Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Stain On The Snow by Georges Simenon

The Stain on the Snow (The Snow Was Dirty) by Georges Simenon
First published in French as Le neige etait sale in 1948. English language translation by Howard Curtis.

Featured in WorldReads: Belgium

How I got this book:
Bought at a charity shop

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository : from £11.43 (Audio CD)
Wordery : from £7.97 (PB)
Waterstones : from £7.99 (PB)
Amazon : from $1.89 / £0.01 (used PB)
Prices and availability may have changed since this post was written

At nineteen, Frank Friedmaier is thief, pimp and murderer. He has never known his father, his mother keeps a brothel. His mind is cold and inhospitable. But Simenon reveals the obsession with self-torture that lurks within it, and explores the intricate psychology of a young criminal, even lending the repellent Frank a chilling grandeur as he faces remorseless interrogation and his fate. A bleak and brilliant masterpiece from Simenon at his superlative best.

I read a Crime Masterworks edition of The Stain On The Snow so, from the blurb on the back cover, was expecting a crime story in the Maigret mould. The Stain On The Snow is not such a book. Instead it is a novel of war and of the effect on a population of living under occupation for an extended period of time. Presumably the country in Simenon's thoughts was France under German occupation, but the reader is never given enough information to confirm this. The main protagonists have Germanic names and I believe the point is that this could be any people in any country. I thought of Philippe Claudel's haunting novel, Brodeck's Report, which conveys a similar resigned anger.

Our anti-hero, Frank, is cold, selfish and violent in a similar fashion to Anthony Burgess' Alex. Living with his mother, Lotte, in her illegal brothel, their reasonably comfortable lifestyle is funded by the officers of the occupying forces leading to the pair being ostracised by their neighbours. With no hopes for his future, Frank spends his time having sex with the brothel girls or drinking with an array of equally hopeless characters in seedy bars near his home. He deliberately courts danger seeming to try and push his luck past breaking point. He allows himself to be seen just prior to a murder, and openly flaunts both cash and a stolen weapon.

I found it impossible to care about Frank, or his mother, yet was still fascinated to discover what becomes of them. Their harsh world is generally atmospherically portrayed and the other tenants in their building have wonderful cameos allowing the reader to picture each person immediately. I liked the feel of the town. The coldness of the winter and its dirty snow everywhere made for great metaphors, however I think reading this book in its original French would have made even more of this. Occasional phrases felt clumsy and awkward and I wondered if this was the fault of the translation - perhaps a colloquialism that would make perfect sense to a French reader did not work in English. The sense of attempting to live despite occupation is a strong theme, the desperation of many of the people was harrowing to read and this is not a book to be undertaken lightly. I did think that its power waned in the third section when Frank is in prison following his arrest and his apparent redemption in the eyes of the two people he had hurt most didn't quite ring true for me. However, his acceptance of his fate - perhaps having finally found some semblance of purpose - is moving.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Georges Simenon / War fiction / Books from Belgium

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