As Trains Go By

The New Republic has published a long review of three novels by Georges Simenon. The thesis is that they are “are superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction.” Simenon wrote more than 400 novels, under his own name and various pseudonyms.

One of them, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, was published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s set of great novels from the twentieth century. It’s apparently of a piece with the three reviewed by the New Republic — the reviewer called it “insouciantly gruesome” — and will soon be republished by New York Review Books.

I’ll agree with the insoucance and the gruesomeness, but I’m not sold on the greatness. Each chapter has an odd and cryptic heading — “On the difficulty of getting rid of old newspapers, and the usefulness of a fountain pen and a wristwatch” or “Kees Popinga experiences a remarkable Christmas Eve and, towards morning, selects an automobile.” I had the sense that Simenon wrote the twelve headings and then put the novel together to tie one to the next.

TNR’s reviewer sees books “more philosophically profound than any of the fiction of Camus or Sartre, and far less self-conscious. This is existentialism with a backbone of tempered steel.” Maybe it’s a sign of how both existentialism and Simenon have aged; I just saw a quickie mystery.

Halfway There

This spring, the German newspaper whose web site isn?t quite as bad as another?s began publishing a series of 50 Great Novels from the Twentieth Century. It?s an admirable project in many ways — not least a cover price of EUR 4.90 per hardback. Thirty-seven books have been published so far, and I?ve now read about half of the whole list. Which is as good a point as any for taking stock.

I haven?t quite read 25 of the 50, but let?s face it, with Deutschstunde (German Hour, Siegfried Lenz, no. 28) clocking in at nearly 800 pages, and hefty volumes such as Jorge Semprun?s What a Beautiful Sunday! (Was f?r einen sch?nen Sonntag, no. 17) and Juan C. Onetti?s The Short Life (Das kurze Leben, no. 11), it?s going to be quite a while before I manage all of them.
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