Now that I'm pretty much housebound in our year of the plague, I spend the weekends rereading old novels, including a pile of Simenons, as I am reluctant to go out and browse in bookstores for new ones or even go to the post office to pick up packages of books ordered online. The first two that I reread were The Accomplices and The Blue Room. The third is The Stain on the Snow. Simenon wrote something like 500 novels, including the Inspector Maigret series. I myself feel that I owe him a debt of gratitude. Back in the late 1980s I read his autobiographical When I Was Old, where he describes himself turning out a novel in two weeks when I had been struggling with one for 20 years, which inspired me to declare: "To hell with Literature. I'll do a Simenon." The principle, to my mind, was fairly simple: a single protagonist and a straightforward story line. I even started off with a Simenon-inspired character but soon enough found one of my own and ended up with something a little more complex (The Links in the Chain under my Fred Russell pen name) and instead of two weeks it took me six months to complete it, though it was only published 25 years later. Immediately afterwards I wrote a second Fred Russell novel (Rafi's World), also in around six months, though it too was only published 25 years later. Then it was back to Literature to struggle with old and new novels until I hit my stride at the age of 65.
The Stain on the Snow, by Georges Simenon, published in France in 1948 as La neige était sale and then in the English translation in 1953, takes place during the Occupation, though the Germans are never identified as the occupiers, nor is the occupied country identified. It may be France but it could be Simenon's Belgium or even Holland as the local characters have Germanic names. The protagonist, Frank Friedmaier, nineteen years old, is a smalltime criminal. His mother runs a brothel in the big apartment house where they live, causing her and her son to be ostracized by the neighbors. One of the neighbors, a 16-year-old girl, has a crush on Frank, but he betrays her trust, allowing her to be raped. Her father, a streetcar conductor, sees Frank in the street with a knife on the night that Frank gratuitously murders a police sergeant in the occupying army "to make his bones." Later he murders a woman who recognizes him when he steals a valuable collection of watches from her. Finally Frank is arrested by the occupiers.
The translation is atrocious, at least insofar as it is the criminal milieu that is being described. It is first of all British, which means that it already has two strikes against it, for the slangier British English tries to be, the stiffer it gets. As a translator myself, I found myself mentally rewriting whole sentences and pieces of dialogue like "My word!" and "Give it me," not to mention concoctions like "He would fumble them [his women] in full public view." The translation does, however, loosen up a little after Frank is arrested and the interrogations begin, more than halfway through the book. Simenon is first-rate when it comes to such interrogations. It is not only the crispness of the dialogue but his technique of withholding information to build up tension.
Frank naturally thinks that he has been arrested for killing the sergeant. Simenon strings the reader along by not revealing the charges. Finally he is told that he has been arrested for passing around marked bills apparently stolen from the occupiers and which he had received for the said stolen watches. Frank stubbornly and for no good reason refuses to reveal where he got the money. Later, he speculates that this arbitrary stubbornness of his may be because he doesn't wish to be released and "be returned to the life of everybody" or to being a nobody. Or is it just defiance, plain and simple? he asks himself. Or is it that he wishes to test himself under torture? As I read I wonder if I will discover something I had not thought of before. That is the ultimate test. Will Simenon open a new horizon for me? Is he profound? In any case, Simenon does tell us at a certain point that "he was playing for much higher stakes than they were," namely his interrogators.
Because he writes suspense novels, however penetrating psychologically, his technique is necessarily manipulative, that is, calculated to build suspense. The suspense is generated by a technique of delayed revelation, so that we cannot say that his characters are given the freedom to be entirely themselves and take the story wherever it might go. They are rather there to serve a predetermined plot, necessitating extreme selectivity in what is revealed and avoiding natural responses on the part of his characters that may serve to diminish the suspense. At a certain point, Frank's interrogator says, "You must go and get ready," but we are not told for what, as Frank does not ask the obvious question. He doesn't say, "Look, gentleman, what exactly do you want from me?" because Simenon does not wish to give the game away. We are not meant to know what the interrogators are looking for until Simenon is ready to tell us. In fact, when he is brought before another interrogator the marked bills aren't even mentioned but instead he is questioned about his mother's whores and his own criminal associates. Only in the end does it become clear that the authorities are looking for traitors and insurgents. The novel does in fact teeter on the edge of credibility. The question in this case is whether the author has simply failed to write a conventionally realistic novel or aimed at going beyond such a reality to explore something deeper, in this case the psyche of his protagonist, which he relentlessly probes and explores in his characteristically short narrative passages, always focusing on Frank's state of mind.
From his cell, a converted classroom in a school building, Frank sees a woman at a distant window hanging out baby clothes and is able to imagine her married life in idyllic terms and even himself in such a situation. This is a new motif in a symbolic scheme, added to the pure snow that is sullied by men's actions, with the idealized woman at the window representing the purity of love. Simenon certainly knew what he is doing and where he was going.
In the end, the novel is deeply moving. The girl who has the crush on him and whom he betrayed comes to visit him with her father and tells him that she loves him, while the father must know of Frank's betrayal and also that Frank is guilty of murdering the sergeant, and there is a very strong sense of expiation as Frank tells the father that he wishes he was his son and the meeting with the girl becomes his marriage and his honeymoon because this is all there will ever be and it is enough because "it did not matter how long a thing lasted. What did matter was that it should exist."
Then he confesses to his crimes, declaring that he has no further information that might interest his interrogators and vows not to reply to any further questions. Then he is tortured. Then he is executed, forgetting about the idealized woman at the window who might have turned out to be the girl who loves him and he her husband and their child his too, because he no longer requires such a vision.
There is certainly something of Kafka and Camus in this novel, even if it doesn't reach their universal heights. Alienation was the disease of the 20th century, but unlike Joseph K. and Meursault, Frank finds salvation, though he must die to achieve it. Simenon was an extraordinary writer, the perfect writer in fact to see one through the long days ahead.
Check out some other titles by Georges Simenon.