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.


1984Brave New World…and Phillip K. Dick????

It is perhaps the most iconic novels of the 20th century.  George Orwell’s 1984 is the dystopian novels of all dystopian novels.  We all know the phrases “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thought-police”; their ominous overtones and insinuations are recognized even by those who have never read the book. The deadening conformity and mind-control that Orwell writes about are the fears often invoked by those who fear totalitarianism in any form–in governments or corporations.

Apple–now a mighty corporation in itself–famously advertised its new Macintosh computer by pitting itself against the corporate giants of the computer world in a magnificent television commercial that echoed the world of 1984–and Apple’s defiance to its conformity.  (The ad was seen only once on television during the American Superbowl and then subsequently was shown in theaters.)

The novel is bleak and that bleakness is broken only briefly by a wonderful love affair and the main character’s misplaced hope.  Indeed, my favorite image from the book is one that perfectly captures the grime, the incompetency, the substandard level of life, when Winston Smith, the protagonist, goes to unclog a sink in a neighbor’s apartment. As he looks at her, he notices the dust that has gathered in the lines of her face.  I always remember that–a pretty powerful image.

Orwell wrote his novel in 1948 (that’s really the only significance of the novel’s title: it’s the year he wrote it reversed). But nearly a quarter century earlier, another British writer also wrote a powerful dystopic novel: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

And where Orwell’s world is one in which a film of oil lies on the gin and ready-made cigarettes fall apart in your hand and where sex is frowned upon (because one should really only love Big Brother), Huxley’s novel is the opposite.

Huxley saw his dystopia as a world in which people are perfectly happy–indeed where they are conditioned to be happy. There is no disgruntlement–people have been conditioned to accept and love their station in life. (A station that has been pre-decided by the artificial generation process.) Promiscuity is greatly encouraged and sex is varied and plentiful. And if for some reason, one might feel a little blue, there is SOMA, a mood-enhancing drug that is given out in vast quantities to all the classes.

The society works efficiently and happily. Yet Huxley sees the snake in the garden–the lack of freedom to be wrong, to be sad, to disagree. Even to be alone.  It is when a “savage” is brought back from a reservation in the southwestern part of the U.S. is the society and its beliefs challenged–but not for long.

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By the way, click here for a letter that Huxley wrote to Orwell upon first reading 1984. It is this very discussion of dystopia comprising great suffering or constant happiness:

Huxley to Orwell letter

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Aldous Huxley

I teach Brave New World as the first book of the new school year.  I will have thirty very bright 18-year-old students enrolled in my class. I know that half of them read 1984 last year with the one teacher they had. The other half did not. (And 1984 is such a great companion piece to any discussion of Brave New World.) So I assigned it as “summer reading.” But only to half of them. I looked for another “dystopian” novel to give the class that had already read Orwell’s novel.
And so I assigned Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Now, I have never been a big fan of science-fiction. I have just never gotten into it. In fact, I have never seen a Star Wars movie!

I’ve read some of the standards–Bradbury, Welles, Asimov, and, if we are stretching, Vonnegut.  But it’s something I just never made a connection with.

And Dick’s novel did nothing to change my mind!? Despite it being anointed a “classic” by so many and being the source for the beloved film, Blade Runner, it left me very flat.
Again we are dealing in a world different than our own–a post-apocalyptic earth where most of the able bodied people have emigrated to Mars.  Nuclear fallout from World War Terminus has made much of Earth inhabitable. The government’s enticement for people to emigrate is a free android that will work as their personal servants.

However, some of these androids have returned to earth and must be killed. And the only way to distinguish between the androids and the humans is the lack of empathy in the androids–a lack that can be tested.

Phillip K. Dick

The plot, entails the main character, Rick Deckhard–an android bounty hunter–attempting to increase his bounty numbers so that he can buy some real animals, instead of the “electric sheep” he now owns. Animals, he feels, encourage empathy in humans.
I am not sure how I will squeeze this into our discussions of Brave New World and 1984.  I am not sure if it can be squeezed into dystopic literature.  Post-apocalpytic maybe–most of my kids have read or seen The Road and I am Legend–but it doesn’t really fit in with totalitarianism and its evils.

And then, maybe it won’t be all that important to the discussion anyway. Or better yet, maybe it’ll throw us all in a different direction completely.