usual, he eats well, and though he was trying to curb his intake of beer on his (now-dead) physician’s orders, he consumes ten over the course of this top-notch police procedural novel.


Four years earlier, in Le chat/The Cat, Simenon portrayed an elderly couple that had come to hate each other. It is not that they had been living together for decades, though no longer speaking to each other (communicating by notes and by acts of aggression). Both had outlived earlier spouses and wed eight years before the present-day of the novel. Marguerite fancies herself a fine lady. She still owns some buildings, though her father once owned the whole street, which is named for him. Emile was a workingman who helped her with a burst pipe and stayed around. He dotes on a cat that Emile cannot stand for a number of reasons, including concern about her own pet, a parrot.

While he is sick, she poisons the cat. He takes vengeance on the tail feathers of the parrot; worries about being poisoned himself, runs away (not very far: to a room above the bar his sometimes sexual partner runs) for a while. Marguerite is humiliated by his departure and silently implores him to return, where they continue to prepare food separately and communicate only by notes.

As the houses across the street (which her father once owned) are being loudly demolished, several time, “he almost spoke to her; he wanted to say something, anything, appeasing words. He realized that it was too late now and that neither of them could turn back.” They are together until death doth them part.


The novel is a portrait of savage marital disgust for each other, strongly (but not entirely) slanted to the grievances of the man. Simenon seems to share Emil’s view that “she needed to be unhappy, a victim of men’s wickedness,” forgetting no outrage to her refined sensibility and not recognizing any faults of her own. Husbands getting fed up and leaving was a recurrent theme for Simenon (M. Monde Vanishes). “The Cat” was filmed with Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret as a couple who had once loved each other, a past unlike the one Simenon supplied the characters who in the novel had never been any love, only habituated to coresidence.

©2005, 2019, Stephen O. Murray



Simenon’s M. Monde Vanishes

It is difficult to know where to begin or where to continue dipping into the oeuvre of the amazingly prolific Belgian-born writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989), who wrote published roughly four hundred novels between 1924 and his retirement from novel-writing in 1973. The BBC productions of adaptations of Simenon’s mystery novels starring a meditative pipe-smoking Michael Gambon as Parisian Chief Inspector Jules Maigret (that were shown on PBS ‘s”Mystery”) led me to read more than a dozen of the Maigret detective novels and When I Was Old, the first of twenty-some very unreliable memoirs.

I might have delved into his non-detective novels based on which ones had been adapted to the screen (notable movies adapted from Maigret novels include “The Cat,” “Monsieur Hire,” and “Betty”), but IMDB lists 174 movies based on Simenon books. Instead, I have been guided by what the New York Review series of reprintings has chosen. The first Simenon novel they reprinted was what is widely considered Simenon’s most important novel, Dirty Snow, about a collaborator with a vicious regime a lot like the Nazi occupiers.


The second, Monsieur Monde Vanishes (a title that in my opinion somewhat improves upon the original (1952) French title Fuite de Monsieur Monde) is about an affluent Parisian businessman (who has rebuilt an import-export firm that his father had let slide), the titular M. Monde. (Can anyone really have the family name “Monde”—world?). On the evening of his 48th birthday—an occasion no one has remembered—and after overhearing gossip about his effete son pursuing a young workman with unwanted attentions, M. Monde decides to change his life, to abandon his responsibilities and a family (wife, a married daughter constantly hitting him up for money, and the son who works in the office and is sexually harassing junior employees). He withdraws all the money from the firm’s bank account (3000,000 francs), leaving a much larger horde in a safe deposit box to which his wife has the key and power of attorney), buys an off-the-rack suit and takes a night train south to Marseilles.

In a threadbare hotel he hears a lovers’ quarrel next door and after the man storms out, what he correctly surmises is the woman attempting to commit suicide (though taking a handful of barbiturates does not make a lot of sound!). He forces her to throw up. Eventually he and the reader learn than her name is Julie. The two go on to Nice, where she gets a job that involves getting customers to buy champagne and he gets a job as a comptroller for the casino (watching that what is purchased gets to the purchasers and the money gets back to the cash box). The brief sexual relationship fades away. She is a pragmatic survivor (one can image the young Simone Signoret playing the role) whose suicide attempt was an aberration. Once in Nice, neither depends on or clings to the other.

romanpatr_Fuite de M Monde 5.jpg

If Monsieur Monde Vanishes were a mystery novel, I’d say that Simenon cheats the reader in that the denouement involves the introduction of a character (his first wife who left him) about whose existence there has not been a hint (clue) before. Her reappearance in his vicinity is also a rather implausible coincidence. After leaving him, she developed a very bad habit, which he accommodates with grace, and takes her back to Paris, where he explains nothing about where he has been and what he has been doing for the previous three months to anyone. No one dares to press for details. He steps back into his position as head of the firm, finds out that no one had been able to get at the money in the safe deposit box pending determination that he was dead, clears the detritus of his wife from his study, and seems fairly content to have demonstrated his detachment to those around him.(Winter is also over by then.) It seems he never becomes aware that the police were searching for him as a missing, possible amnesiac person (at the behest of his wife, whose visit to the police opening the novel is a masterful set piece, police stations being the haunt of Simenon’s best-known character). He does not consciously evade the police, and has none of the baggage coming back to haunt him of, say, Jacques Tourneur’s great 1947 noir film “Out of the Past.”

The temptation to run away and start over is a very American leitmotif, though it can be traced back at least to the parable of the prodigal son (and, arguably,to the Greeks going off to besiege Troy, with protracted difficult returns from the Odyssey through Cold Mountain as a major subcategory). The major exemplar from 20th-century world literature is Luigi Pirandello’s novel The Late Mattia Pascal, in which an Italian takes advantage of mistaken reporting of his death (and is also later robbed of a substantial, though less substantial amount of money) finds making a new life very difficult and, when he gives up, finds that he cannot take up his old life either. Mattias Pascal was in difficult financial straits and had no nostalgia del la boue (a longing to roll in the gutter and consort with the base), which is more a bourgeois French (and American) longing than at Italian one. M. Monde finds a position of some responsibility (though not a well-paid or prestigious one), gives hardly a thought to those he left behind, and has no wish to return to the comfort of his old life.

The prose is lean in the usual Simenon roman dur manner, with fairly hard-boiled dialogue between M. Monde and those who work at the casino and live in walk-up rooms. I am not quite sure what M. Monde learned in his flight, but the new life in a Mediterranean climate agreed with him.


The novel was not translated into English until 1967. The NYR edition includes an afterword by Larry McMurtry. There was a 2004 French/Swiss coproduction television version.


©2005, Stephen O. Murray

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.


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

Later (and much longer!) Sartre plays

Sartre’s plays of the 1950s were appreciably longer than those of the 1940s. Indeed, all four of the later ones are 1.5 times as long as the longest of the earlier one (The Flies).


“Le diable et le bon dieu” (The Devil and the Good Lord, 1951) recalls for me Brecht’s play about the 30 Year Ward, “Mother Courage,” though its title character (singular) is male. The warlord Goetz, who has betrayed his brother and is prepared to raze Worms, is persuaded to spare it and seeks to build a utopian community instead of wage war heavy on rape and pillage.

Edmund White has claimed that this was Sartre’s favorite of his plays. I have (albeit long ago) read Sartre’s Saint Genet (1952) and don’t really see Goetz being based on the petty thief Jean Genet, even as exalted (canonize) by Sartre. For me, Goetz is not an especially interesting character, although I can sympathize with his frustratios at not being able to “go straight” (that is build a community of peace rather than lead troops into battle). His antagonists (the would-be people’s priest Heinrich and the proto-communist Nasti) are even more types, not characters, as are the woman devoted to him after he raped her (Catherine) and a would-be Mother Teresa (more Mother Bountiful), Hilda.

At the end, Goetz is resigned to doing what he must: “I have no other way of being among men. There is a war to fight, and I will fight it.” (The conclusion is the same of Arjuna in the Bahagavad Gita, but Arjuna’s duty to fight was explained to him by the god Krishna).


Kean” (1953) is like nothing in Sartre’s extensive oeuvre—a romantic comedy with a Wildean (Ideal Husband) feel. An adaptation of a play by Alexandre Dumas père about the love life of the fabled English actor Edmund Kean’s amours, notably one with Elena, Countess de Koefeld, the wife of the Danish ambassador. Kean is something of the tastemaker (at least for female flesh) of the dissolute Prince of Wales (modeled on the future Edward VII, who was 60 when he took the throne; the real prince/king was born after Kean’s death). If there is any philosophical subtext of this heavy-footed comedy, I missed it. (Goetz definitely had existential crises!)


Nekrassov” (1955) is a more original comedy that also runs on too long. Its concern with role-playing and role-engulfment brings to mind the plays of Luigi Pirandello. The play has a Cold War setting. Nekrassov is a high Soviet official who has disappeared. In the West, it is widely supposed that he has defected, though the official line from Moscow is that he is resting in the Crimea.

A swindler named Georges claims to be Nekrassov, and a government-supported paper is only too glad to publish his criticisms of the Soviet system. I like the first scene in which Georges is fished out of the Seine by a pair of beggars, before he hits upon the scheme to be a defector guest of the state. He co-opts the one person who actually knows what Nekrassov looks like and evades the regular police who were hot on his tail when he plunged into the Seine.

I don’t think that it is a great play, but, pruned, it could be an entertaining one.


After two comedies, Sartre returned to High Moral Seriousness with “Les séquestrés d’Altona” (The Condemned of Altona, also know as “Loser Wins,” 1959). It is set in a mansion owned by an industrialist (modeled on the Krupp munitions millionaires, though this one made boats for the Nazis) who is dying of cancer. Gerlach wants to see his elder son, who has been self-exiled in the attic for 13 years, having committed war crimes as a Wermacht officier in the Ukraine during WWII. (He had the chance to emigrate to Argentina with so many other Nazis, but instead chose to hide and be declared dead.)

IMHO the second act, set in Franz’s room with Leni, the sister who has been taking him food, and his sister-in-law Johanna drags on way too long. Franz believes that (West) Germany is still in ruins, rather than having rebuilt and being prosperous.

Finally, in Act 5, Franz and his father meet. Franz has already indicated that he knows Germany has rebuilt, but explains “I pretended that I was locking myself up so that I shouldn’t witness Germany’s agony. It’s a lie. I wanted my country to die, and I shut myself up so that I shouldn’t be a witness to its resurrection.” His father tells Franz he is not contemptuous of his son for his war crimes or even for hiding out. Instead the guilt is his (the father’s).

At the end, they go off together to take the crimes of the century (WWII) on themselves and expiate it by death (how German is it!), aware of how many others (e.g., Lt. Klages did nothing to oppose what they knew was wrong).

Any resonances with French war crimes in the struggle against Algerian independence were intentional, though the play is very much about “the question of German guilt,” specifically the guilt of those who went along more than the True Believers in Hitler).

(I saw the not-very-good 1961 movie directed by Vittorio De Sica, with a family including Maximillian Schell, Robert Wagner, and Sophia Loren headed by Frederic March, long long ago. It does not seem available on DVD, though the oddness of the cast should be reason enough to make it available.)


Though he was tending to lggorrhea (already in Saint Genet, but completely over the hill in The Family Idiot), I think that Sartre was a very good playwright and regret that he abandoned it, beyond an adaptation of “The Trojan Women” (1965) and an (uncredited) screenplay for John Huston’s awful Freud biopic with Montgomery Clift (1962), which was published in 1984 after Sartre’s death in 1980.

Early Sartre plays (in reverse chronological order)

I don’t know why I wanted to reread Sartre’s long 1948 play “Dirty Hands.” It’s a lot better than Malaparte’s Kaputt, but that is very faint praise. Though ancient Ilyria was in Yugoslavia at the time, the inspiration of the maneuvering between Nazis and Soviets is more wartime Hungary (with a Regent, Adm. Horthy). The uncompromising though compromised anti-hero, Hugo, holds on to purity again, ready to die, having slain the prematurely pragmatic Hoederer two years earlier. Adapt? Not Hugo. Olga regrets she cannot again harness his idealism for what The Party’s current line (accommodation) is. Some comic relief is provided by the bodyguards, Slick and George, who would not be terribly out of place in a Beckett play.

Simone_de_Beauvoir_&_Jean-Paul_Sartre_in_Beijing_1955 (1).jpg

(Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Beijing in 1955)

I’m not sure whether I’d read Sartre’s “The Respectable Prostitute” (La putain respectueuse, 1946) before, though I think so. It is set deep in Faulkner country, where I don’t think Sartre ever visited, and certainly had not before writing the play, an existentialist melodrama in which the title character (Lizzie) tries to do the right thing, but is swayed by a honey-tongued senator before returning to defending a Negro who did not rape or otherwise attack her. (Another one who had not even been on the scene is lynched offstage: “They caught a nigger. It wasn’t the right one.  But they lynched him just the same”).


I also reread “No Exit” (Huis clois, 1944), which I found less interesting. The summation – “Hell is other people” — comes late. I’m not sure that has been shown before Joseph Garcin tells the women with who he is locked up for eternity. The lesbian Inès has been the only forthright one, though maddened that Estelle wants the only available man rather than her. (He wants to have nothing to do with either and early on asks that they all remain silent.) Estelle seems to me to see to be objectified. Does she ever see herself as the other two see her? I don’t think so. Garcin is keenly aware that Inès sees him as a coward, and Estelle as the only being around with a penis.


I was not planning on rereading Sartre’s “The Flies” (Les Mouches, 1943) but was drawn in by the first scene and stayed through the long speeches by Orestes, Electra, and Zeus. Clymenestra barely registers (Orestes does not remember her, having been expelled at a youg age), but Aegisthius is a surprisingly complex character. Not really a Nazi, though depressing everyone with his guilt. And the enemy of the freedom that Orestes (and Electra) seize in murdering their father’s murderers (and/or the soul-murderers of the Argos populace). Now I want to read or reread Sartre’s later plays. I like his essays and plays more than his novels—or politics, though he did denounce Castro for persecuting Cuban writers.


The four plays are published in English in No Exit and Other Plays. I think that Sartre’s plays are more interesting than his novels, though his later ones are so long as to be unplayable (bt not unreadable).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray