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The Snow Was Dirty is bleak and uncomfortable - but it's also a masterpiece | Books


If you’ve just read The Snow Was Dirty because you were encouraged to do so by the Reading Group, I should both apologise and congratulate you. The apology because, oh god, this book is bleak. The congratulations because it’s also an immortal masterpiece.

First, the darkness. In an afterword in the New York Review of Books edition, William T Vollmann says that in this book “Simenon has concentrated noir into a darkness as solid and heavy as the interior of a dwarf star”.

That’s putting it mildly. Simenon doesn’t so much tell us a story as confront us with one. It’s a close third person narration. Uncomfortably close. Because the thoughts and desires of Frank Friedmaier are nasty, brutish and confusing. He’s the 19-year-old son of a brothel madam who, within the first few pages of the book, picks up a knife from his “friend” Kromer in a sordid bar and decides to kill a man. Frank sees this as akin to losing his “virginity”. He also wants to show off to a man called Berg. He wants to know how the knife feels as it goes into the flesh of his corpulent victim. He wants the officer’s revolver. Everyone else at the sordid bar has killed someone, so he might as well …

None of his reasons are entirely comprehensible, but they do always ring true to the dark mind of this troubling young man and the shadowy world he inhabits. The writer James Hynes has compared The Snow Was Dirty to Camus’ L’Etranger for obvious reasons, but he contends that unlike Meursault’s motiveless crime, Frank’s doesn’t feel like a convenient plot contrivance. It just feels like the kind of thing Frank would do. Hynes says: “In some respects, Dirty Snow is a better book than The Stranger: it’s less cerebral and more visceral. I’ll grant that Dirty Snow is much less elegant, but it’s also more lifelike and much more tough-minded.”

Frank commits more senseless assaults, abuses his neighbours and the women in his mother’s employment. He is loathsome, a self-confessed “lowlife” – and by some strange alchemy, Simenon makes him fascinating, compelling company. His mind is as engrossing as it is abhorrent.

The book was written in 1948 and portrays a country under foreign rule. It might be based on France or Belgium or somewhere else under the Nazis. It could be Germany under the allies. It isn’t made clear. It doesn’t really matter. The vagueness just makes us feel that the compromises and corruptions of power and subjugation are the same whoever is wearing the uniforms.

“Simenon is unsurpassed as a scene-setter,” says John Banville, and this is the book that proves it. It isn’t just that he is so effective in conjuring empty, hungry faces and an atmosphere of despair and defeat, it’s the way he uses this material. Deep into the book, Frank is arrested. In a conventional criminal narrative, this would be the point at which we could expect some rebalancing and catharsis. Here, instead, there’s the horrible realisation that the authorities who have taken Frank in are entirely uninterested in justice. They don’t care about his crimes. They are killing people every day with even less thought or reason. All they seem to want is information.

As usual in this teasing, troubling story, the reader is left teetering on the verge of knowledge, even as a few horrible certainties come into focus. We know both how the occupiers are going to set about extracting the knowledge they want and what will have to happen to Frank in the end. I even began to feel a certain sympathy for Frank and his odd defiance towards the end – until Simenon reminded me just who and what he was. The realities in this book leave you shivering and gasping. Reading it began to feel like having my head plunged repeatedly into an ice-bucket. It’s an experience I certainly wouldn’t wish on my best friend, but that I’d also recommend to anyone. This is a remarkable novel.

Before closing, a word of commendation for Howard Curtis’s forceful and fast-paced translation, which is so effective at revealing this book’s dark power. Also, a biographical note. When he wrote The Snow Was Dirty, Simenon was in exile in the US after being accused of collaborating with the Nazi regime in France for allowing them to make films of his novels (he was later cleared). A year earlier, his younger brother had died in the French Indochina war after taking Simenon’s advice to join the foreign legion rather than face the courts for his own wartime collaborations. It would be wrong to read too much into any detail from Simenon’s own life – but it’s also impossible to ignore how well Simenon knew the moral problems of life under occupation.

Next week, since these Simenons are so good, let’s tackle one more, the most popular Maigret from our recent vote, Maigret and The Man on the Bench. (Look out for a very special Q&A on 28 February too …)

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