Dirty Snow by Simenon

I’m glad I read Simenon’s Three Crimes and Patrick Marnham’s excellent biography of the author  before arriving at Dirty Snow. That’s not to say that you can’t read Dirty Snow on its own merit, but I arrived at the novel forearmed, and, as it turns out, forewarned.

Dirty Snow is the bleakest, darkest Simenon I’ve read so far. I’m not keeping count of how many I’ve read from this author’s dizzying body of work. If you’ve read any of my other posts on Simenon, you know that I’m trying to read my way through his Romans Durs. If I ever manage that, I’ll move on to the Maigret novels, but for now, I’m sticking to the Romans Durs–the so-called Hard Novels. This is no small task as Simenon’s biographer, Marnham even admits that there’s no firm count of Simenon’s books, but it’s fairly safe to say “He had written 193 novels under his own name and over 200 under eighteen pseudonyms.” I’ve read other counts that put Simenon’s novels (the ones he put his own name on) at around 250.

The German occupation of Belgium during WWI was a morally corrupting experience for Simenon and that sense seeps through his autobiographical novel Three Crimes. In this novel, we see a young Simenon running around with a gang of lowlifes and hanging out with an unsavoury crowd. Hyacinthe Danse, a bookseller who coerced underage girls into sex acts that took place at the back of his shop, was one of two of Simenon’s acquaintances who later turned to murder. Three Crimes gives the reader the sense that during the occupation, ‘normal’ rules of behaviour were suspended or warped, so we see ‘ordinary’ people committing crimes, and yet what are ‘crimes’ during a period of occupation? Was it a crime to rob or kill German soldiers? Well the answer to that depends on who you are talking to. Three Crimes effectively recreates a morally muddied period; it’s a marvellous novel, though not Simenon’s best.

Patrick Marnham’s biography explores just why Simenon felt that he was permanently marked by the occupation. Simenon’s mother, for example, rented rooms to lodgers, but when the source dried up during the occupation, she rented to Germans. The biography also details how Simenon & his mother smuggled food using a system in which Simenon turned on an annoying temper tantrum so that German soldiers wouldn’t search them. It’s clear that as a teenager Simenon absorbed the fact that morality was a matter of expediency. 

As an author, one of Simenon’s techniques (if that’s an appropriate word) was to use life experiences and then leap out from that point into fiction. So it’s no surprise that Dirty Snow is the story of a teenager during the WWII occupation.

The protagonist of the story is nineteen-year-old Frank Friedmaier. When the novel begins, Frank is a petty crook, a bully, and a pimp. Not that he’s reached these lofty heights on his own accord; his mother runs a prostitute or two out of their small apartment– an operation too smalltime a concern to be called a whorehouse. Frank picks up a girl, usually hungry and poor, lures her back to the apartment where she starts servicing a steady stream of male customers. If the mother-son team are on a roll, they will keep two girls–one of whom also cleans the apartment. Since the Friedmaiers don’t exactly have a stable of women, they need a frequent turnover so that the male customers don’t get bored. For this reason, girls are only kept for a few weeks before they are turfed out.  Frank notices that the girls become increasingly sloppy the longer they stay in the apartment:

It was always that way at first. They had to be tamed. In the beginning they didn’t touch a thing. They looked at a piece of sugar as though it was something precious. It was the same with the milk, with everything. And after a certain time they had to be sent away because they stole from the cupboards. Although, granted, they would have been sent away in any case.

Frank has nothing but contempt for the weak, the needy or the fearful, and since he’s surrounded by people who live in fear of being snatched up by the Germans, he grows to despise everyone around him:

From the very onset of the present situation–and he had been barely fifteen at the time–Frank had felt contempt for abject poverty and for those who submitted to it. It amounted to a revulsion, a sort of disgust, even for the girls, thin and pale, who came to his mother’s and threw themselves on their food. Some of them would weep with emotion, fill their plates, and then be unable to eat. 

The road where the streetcar ran was black and white, and the snow on it was filthier than anywhere else. As far as the eye could see it was transected by the streetcar rails, black and shining, curving together where the two lines met. The sky was low and not too bright, with a luminosity more depressing than any uniform gray. That whiteness, glaring, translucent, had something menacing about it, something absolute and eternal. Under it, colors became hard and mean, the brown or the dirty yellow of the houses, for example or the dark red of the streetcar that seemed to float in the air. And opposite Kamp’s , in front of the tripe seller’s, stretched a long ugly line of people waiting, the women in shawls and the little girls with their skinny legs stamping their wooden soles on the pavement, trying to keep warm.

When the novel begins, Frank has ‘lost’ his virginity (I loathe that phrase) and now contemplates “another loss of virginity,” and that translates to committing a murder. Frank lives in a world of women–women he can bully and rape without compunction, and as a result, he’s grown into a revolting little thug. He hangs out at Timo’s bar, a place full of lowlifes and criminals, and there he listens to stories of murder and rape. An early quote sets the tone for the novel; this is a society in which the old rules don’t apply, and people can commit crimes in new ways:

Everybody at Timo’s had killed at least one man–in the war or wherever. Perhaps by informing on someone, which was the simplest way. You didn’t even have to sign your name.

Frank’s role model is an older man named Kromer–a criminal who repeatedly brags about a woman he murdered. Kromer’s tales convince Frank that he needs to murder a man, and to Frank murder is the next necessary step in his life.

Frank commits his murder, and the crime leads to more depravity. With each incident, Frank appears to grow more calloused–even savagely betraying a young girl who lives in his apartment building. It’s as though he pushes through the limits of morality and feeling through his actions.

Dirty Snow is a splendid book; I’ll go as far as to say a masterpiece, but at the same time this is not a novel for everyone. It’s grim reading, dark and full of pure evil at some points. Frank is a petty, puffed up little bully who’s far too big for his boots. But it should be remembered that Frank is tough from bullying his mother and the starving girls he lures to his apartment. While he thinks he knows everything (and he is not unintelligent) in many ways, he is still a callow youth with no idea how things work. As a result he’s incautious.

At one point, Timo, the owner of the bar warns Frank not to flash his money around, and he tells the story of a German colonel, who after too much drink, became careless and allowed two women to pass his papers back and forth:

“And just then I saw a guy get up, someone I hadn’t even noticed, just an ordinary-looking guy, a civilian, like anybody you’d see in the street. He wasn’t even well dressed. He went over to the table and the colonel looked at him sort of startled, but still trying to smile. The other man said just one word, and I tell you, that officer got right up and stood at attention. He took his wallet from the women. He paid his check. You could see the starch go right out of him. He left the women there, without a word of explanation, and went out with the civilian.”

“What’s that got to do with me?” Frank mumbled.

“The next day he was seen at the station, headed for an unknown destination. That’s what I mean. Some of them seem powerful, and maybe for the moment they are. But they’re never–and don’t forget it–as powerful as they pretend, because no matter how powerful they are, there are always others who are more powerful still. And they’re the ones you never hear about.”

This is a story of moral degradation, but it is also a story of redemption. While Simenon glides through this complex spectrum, questions lurk beneath the surface. How much, for example, does Frank’s environment contribute to his corruption?When Frank shows incredible courage, has he become a ‘better’ person or is he merely unconcerned about his fate? Is his lack of concern about his life a continuation of the blunting of his emotions, or does Frank simply not want to become one of the weak he despises so much?

On a final note, I’ve always thought that an occupation would offer additional opportunities for criminals. I’m thinking of Doctor Petiot here. This translates to an interest in the activities of The Gang des Tractions Avant, The Bony-Lafont Gang, and especially Abel Danos (Le Mammouth), so if you know any good books on these subjects, recommend ‘em.

Dirty Snow is yet another marvellous reprint from New York Review Books Classics. Translated by Marc Romano and Louise Varèse.

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26 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Simenon

26 responses to “Dirty Snow by Simenon

  1. Sounds bleak but interesting, will have to see how this is called in French. I know books/novels about the occupation but not with this specific detail of crime during an occupation. This would be, and certainly was, a perfect moment to cover up all sorts of crimes and slide into moral depravity. Telling on people is no less a crime. In some ways it touches on the question of guilt in a Macbeth-kind of way. Is Lady Macbeth, the force behind the crime, less of a murderer than the one committing it? Same here, are those who are the reason for other people’s death less guilty than those who actively kill. Movies on the Resistance, at least the ones I saw, tend to highlight moral superiority of those involved. The few “criminals” we see are the collaborators. Occasionally the people from the Resistance groups question the means (I’m thinking especially of the movie Flame&Citron).

    • Caroline: My gravatar is small but it says: The Snow is Black. It’s a vintage cover of the same book.
      With the Macbeth question, I ask myself: would the crime have taken place without Lady Macbeth?

  2. Beautiful cover.

    This does sound very good. Perhaps too close in some ways to the Kersh I’m presently reading but I suspect that’s just superficialities of the central characters.

    The romans dur attract me more than the Maigret, but then I share your love of noir.

  3. Beautiful cover (bis) and the second quote is beautiful as well.
    The question about murder and its justification by circumstances made me think of The Pale Horse.
    I don’t know any specific book about criminality during the occupation. Le Grand Vestiaire by Romain Gary is about two teenagers lodged at an old man’s house and who become delinquants. It’s just after WWII during the chaos after the end of occupation. The world for us is “a huge cloakroom full of old rags with empty sleeves, from which no brotherly hand was offered” (difficult to translate)

    • Frank is a revolting individual whose descent into crime is horrible. But somehow by the end of the book, I felt pity for him, and that’s an indication of Simenon’s power.

      • Yes, you’re certainly right. Only a wonderful writer can make the reader sympathize with an despicable character.
        I wonder how Simenon managed to write so many books and maintain a certain level in the language and quality of the plots and depth of the characters.
        Was he working night and day or was exceptionnally gifted or both?
        Which one is your favourite one so far?

        PS : Have you read What Came Before the Shot by Elizabeth George?

        • Simenon had this “system,” but even as I write that, it makes him sound like some sort of hack–which he wasn’t. One novel he wrote while waiting for friends in a cafe.

          The bio shows him as a very intense person. He threw himself into writing a novel, and then after a few weeks it was done. It seems (reading between the lines) as though he was either writing or he wasn’t, and periods of intense writing followed months of just enjoying life.

          I think he was an exceptional man, and unfortunately the fact that he wrote SO many novels tends to make critics dismiss his work. he really did pump them out.

          I’d have to think of my favourite. Dirty Snow was magnificent, but it was also painful. To dislike a character and then to move to pity and sorrow–well, it does something to the reader.

          No I haven’t read the George book, but someone recommended her to me recently.

          • You’re right about the fact that the critics see too many books as suspicious. Well, sometimes it’s true.

            I think you’d like this book by E. George. The French title is “Anatomie d’un crime”. And that’s what it is. She describes how a boy, who was an ordinary boy of a poor neighbourhood in London became a murderer, how the whole system (social workers, school, police) failed to prevent this good boy to become a delinquent. Bleak, without any compromise but really well-written.
            I like the Lynley serie, btw. An interesting look on the British social classes system. I wonder why the actor chosen for the TV version is physically so different from the character in the novel that I can’t bear to watch it. (strange reaction, I know)

  4. leroyhunter

    I’ve only skimmed the review Guy as I have this and plan to read it soon. I had both Dirty Snow and Three Crimes in my hand and chose the former: from your intro I may have got that wrong way round.

    Looking forward to it, Red Lights was brilliant.

    • Leroy: I don’t think you made a mistake. Dirty Snow is the better book (much better written), and in Three Crimes I get the sense that Simenon is still very troubled by what happened in his youth. If you get to it, there’s a suicide that takes place under suspicious circumstances, and it still eats away at Simenon years later. The intro explains the title differently, but I think the three crimes refers to the two murderers and the suicide (that might have been something else).

      In Dirty Snow, Kromer reminds me very much of Three Crimes Hyacinthe Danse. I bet if you like Dirty Snow (and I’m sure you will), you will get to Three Crimes sooner or later. I don’t think the order is that important; it’s just that after reading Three Crimes, I knew (more or less) what to expect. Even so, Dirty Snow was still much grimmer than I’d imagined.

  5. leroyhunter

    Just finished this Guy. What a harsh, grim book, but quite stunning as well in ways. If we’re calling some of Jim Thompson’s books masterpieces then this deserves the title as well. The specific comparison I guess is The Killer Inside Me but Simenon’s Frank somehow manages to be even more loathesome then good ol’ Lou.

    Your view of Frank gets worse and worse through the first two sections – “revolting little thug” is perfect – but then in section three the gears shift and the big machine goes to work on him. You do find a kind of sympathy for him leaking in, because Simenon describes so powerfully how he tries to cling to his identity and existence. Incredible stuff.

    Incidentally, I read Darkness at Noon recently, which was a pretty arduous “prison” story; the final section of Frank’s journey makes that look like a holiday camp.

    • This book has gelled very well since I read it and it has become one of my favourite Simenon novels. I just got the new version of Act of Passion which I should get to (with luck) in the next few months.

  6. Having read some of the Maigret books a few years ago, didn’t know about the others & this sounds appealing. Thanks.

  7. Thanks for the comment. Hard to pick just one book as the best of the year, but since Reading Matters twisted my arm, this was it.

  8. Wow, like me you went back to an early one in the year. What does that say about our reading year! (No, I know, like you I found it hard so used the criteria that I’d read it before so it must be a favourite). I know a few people who really like Simenon … I guess I really should try him one day.

    • Reading Matters made it very tough by allowing just one, but it also didn’t leave any room for waffling. I’ll be writing a ‘best of the year’ post later, as this was a good year for reading. I just finished another Simenon and as usual the book was stunning.

  9. This book left me feeling raw for days, so powerful! I’ve also become addicted to Simenon’s roman durs over the last year. I see you’ve read some titles I don’t recognize — I know only those from NYRB and more recently Melville House. Where do you get them? Are these 2nd-hand finds? They have far more appeal to me than Maigret (which I may otherwise have to resort to soon).

    • You can get most of them second hand. I recommend Alibris and if you use the same seller (Better World Books always seems to have a lot of titles) you can save on shipping. Some are out of print and others cost an exorbitant amount.

  10. I wonder if Nazi occupied France had any real significance in how Frank turns out: he could have evolved into his thug mug it seems in almost any setting. And, my only gripe with this excellent novel: at 18 years old Frank is too young to be so jaded.

    • The intro of the NYRB’s edition makes a big deal out of the fact that the country in which the story takes place is never identitied, but after reading a bio on Simenon and his book Three Crimes, it’s impossible not to set the book solidly in Simenon’s experiences. It might be France (and I assumed so at first) but now I’m leaning towards Belgium as that’s where Simenon spent his youth (corrupting experiences chronicled in Three Crimes).

      He was a punk and the fact he could bully his mother’s prostitutes didn’t help his nature, so I think you’re right, he had the propensity regardless of the occupation

  11. William Vollman wrote the afterword, Marco Romano translated the book from french to English;

    http://www.amazon.com/Dirty-Snow-Review-Books-Classics/dp/1590170431

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