Thursday, 11 August 2011

On Track With Another Neversink. . .

I'm taking a wee break from the novellas to return to another of my Melville passions - their fantastic Neversink Library which aims to bring back lost classics, many of them in translation. I so completely trust their editorial acumen that I'm determined to read them all. The series kicked off earlier this year with Irmgard Keun's wonderful After Midnight, reviewed here, and now I've read Georges Simenon's equally atmospheric The Train, translated by Robert Baldick.

I could not put this little gem down; Simenon is just so good at narrative voice. The Germans have invaded Belgium and are advancing on Northern France. Marcel Feron, a married man with a small daughter and another child on the way, lives very simply with his wife in a small French town, fixing radios and raising chickens. He says he is perfectly happy. But as the Nazis advance, the people in the town start packing up to try and catch one of the last trains leaving the area. Marcel suddenly decides to join them, not so much out of concern for his family's safety, but through a nagging premonition that this is his opportunity to encounter Fate:

I wasn't responsible anymore. Perhaps that's the word, perhaps that's what I was trying to explain just now. Only the day before, it had been up to me to manage my life and that of my family, to earn a living, to arrange for things to happen in the way things have to happen.
But not now. I had lost my roots. I was no longer Marcel Feron, radio engineer in a newish district of Fumay, not far from the Meuse, but one man among millions whom superior forces were going to toss about at will. . . From now on, decisions were no longer any concern of mine. Instead of my own palpitations, I was beginning to feel a sort of general palpitation. I wasn't living at my tempo anymore, but at the tempo of the radio, of the street, of the town which was waking up much faster than usual.

At the station, the men are separated into different carriages from the women and children, and Marcel completely loses track of his family when his freight car is uncoupled during the night. Strangely calm and nonplussed, he continues his long rail journey, forming a relationship with Anna, a mysterious young woman, reticent about her past, who climbs into the train without any luggage. The story follows their affair as they travel towards a refugee camp in the south of France, and these portions reminded me very much of the similar chaos described in Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. Marcel is narrating this episode from a period many years in the future. His voice has a calm wistfulness about it but his detachment is his undoing. This is very much a tale of lost opportunity, both for happiness and a self-redeeming and self-esteeming decency. Here, Fate is not going to trump personality and cowardice. The ending was just superb. I will be thinking about this book for quite a while.

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