Everything was natural now

The Train, by Georges Simenon and translated by Robert Baldick

Before I started blogging Simenon to me meant Maigret, and since I wasn’t interested in Maigret I wasn’t interested in Simenon. As anyone actually familiar with Simenon will know though Maigret was just one part of his hugely prolific output. He also wrote noir fiction, psychological thrillers, and novels like The Train.

The Train is a story of small lives caught in grand events. Marcel Feron is a self-employed radio repairman living with his wife and their young child in an ordinary French town near the Belgian border. Their life is ordered and quiet. Marcel isn’t quite a happy man, but he’s not an unhappy one either.

The year is 1940. For some time now Marcel has been listening on his radios to reports of German troop buildups and rumours of invasion. The rumours are true. The Germans roll into Belgium and it’s clear that it will not be long before they are in France. Soon everyone in the area is deciding whether to flee or stay.

I don’t know what the two women said to each other. From the noises I could hear, I gathered that they weren’t the only ones outside, that women were calling to one another from doorstep to doorstep. When Jeanne came back, she looked pale and even more drawn than usual. “They’re going!” she told me. “Where?” “South, anywhere. At the end of the street I saw more cars going past with mattresses on the roof, Belgians mostly.”

As an aside, does anyone know why people used to take their mattresses? Were they particularly expensive back then?

Marcel and his wife, like many others, have done nothing to prepare for this day despite the many signs that it was coming. Oddly Simenon puts in a rather unconvincing psychological explanation for this on Marcel’s part – an idea that he saw himself as destined for this kind of disruption due to events in his childhood.

Given that nobody in the novel has made any real preparations for the arrival of war, and given the story’s about an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary time, the explanation seemed unnecessary and in any event wasn’t particularly persuasive. It’s not a huge flaw, and it doesn’t come up much after the opening few pages, but it did seem that Simenon felt a need to justify something that simply didn’t require it.

The decision is taken to flee with a few core possessions packed into suitcases. Lacking a car they head to the train station where they join a growing mass of terrified townsfolk. Fortunately they are able to board one of the few trains available.

It was the gendarmes who finally got tired of holding back the crowd. They suddenly broke the cordon and everybody rushed toward the five or six freight cars at the rear of the train. At the last minute I had given Jeanne, together with the food, the suitcase containing Sophie’s things and some of hers. I was left with the heavier of the two suitcases, and with my other hand I was dragging along as best I could the black trunk, which was bumping against my legs at every step. I didn’t feel the pain. I wasn’t thinking of anything, either. I hoisted myself up, pushed by the people behind me, and, trying to stay as near as possible to the sliding door, I managed to put my trunk against the side of the car and sit down on it, panting for breath, with the suitcase on my lap. Everything was natural.

The women and children are put on one carriage and the men on another. Everything is confusion though. Carriages are taken off and attached to different trains. Carriages are added on. Come the morning Marcel’s carriage and his wife’s are on different trains and he is on his own. The French countryside is awash with Belgian refugees many of whom are also being transported by train. Their transports and the French are meant to be kept separate, but soon Marcel’s train has both French and Belgian carriages. Nobody knows where they are, or where their train is headed. As another passenger says:

“If only I knew where I could find my wife and kids! Back there, they treat you like soldiers or prisoners of war: do this, do that, don’t get out on the platform. They give you an orange juice and sandwiches, the women up in front, the men at the back, shoved together like cattle. They cut the train in two without telling you, they machine-gun you, they separate you—in fact, you aren’t human beings anymore.. . .”

Although Marcel’s carriage (a cattle car) is supposed to be men only it does have a few women on it too. One of them starts a sexual relationship with one of the men, the two of them lying so close to Marcel at night on the packed train that he can feel the moment of penetration. Another woman (possibly foreign) forms a bond with Marcel after he gives her some water and he becomes her protector – seen by the others quite clearly as her man (and she as his woman). On a train adrift somewhere in France the normal rules no longer apply.

The Train then is a novel about a man swept out of his life and everything he is familiar with. As the book opens Marcel is a conservative sort living a comfortable if passionless existence. The war tears everything away and leaves him stripped and directionless, but with his context changed he changes too.

The obvious comparison is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Three to Kill. In both novels an ordinary man is separated from what he knows by events utterly outside his control. In both the result is a change in the man – the man being a product of his situation.

Three to Kill is ultimately a better novel than The Train and is certainly the more disturbing. The Train though is probably more realistic, and is interesting for its exploration of a small life caught up in world-spanning events. Marcel is a refugee; a man become an administrative problem. For him though exile from home is a form of liberation. People die in The Train. Germans strafe civilians and France of course falls. For Marcel though it is a strange form of holiday. The suggestion is that he’s not alone in that.

In the end I didn’t love The Train. I think that’s reflected in the fact this review features more description than reaction. I did enjoy it though and I don’t at all regret reading it. It’s well written and the translation flows smoothly (save at one point when a French character is identified as Jeff, was that really the character’s name in the original text?). Marcel’s connection with the woman he meets on the train is nicely realised and Simenon skilfully captures the psychology of a man caught in the paradox of being at his most alive at the very time his life is on hold.

The Train is published by Melville House as part of their Neversink Library series – “books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored”. I got my copy free for review through netgalley. The Melville House page for The Train has quotes hailing it as a masterpiece and as having “no false note”. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it certainly deserved bringing back into the light and I’m glad Melville did so.

I’ll end with one final quote. It has nothing to do with the review, though it is from The Train. I just liked it too much not to include it.

… somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.

Quite.

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11 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Simenon, Georges

11 responses to “Everything was natural now

  1. Hello
    I’m not much interested in Maigret either, but I have one at home. I’m going to skip on this one too, I’m tired of novels about WWII in France.

    Several reactions about your post:
    – I don’t know if mattresses were expensive but I would assume that they were. The mattresses on cars’ roofs remind me of cars belonging to Algerian, Marrocan or Tunisian immigrants who used to drive to the bled (their village back there) and bring back mattresses and all sorts of goods. There were a lot of them on the motorways on their way to catch a boat in Marseille. It’s less frequent nowadays.
    – People didn’t move in Lorraine and North of France when things went badly because they were told and taught that the Ligne Maginot was invicible. They thought they were safe.
    – Jeff is often used in France for a shorthand of Jean-François
    – I could hear in your tone that you weren’t thrilled about this book.
    – I love the last quote because it is true.

  2. PS : as an aside, I’ve seen images of London and I hope you and your wife live in a safe neighbourhood.

  3. The psychological element of why he didn’t move really didn’t work for me. It’s interesting to hear the reasoning about the Maginot Line. That explains why nobody else in Marcel’s town had fled before either. Why then create some special reason for him?

    Thanks for the point on Jeff. Interesting.

    I’m writing now some three or four weeks after reading it which doesn’t help, but it’s not glowing in memory I admit. I’ll be interested to see Guy’s thoughts if he reads it. I liked it, but I didn’t love it and I read much better books during my holiday. The Pets which I’ll write up next for example was much more interesting.

    Thanks for the thoughts. Our area wasn’t impacted. I was nearly caught in a riot Monday night, but brisk walking the other way took me out of trouble.

  4. About the Ligne Maginot. That’s why the French army was defeated so easily, if I’m correct. They thought they were out of reach. Where I come from, there are still bunkers from the Ligne Maginot like you have remains of the Mur de l’Atlantique in Normandy.

    I’m waiting for the Pets to get in paperbacks here. (next year probably).

    I’m glad you’re OK.

  5. I want to read this one. Well I want to read everything Simenon wrote. I’m interested in this because of the autobiographical references. Simenon lived through both WWI and II and both wars had a profound impact on his life.

  6. It’s on netgalley Guy. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on it actually. You know vastly more about Simenon than I do both in terms of writing and life.

  7. I ve three older translations from him I got recently max ,I love the fact his own estate aren’t sure how many books he wrote ,I do like Maigret thou ,I like guy hope tpo work through his books over time ,all the best stu

  8. The roman durs first–then Maigret

  9. Good luck with that challenge Stu. I hope you enjoy them.

    Guy, I do plan to read some romans dur. I’ll take a view on Maigret later.

  10. gaskella

    I read a lot of Maigret novels over the years, but had never read any of his others until recently when I read ‘Dirty Snow’ (review here) which was very very dark indeed and absolutely brilliant. I hope to read some more of these romans dur (glad to have learned that term) soon.

  11. Pingback: The Train by Simenon | His Futile Preoccupations….

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