More than six months ago I finished reading Georges Simenon‘s novel Dirty Snow. It still haunts me regularly. There’s only one other book that I’ve read over the last decade that has had the same, harrowing effect on me: Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian. But unlike Simenon’s novel, you can actually argue that McCarthy’s novel has some vision of violence as regenerative, a space for interrogating history, literature and our culture more generally. I’m not sure any such value can be found in Dirty Snow, it’s a thoroughly horrific vision of a compeltely desensitized and frozen world in the midst of an occupational war. A deep-freeze of humanity that highlights a series of horrific, unneccessary acts of violence that only add to the base condition of depravity and brutality on the ground.
I started reading this novel after having taught the Hardboiled literature course last Fall, and it was interesting to read a hardboiled novel from the European perspective ostensibly inspired by the German occupation of France or Belgium during World War II. And while Dirty Snow is published in 1948, just six years after The Stranger, it makes Camus’s materpiece seem almost light-hearted and hopeful. It’s as if Simenon introduces a new vision of existential atomization and dehumanization that compeltely empties out the possbilities for meaning that seem to buoy that philosophy in a sort of individualied hope after reason.
Reading this novel after working through texts by Hammett, Chandler, Fante, Caine, Highsmith, etc. makes them all seem like quaint onlookers of the horrific void at the center of the existential crisis in the Western World. At the point when hardboiled fiction and film had become almost formulaic in the U.S. during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Simenon’s Dirty Snow blows up the genre, not unlike Kiss Me, Deadly—though with none of its humanity. Interestingly enough, Simenon wrote this novel while an expatriate in Tuscson, Arizona, of all places. He left Europe soon after the end of Wordl War II under the pale of accusations he had cooperated with the Nazis.
I’ve been a fan of William T. Vollmann’s for a while, and part of the reason I bought Dirty Snow more than eight years ago was because he wrote the afterword which you can find in it’s entirety here. In his essay on the novel he echoes an idea James Ellroy mentioned about Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, something I wrote about last Fall as the Hardboiled class was ending. Vollman argues, like Ellroy, that Chandler’s protagonist Marlowe is soft:
Raymond Chandler’s protagonist, the private eye Marlowe, to whom the word “hardboiled” has been so oten attached that it’s now stuck like chewing gum, is actually a softy: compassionate, even ethicalin the bourgeois sense. He doesn’t mind being nasty to stuck-up rich bitches or hiding the occasional dead body; all the same, he preserves what strikes the reader as a comically dated horror of drugs and pornography, he avoids sexual gratification on the job, and, above all, he’ll never betray a client, much less a friend. Loyalty! Decency! As technology and corporatism impel us more and more to treat each other like things, those two words approach irrelevance, except between intimates, and sometimes even then. This is why with each passing decade, Marlowe’s corpse decomposes ever more rapidly into a skeleton of outright sentimentality. To some readers he already seems as quaint as Fenimore Cooper‘s Deerslayer.
Wow, Ellroy has nothing on Vollmann when it comes to gonzo critique! This is how I felt about Chandler’s novels but couldn’t even begin to frame it so brilliantly—simply put Marlowe doesn’t age well. On the other hand, Simenon’s Dirty Snow makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seem like a bedtime story. Vollmann goes on to make the comparison between Chandler and Simenon that much more powerfully:
Chandler’s novels are noir shot through with wistful luminescence; Simenon has concentrated noir into a darkness as solid and heavy as the interior of a dwarf star.
Makes me think I should put Dirty Snow on the syllabus if I were to ever teach the Hardboiled course again, but I’m just not sure I want to, or even can. Reading this book the first time took something out of me. I can only swallow so much unrelenting brutality and inhumanity in a novel. That said, nothing approximates the cultural sense of horror and inhumanity that has come to represent the post-war era wherein there can be no poetry, as Adorno told us.
Having written all this I haven’t even told you anything about the novel, alas, I goes you must find out for yourself. Just consider yourself warned, there are no rainbows and unicorns to be found anywhere, ever.