Book Review: Dirty Snow by George Simenon–Dostoyevsky with a touch of Kafka…only bleaker.


A colleague of mine passed on a book that he liked very much. Dirty Snow by the prolific Belgian writer, George Simenon. I had read several of Simenon’s detective novels, gritty tales that featured the Parisian detective Maigret. The Maigret novels–I believe there are over fifty of them—seemed superior to most in that genre, filled with a certain ennui and jaded acceptance that went beyond the cynical aloofness of his American counterparts or the aloof cynicism of his more modern offspring. And to be honest, they were good reads.


George Simenon

Although I had read only the Maigret novels, I knew that Simenon wrote other sorts of novels. I had always heard them referred to as “philosophical” novels, though the French label them as “psychological” novels. And the French are closer to the truth, here.

And when my colleague passed on to me Dirty Snow, he did so with the caveat that it was “extremely grim” although oddly humanistic.

Dirty Snow is the story of Frank Friedmaier making his way through his occupied city.  We never know who the occupiers are and where the city is. When he is imprisoned, his captors, his location, and his crime are never identified. All of this, gives the novel a certain Kafkaesque feeling. And although time moves forward throughout the seasons, there seems always to be piles of soiled, stained, and dirtied snow.

And yet it was Crime and Punishment that I thought of immediately. Frank–who may be the most amoral, sociopath I have come across in my reading, and I know Burgess’s Alex and Ellis’s Bateman–begins the novel looking to kill his first person. There is no reason for, no gain from this murder–it is, as he says, like losing his virginity: “Losing his virginity, his actual virginity, hadn’t meant very much to Frank. He had been in the right place. … And for Frank, who was nineteen, to kill his first man was another loss of virginity hardly any more disturbing than the first. And like the first, it wasn’t premeditated.”  Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, he needs little push to kill his victim. Yet, there the similarity ends.  For Raskolnikov punishes himself, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically for the crime he committed.  Frank feels nothing. And soon he kills again…an old woman in his childhood village who recognized him in the course of a burglary.

But the murders are not his greatest crime. That is reserved for the sweet and loving Sissy who lives across the hall from the brothel that Frank’s mother runs and where Frank lives.  (Sissy mirrors very closely Raskolnikov’s Sophia in her love and faithfulness to Frank.)  Frank’s relations with women are brutal at best–indeed all the women in the novel seem mistreated one way or another.  He takes full advantage of his mother’s prostitutes, coldly, quickly and unemotionally, and this is the way he treats Sissy as well, deceiving her into a situation where she is nearly raped by his drinking associate.

One might say there is no reason for Frank’s viciousness, but that would be inaccurate. There is no “motive,” no “purpose” for his ferocity. But there is a reason, and Simenon attempts to suggest it subtly. Frank’s mother abandoned him to a wet-nurse so she could “ply her trade” and visited only occasional. He never knew his father, only the brutality of both life and the State.  Two men are offered as father surrogates in the novel: one, a Maigret-like inspector who turns a blind eye to Frank’s mother’s occupation and who very well may be his biological father and Sissy’s father, Holst, who Frank is drawn to from the beginning, who sees Frank in the alleyway on his first kill, and who offers him forgiveness at the end.

But many men have similar upbringings and few turn out as nihilistic, amoral, and unfeeling as Frank.  To his interrogator he says at the end: “I am not a fanatic, an agitator, or a patriot. I am a piece of shit.” There is nothing.  Yet the flip side of that is that there is nothing the State offers either.  They have not arrested him for the murders or the burglary. They have brought him in, they torture him merely for information.  And here, in the claustrophobic room where he is questioned, one remembers a similar room–Room 101 in Orwell’s 1984. But Frank is no Winston Smith either; there is no romantic dream of something better, no fervid belief in the ultimate progress of what is right.  There is only Frank, solipsistic and brutal Frank.

Simenon’s novel is fascinating. His hero is repellent. And I can’t stop thinking about neither it nor him… It’s sort of like wearing wet shoes, soaked through by dirty snow.


Work in Progress

(Arranged in Alphabetical Order for Convenience)
J. P. Bohannon

Andromache: cf. Racine, Jean.

Antigone:  “Antigone inspired Hegel to his magisterial meditation on tragedy: two antagonists face to face, each of them inseparably bound to a truth that is partial, relative, but, considered in itself, entirely justifiable.” (The Curtain, Milos Kundera, page 110). Kundera then says that History cannot therefore be tragic. What in his definition allows him to say this:   “Inseparably bound”?   or “a truth that is partial, relative, but …entirely justifiable”?

Beauvoir, Simone de:  “There were other humiliations for Simone as well: she was the last chosen for any game or athletic contest, and her efforts to join any of the playground groups were usually greeted with hooting laughter.  With the innocent cruelty of children she was scorned by her schoolmates as much for her ill-fitting clothes and general untidiness as for her self-important pronouncements.  She was a gawky chatterbox, entirely friendless.  There really was no model, no influence, no one and nothing at all in her life to help her develop any social or societal graces.”  (Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography, Deidre Bair, p. 63.)  QUESTION: Does unpopularity on the playground and in the classroom affect children so that they have one of two choices when they reach adulthood: greatness or psychosis?

Brain Mass:  “One of his patients was a postgraduate student with an IQ of 126, a first-class honours degree in mathematics, a regular social life and virtually no brain. ‘Instead of the normal 4.5-centimetre thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid.’ ”
James Hamilton-Patterson, “Do Fish Feel Pain?” Granta: This
 Overheating World,  No 83, Fall 2003, pp161-173.

Cockney Slang:   I go into a pub in London and see some people I know.  I order a pint and ask the others if I can get them one.  “Nah, I’m Van Gogh,” says bald-headed Nick.  “Wha?”  I answer back. “I’m Van Gogh,” he says. “I’ve got one ‘ere.”

The Colombo Club: I worked for a while for a group of bricklayers, the Calabrese Brothers. On Fridays, in the summer we would quit early and go to the Colombo Italian Club on the Lansdowne Road.  There were darts, shuffleboard, and cards. They always paid us in cash. Much of it stayed there on a Friday night.

Drew, Ronnie (of The Dubliners):  As a teenager, my friend Justin once dated Ronnie Drew’s daughter.  He went for tea one afternoon at their house, and while the women were busy in the kitchen, Ronnie spoke his first words to him: “If you get her up the pole, I’ll feking kill you.”  Despite this Justin and the girl remained friends, and at her 21st birthday bash, he met Van the Man.  Wikipedia cites Ronnie Drew in its article on Finnegans Wake for his recitation of the Humpty Dumpty poem.

Eliot, T.S.:  Pound X’d out the entire first 54 lines of The Wasteland and Eliot accepted his changes.  (And that was just the first 54 lines. Pound’s heavy pen is crossing things out throughout the original typescript.) The poem originally began: “First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place,/There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind.”  For some reason, I never imagine Eliot getting sloshed or womanizing but there it is: “Get me a woman, I said; you’re too drunk, she said,/ But she gave me a bed, and a bath, and ham and eggs.”  Even if it is another character and not the poet (isn’t that some sort of fallacy we learned once in school) that particular world seems alien to that pursey-lipped banker.

The Ginger Man: A woman accosted me on the 110 Bus from 69th Street to West Chester while I was reading The Ginger Man by J. P. Dunleavy. She called it sexist, misogynist and misanthropic.  I told her I always loved the guy drinking at the pub in a kangaroo costume and that’s why I wanted to read it again.  She had bright red lipstick with much of it stuck on her beautiful teeth.

Ibsen:  Someone compared Billy Wilder’s The Apartment with Ibsen’s plays. The comparison made sense.  In fact, it was said that Torvald’s bank seemed enlightened compared to the work place in Wilder.

Irish Phrases:  
Aris, mo bhuachailin Ní thagann ciall roimh aois  = Sense doesn’t come before age

Joyce, Lucia.  She had strabisimus and was an accomplished dancer.  She was also highly intelligent, although wasn’t given much credit for it. She was diagnosed schizophrenic. A very tall shadow blocked her sun.

Kafka:  Kafka means crow in Czech.

Kundera, Milos: In The Incredible Lightness of Being, the character Sammy says that she thinks of New York as “Beauty by Mistake.”  What a great phrase!  I copy it down in my journal.  It will be the title of my next novel, CD, film, whatever.  I begin a short story with the title, but do not get very far.  Last month, the NYTIMES featured an article tracing Kundera’s appearances in its Book Reviews.  The article is titled “Beauty by Mistake.”    AAAARRRGH!

Madonna:   A good pun for the iron Madonna sculpture in my cemetery story: “A ferrous-wheeled Madonna.”  I love it.

Madonna (the singer): Toni, who flew out to LA to waitress at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, told me that Madonna seemed to want to talk only to other faux-Brits.

New Words:
Parp  1. (verb) To break wind, to fart.
2. (noun) Nonsense, rubbish.
…a green double-decker bus that parped its horn at him.

Paine, Thomas:   (Letter to the Editor, London Review of Books, 4 January 2007).  “In John Barrell, the London Review tasked a truffle hunter to examine Christopher Hitchen’s book Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man‘ (30th November 2006).  But instead of sniffing out tasty morsels for salivating LRB readers, Professor Barrell chose to stick his snout in a cow pie.”  Marvelous!!!!

The Puck Building:  Originally built in 1886.  A second building was added on in 1893 when Lafayette Street pushed through.  The statue of Puck is a duplicate of the original.  The original stood over the doorway.  It’s the building where Grace worked in the television show, Will and Grace.

Quiche Lorainne:
1 9-in. unbaked pie shell
8 slices of bacon
6 ounces Swiss Cheese, shredded
1 tbsp flour
½ tsp salt
Dash ground nutmeg
3 eggs
1 ½ cups of light cream

Cook & crumble bacon. Reserving 2 tbsp crumbled backon, place remaining bacon in partially baked pastry shell (450° for five minutes).  Add shredded cheese.  Combie (beat) flour, salt, nutmeg, eggs, & cream.  Pour over bacon & cheese in pasty shell.. Trim with reserved bacon.
Bake at 325° till knife comes out clean, about 25-40 minutes.

Racine, Jean.   Andromache: Orestes →Hermione; Hermione→King Pyrruss; King Pyrruss →Andromache; Andromache→Hector.  (Hector is dead.)  Check out Hector in the made for TV mini-series, The Odyssey.  His death had to be divinely manipulated.

Romanticism:  “The battle of the outs against the ins must be older than history, but the idiosyncratic psychological coloring of the Romantic struggle came from the Romantics’ passionate pride in being out—while, of course, they were struggling to get in.”   (Romanticism and Realism, Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner).

Russian Woman on train:  6/12/06—Russian woman on train. Beautiful. Very dark but with eyes that in one light might be called green but today are sparkling grey—beautiful and literally attractive: they pull you in.  She has two children. One about five in a stroller, another a large baby, slung in some sort of sling.  The R8 out of Philadelphia travels westward towards Chestnut Hill.  It is typically urban. Cement pillars, graffiti, discarded tires, old RR ties, glass.  At one point the tracks cross the Schuylkill River. It is the same scene.  The five year old—who up until this time has been speaking Russian—speaks out in English to his mother: “Look Momma.  It is beautiful.” The Mother also speaks in English only once. A young boy—16 or 17—gets on the train. “Oh, it’s Alex,” she says.  “Alex, Raisa, Hi Alex.”  She was brilliant.  He gave her an adolescent grunt. I wanted to strangle him.

Stevenson, Adlai.  Janet Flanner (in Paris Journal: 1965-1970) quotes Stevenson’s obituary in Le Monde: “The tragedy of Dallas assured to John F. Kennedy a posthumous radiance that memories of Stevenson will never know.  Yet Stevenson during his lifetime was no less an influence than the assassinated President. … Without doubt, Stevenson’s integrity and intelligence were loftier than those of even the elite of American political personalities.

Unacceptable CD Players:
Students may not use CD Players that:
Require an electrical outlet
Accept more than one CD
Have duplication or recording capabilities
                   (from the SAT® Program Associate Supervisor’s Manual, 2006-2007)

Vietnam:  The French lost control of Vietnam after the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  It was in 1954.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps:  How cool is the string quartet in George Martin’s remastered version for the Cirque du Soleil production, Love?  How sweet is George Harrison’s thin voice on the demo tape.

“Cette fois, c’est la Femme que j’ai vue dans la Ville, et à qui j’ai parlé et qui me parle.” Rimbaud. (“This time I found and spoke to the woman in the city.”)  I don’t know what this means. It often happens with me and Rimbaud.

Zorro:   In the early 1960s my aunt took me to a department store to see Guy Williams dressed as Zorro.  There was an entire set, Spanish-style adobe building, cactus, rough-hewn fence.  I spoke to him for about three minutes.  On another floor, children were lining up to see Santa.  The last time that the actor who played Sgt. Garcia was seen on television was in October, 1967.  He appeared on an episode of Mannix.