The story is narrated by an omnipresent narrator from the point-of-view of its anti- (or is it modern?) hero, Frank Friedmaier.
Even though Simenon is one of the most respected crime writers, his plots are rarely constructed in the traditional crime or detective novel method. There are no shrewd detectives, no elaborate forensic technologies utilized to elucidate the identity of a murderer.
To further distance himself from the genre (a pursuit he spent a lifetime attempting to carry out with his non-Maigret novels, “romans durs”), he draws a clear distinction between killing and murdering.
Killing is literary, murdering is vulgar whodunnit.
Though “La Neige Etait sale” opens with (and revolves around) Frank Friedmaier committing his first crime and ends with his imprisonment and consequent execution, yet this book from the infamous crime writer is closer to Camus than it is to Rankin.
I was impressed with the idea that a prolific crime writer could write something serious that puts him on par with a figure such as Camus, until I started writing this review and did basic research on the publishing dates of Camus and Simenon’s works, and concluded that Simenon might have liberally borrowed from Camus.
Comparison with Camus’ “L’Etranger”
Initially, it is difficult not to draw a comparison between Camus’ “L’Etranger” and “La Neige Etait Sale”.
Both revolve around one male character and his interaction with society in the first part of the book, and end with his subsequent imprisonment and execution.
Both books deal with man’s alienation in society and shed the light on a monotonous, senseless daily life; Frank in “La Neige Etait Sale” does not partake in the bread-queues in his currently occupied town, nor does he treat the girl he pursues with anything but humiliation; he further refuses to assign any logical justification for his actions or sparse words. Even the house in which he resides, in effect a makeshift brothel run by his mother, serves to further alienate him from his neighbors; not primarily because of the illicit activity, but because of its warm water, warm temperature, and fresh food.
Though we are left in total obscurity as to who tipped the authorities to arrest Frank (much like Joseph K. in Kafka’s “The Trial), one suspects that it could be triggered by the neighbors’ jealousy rather than by the pursuit of justice to the murdered victims.
Such a careful construction of the plot, rightfully places it amidst the classics of modern literature.
Though we are far from the locales of the “Quai des Orfèvres”, the police stakeouts and the relentless work of Simenon’s Commissaire Maigret, yet Simenon borrows quite a lot from his extensive repertoire. When he questions the imprisoned Frank Friedmaier, the restless inspector is endowed with quite a few of Maigret’s investigative procedure. In several decisive moments in the narrative, dialogue makes place for the Simenonian silence, as “silence tends to make people uncomfortable”, much like in the Maigret novels.
To conclude this rapprochement that “La Neige Etait Sale” has with the “popular” Simenon books, objects invoke more meaning to Frank than people do, and they have the power of softening him, therefore humanizing him, much like these objects do to Maigret who “sniffs” around ashtrays, tables, decorative items, couches, beds, etc… when trying to build up a psychological profile of the killer or the victim.
Overlap between “La Neige Etait Sale” & Camus’ “L’Etranger” and “La Peste” as well
Simenon wrote his book in 1948 while in self-imposed exile in the USA. “L’Etranger” came out in 1942 and “La Peste” in 1947. It’s possible that Simenon would have come in contact with both books, particularly “La Peste” whose success and reach was more important than that of “L’Etranger”. However, in America, Simenon was more busy drinking and touring the country, and was writing more local novels set in the United States. He was not known to be an avid reader either, which puts some doubt as to whether he might have known of the books and could possibly mean that he simply came up with a similar work to an author who was also suffering, in his own way, from occupation.
Though it is obvious how Simenon based Frank on Meursault with his attitude vis-à-vis society, his absurd crime and his execution, there comes the last part of the book wherein Frank “saves” himself by realizing the essential power of love. This again blatantly overlaps with “La Peste”. This conclusion about love, though not in terms of redemption but maybe more as a justification to some meaning in an absurd life, Camus makes it with Dr. Rieux in “La Peste”, where the village ravaged by the plague symbolizes wartime occupation; a similitude to the German-occupied town in “La Neige Etait Sale”.
Perhaps these details are minor, and certainly authors borrowing from each others is not the least uncommon, but it was interesting to note this observation.
Honestly, “La Neige Etait Sale” is easier to digest than the Camus novels, with the ending being more concrete, at least to non-academics, and whether Simenon borrowed or not is scholars to debate, but to me, if he did, he came out with quite a smart amalgam that makes the book quite a joyful read, and if he didn’t, then he produced one of his best works.
Towards the end of such an absurd, psychologically complex book, in which Frank is fighting a losing battle with himself, we understand his longing to be simply human, to lead a normal life, to feel the love of a father.
This last point, the search for paternal love, Camus briefly addresses it in his unfinished “Le Premier Homme” which he started in 1953, 5 years after “La Neige Etait Sale” was published. However, the approach to it is quite different than in “La Neige Etait Sale” to warrant deeper questions, but it would be intriguing to know how close were these two figures of modern literature in understanding present-day Man.