Returning from California to Scotland in the grip of its worst winter for 30 years was a shock to the system particularly when we had to dig our way back into the house. A few choice epithets were (still are) in use. “Dirty” not the adjective of choice here – the countryside is rather beautiful when bedecked with the white stuff – but it is a rather mucky business commuting and shopping. And you should see the state of me when I return from sledging! However, shovelling away 2 feet of snow from the paths to get to the front door had the not-so-curious effect of securing an immediate read of Georges Simenon’s “Dirty Snow”.
“There was still the dirty snow, piles of it that looked like they were rotting, stained black, peppered with garbage. The white powder that loosed itself from the sky in small handfuls, like plaster falling from a ceiling, never managed to cover up the filth.”
Filth like Frank Friedmaier an 18 year-old boy who decides that it is time that he makes his first kill – but for it to count it must be done in cold blood. The first chapter shows how Frank selects his modus operandi, then his victim and, in executing the murder, he unexpectedly ensures that there is at least one person who knows that he has done it. The rest of the novel follows from this with Frank, spiralling ever further downward in a moral sense, until he commits an act that is beyond despicable. This descent into ever greater amorality is narrated from Frank’s point-of-view. It’s told matter of factly, stripped of any emotion because Frank has none.
He didn’t feel pity, not for anyone. Not even for himself. He didn’t ask for pity, didn’t accept it, and that was what irritated him about Lotte (his mother), whose eyes brooded over him, anxious and tender at the same time.
While this may well be the result of his upbringing, there is no omnisicient narrator to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Whatever, it is a blessed relief when Frank is eventually arrested.
Although a short-lived relief. Frank doesn’t know for which crime he was arrested and because the narrative is from his point-of-view, neither does the reader. This means experiencing the ensuing mindgames, interrogations and torture in the second half of the novel almost at first hand. At first Frank’s confidence remains intact. But, when finally the authorities reveal why he is there (and in so doing reveal the depths of their own amorality), the gravity of his predicament becomes clear. Even so, he remains obstinate. Life is the way it is, he has no regrets.
A bleak, unrelenting portrayal of a moral no man’s land. Existentialism packaged as psychological crime noir. Magnificent – just one faux pas – the scene in which Simenon introduces a redemptive element (no details or I reveal the nature of Frank’s most callous act). It just would not happen that way and for that I’m deducting a star.
It’s a mistake that Simenon may have made because he was too wrapped up in Frank and thus, somewhat delusional? In his Paris Review interview (fortuitously reprinted by Canongate), Simenon revealed the intensity of his writing experience.
Simenon: When I am doing a novel now, I don’t see anyone, I don’t speak to anybody. I don’ t take a phone call – I live just like a monk. All the day, I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels.
Interviewer: You are the same character, all the way through the writing of a novel?
Simenon: Always, because most of my novels show what happens around one character. The other characters are always seen by him. So it is in this character’s skin I have to be. And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons why my novels are so short; after eleven days (the average time it took for Simenon to write a novel) I can’t – it’s impossible. I have to – it’s physical. I am too tired,
I’ll bet. Reading Frank Friedmaier’s point-of-view for 11 hours was emotionally exhausting. Being Frank for 11 days must have been devastating.
I had never heard of this before. It sounds like a dark and fascinating read though. I wonder if it is mentioned on this weeks Guardian Books podcast which was all about books to do with snow!? I will have a listen later and see.
I want to read this one. Thanks for the review.
Wow! Intense! “A bleak, unrelenting portrayal of a moral no man’s land. Existentialism packaged as psychological crime noir. ” Those lines got me, despite the faux pas. Thanks for introducing me to a new title.
Sounds good, the dirty snow excerpt is nicely done. An image of purity, sullied.
Noir typically is about existentialism, in my experience anyway, a lot of noir fiction is heavily influenced by existentialist thought which is what makes it often so interesting. It’s sometimes argued The Stranger is the first noir novel (I don’t wholly agree, but it is a precursor).
I picked up this book by chance and thought it was really quite disturbing and brilliant. Imagine writing a novel in 11 days.
The only faux pas is in the reader’s vulgar idea that Frank is anything less than a hero; let’s all dispense with the worthless word “sociopath” and admit that Frank’s intensity of thought and feeling *beggars* our own.
Simenon’s book “Dirty Snow” is too great for our digusting, cant-gorged, hyper-moralizing, emasculated times. It is poetry.
Just finished Dirty Snow. Frank seems too young to be as jaded as he is: and although he appears tortured towards the end of the book, there seems to be no remorse or redemption:a strange book indeed
Please tell the “redemptive element” you mentioned.