Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spotless against the dirty sky

He couldn't go on walking until three in the morning, so he stopped along the way at cafes. A few people would be standing around a horseshoe-shaped counter, their lives suspended. Some dreamed as they drank their coffees. Others, with their elbows on the counter, stood empty-eyed over empty drinks. Nothing but magic, it seemed, would bring them back to life.

As in many Simenon novels, the protagonist antihero of The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, one day walks away from his life, steps out of himself, or possibly into himself for the first time.

Luc Sante in his introduction points out that Kees Popinga, as well as his boss before him, is something of a Flitcraftian character. That Flitcraft phenomenon is the thing that first drew me to the fiction of Paul Auster (City of Glass, but other of his works too), and it is a recurring theme in Simenon's romans durs. My fascination with this phenomenon — that's me fighting the impulse to just walk away, transferring my energy into a curiosity about the sort of people who just walk away. I mean, what kind of people do that? (And I happen to know that people do do that.)

"Just use the sink in the hall to wash up. I hope you don't mind noise, because you're going to hear train whistles all day and all night long. We're right next to a train yard."

She shut the door behind her. Kees went to the window and pressed his face against it; in the dimming light, he could make out train tracks leading to infinity, train cars, whole trains, and at least ten locomotives, from which the smoke rose up spotless against the dirty sky.

He smiled, stretched, and sat down on the bed. Fifteen minutes later, without even bother to undress, he was fast asleep.

"The smoke rose up spotless against the dirty sky" — I love that. It's so... opposite.

The train's a recurring motif; I guess it works kind of like a siren call on Popinga — the draw to leave, to be removed from wherever it is that he is, and with the appeal of the suggestion of something a little untoward happening behind drawn blinds on a train in the night.

A typo in the early pages leads to a great deal of confusion (the date should be the 23rd, not the 28th, of December); but the fact that the novel takes place over the holiday season also works to enhance the sense of loneliness and the sense of being shut out of life — Popinga's own life, but also everybody else's.

This novel performs wonderfully a bunch of things I learned from James Wood about how fiction works. We're asked to sympathize with this character from the start, and page by page he becomes more unlikable. We are as confused as he is when we first hear about Pamela's death.

The violence and other criminal acts happen off-screen, so to speak; but this is consistent with Popinga's self-delusion. It's as if he blacks out certain events, or isn't fully present in them. (I'm reminded of Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square.)

I've eased off my rush through Simenon's material — too much existential grittiness over too short a time is difficult to stomach, psychically speaking — but my fascination with the spirit of his roman dur continues to build.

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