By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
It is typical of Simenon’s work that the discovery of this secret life that has been going on under his averted nose should bring Loursat out of his 20-year lethargy and fill him with energy and excitement. Henri Cartier-Bresson used to speak of the “decisive moment” when reality is caught in its unguarded essence, and it is on such moments that Simenon builds his fictions. In a passage that not only sums up this particular story but is emblematic of all the romans durs— and which P.D. James singles out in her introduction to the NYRB edition of Strangers— the author describes the passionate longing that suddenly floods Loursat’s hitherto frozen heart:
To discover a new world, new people, new sounds and smells, new thoughts, new feelings, a swarming, writhing world, which had no relation to the epics and tragedies of literature, one that was full of all those mysterious and generally trivial details you don’t find in books — the breath of cold air in a dirty back alley, the loiterer on a street corner, a shop remaining open long after all others had closed, an impatient, highly strung boy waiting all keyed up outside a watchmaker’s for the friend who was going to lead him into a new and unknown future.
Dirty Snow, published eight years after Strangers, is an astonishing work. Signed off at “Tucson (Arizona) 20 March 1948,” it was published that year in France as La Neige était sale. Nasty, brutish and not very long, the book presents a thoroughly Hobbesian view of life on this dwindling planet; here indeed is the war of all against all. It is set in an unnamed European city, most likely Liège, during the German occupation. Over the course of a seemingly interminable winter, Frank Friedmaier, the central character, turns 19. When we first encounter him, he is standing at night in a snow-filled alley with a borrowed knife in his pocket, waiting with grim anticipation to commit his first murder, a Gidean acte gratuit — the gratuitousness of which would surely have shocked Gide.
Frank’s victim is to be a “noncommissioned officer” known as the Eunuch, a member of the occupation forces. Frank has no reason to kill him; it is simply a rite of passage to be performed, a losing of virginity. For Frank, we are told, “it was a question of killing his first man and breaking in Kromer’s Swedish knife.” Frank is driven partly by a determination not to be outdone by his friend Kromer, who has already carried out a particularly grisly killing, described on the second page of the book. The passage is a richly representative example of Simenon’s brisk, sleek and seemingly effortless style, or nonstyle, glassy-eyed in its impassivity and yet thoroughly, horribly compelling.
Coming out of Timo’s bar, Kromer the smalltime hood is confronted by a “skinny little man, pale and feverish,” to whom apparently he sold something unsatisfactory and who now is seeking reparation. The little man grabs Kromer by the collar of his coat and begins yelling at him.
Kromer, in the middle of the dark alley between the two banks of snow, took the cigar from his mouth with his left hand. He punched with his right, just once. Then two arms and two legs were in the air, just like a marionette, and then the black form sank down into the pile of snow along the sidewalk. The strangest thing was that there was an orange peel beside the head — something you probably wouldn’t see anywhere in town except in front of Timo’s.
Timo came out without his overcoat or cap, dressed just as he had been at the bar. He poked the marionette and stuck out his lower lip.
“He’s had it,” he growled. “In an hour he’ll be stiff.”
The focus of the entire scene is, of course, that piece of orange peel.
Frank lives with his mother, Lotte, who runs a brothel in their apartment. He does not know the identity of his father but suspects that it is the police inspector, Hamling, a frequent visitor who acts, it is implied, as Lotte’s protector in these dangerous times. But Frank has fixed on another and far more preferred father figure, Holst, his neighbor in the apartment building, an intellectual out of favor with the authorities, who has been forced to take a job as a streetcar conductor.
Holst makes only the most fleeting of appearances in the book, yet for Frank he is a presiding deity, at once remote and fascinating, an object almost of veneration. Holst passes by as Frank waits in the alley to commit his murder, and Frank wishes the older man might pause for a moment and “see the thing done,” for it seems to him that there is already a secret bond between the two of them, that “it was really as though he had just chosen Holst, as though he had always known that things would turn out this way, because he wouldn’t have done it for anyone but the streetcar conductor.”
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