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.