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The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – November 7, 2005

4.6 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics; Tra edition (June 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590171497
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590171493
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,054,272 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
This book stands as evidence of the literary crime that has been perpetrated against the legacy of Georges Simenon over the last century. Written in 1938, 'The Man Who Watched Trains Go By' predates Camus' 'l'etranger' by eight years. Simenon's work is the study of what happens when a once uber-respectable bastion of bourgeois values watches as the very foundations of his existence crumble before his eyes. The pace at which the novel's central figure degenerates from an upstanding business leader obsessed with managing appearances to a bestial creature succumbing to every whim and fancy--all the while meticulously recording each step of his progress in his little red notebook--is dizzying. The questions raised by Simenon regarding man's confrontation with the ephemeral nature of meaning in existence are addressed at least as skillfully as Camus would nearly a decade later. This work--and many of Simenon's other romans durs--remain an essential link in the chain of existential novels ranging from Dostoevsky to Camus and Sartre. The fact that Simenon's works are not celebrated as such represents a significant injustice.
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Format: Paperback
but above all the desire to despair and to negate. Camus.

Despair and negation predominate in Georges Simenon's "The Man Who Watched Trains Go By", a book that I considered to be darker than noir.

Simenon was nothing if not prolific in both his literary and public life. Born in Belgium in 1903, Simenon turned out hundreds of novels. Simenon's obsession with writing caused him to break off an affair (he was prolific in this area of his life as well) with the celebrated Josephine Baker in Paris when he could only write twelve novels in the twelve month period in which they were involved. Although perhaps best known for his Inspector Maigret detective novels, Simenon also wrote over a hundred novels that he referred to as `romans durs' (literally "hard novels"). As with many of his contemporaries such as Chandler and Hammett, Simenon's books were marketed and sold as popular, pulp fiction. Also like Chandler and Hammett, Simenon's books have stood up well over time. The New York Review of Books publishing division has reissued much of Simenon's books. They are well worth reading and "The Man Who Watch Trains Go By" is an excellent place to start.

The story's protagonist and narrator is Kees Poppinga. As the book opens Kees is seen and sees himself as a stolidly middle-class Dutch citizen living a life of relative comfort in the coastal town of Groningen. He is secure in his job as the manager of a ship's supply company. His sense of security is reflected in an attitude best described as smug and more than a bit conceited. On the surface, Kees' life seems well insulated from the harsher side of life. But Simenon shows us quickly that this appearance of security was really a thin veneer that could be washed away at a moment's notice.
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Kees Popinga, a conventional Dutch family man, learns that his employer has bankrupted the firm, thus depriving him of both income and savings. With all the underpinnings of his life gone, he suddenly takes one of those trains he had been watching for so long and goes to Paris, committing a more or less accidental murder along the way. The rest of the book shows him on the run, wanted by the police of two countries.

Although Simenon is most famous as the author of the Inspector Maigret mysteries, and there is certainly a police investigation in this book, the story is told from the point of view of the criminal, not the detective. There is no mystery here; Popinga leaves more than enough evidence to be identified easily, and he soon starts writing letters to the papers and the police. Even the term "on the run" is wrong; "on the walk" would be more appropriate, for Popinga remains icily calm. Although the press describe him as a madman, he has never felt more in control; it was his previous bourgeois life that was the lie, not this one.

Why does Simenon choose a Dutch protagonist and set the opening of his novel in the far North of Holland? As a French-speaking Belgian, it seems he despised the phlegmatic Flemish and Dutch temperament, and viewed their smug respectability as the death of the soul. For Kees Popinga, nearing 40, epitomizes the family values. He is a good provider, with a solid job; he has a good house in a good neighborhood, equipped with the most modern appliances; he has two perfectly-spaced children that he sends to good schools, and a wife who is so faceless that she is referred to from beginning to end as Mother.
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Kees Popinga lives a solid bourgeois life. He has a pleasant wife and two good kids, a good job, an above-average house, and many desirable possessions. Then, the shocked Kees, on a conscientious mission for his employer, spots his boss drinking alone in a seedy bar. There, the boss admits he is an embezzler and philanderer and about to fake his suicide, which will give him a second chance in life. While it doesn't exactly make sense, the passive Kees actually helps with the sham suicide, even though the boss's shenanigans have bankrupted the company where Kees has invested all his savings. But then Kees goes home and becomes filled with rage at the bourgeois life that his boss represented. He decides he has lived the life of a fool. And he decides that, from now on, he will take whatever he desires. He will no longer watch the trains go by.

Once Simenon establishes this premise, this novel becomes an interesting character study, with the foxy and megalomaniacal Kees locked in a game of wits with the police, who seek him for a single blundering act, which first expressed his newfound rapaciousness and rage.

In my edition of THE MAN WHO WATCHED TRAINS GO BY, Luc Sante provides an interesting introduction, which is filled with both insight and spoilers. Read it after you've finished. Then, you'll find the amazing insight that this Simenon novel is actually a comedy, with the bourgeois Kees never getting too far from his comfy roots.

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