Frank Friedmaier is the 18-year-old son of a whorehouse madam in a village in occupied France. He is a procurer, a self-styled thug, and dead-end immoralist in the tradition of soon-to-come existentialism. He is also a murderer and a devil-may-care collaborator, a grown-up spoiled child trying to determine just how much he can get away with before his own depravity brings him down, a humbling that intrigues him and which he self-destructively courts.
Simenon’s stark and dark novel (more ominous in French, La Neige était sale) about life under the German occupation is pitch-perfect in its squalor. His French residents are at best resistant fighters — hardly mentioned — at worst abject “peasants” in a German-run world they seek not to disturb for fear of being arrested, deported, shot. This fear and loathing makes for loathsome creatures, Frank in the lead, his mother Lotte, his dubious friend Fred Kromer, and neighbor Holst, the father of a teen girl sets up to be raped. They are all compliant, complicit, passive and opportunistic, ready to do whatever necessary to save themselves and satisfy the needs of the occupation authorities.
But rebel-without-a-cause Frank is a uniquely cold piece of work, heartlessly engineered from the hopelessness around him. He’s a laconic creator of sexual perversion, robbery, murder, mostly because he’s bored, spoiled, angry and lacking in a compass heading — like much of France itself under the occupation.
Frank will get his wish, his arrest, but the confinement opens a new can of worms into the way the Nazis managed the occupation, and whether self-hating Frank (“he didn’t want to be set free…”) might not be doubling for the whole of collaborationist France. Frank sits in jail “…of his own free will, in full awareness … doing everything to bring about his own destruction.”
This pitilessly unsentimental novel exposes human abjectness in a time of stress. It has no interest in heroes or heroism. (“I have no honor,” says Frank, almost proudly). It puts no emphasis on rising above the worst of things. Instead, through Frank, it is a chronicle of that self-same worst, perhaps the best of its kind to come out of World War II. It is also a demonstration of Simenon’s harrowing mental skill, which he mostly gave over to detective Jules Maigret. But this is something else, something far crueler and more brittle, non-battlefield war hatched and made rank, with France’s behavior — and perhaps that of do-nothing Simenon — part of the stink. “I am not a fanatic, an agitator, or a patriot,” says Frank. “I am a piece of shit.”