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The Man Who Watched Trains Go By by Georges…

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938)

by Georges Simenon

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Non-Maigret (32)

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7051713,430 (3.72)25
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English (10)  Italian (3)  Spanish (2)  Portuguese (1)  Catalan (1)  All (17)
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
This captivating page-turner is not a Detective Maigret novel but one Simenon termed roman durs, meaning uncomfortable or hard on the reader. With The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, each chapter begins with a brief epigraph, for example, the epigraph for Chapter 1 reads “In which Julius de Coster the Younger gets drunk at the Little-Saint George, and the impossible suddenly breaches the dykes of everyday life.” Here's my choice of epigram for the book itself: "The Case of Kees Popinga, or how upon hearing shocking revelations, a well-to-do bourgeois bean counter goes completely berserk."

The first pages provide the setup: One icy December evening in the northern Dutch city of Groningen, forty-year-old family man Kees Popinga walks down to the dock to check on a cargo delivery he scheduled himself in his capacity as head clerk of an esteemed shipping firm. The enraged ship’s captain blasts him because the shipment did not arrived. Nonplussed, Kees strolls by a nearby pub only to see through the window, to his amazement, his boss, Julius de Coster, drinking at a table.

Julius waves for him to come in, and, between swigs of brandy, breezily tells Kees in so many words that he, Mr. Pop-in-ga, is Popinga the Poopstick, prime stooge, a ninny so blind he couldn’t see how he, Julius de Coster, has been embezzling, stealing and cheating for years, not to mention having extramarital sex with former employee Pamela, an attractive young lady everyone in the company, including Kees Popinga, dreamed of going to bed with. Furthermore, Julius goes on, since he made a bad investment in sugar, the company is now bankrupt and not only will Popinga lose his job but also his life saving, thus his house and all other personal properties. Lowering his voice, Julius also informs Mr. Pop-in-ga that this is the very night he, the well-respected Julius de Coster, will be faking his own suicide and fleeing the country.

Poor Mr. Popinga! Nothing like having your well-ordered, comfortable Dutch bourgeois world come crashing down in a heap of rubble. And how, we may ask, does our staid, conservative shipping clerk react to this disaster? The next morning, he makes his first radical decision: to stay under the covers in bed. What! Not go to the office, Kees? Mrs. Popinga is shocked, to say the least. Oh, yes, new world, new man. We read: “The important thing was that he felt completely at ease. This was the real him. Yes – this is how he should have acted all along.”

So, for the first time in his adult life Kees Popinga has a taste of tranquility and joy, a state free from agitation and constant worrying, what he recognizes as “the real him” – and for good reason: many the spiritual and philosophical tradition maintaining such a combination of tranquility and joy is, in fact, our birthright, our true nature. As existential psychologist R.D. Laing observed: “Our 'normal' 'adjusted' state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities.”

And then we read: “Kees had always dreamed of being something other than Kees Popinga. That explained why he was so completely the way he was – so completely Kees Popinga – and why he even overdid it. Because he knew that if he gave even an inch, nothing would stop him again.” In other words, it’s all or nothing.- once the thin shell of rigid identity is even slightly cracked, the entire edifice breaks down. It’s as if, in his own clerkish way, Kees Popinga grasps R.D. Laing’s insight: “The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man.”

Kees Popinga finally rouses himself from bed, shaves, showers, dresses and, without telling his wife of his plans, leaves his house and family forever, having resolved to also leave behind his identity as a "normal man." What follows when he travels to Amsterdam to have sex with Pamela (Julius de Coster bragged about how he set the luscious Pamela up in a particularly posh hotel) and then on to Paris is a truly odd series of events, a story Luc Sante in his Introduction to this New York Review Books (NYRB) edition calls both galling and comic.

For my money, this Georges Simenon novel is a penetrating exploration into the psychology of personal identity. How far can Kees Popinga the bean counter free himself from his habit of counting beans (the former shipping clerk continually, almost obsessively, makes entries in a small red leather notebook he happens to find in his jacket pocket) and how far will the consequences of his actions (for starters, he quite unintentionally kills Pamela) launch him into madness? If you are up for a quizzical existential tale by turns humorous and infuriating, this is your book. ( )
1 vote GlennRussell | Feb 28, 2017 |
The novel ends with the words, 'there isn't any truth' and that and the mind of a man who is suffering from mental ill health is what the novel hangs around. The story follows Kees Popinga, a clerk with a shipping company in the Netherlands. We meet him just before Christmas when this unassuming man, who delights in small acts of defiance, takes a train to Amsterdam and visits a sex worker who he murders. He then moves on to Paris and the novel continues closely following him as he walks and walks around the city. The novel is interesting and dramatic; the reader is told how Popinga's mind is working and in this way we are led to understand what he is going through. ( )
2 vote Tifi | May 25, 2016 |
Apparently Simenon is another prolific french writer who wrote mass entertainment like Dumas. I found the book to be cute enough but not life changing in any way. Didn't get as much out of it as the introduction suggested I should :). Worth reading a relic of the period, to give a sense of what people were thinking/reading...I guess...
  ahovde01 | Sep 6, 2015 |
THE MAN WHO WATCHED THE TRAINS GO BY is one of Simenon's "psychological novels". At first Kees Popinga seems absolutely normal but something snaps when he finds out that his boss is going to fake suicide and that the company he works for is going under, taking his life savings with it. It now seems that he has worked all his life for nothing and he feels released to explore his "other self". There have been signs of mental inbalance that have emerged before, but they have been kept tightly reined in by other people's expectations, and Popinga's own concepts of right and wrong.

Now the inhibitions have gone and he deserts his family and takes himself to Amsterdam to visit a woman of ill-repute, Pamela, who dies as a result of his visit. From there Popinga goes to Paris where he becomes involved in a car heist and is constantly preoccupied with reports about himself in the newspapers.

This is not a Maigret novel although the policeman in charge of looking for Popinga is Superintendent Lucas who of course in the Maigret novels is Maigret's lieutenant. Popinga wants newspaper readers to have an accurate version of his achievements and so he writes to newspaper editors and then to Lucas himself to correct details that he thinks have been inaccurately reported. He is insulted when a French professor of psychiatry says he is paranoic, although he is not quite sure what that means.

As the plot progresses Popinga becomes increasingly detached from normality, not really understanding the hole he is digging for himself. ( )
1 vote smik | Jan 8, 2015 |
This was diverting, though not my favorite of the six or so Simenons I have read so far, all on the New York Review Books imprint. Kees Popinga, a buttoned down manager of a ships chandlery in Holland, goes on a bit of a rampage after his boss tells him that he has run the business into the ground. This is the same business, the watchword for rectitude and probity in the little port town in which it operates, into which Kees has invested every cent of his savings. Kees subsequently (inadvertently?) kills a hooker by the name of Pamela whom he has lusted after for years when, bereft of his illusions, she laughs at him. Then he goes to Paris and becomes a subject for the tabloids ("Sex Fiend") as he remains at large for several weeks. However, once the newspapers lose interest and relegate his story to inner pages, he starts to write letters to the editor in which he pathetically tries to keep the thrill alive; his ostensible motive being to explain himself since they "have him all wrong." The book is troubled early on, in my view, by some hardboiled-sounding dialog, generally something the titles I've read are free of. I felt it was very good but lacking in action, and by contrast, too heavy on the ruminations of its protagonist, mostly rendered as free indirect speech. My favorite NYRB Simenons so far have been Dirty Snow and Strangers In The House. The latter being, in my opinion, dazzling on a sentence by sentence basis. Recommended with reservations. ( )
1 vote William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Simenon, Georgesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Zallio Messori, PaolaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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As far as Kees Popinga was concerned, it cannot be denied that at eight that evening there was still time, his destiny still hung in the balance.
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Hardworking Dutch family man Kees Popinga loses his money when the shipping firm he works for collapses. Something snaps and from the shell of a modern citizen emerges a calculating paranoiac, capable of random acts of violence - even murder.

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