Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: The Train by Georges Simenon

The Train
Georges Simenon
144 pages
Melville House Press
Published July, 2011

How often do you buy a book because of it's cover?  All of the books in The Neversink Library look amazing and have these simple silhouettes over a muted color.  The covers are both simple and beautiful and that's what initially drew me to The Train. I downloaded a sample and decided that I needed to read this book immediately.

The Train was first published in French in 1961 and later translated into English by Robert Baldick in 1964. It tells the story of Marcel FĂ©ron as he and his family flee their home in Fumay, France as the Germans begin their invasion of Belgium on May 10, 1940.  As the title suggests, there's a train involved.

Marcel's pregnant wife and daughter are placed in a passenger car of the train while Marcel ends up in boxcar with the other men.  Sometime in the night, the train is split up and Marcel finds himself en route to La Rouchelle and the car with his wife and daughter have disappeared. Along the way Marcel meets a mysterious woman named Anna with whom he develops a deep relationship.

I  wasn't really sure what to expect when I began The Train.  I had done some research on Georges Simenon before starting the novel and learned that he wrote over 500(!) novels during his lifetime.  There's an excellent Paris Review interview in which Simenon says that he typically spends 11 days writing each book.  This worried me a bit.  I couldn't imagine how Simenon could turn out anything of quality in only 11 days?  But I loved those first few pages so much that I went for it anyway.

The experience of reading The Train was really a treat.  One of my favorite writers is Steinbeck and I felt a certain closeness to The Winter of Our Discontent while reading The Train.  I checked and saw that both were published in 1961 - so maybe there was something in the air, maybe it was just the essence of the time captured on the page.   A sort of post-war, pre-cultural revolution vibe, I don't know.  I felt a similarity there regardless.

I've been thinking about Marcel a lot since I finished The Train.  He has a good life with his family before the invasion.  He is a good man who, like many who are caught up in war, found himself adrift and no longer in charge of determining his own fate.

I had just lost my roots. I was no longer Marcel Feron, radio engineer in a newish district of Fumay, not far from the Meuse, but one man among millions whom superior forces were going to toss about at will.
And in all of this confusion he finds Anna, who seems to somehow be completely in his head and always knows what he's thinking, how he feels.  In all this confusion and chaos he finds joy, love and passion.

When asked what themes or "problems" that Simenon has tried to tackle in his fiction, he answered:
One of them, for example, which will probably haunt me more than any other is the problem of communication. I mean communication between two people. The fact that we are I don’t know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world. When I was a young boy I was afraid of it. I would almost scream because of it. It gave me such a sensation of solitude, of loneliness. That is a theme I have taken I don’t know how many times. But I know it will come again. Certainly it will come again.
 I really felt like Simenon gave Marcel a gift in Anna.  There was never any confusion between the two of them. Anna truly understood Marcel and he had the same understanding of her.  If Simenon felt that "complete communication" was impossible then he gave Marcel the ultimate gift, the ultimate happiness.  Thinking about The Train in the context of communication, the book really opens up because you see how a radio communication opens the novel, the breakdown of communication on the train and the slow re-building of communication in the refugee camp.

I read a lot of really great books this year and The Train certainly ranks high among them.  The writing is simple but elegant and the story is beautifully constructed. I wasn't expecting to love the book as much as I did, but I'm glad that I got on the train with Marcel and got to see where it took him, if only for a short while.

Rating: 9/10

Book source: purchased

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