Thursday, September 29, 2011

It was sharp and exquisite and deliciously painful

Every day that passed nibbled away some of my meager capital of happiness. That isn't the right word, but as I can't find another, and as people are always talking about happiness, I am obliged to make do with the word myself.

The Train, by Georges Simenon, has been nibbling away at my conscience since I put it down over a week ago.

It turned out not to be the book I expected it to be, and it is all the finer for it.

I had expected some kind of psychological suspense, some small mystery — the sort of thing I've come to expect from Simenon. Man walks away from his ordinary life, to finally really start to live. And on the other side of the tracks he discoveres life with prostitutes and other criminal elements; he may become involved in crime, even murder, himself. What the reader generally discovers is the seedy side of of an ordinary mind. It's what happens when you give in to impulse, desire, your baser instincts; when you let the monster of existential dread crawl out of a tiny crevice in your brain, the monster sets up house and governs your affairs.

That's what most Simenon novels feel like (his romans durs).

Early on it dawned on me that The Train was not a typical roman dur. It was some kind of war story, and potentially, since Marcel is riding a train going god knows where, and his story becomes entwined with that of a Jewish woman, a story about the Holocaust — not the sort of thing I like reading about, although far more horrific than any "horror story" in the conventional sense.

But the book isn't that either.

Altogether my impression, when war broke out, was that fate was playing another trick on me and I was not surprised for I was practically certain that was going to happen one day.

This time it wasn't a microbe, a virus, a congenital deformity of heaven knows what part of the eye — the doctors have never been able to agree about my eyes. It was a war which was hurling men against one another in tens of millions.

The idea was ridiculous, I realize that. But the fact remains that I knew, that I was ready. And that waiting, ever since October, was becoming unbearable. I didn't understand. I kept wondering why what was bound to happen didn't happen.

What was bound to happen didn't happen.

Marcel is not led to his death. He does not commit murder or consort with prostitutes. In fact, he doesn't even walk away from his life — at least, not in a very deliberate way.

The story: As Nazi tanks approach, Marcel's family takes the decision to leave, or rather they go with the flow, and end up leaving, just like everybody else. They board the train, but Marcel is separated from his pregnant wife and his little girl. And Marcel doesn't seem to know how he feels about this. And when Anna boards the train, Marcel starts to feel a little differently.

Anna's mysterious and exotic, and maybe a little dangerous. But she is also a very sympathetic character, for whom the cicumstances may be consequential.

It's a distressing novel because it's about doing the right thing, and it forces you to consider what the right thing is. How often when we do the right thing is it the socially expected thing, the socially accepted thing? Doing right is an adherence to social norms and standards; it has very little to do with being good. Often, "right" and "good" coincide. But it's devastating when they come into conflict.

The horror in this novel is subtle. It has very little to with Nazis or with war, although both contribute to the circumstances in which this particular horror thrives, when man forgets his social contract and his actions are less than human. It's somewhat understandable that when you know the Nazis are coming, your social order starts to fall apart, but the savage animal acts, man against man, are not made more agreeable by acknowledging their source.

So. Here I am talking about brutality, but the novel doesn't really show much evidence of it. It's subtle. Simenon's subtle. It's like this. For example. The train is packed with people wanting out, some have tried to bring all their belongings, others have brought the wrong belongings. And the barmaid favours someone with her favours, and under cover of dark they have sex, right there on the train, inches away from everybody, and really, aren't there more important things toward which to be directing one's attention and energy. The scene (and this sort of behaviour recurs) is not particularly long or lurid, but it's somehow... indecent. And even though it registers on Marcel as such, he starts not to care. And so the slip into something less than civilized.

"Even so, we shall probably never see anything we leave behind again..."

The idea didn't upset me. On the contrary, it filled me with a sort of somber joy, like that of destroying something you have patiently built up with your own hands.

Marcel was a sickly child, till he grew into a sickly youth. He spent years in a sanatorium, and somehow survived to become a weak man. He sheds his home, his material possessions, his family, and his dignity. The thing he clings to and protects with the most fervour is his spare eyeglasses, but one day he stops caring about even that.

I am not ashamed to say that I was happy, with a happiness which bore the same relation to everyday happiness as the sound produced by passing a violin bow across the wrong side of the bridge bears to the nomal sound of a violin. It was sharp and exquisite and deliciously painful.

But perhaps that is also the day he truly loses sight of his life. He is unable to discern what is right, what is good, what is happiness.

Somehow, everything lost comes back to him. (The compass he never had remains lost to him.) When the novel ends, Marcel has "a wife, three children, a shop in the Rue du Chateau." And such an ending was devised to leave a very bitter aftertaste. It's all wrong, but other choices would've been wrong too. All those savage, inhuman acts are still there — when the war is over we are not better people; merely we can manage to apply a shinier veneer.

Maybe Marcel should've lived a different life, maybe he would've been happier then, truer to himself — but probably not. Contrary to the publisher's blurb that Marcel confronts "a blood-chilling choice," rather it is existential spleen–chilling.

[I read this book as part of RIP VI. Had I known more about the story I'd've seen that it doesn't really fit my idea of a chilling autumn read. However, the story is psychologically, morally disturbing, and a very powerful read.]
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