Classics Reconsidered: George Simenon — The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By K. A. Laity

I’ll admit up front that I’ve never really managed to get into Simenon. I have read some Maigret novels and a couple of the romans durs. His own life was fascinating if macabre. I kind of enjoyed Maigret in New York, but I’m largely unmoved by the Belgian’s endless fascination with bourgeois Paris and the countryside. Maybe it’s my lack of Gallic blood. But then I came across The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (1938) in a pub and I was hooked almost at once.
Like Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Place it offers a relatively early insight into a deeply disturbed mind, long before profiling existed. Kees Popinga seems like the ultimate bourgeois shipping clerk, living the dull life but master of all he surveys i.e. his little house and family. Then he accidentally discovers his boss has bankrupted the company on foolish speculation and is having an affair with the pretty woman Popinga lusted after. His career is ruined and his comfortable life overturned.
He spends the next day in bed to the mystification of his family, until he makes a decision. Popinga gets up and heads to Amsterdam, planning to have sex with Pamela, whom his boss has set up in a swanky hotel. She’s not onboard with this plan and laughs at his foolishness so, one thing leading to another, he kills her.
Then instead of watching the trains, he gets on one and heads to Paris where he has always wanted to go and things get wilder. He has all the anger and resentment typical of the serial killer without actually having the skills necessary to negotiate that life. The gradual revelations that he has always been a bitter man who resents everyone and everything, burying his tiny passive-aggressive moments of vengeance from the front of his consciousness. The slow spiral down to oblivion is fascinating. I read it in a day after starting in the pub the night before. I’ll probably read it again. It’s a fascinating psychological study.
There’s a film starring Claude Rains from 1952. It has that peculiar misogyny of the post-war period — all men are poor hen-pecked schlubs who can’t catch a break. It plays on the pathos of Popinga, as if he were a harmless Walter Mitty character instead of the black heart of suburbia that Simenon saw. Even Rains can’t give it much life. It’s kind of fascinating as an example of how adapting a story can go wrong.
simenon trains