The Venice Train by Simenon

 “I know what happens to men once they’re on their own.”

In Simenon’s novel The Venice Train, middle-aged, portly Justin Calmar returns home to Paris from his annual holiday in Venice, leaving his wife and two children behind to spend a last few days on the beach. On the train, he shares a compartment with a mysterious man who questions him intensely about his life and routine. Calmar finds himself answering all the stranger’s questions, even though he has the feeling that he’s being cross-examined. He’s basically too weak-willed to object to the stranger’s continued scrutiny, and he also considers it a matter of pride to be “honest” when it comes to answering a series of probing questions.

The stranger asks Calmar for a favour, and before he grasps the peculiarities and dangers of the request, Calmar finds himself agreeing to deliver an attaché case to an address in Lausanne. Suddenly, Calmar, a mild-mannered man who’s led a life of boring, predictable respectability, is up to his neck in intrigue and murder. Finding himself in possession of a fortune, Calmar tries to return to his regular routine. But the fact that he has a fortune, and that other people–perhaps even people capable of murder–are searching for the money in his possession–makes Calmar a nervous wreck. He is a changed man.

While Calmar is plagued with nervous obsession about the money, he vaguely and dully grasps some aspects of his life that escaped him before. With the sudden need to keep secrets and avoid his wife’s observations, Calmar develops a hidden life that revolves around stashing his stolen money. Everyone in Calmar’s life realizes that he hasn’t been the same since returning from Venice, but people draw different conclusions about these changes.

While Belgium-born Simenon is best known for his Maigret novels, he also wrote many romans durs (hard novels). The Venice Train falls into this category. One popular theme in these psychological novels is to explore what happens to a man when some event, some quirk of fate reveals the seamy underbelly of life. In The Venice Train, for example, Calmar becomes a criminal without ever intending to be one. He simply takes one wrong step, makes one wrong decision, and from that point on, his life is never the same. Calmar “had a vague admiration for people who were tough, who didn’t need anyone else, who required no rules, who didn’t smile when they were spoken to, who remained themselves at all times, without caring what others thought of them.” And this admiration of a different sort of man is partially responsible for Calmar’s problems. Calmar is a man who’s never examined his life or the decisions he’s made. In some ways he’s simply drifted along the path of least resistance–even marrying a workmate’s discarded mistress at one point. A creature of obedience and conformity, Calmar is easily manipulated by the stranger on the train, and he finds himself agreeing to participate in some very suspicious activity rather than refuse and risk offending the stranger.

As usual, Simenon reveals some fascinating aspects of human nature in the novel. Calmar isn’t a ‘good’ man–he’s simply a conformist trained to obey societal rules. Presented with a questionable, possibly criminal situation, Calmar’s conditioning to conform even overrides common sense and self-preservation. Calmar’s conditioning, which substitutes for morality plunges him into an abyss from which there is only one way to escape….

This novel raises the spectre of choice and ‘freedom.’ Just how free are we to chose our paths in life? Or are we just conditioned to be drones? And what happens to one of these drones (Calmar in this case), when another person who’s outside of the bounds and confining restraints of society reveals another way of living? If you enjoy The Venice Train, then I also recommend Red Lights–another Simenon novel that deals with an unhappy married man who takes a walk on the wild side.

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