Thursday, October 20, 2016

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon

Pitch black noir
Georges Simenon is best known for his Maigret series of detective novels, but he also published what he referred to as “romans durs” (literally, “hard novels”). These are darker psychological novels that, although they still often fall into the genre of crime stories, transcend mere genre fiction and aspire to the realm of literature. That’s not say that Simenon’s usual brand of crime and detective fiction is lacking in literary merit, but if Dirty Snow is any indication, the romans durs are clearly a cut above the rest of his prodigious body of work. Originally published in 1948 under the French title La Neige était sale, Dirty Snow is a remarkable novel. I’ve only read 14 of Simenon’s books so far—a mere drop in the bucket of the 500 he is rumored to have written—but I feel confident in saying that this has got to be one of his best, if not his absolute masterpiece.

Though written in the third person, the story is told from the perspective of Frank Friedmaier, a 19-year-old thug and thief. The book opens with Frank recalling the first time he ever killed a man, for no other reason than just to prove to himself that he could do it. Frank lives in a whorehouse, run by his mother—not off in some red light district, but in a typical working class apartment building. In a city under foreign occupation during wartime, mother and son are prospering, which draws the ire of their neighbors, who are starving and cold. Through his thoughts and actions, Frank clearly demonstrates himself to be a sociopath, with no empathy or sympathy for other human beings, and no apparent concern for himself, for that matter. Given his seemingly utter lack of conscience, morality, and emotion, how does one explain the strange obsession he develops toward his neighbor, an unassuming street car driver named Holst?

Given the author’s nationality and time of publication, I assume this novel was set in Nazi-occupied France. However, I can’t say for sure whether that’s ever explicitly stated in the narrative. Simenon refers to the invading regime simply as the Occupation. This ambiguity gives the novel a timeless, dystopian quality. It could apply to any nation in wartime, in any era. The shocking thing about the book is that the Nazis, or whoever they are, aren’t really even the villains in the story. Frank is the bad guy; in fact, he’s one of the most despicable human beings you’ll ever encounter in literature, yet you can’t help but identify with him and be compelled by his story.

It’s hard to believe this book was written in 1948, considering how dark, psychologically brutal, and nihilistic it is. The American noir of Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane seem cartoony by comparison. It even makes Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, also published in 1948, seem tame. Critics often liken Simenon to Albert Camus, and there’s definitely some validity to that comparison, but Dirty Snow feels more like one of Franz Kafka’s dark visions. Although it’s a far cry from Maigret, at its heart Dirty Snow is still very much a baffling mystery, as the reader struggles to understand the reasons behind certain events and to figure out just what the hell is going on in Frank’s brain. In the end, as in real life, some questions remain unanswered.

Dirty Snow is a profound and gripping book. I hesitate to say I enjoyed it, given how disturbing it is, but it does produce a powerful, indelible emotional effect. It is the epitome of existential noir thrillers and quite possibly one of the best novels of the mid-20th century.
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