The Train by Georges Simenon | Book review
The revival of a French masterpiece.
Marcel Ferón repairs radios, a handy profession in 1940 France, where the radio carries news of the Front and the advancement of Nazi troops. At the beginning of the novel, Marcel and his neighbors in the French town of Fumay are simply waiting for the inevitable, and on May 10, he catches an odd snippet of communication on a military band that foretells Germany’s invasion.
Though he hesitates—one gets the feeling Marcel’s default setting is hesitation—he boards an evacuation train with his pregnant wife and four-year-old daughter, destination unknown. The women and children are seated in a passenger car while Marcel and the other men make do on the floor of a freight car. But quickly the train’s journey takes on surreal and grotesque traits, as it’s shunted among obscure villages and strafed by Nazi planes. Officials add and remove cars during the night, and soon Marcel’s family is missing, his car is attached to a train full of Belgian refugees, and he finds himself inexorably drawn to a Czech woman named Anna.
Though he is best known for his mountain of Maigret mystery novels, The Train (the 1964 novel here brought back by Melville House’s Neversink Library) has been called Georges Simenon’s masterpiece. Reminiscent of Camus’s The Stranger, The Train centers on a man emotionally unmoored, detached into a sort of pure “existential” state while his existence is under persistent threat. Simenon’s prose, elegantly translated by Robert Baldick (“We caught sight of the Ile d’Yeu, which, in the dazzling sunlight, you might have taken for a cloud stretched out on a level with the water.”), highlights through contrast the disquiet permeating the book and, whether he knows it or not, Marcel.