“The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)
An upright life derailed
It was all quite simple in its way, at least to Popinga. There he was, model citizen, senior signatory at the firm Julius de Coster and Co out of habit, husband of his wife Mama out of habit and father of Frida and Carl out of habit, “because somebody or other had decided that’s how things were and that they couldn’t be any different. But what if I did want to do something different?” he asks himself.
Popinga’s epiphany, if you can call it that, occurs one evening when he looks through the window of the disreputable Petit Saint-Georges café and is shocked to spot his reputable employer, Julius de Coster the Younger, inside. Surprisingly, de Coster beckons his subordinate to enter, whereupon Popinga is even more surprised to find him drunk.
And he is stunned when de Coster reveals that for eight years he has been partaking in very risky speculative ventures, and in the morning the firm will be facing charges of fraudulent bankruptcy. The police will be looking for him but by then he will have faked his suicide by leaving a pile of his clothes on the towpath of the Wilhelmine Canal.
To complete the astonishing story, de Coster tells Popinga that for three years his wife has been sleeping with the town’s Dr Claes, while he, de Coster, has been going to Amsterdam every week to see his mistress Pamela, a buxom lisping brunette who for two years had offered her lusty services at Groningen’s notorious house of ill repute.
One thing de Coster doesn’t reveal is where he will be hiding out, presumed dead. He gives Popinga a bundle of bank notes, Dutch florins, because Popinga has put his savings into the firm and will lose heavily when it goes bust. He may lose the family house. “He wouldn’t wait for his suits to be worn out, his shoes in holes, or for his friends at the chess club to feel so sorry for him that they waived his membership fee… „
Rather, having decided that everything he had ever believed in does not exist, and acting on impulse, Popinga boards a train for Amsterdam, leaving behind, with no farewells, his dull but comfortable life. The key to his precipitate action, and the book’s title, is given by Simenon on the very first page: “A certain furtive, almost shameful emotion… disturbed him whenever he saw a train go by, a night train especially, its blinds drawn down on the mystery of its passengers.”
First, Popinga will go to Amsterdam in search of Pamela who de Coster has been keeping in rooms in the Carlton Hotel. Popinga wants to “settle an old score” because he had thought her the most desirable woman on earth but felt humiliated at never having had the courage to visit her in Groningen’s only nightclub of any significance, where she was available to all comers.
In the Carlton he tells her he has “come to spend an hour” but she looks him up and down and bursts into hysterical uncontrolled laughter, ridiculing him for presuming that he can easily win her over. Enraged he strangles her, though he leaves the hotel before discovering subsequently that he has actually killed her. He hadn’t meant to but he tied the towel rather too tightly.
“The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By” by Belgian author Simenon was first published as “L’homme qui regardait passer les trains” in French in 1938. It was an attempt by the author to break away from the lucrative conveyor belt of his Inspector Maigret novels, of which he had published 20 in 1931-34, then none until 1940. Simenon wanted to make a name for himself with existential, philosophical novels, and as such this book is one of his “romans durs”, or “hard novels”, rather than a humdrum detective story.
This 1938 theme, where a man simply gets up and walks away from his eminently respectable life, is one that Simenon would explore further in later years, in 1952 with “La fuite de Monsieur Monde” (“Monsieur Monde Vanishes”), for example. Monde didn’t kill anyone but he and Popinga are alike in having little plan or ambition other than seemingly making up for the unadventurous, unthinking lives they have led so far.
Popinga’s life had been one of satisfaction but, “Simply, at the age of forty, I have decided to live as I please, not worrying about conventions, or laws, because I have found out, rather late in the day, that nobody observes them and that, until now, I have been duped.”
“I have spent forty years being bored. For forty years I looked at life like some street urchin with his nose pressed up against the window of a cake shop, watching other people eating pastries. Now I know that the pastries go to the people who take the trouble to grab them.”
Screwed-up heads are de rigeur in a good crime book and Simenon created plenty of solid certifiable nutcases with a screw loose. Popinga attacks more women in Paris “but only women of a certain background, which should be enough to dispel any fears on the part of respectable wives”.
He plays cat and mouse with the police and press, resenting it when the latter call him a madman, sex maniac and paranoic. But he craves notoriety and is disappointed when the newspapers begin to move him off the front page.
Simenon keeps him under the magnifying glass throughout and we are compelled to take Popinga’s strange trip with him, through the back streets and cheap hotels of Paris. He feels cleverer, more powerful than everyone else. He is waging a battle of wits against the whole world.
“He could do anything he pleased! He could be anyone he wished, now that he had given up trying so hard, for everyone else’s benefit, to be Kees Popinga, authorised signatory in a shipping firm.”
(This is a fresh 2016 translation from Penguin Books. Simenon’s novel was filmed in 1952 with a star cast of Claude Rains, Marius Goring, Herbert Lom and Marta Toren but the producers took the usual cinematic liberties with the plot.)