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.