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Georges Simenon: Dirty Snow [1948]

§ Despite the fact that Simenon's reptilian protagonist Little Frank has a similar psychology to Camus' desensitized secular anti-hero Meursault (L'Etranger, 1941), his slimy passage from his mother's Parisian brothel to a Nazi firing squad in Dirty Snow (1948) is a parable of genius, a naturalist masterwork of gritty detail and symbolist architectonics. Subtext? Symbolist looping? Modal landscape shifting? Characters so real, you look over your shoulder? You don't have to understand such things to feel their subliminal pull as you read this ugly story, but those who do can only marvel at Simenon's artistry and way of doing business.

Another distasteful existential lout, you say... why should I bother? Enough of these criminals and their prurient narcissism, you say... but of course the story is much bigger than the character through whose eyes we see it.

Simenon: Dirty Snow

They say Georges Simenon had to clear out of France after WW 2 because some patriots considered him a collaborator. For a while he settled in Montreal, then later in Arizona, where he wrote Dirty Snow in 1948. Guess it must be his revenge. Although it's never spelled out categorically, the setting is France under German occupation, and as a biopsy of the cultural sickness, Dirty Snow is a damning portrait of the French character (or is it the German?), veiled like Kafka, exposed like Nuremberg. Women won't want to read this, as the women are whores, and men will cringe, as the men are corrupt and cruel. The hero is a pimp, a thief, a murderer, a child man incapable of love who has never seen the sea and fails to recognize who his father is even when it should be obvious. The sexual undertone of the title says it all.

"I am not a fanatic, an agitator, or a patriot. I am a piece of shit."

The protagonist is a spoiled eighteen year old son of an opportunistic brothel madame called Lotte who gives "refuge" to unfortunate women during the Occupation. The invading force is never named and the characters have German names, as if they've undergone some sort of rapid mystical acculturation, leaving their French identities buried in the snow. Frank watches the women with their clients (usually Occupation officers) through a circulation vent in the wall, and when he comes home drunk from his favorite local, avails himself of this one or that one as a house privilege due to the favored son of the Madame.

He ambushes a drunken client known as 'The Eunuch', knifes him in an alley for his revolver, leaves him to die in the dirty snow. Later he shoots and kills an old widow Madame Vilmos (perhaps Jewish) when he robs her of a watch collection, later sold for a handsome sum to a German General. He deceives a young neighbour girl called Sissy by using a subterfuge to sell her virginity to a drinking partner who has business contacts within the upper echelons of the Occupation forces, i.e. the General who collects watches. Frank's depravity progresses rapidly, and he knows it's only a matter of time before he's arrested. Will he be tortured? He doesn't care, as if his moral emptiness will somehow ensure he transcends pain, like all sadists who long to be masochists. In all, this journey through the squalid politics of the Occupation appears to be a rehearsal for 'suicide by firing squad'.

"the snow falls in handfuls, never enough to cover up the filth"

The plot is an amazing progression of incidents and characters which seem as chaotic as a dream, yet interact powerfully within the fated fluid of destiny. No incident, no image, no character is wasted... a wounded cat scales higher and higher in a linden tree, resisting all attempts at rescue, just as Sissy flees her rapist into the night, hides in the moonlit frozen wasteland of an abandoned school, her innocence the only moral light in the entire story... or the other school now used as a prison that has echoes of the infamous Cherche-Midi -- once a nunnery -- co-opted by the Germans to incarcerate and torture political prisoners... Sissy's key... the watches... the woman in the distant window... the stolen revolver... the snow... these images, these characters -- at first senseless -- keep recurring until the snow wants to quit. In the end, Frank quits; he "(can) almost taste the dawn".

Who turned him in? Maybe his mother, maybe his not-so-secret father; we never know, and it doesn't matter, as the corruption is so total everyone would have motive for doing so... including Frank himself.

Criticisms? Perhaps Sissy and her father Holst -- the art critic who is now a tram driver -- are a bit false in their final appearance. The idea that anyone who had suffered as much as they, would or could, extend sympathy to "Little Frank" is stretching the idea of Christian charity a bit far... yet, in the end, such is the mysterious weaving within the fabric, you don't really know what was going on at the brothel, whether it was a nest of collaborators or a safe house for the resistance; at times you wonder if Frank is an unwitting dupe of both sides in this sad tale of human degradation. The right-and-wrong of it is like a paper aeroplane -- it never lands where it should. Yet the mysticism allows you to make choices, avoid the obvious.

Some might criticize the translation, as sentence subjects are often ambiguous, and the flow a bit primitive. But otherwise you have to admit that Dirty Snow is a masterpiece, despite the fading politics of its time and space. At face value, a simple narrative about a pampered criminal princeling, yet a text loaded with code, like an encrypted message between spies.

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