The Train by Simenon

“It was the hour of my meeting with Fate, the hour of an appointment which I had had a long time, which I had always had, with Fate.”

The Train, an excellent roman durs (hard novel) from Simenon, is another fine example of one of this author’s most frequent themes: escape. Simenon has an incredible ability to show how his male characters lead average lives of bourgeois conformity until routines and habits are derailed by fate. Some of Simenon’s male characters, uncoupled from the engine of industry, sink into crime or are drawn to the sordid underbelly of life. The male protagonist of The Train, however, simply steps away from his family for a moment and is literally caught up in an entirely different life.  Simenon shows us ten, twenty or even thirty years of the same life, the same routine, the same habits, and it only takes a moment to turn a corner into an entirely new life–one that seems to have been waiting, patiently, there in the shadows.

The Train is told by its thirty-two-year old protagonist, Marcel, a married man with one small child and a wife, Jeanne who’s 7 1/2 months pregnant. When the story begins, Marcel is reasonably well-set in life and freely admits that he “had become a happy man” who loves the life he’s established. He owns a small home and a modest electronics repair business. There’s the sense–that’s often in the background of Simenon’s romans durs–that Marcel hasn’t actively chosen the life in which he now finds himself. It’s just somehow happened. The novel opens with the invasion of Holland by the German army, and here’s Marcel’s reaction:

Straightaway, that particular morning, I realized that something was happening at last. I had never known the air so crowded. Whatever wavelength I picked, broadcasts were overlapping, voices, whistles, phrases in German, Dutch, English, and you could feel a sort of dramatic throbbing in the air.

Does Marcel feel a sense of excitement? Then later:

A month earlier, at the beginning of April, the 8th or 9th, my hopes had risen when the Germans had invaded Denmark and Norway.

Yes, it’s safe to say that Marcel does feel excitement–or at least a sense that change is on its way. To Marcel, whose poor eyesight negates the possibility of conscription, impending war represents a designated meeting:

This war, which had suddenly broken out after a year of spurious calm, was a personal matter between Fate and me.

Life changes dramatically and within just a few short hours Marcel’s wife decides that they must flee the area before the Germans arrive, and so Marcel, his heavily-pregnant wife, and highly nervous child take a train….

Since Marcel’s wife and child are the physical embodiments of his life and responsibilities, it’s perhaps inevitable, since this is a Simenon novel, that they become separated. It only takes a moment, and Marcel is left behind on a different part of the train.

Why does Marcel feel a sense of excitement about an impending invasion? Given that he and his family are fleeing from the German army, his reaction is a little odd, but Marcel has some hidden memories of what happened to his mother in WWI, and feels that fate awaits him once more in the form of an invading army. In many ways, war costs Marcel not only security, but also much more interestingly, identity:

I had just lost my roots. I was no longer Marcel Feron, radio engineer in a newish district of Fumay, not far from the Meuse, but one man among millions whom superior forces were going to toss about at will.

Simenon’s romans durs explore the way we are defined by our lives, and how once separated from familiar social environments, we can easily become completely different human beings. Of course when Simenon’s characters become criminals as in the marvellous novel, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, there’s the underlying idea that a respectable bourgeois life isn’t as much a choice as much as it is a lack of opportunity. In this story, however, Marcel is not the only man to leave his old life behind, and for those who take the train, societal expectations and polite behaviour rapidly fall away.

Marcel writes the story of what happened when he fled his home town near the Belgium border, but since he quickly becomes separated from his family, this is essentially his private, secret story, and one that he hopes to leave to his son:

Perhaps Jean-François will go on behaving as his mother and his schoolmasters teach him to and as I do more or less sincerely myself.

It is also possible that one day he may rebel against our ideas, our way of life, and try to be himself.

If Marcel’s time without his family was an attempt to “be himself” was he successful? Marcel’s account, he argues, is written as a way of “leaving my son another picture” of himself. He doesn’t want his son to think of his father as only “the shopkeeper and timid husband he had known, with no ambition beyond that of bringing up his children to the best of his ability and helping them to climb a small rung of the social ladder.”

Yet while the account of exactly what Marcel did in the war may shift his son’s perceptions of the life his father led, Marcel doesn’t seem to grasp–or at least acknowledge–that some of his behaviour–at the last–smacks of a failure of courage.

Simenon acknowledged that he used incidents from his real-life as creative springboards for his novels, so it should come as no surprise here that in WWI Simenon witnessed something that sounds rather similar to the incident involving Marcel’s mother. Also in WWII Simenon was living in La Rochelle when Belgium refugees began pouring over the border in May 1940, and the Belgium embassy asked Simenon to act as Commissioner for Belgian refugees. According to Patrick Marnham, Simenon’s biographer, Simenon claimed he was “responsible for 300,000 Belgian refugees,” so it’s easy to imagine that many of the scenes described by Marcel in The Train were witnessed by Simenon himself. 

Marnham goes on to say that many of the trains “had been moving for three weeks before reaching the city. Some had been machine-gunned or bombed  and were crowded with wounded or dying people.” Simenon set up a reception centre for the refugees–along with a camp where they could be fed, clothed and housed–and these details appear in The Train.

My copy of The Train (translated by Robert Baldick) came courtesy of netgalley and was read on my kindle. For this Simenon fan, it’s marvellous to see publishers taking interest in a writer who deserves much more critical acclaim than he’s received to date. But with Melville House Publishing and New York Review Classics reprinting Simenon, I can only think that new readers will discover this incredible author.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal also reviewed The Train, so for his review, go here. I liked it more than Max, but then I’m not rational about Simenon.

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12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Simenon

12 responses to “The Train by Simenon

  1. “a respectable bourgeois life isn’t as much a choice as much as it is a lack of opportunity” – I like this premise and this sounds once more like an excellent illustration of it. My Simenon novels have moved up to the top of the piles… I thought at first this was “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” but you already clarified that.
    I wasn’t aware that many of his Romans Durs are set during the war. Maybe a way of coming to terms with what he experienced since it’s based on things he saw.

  2. That time must have been terrible, I can hardly imagine it. In a way, it reminds me of that SF book you reviewed about the end of the world and the subsequent change in human behaviours. That a theme you’re interested in, I guess. WWII definitely proved that a same person put in different or challenging circumstances is capable of the better or the worse.

    I remember Max’s review and he showed less enthusiasm but you make it sound really good. I have a Maigret and L’Outlaw at home. I’ll try them next year probably.

    • One of the points the biographer makes is that Simenon always seemed restless, and that WWI and WWII played no small part in that. Simenon witnessed some terrible things in WWI and then the experience also showed him that the absolutes of morality are impacted by expediency and circumstance.

      He had a strange place in WWII French society and since he thrived in occupied France, he left at the end of WWII no doubt remembering the scenes of post WWI.

  3. I read The Train back in September, and honestly, it felt like a letdown after the NYRB romans durs. But this book has aged very well in my memory (I think of it as one of my favourites now). Even while Marcel tries to be his true self, he is excruciatingly passive.

    It’s the ending that brings it all home. As you write:
    “Yet while the account of exactly what Marcel did in the war may shift his son’s perceptions of the life his father led, Marcel doesn’t seem to grasp–or at least acknowledge–that some of his behaviour–at the last–smacks of a failure of courage.”

    The behaviour is cowardly, but I guess, througout, Marcel is hinting at his “inner” life of dreams and perceptions, even if he fails to act in accordance. Which makes it all the more pathetic.

  4. It was probably lucky that there were so many months in between Dirty Snow (read 1/11) and The Train (12/11) as the latter can’t compare favourably. I’ve been e-mailing New York Review Classics with a few suggestions for Simenon reprints, but so far they’re ignoring me.

    The pocket essential guide rates The Train 4/5 btw.

    Yes you’re right, Marcel is hinting at that inner life which was, I suppose, briefly realised.

  5. I’ve always thought of Simenon as ‘the bloke who wrote Maigret’, and as I’m not one for detective fiction, I completely ignored him (something I should perhaps rectify…).

    • Thanks for the comment, Tony. Yes it’s a double-edged sword that Simenon is best remembered for Maigret as I think it leaves the best part (in my opinion) unexplored.

  6. I just looked back at my review, and it’s much as I recall it (and the book). One that I liked, but didn’t love.

    The early stuff about him feeling fated felt a bit forced in to me, and unnecessarily forced in since it didn’t really impact anything. That’s a very small part of the book though.

    What I liked best was the description of the train itself, the way it’s shuttled around at night, carriages are added and subtracted, the utter chaos and liberating powerlessness of it. Also though that sense of Marcel stepping out of his life, and then stepping back into it again as if he’d never left it.

    Marcel does display a tremendous passivity, and arguably a certain cowardice. That’s not a criticism, it’s actually one of the more interesting parts. The irony of the book lies in that as you say. He wants to show his son he has another side, but that side is a product of circumstance and he does nothing with it particularly.

    In that sense, probably only that sense, it’s still a noir. The protagonist is acted upon, but ultimately his fate is not his to control. The difference here is that in most noir the protagonists may think they have choices, but really don’t. Here Marcel thinks he doesn’t, but really does.

    • I didn’t have a problem with the early fate references because I keyed into Simenon’s Three Crimes. He made mention of a woman who’s captured by a crowd stripped naked and then punished by Belgiums for fraternizing with Germans in WWI. This was a significant memory for Simenon, so I caught the reference to Marcel’s mother–although what happened to her remains vague, but we do know she chose to not stick around.

      Yes the passivity is a good point and he lets life take him in a new direction–rather like a train I suppose.

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