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Georges Simenon: The Train [1961]

§ Georges Simenon knew how to tell a story, and The Train (1961) is among the very best by anyone about the Second World War. It concerns the invasion of France following the 'Phony War' (Sept '39-May '40) when German troops overran Holland and Belgium, then by-passed the Maginot Line by attacking through the forested hill region of the Ardennes. Marcel Féron, a radio repairman with a pregnant wife and daughter, is living in Fumay, a sleepy town right on the Belgian border and in the path of the advancing Panzers. He's an unremarkable type, with an invalid's past (pleurisy as a child) whose family was wrecked by WW 1 (his mother was shorn as a German whore), so he grew up as a quasi-orphan and as such, has a detached way of viewing things. Whether you call it trauma or alienation or survivalist compartmentalization, it seems to be a European characteristic of the times. As such, it makes Marcel the ideal protagonist for this authentic and entirely credible story of just what happened to people as they fled the advance.

Simenon: The Train (1961)

Marcel knows when to pack up and leave because he hears the military chatter and foreign broadcasts on his radio, but of course the 'bush telegraph' has it in the air, in the street, the alarm passing quickly through the neighborhood as military traffic passes by. Marcel takes his wife Jeanne and daughter Sophie to the station, where they become separated by the ancient dictum of "women and children" first; pregnant Jeanne and Sophie with her blue doll board a carriage near the front, while Marcel is lucky to get a cattle car at the back. He's not bothered by this, but rather exhilarated by the prospect of this adventure into the unknown. Besides, some Belgians arrive in another train, and one of them -- a pretty young woman in a black dress -- quickly crosses the tracks and jumps into his carriage.

"...on top of her, the both of us as silent as snakes"

Sex in the boxcar, in a field, in a tent... sex on a fishing boat... and in the desperate hours of their flight, the sounds of sex everywhere in the darkness, as people console themselves in the shadow of death. It's not Sodom and Gomorrah. Somehow it's all a lark, a liberation from the normal world. It's cold in the boxcar at night, warmth is another body, and the only privacy is darkness. Marcel hears Julie -- a buxom local cafe owner -- get it on with another man he prefers to call 'The Horse Dealer' (even if he isn't). "I knew the exact moment of penetration," he notes, as the night grows more pornographic.

So, as usual, Simenon has a strong sexual undercurrent in his writing. It's not Lady Chatterly but raunchy for the times. Young readers might find this odd, as they have no idea about censorship in the English language world before the 1960s, would say the sex here is tastefully understated. Well it is, yet the truth of it would've made this book unpublishable in English before the sixties. The French, you know. Their continental liberalism was a barometer of decadence for the English world... 'French Letters'... liaison... ménage à trois, etc. No wonder Henry Miller was an admirer of Simenon's writing.

Simenon was for a long time involved in a ménage à trois with his wife and housekeeper, so he was familiar with the psychology of such an arrangement. Of course there's a seedy feel to such activities whereas affairs that happen during prolonged separation have a more romantic aura. Such is Simenon's skill as a scenarist that when he mixes the reprehensible with the excusable, he makes the cheating Marcel a sympathetic character -- even a romantic hero -- despite his rather dull c.v. A radio repairman who needs bifocals to see the world? A weakling who was never drafted and has little experience of the world beyond Fumay? Yet his childhood was tragic, although perhaps not an uncommon one for many French children scarred by WW 1. His alienation, his compartmentalization -- which Anna remarks upon -- aides him in his odd casting in this fated love story. It's a measure of Simenon's superb talent as a writer and explicator of the human condition that he makes us accept Marcel's commitment to a stranger refugee when all his emotional and physical energy should be devoted to reuniting with his pregnant wife and daughter.

And who is Anna? What is her secret? Is she really Belgian? Was she really just released from a women's prison in Nantes? She fears she will be mistaken for a German, perhaps a spy, because of her accent... so she could be Flemish, whose Dutch inflection could sound German, we think. We soon forget about this, as the young couple's quest for survival distracts us, and them. The train stops for the night on a siding somewhere in the country... troop trains pass... refugee trains... a 'lunatic's train' from an asylum... and sometime before dawn the cattle cars are decoupled from the rest of the train, and Marcel awakes to find his wife and child have disappeared, routed elsewhere in the confusion. A squadron of German planes appear, strafe the train. The engineer is killed, passengers too... many badly wounded. But Marcel's train continues, eventually arrives in La Rochelle in south western France.

La Rochelle was certainly a place that the boat-loving Simenon was familiar with. We wonder, perhaps, if Simenon himself was anything like Marcel Féron. To some extent, yes. Simenon was misdiagnosed with a terminal heart condition in 1940... and his ménage à trois was exposed. During this period he and his family lived not far from La Rochelle so naturally he had a first hand feel for the area and this period in French history, and the authenticity of the story-line shows it.

"No past or future. Nothing but a fragile present, which we sipped and savored together."

Although famous for his plain language, Simenon has moments of poetic beauty, the sort of sensitive inscaping that gets to the emotional reality of the situation... this affair, this moment in history.

"We feasted ourselves on little pleasures, on patterns of light and shade which we knew we should remember all our lives"

The narrative is in the 1st person, not Simenon's usual 3rd. You learn by the end that it's in fact a journal or testament by Féron of what happened to him and his family during the German advance, between May and June 1940, when Marshal Petain signed the controversial armistice that ended hostilities. As a confession, it's by no means docile, as Féron is proud that he was capable of such a wild, other-worldly romance. It is, of course, ironic, as the true ending (when it comes) is a real choker. Again, that Simenon ambiguity, that romantic sadism that separates his work from the sentimentalists and liars.

© LR 2015

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