The Man Who Watched Trains Go By – Georges Simenon – Audio Book Review by Pat V.
Best known for his Inspector Maigret crime series, Georges Simenon was the author of over 400 books in his lifetime, more than 100 of which he classified as romans durs (hard novels). Audible has recently released readings of seven of these novels, the most famous being The Man who Watched Trains Go By (filmed in 1952 starring Claude Rains and Marius Goring).
In an interview with playwright, David Hare, Simenon said that the pleasure one gets reading fiction is like looking “through the keyhole to see if other people have the same feelings and instincts you do”. What we observe of the main protagonist in this novel, Kees Popinga, makes us hope that we would not have the same reactions were we to find ourselves in a similar situation to his!
When we are first introduced to Kees he is leading a humdrum life in Groningen, Holland, working as chief clerk for a shipping company by day and returning to spend each evening with his wife and two children. The highlight of his week is the chess game he plays with a friend and though he seems totally satisfied with his life “there was something that had an appeal for him in trains, especially in night-trains, which always put queer, vaguely improper notions into his head- though he would have been hard put to it to define them.”
His drab life changes abruptly one evening when his employer, Julius de Coster, admits to him that he has defrauded the company, which is now bankrupt, and that Kees no longer has a job. Unable to cope with the news, Kees seems to block it from his mind and takes a night train, abandoning his family, his town and everything familiar in his life. In a trance-like state he assumes another persona and becomes involved in gambling, crime and eventually in murder. While he does realise that he has killed a woman, his grip on reality fragments and the moral aspect of his actions causes him little concern. Instead of trying to disappear from the scene, he contacts the police and media and becomes obsessed with correcting, in the margins of the newspapers he buys, the inaccuracies he finds in the reporting of his crimes.
Aspects of Simenon’s story, written almost 80 years ago, may seem a little dated nowadays, but in Kees he skilfully shows the disintegration of an ordered mind when placed in extraordinary circumstances. Kees tries to shake off his old life and immerse himself in the edgy world that the night trains used to conjure up for him, but the office clerk in him keeps coming to the surface as he records in his diary, in meticulous detail, everything he does. Simenon creates a feeling of unease throughout the novel and brilliantly captures the skewed world-view of Kees as he slips further and further from reality.
Mark Meadows is an excellent reader and captures well the dual aspect of Kees’s personality, the everyday punctiliousness and the slow drift into darkness. Two other titles by Simenon in this series have also been filmed – The Blue Room (2014) and Mr. Hire’s Engagement (1989).
All of the audiobooks are available from audible.co.uk