Those who leave by night- trains leave for ever
- Kees Popinga from
The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By
Kees Popinga is a dull man who lives in a well-ordered existence, where everything including his wife is admirably above-board,"one might have said of her..that she was the ' best make' of Dutch wife;" his house the "best planned;" his neighborhood in the "healthiest and most attractive part in Groningen." He is Simenon's psychologically marginal archetype - "a middle-aged man, after years of conformity to the standards of society, who flees his milieu." *
Popinga's habit of watching night trains affords him a glimpse of another life, of adventures which he often only dream about - a yearning for escape.
"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. Also he had an impression that those who leave by night- trains leave for ever - an impression heightened the previous night by his glimpse of those Italians piled into their carriage like emigrants."
After his employer, Julius de Coster, confesses to have defrauded his firm to the level of immediate liquidation, Popinga realizes that, not only will he lose his job, but he'll be penniless, for he had invested all his savings in the firm. De Coster's deception and impertinent, harsh put-downs spur Popinga to seek a way out from facing responsibility. At the age of 40, he chooses to do as he pleases -no restraints, no laws or rigid conventions. A chance to escape from the routine of life is grabbed, freeing himself from the nets of domesticity and duty, fleeing the judgments, the daily desultory remarks and opinions from "cocksured ignoramuses who think they know everything."
He enters a new, sinister world, flexing for the first time, a wiliness that is uncharacteristic yet seems natural to him. His adventures lead him to felonious encounters in the world of prostitutes, pimps, auto thieves, murder and madness. Now an elusive criminal, he feels a sense of pride and a thrill at being called the 'Thug of Amsterdam', enjoying his anonymous movements amongst the police, taunting and teasing the "cocksure Superintendent" in a suspenseful, psychological game of 'checkmate me if you can.' On a semiconscious level, he seems to want to prove that he is cleverer or more resourceful than them all.
Popinga's need for escape, his desire to do as he pleases, to exercise his free will and the resulting destructive actions eventually take their toll. Guilt-ridden, he looses control, begins to fall apart and progressively descends into insanity at a stealthily subtle pace that showcases the brilliance of this author.
When finally in the asylum, Popinga decides to write the 'Truth about the Kees Popinga Case,' to convince himself that his experiences were not insignificant, he produces only blank pages. The 'truth' that evades him is that, in reality, he achieved nothing by his running away.
The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is part of Simenon's extensive romans durs psychological-noire oeuvre -hard novels that consistently portray an estranged, modern antihero always fleeing, who lacks lucidity and is moved by forces he's too weak to control; a man who lacks positive values and ambitions. The violent actions of his characters are "tragic consequences of life, that for many men and women, are unendurable." *
For Kees Popinga, the inability to take responsibility, his lack of ambition and the monotonous, drudgery of the life he led proved his inevitable downfall.
I've read a few of Simenon's works - Act of Passion, The Train, The Strangers in the House, Pietr the Latvian- have enjoyed the psychological insight and narrative style of these novels, and I'm sure I'll be busy for years to come feasting on them all. That's my ambition.
* Lucille F. Becker, Georges Simenon. New York, Twayne, 1999