Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Train by Georges Simenon

Refugee love
The Train, published in 1958, is one of Belgian author Georges Simenon’s romans durs, or “hard novels,” a term he devised to distinguish his more serious literature from his popular series of Inspector Maigret detective novels. The story takes place at the outbreak of World War II. Marcel Féron, the narrator, lives with his pregnant wife and daughter in Fumay, a town in northeastern France just across the border from Belgium. When it is reported that the Nazis have invaded Belgium, many of the citizens of Fumay decide to flee westward. In the chaotic rush to load the train for evacuation, women and children are boarded first, and Marcel ends up in a different car than his wife and child. Later in the journey, the train is broken up, the cars are separated, and Marcel has no idea where his family has gone. Meanwhile, in his own car he has met a woman traveling alone. This “woman in the black dress,” later revealed to be named Anna, attaches herself to Marcel. The two soon become lovers and begin living essentially as man and wife.

What differentiates The Train from a typical wartime romance novel, and what makes it classic Simenon, is the disturbing lack of emotional attachment that Marcel feels towards his pregnant wife and daughter. As soon as he hears of the Nazi invasion and the possibility of evacuation, his reaction is not one of fear or concern for his family but rather an overwhelming feeling of relief at being released from the responsibilities and restrictions of his mundane existence. Though he insists throughout the book that he loves his wife, he has no reservations about making love to Anna, and while he seeks the whereabouts of his family a part of him hopes that he never finds them. Marcel is depicted as more delusional than callous. He is so disconnected from his own reality that he doesn’t even realize the right or wrong of his actions. His transgressions come across more as a mental illness than a moral failing. Simenon is renowned for unsentimentally examining the unpleasant realities of human psychology, but while there is a ring of authenticity to his narrator’s thought process, he takes Marcel’s guiltless ambivalence a little far, to the point where it strains believability.

The biggest problem with the book is that it just wreaks of male fantasy. The war provides the man with a “hall pass” from his marriage so he can get it on with a hot stranger who acquiesces to his every desire while demanding nothing in return. We learn almost nothing about Anna as a human being. Marcel asks her little about herself, and she rarely speaks unless spoken to. Given Simenon’s history as a womanizer and the accusations of misogyny against him, Marcel’s sexual jackpot seems uncomfortably convenient. Simenon is a great writer, but this particular book never ascends to a level of literature much beyond the dime-store potboiler sold in a rotating rack.

There is some value to Simenon’s depiction of the French and Belgian experience of World War II. The behavior of the passengers in Marcel’s rail car serves as a microcosmic representation of the myriad reactions to wartime upheaval. Though there is one scene of actual armed attack, the story focuses more on the confusion at a series of railroad stations and the prosaic details of daily life in a refugee camp. The reader gets only a few brief glimpses of Nazi occupation.

The Train is certainly not a bad book, and it is worth a read for Simenon fans, but it is probably the least compelling of his romans durs that I’ve read. Some better choices would be Dirty Snow, Tropic Moon, or The Reckoning.
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