Published 2014 (in English)
Back in the day I did a year of French. My teacher was a native speaker. You’d think that this would make her fun and interesting, right? You couldn’t be more wrong! All she did was drill us on grammar, and I couldn’t even understand what she was saying half the time. She just expected me to automatically know the language as if I’d already lived in France for years. I was always procrastinating doing French stuff, and she was always expecting me to write and memorize a huge bunch of sentences in a language that I hardly knew, and then repeat it back to her. She totally turned me off to the French language. I started hating everything remotely connected with French-speaking literature. I know not all French people are awful, cruel, soulless people, and that most are friendly and completely normal, and that I was just unlucky to have gotten stuck with the one person I’d be totally ok with having deported… Just saying…I’m done ranting now…That felt good. This to say that for many years I just couldn’t read French literature, because, firstly, I didn’t know the language (I still don’t), and, secondly, because all those painful memories kept coming back to me. It was so painful I asked my father to write to the school to tell them I no longer wanted to attend French classes and I wanted to switch to German, which I did. That’s why I never learned French to this day…For many years I just couldn’t look at a book from a French author. And then I came across “Dirty Snow”, my first “Roman Dur” by Simenon. My first impression was: “I don’t want to read this crap!” But my friend convinced me, and to this day I can't rave about it enough--unputdownable—one my favourite settings ever--Nazi-occupied France during World War II. One of my all-time favourite novels is also Camus' The Stranger; the main character of “Dirty Snow” is somewhat reminiscent of Mersault in “The Stranger”. “Dirty Snow” has the same existential flavour but was a lot more gritty and ruthless yet at the end, remarkably introspective and poignant for such a creepy character. That’s what clinched it for me. It made Simenon's “romans dur” worth reading, much more than his Maigret novels. This discovery came at the right time. When I was very young and still learning the ways of the world, I got disillusioned by the meanness of that same world. Coming to terms with that ruthlessness was not an easy task. Once in a while a particular turn of events could have turned me into bad person, in a world where being good was sometimes a sin. Those were also the days when I discovered the “Roman Durs” by Simenon for the first time. The world started making sense through Simenon’s lenses. Only later I became aware of the Maigret phenomenon, but they never did for me what the “Roman Durs” did. I got hooked on him due to them and not the Maigret novels. Of course, for many years I read many of the Maigret titles, probably not all. I thought at the time the “roman durs” were far superior, if only because there was no necessity of a 'mystery' to solve. A 'whodunnit' was not required. The sparse, somber prose and the impression of everlasting dampness and everlasting dusk left me with a very a strong impression.
This leads us to the “Mahé Circle” which was the only “Roman Dur” I hadn’t read back in the day. Now, at last, we have a translation in English. As soon as I got it, I got my hands on it and I didn’t let go until the last page. This is one hell of a portrait of a man whose “mittelmäßige Existenz” is shattered by the realisation that there's something more to be had from life than Sunday dinners with friends and a spot of fishing. While most of the plot, as it is, happens on the island, much of the psychological drama takes place back at home. It's a place where the main protagonist, François, should be in his element, an environment of his own, yet this simple truth turns out to be an enormous lie. It's a book I enjoyed immensely. This “proves” there’s more to Crime Fiction than meets the eye.
NB: Maybe it’s time to re-read “Dirty Snow” once again…