'Dirty Snow': Dismal Perfection

'Dirty Snow' cover

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Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This summer, NPR.org talks with authors about their favorite buttonhole books in the weekly series "You Must Read This."

Jim Hynes i i
Jim Hynes

 

James Hynes is a pioneer of genre-bending fiction, seamlessly combining satire and horror in his two books of academic life, Publish and Perish and The Lecturer's Tale. His most recent novel, Kings of Infinite Space, is an office comedy with zombies. He is at work on a new novel in Austin, Texas.

Be warned: Georges Simenon's Dirty Snow is anything but the feel-good read of the summer. Anyone seeking a fresh helping of Fried Green Tomatoes or field guides to whomever you may meet in Heaven should most certainly look elsewhere.

Dirty Snow, a noir novel first published in 1946, is the chronicle of a low, mean, vicious soul spiraling toward certain doom for no good reason. Frank Friedmaier, an aimless amoral teenager living in a brothel run by his mother in Nazi-occupied Brussels, launches himself on a life of crime, beginning with the late-night fatal stabbing of a German officer. He then commits another murder — of a former neighbor in his hometown rural village — in the course of a petty burglary. He sexually victimizes and humiliates a young woman who lives next to his mother's flat,seemingly as punishment for her attraction to him.

Finally locked up for suspicion of a crime he didn't commit, Frank becomes something of a hoodlum ascetic, in the tradition later made famous by French writer Jean Genet in Our Lady of the Flowers. James Hynes, author of the 2003 satirical novel Kings of Infinite Space, discusses the hypnotic appeal of this saga of a very bad man living in very dark times.

Q. How do you recommend a book this bleak, especially in a literary culture that these days puts such a premium on self-affirmation?

A. What can I say? Dirty Snow is not escapist, it's not life-affirming — at least not in the way Oprah books are — and the main character is scum. On the other hand, the book is thrilling to read, purely on a narrative level, and even bracing, as you watch a master storyteller tell a difficult and complex truth, while hardly putting a foot wrong. It's not difficult or off-putting, just ruthlessly honest. But it's also wonderfully evocative and detailed and full of unforgettable characters. If dark, morally ambiguous stories about unpleasant and unlikable characters are such a hard sell, then why do people keep reading Macbeth and Lolita and The Aspern Papers, just to pick three favorites off the top of my head? Hell, why do people keep watching The Sopranos?

I'm not saying a story has to be grim to be literature — I'm thrilled to see Elizabeth Bennett wind up with Mr. Darcy every single time I read Pride and Prejudice — but a great book like Dirty Snow helps keep us all honest by reminding us that, yes, sometimes life sucks, we're all at least a little guilty of something, and yes, we are all going to die. So why not read about that at the beach?

Q. In that vein, Dirty Snow is often likened to Camus' The Stranger — a similar tale of a young man plunged into a state of moral chaos.

A. 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. The Stranger sometimes reads like it was meant to be taught in high school French classes, but any high school teacher who taught Dirty Snow would lose his or her job.

It's also a more memorable book, as least for me. Camus' Meursault isn't a fully realized character so much as he's a philosophical stalking horse; he starts out as a diffident young man and ends up as an existentialist philosopher. The scene where he kills the Arab on the beach is brilliantly executed, but basically he does it because the story requires him to. Frank Friedmaier, on the other hand, is a living, breathing, fully realized character — contemptible, yes, but utterly believable at every point, and utterly unforgettable. The two murders he commits are as pointless and capricious as the killing of the Arab, but not for a second do you doubt his motivation for murder, or his capacity for it. The killings are a natural result of his stunted character, and the chaos of an occupied country. Both books come from the same Gallic shrug, which offers as your only redemption authentic self-knowledge, no matter how good or how rotten you are.

I love The Stranger, but it reads like a case study. Camus wrote it to propose a philosophy, while Simenon wrote Dirty Snow to tell a story, full of vivid characters and set in a flawlessly evoked milieu. Along the way, it invokes the same philosophy as The Stranger, but with more grit and complexity and humanity.

People like Camus were greatly influenced by American noir writing — by some accounts, indeed, The Stranger was inspired by James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Do you see much of an echo here of any hardboiled American writers?

I don't know enough about Simenon to know if he was influenced by American noir. I do know that he wrote books like Dirty Snow throughout his career, calling them romans dur, or "hard novels," as an alternative to the Inspector Maigret novels. After reading Dirty Snow and a couple other of his noirs, I tried to read a Maigret and gave up after the first chapter; it was much more mechanical and formulaic. Simenon's noirs are the real deal, on the other hand, and I suspect that in years to come, they'll form the basis of his reputation, as a major practitioner of noir.

It's interesting to note that both noir and existentialism arise out of the same historical moment, and come to some of the same conclusions. At the very least, both traffic in a kind of godless fatalism, and I'd even argue that noir has ended up being the longer-lasting and more timeless expression of it. My B.A. in philosophy is pretty dusty after 30 years of neglect, so I don't know how seriously anybody takes Sartre and Camus anymore, but certainly James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson and now Georges Simenon are held in much higher esteem these days than they were during their lifetimes.

Excerpt: 'Dirty Snow'

It was years since he had been here, but it was impossible for his feet not to follow in his old footsteps. The watchmaker Vilmos and his watches, and his famous garden, these were perhaps his most vivid childhood memories.

Even before reaching the door, he seemed to recognize the smell of the house, which had always had old people in it, since as far as he was concerned the watchmaker Vilmos and his sister had never been young.

Frank took a dark handkerchief out of his pocket and tied it around his face below his eyes. Stan was about to protest.

"You don't need one. They don't know you. But if you like . . ."

He handed him a similar handkerchief; he had thought of everything.

He still remembered Mademoiselle Vilmos's cakes, like nothing else that he had ever eaten, tasteless, thick, decorated with pink-and-blue sugar. She always kept them in a box with pictures from the adventures of Robinson Crusoe on it.

And she insisted on calling him "my little angel."

Vilmos must be over eighty now, his sister around seventy-five. It was hard to tell exactly, since children have a different way of judging age. For him they had always been old, and Vilmos had been the first person he had ever seen who could remove all his teeth at once, since he wore dentures.

They were misers, brother and sister, each as bad as the other.

"Should I ring the bell?" asked Stan, who was uneasy standing there in the deserted square under the moonlight.

Frank rang, surprised to find the bell rope so low, when once he had had to stand on tiptoe to reach it. He held his automatic in his right hand. His foot was ready to keep the door from closing, like the first time he had gone to Sissy's. Footsteps could be heard inside, a sound like in a church. He remembered that, too. The hall, long and wide, with dark walls and mysterious doors like those of a sacristy, was paved with gray tiles, and two or three were always loose.

"Who is it?"

It was the voice of old Mademoiselle Vilmos, who was afraid of nothing.

"The priest sent me," he replied.

He heard the chain being pulled back. He pushed his foot against the door as it opened, his pistol at his waist. He said to Stan, who suddenly seemed awkward, "Go on!" Then to the old woman, "Where's Vilmos?"

God, how tiny and gray she was! She clasped her hands and stammered in her cracked voice, "But, my good sir, you know very well he's been dead for a year."

"Give me the watches."

He remembered the hallway, the dark-brown wallpaper that was supposed to imitate Cordova leather and where traces of gold were still visible. The shop was to the left, with the workbench where Vilmos used to sit, bent over his watches, the little jeweler's glass with the black rim screwed in his eye.

"Where are the watches?" He added, nervously, "The collection." Then, raising the automatic, "Get it now!"

Could it all go wrong? He hadn't foreseen that Vilmos might be dead. With him it would have been easy. The watchmaker was such a coward that he would have given up his watches without a word.

The old bag was made of different stuff. She had seen the automatic, all right, but you felt that she was still looking for a way out, that she wouldn't give in, that she would fight to the end, taking her last chance.

Then he heard a voice, Stan's—Frank had forgotten about him. From deep in his throat, he drawled, "Maybe we could help her remember."

He must have done this before. Kromer obviously hadn't chosen a novice. Maybe he hadn't been entirely sure about Frank.

The old woman had flattened herself against the wall. A pitiful yellowish-gray lock of hair hung over her face. She had held out both arms, her hands flat against the imitation-leather walls.

He repeated almost mechanically, "The watches . . ."

He hadn't had much to drink and yet things seemed to be happening as if he were drunk. Everything was blurred, confused, with only certain details standing out, exaggeratedly clear: the lock of yellowish-gray hair, the hands flat against the wall, the old hands with their big blue veins . . .

Usually so deliberate, he must have moved too quickly turning to say something to Stan, and the handkerchief slipped down. Before he could pull it up over his face, she exclaimed, "Frank!" Adding immediately—it was really too ridiculous—"Little Frank!"

He repeated, his voice hard, "The watches!"

"You'll find them. You always got what you wanted. But don't hurt me—I'll tell you . . . Oh God! Frank! Little Frank!"

She seemed reassured, but at the same time even more frightened. She had lost her immobility. Her mind was beginning to work again. She trotted off down the hall, toward the kitchen, where Frank noticed a wicker armchair with an orange cat curled up in a ball on a red cushion.

She seemed to be talking to herself, or praying, her bony limbs rattling about in her baggy old clothes.

Was she just stalling? She cast a furtive glance at Stan, probably wondering if it wouldn't be easier to rouse his pity.

"What do you need them for? When I think about my poor brother, he used to be so happy to show them to you, he used to hold them up to your ear and make them strike one after the other, and I always had candy for you . . . There's no candy to be found anymore . . . You can't find anything . . . I'd be better off dead . . ."

She began to cry, the way she always did, but it could be just a trick.

"The watches!"

"He moved them from place to place, with all the things going on. He's been dead a year and you never knew! If he were here, I'm sure . . ."

What was she so sure of? It was too absurd. It was time to put an end to it. Adler must be getting impatient and would be likely to leave without them.

"Where are the watches?"

She still found time to poke at a log in the fireplace and turn her back on him, intentionally he was sure, before spitting out, "Under the tile . . ."

"Which tile?"

"You know perfectly well. The cracked one. The third."

From Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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