Frank Friedmaier, Simenon’s anti-hero in Dirty Snow, is a murderer, a pimp and a thug. He is self-absorbed, cold-hearted and cruel. There is, of course, no rule to say that a protagonist needs to be likable and there are many offensive characters in literature, yet most of them possess character traits which allow the reader to emphasize, or which at the very least hint at the possibility for redemption. It is the mark of Simenon’s genius that he is able to sustain the readers’ interest in a character with few, if any, redeeming features and to make such a repellent character utterly absorbing without turning him into a freak for the reader to simply gawk at.
Belgian-born Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989) wrote an extraordinary number of books and is possibly best known for his series of 75 detective novels featuring Commissaire Maigret who solves his crimes more by psychological intuition than detection. Penguin is currently publishing the entire series in new translations. Personally, I find the Maigret novels quite staid, suitable to be turned into the graded readers that we had to read while learning French in high school. Simenon himself considered writing the Maigret series a reprieve from his more serious psychological novels, the so-called “roman durs”, which number close to 200 and of which Dirty Snow is one the best.
Written in 1948, Dirty Snow charts the rapid rise and downfall of a small-time hoodlum in German-occupied Paris. He lives with his mother, who runs a brothel out of their top-floor apartment barely disguised as a nail salon, and hangs out with small-time gangsters and war profiteers at the local waterholes.
Simenon excels in conjuring up an atmosphere of muted menace and dread. Occupied Paris is a drab, grey place where the landmarks are abandoned lots, non-descript apartment buildings and seedy bars. It is a universe adrift, where Frank’s mother procures young girls from the countryside for German officers and where the death of an individual barely raises an eyebrow; a world where all emotions are muffled like the sounds of the city are by the incessantly falling snow.
In this environment, his protagonist, Frank embarks on a crime spree with reckless abandon. He murders an officer of the occupation police, first and foremost as a rite of passage. He kills again when stealing a collection of antique watches from a family friend in the countryside. A collection he later sells via the local fence to a German general for a tidy profit and laisser-passer papers. He also tries to pimp the 16 year old daughter of his neighbour, Sissy, who is infatuated with him, to his criminal associate.
Frank’s relationship with Sissy and her father, Holst, is the most puzzling aspect of the portrait Simenon draws. Frank who was fostered out by his prostitute mother and grows up fatherless in the countryside is drawn to Sissy’s father, Holst. Frank seeks Holst out, almost making him a witness to his first murder, daring him to take revenge for what he did to his daughter. It is a baffling aspect of Frank’s character and William T. Vollmann suggests in his afterword, maybe the one false note in the book. This might be so, but to Simenon’s credit the relationship is kept sufficiently ambivalent and Frank’s attraction to Holst incomprehensible to himself, as to not descend into kitchen psychology.
Ironically, Frank is nabbed by the authorities not because of his violent crimes but because some of the proceeds from the selling the watches to the general had been stolen from the German authorities. Imprisoned and subject to relentless interrogation and torture, deprived of the possibility to violently rage against the world, his only way to protest is to refuse to cooperate. “The point was not to give in, not on principle, not to save anyone, not out of honour, but because one day, without even knowing why, he had decided not to give in.”
There are echoes of another great French anti-hero in the portrait of Frank. Like Meursault in Camus’ The Outsider, Frank is nauseated by the hypocrisy around him and he cuts himself off from society. As the novel progresses, he refuses to conform to societal norms more and more, even the skewed ones of the criminal underworld in which he moves. Both his and Meursault’s disgust with the world erupts in violence.
What sets the two apart is Frank’s lack of self-awareness, his inability to reflect. His rebellion can never be more than destructive and in the end self-destructive. He is an existentialist without the philosophy, doomed to remain a rebel without a cause, or at least without a cause of which he is conscious.
Georges Simenon. Dirty Snow (translated from the French by Marc Romano and Louise Varese). New York Review Books