Book Review: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by Georges Simenon (Trans by Siân Reynolds)

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Madman on the run seeks refuge in Paris’ seedy underbelly.

A notorious frequenter of brothels, Simenon boasted of visiting thousands of sex workers. His experiences in houses of ill repute, cheap backstreet hotels, and conversations with prostitutes were mined for a credible recreation of a shadowy world filled with dawn police raids, jealous pimps, and treacherous friends. An ice cold naked city seen through the eyes of a man rapidly losing his grip on reality, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a supreme novel that explores many of the writer’s recurrent preoccupations and asks if truth is absolute.

Everyman Kees Popinga’s life falls apart when he learns that his employer has gone bankrupt and is about to flee from his creditors. Popinga has lived a life of strict routine in the Dutch city Groningen. A respectable mid-level executive with a wife and two children, thirty-nine-year-old Popinga travels to Amsterdam and attempts to seduce his former boss’ mistress. Convinced that his previous life was a form of self-deception, he views the probable imminent loss of family and home as an opportunity to discover his true identity.

Feeling emasculated after his boss’s former mistress laughs at his request he strangles her and boards a train to Paris unaware that he has killed the woman.

Hiding in France he mingles with the criminal underworld and finds temporary refuge in prostitutes boudoirs. Shortly after his arrival newspapers print stories about the murder of his boss’ mistress. Enraged at innacurate reporting Popinga writes to the papers to correct the information they are presenting about him and his crime. Deliberately ambiguous, at least initially, Simenon plays with the reader suggesting that a similar transformation of fortunes could transform anyone into the person Popinga has become.

Swiss psychiatrist Dr Pierre Rentchnick interviewed Simenon and published a paper entitled Simenon sur le gril. The psychiatrist who had spent a day questioning the author would later state ‘We all thought he was schizoid but we did not want to write that.’ The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a study of psychosis and it is highly probable that Simenon was using the format of a thriller to dramatise his personal desires and torments. Rentchnick’s study revealed that Simenon was an exhibitionist seemingly trapped in a state of perpetual adolescence so writing a wish fulfillment novel is no less improbable than the author’s oft quoted claims to have slept with 10,000 women.

Powerfully evocative The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By contains details plucked from Simenon’s life. Popinga’s arrival at Gare du Nord and subsequent discovery of back streets filled with street walkers recalls a similar journey made by Simenon in 1922.

Supremely crafted this taut exploration of dark desire and insanity is one of Simenon’s greatest novels.

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is published by Penguin.

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Book Review: The Pitards by Georges Simenon (Trans by David Bellos)

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Disappointing novel offers few glimpses of Simenon’s greatness.

Determined to retire his most famous creation Inspector Maigret, Simenon intended to focus on writing literary fiction. Simenon used the term ‘roman dur’ to refer to his portraits of deviance. Freed from the crime genre’s conventions he explored themes present in the Maigret novels without the restriction of having to include a police investigation and a tidy resolution.

The famously prolific author was determined that his literary reputation would be based solely on these studies of aberrant behaviour and psychological torment. Unflinching in their examination of moral, social, and sexual transgressions, the novels presented accounts of people transformed by a moment of crisis. Unremittingly pessimistic, the 171 roman durs suggest that in an unstable world a change of fortune can shatter the veneer of a normal existence and transform an individual into a murderer, thief, or a sexual deviant. In Simenon’s fictional universe the everyman has lived a repressed life and is finally set free once their basest desires are revealed to the world.

The extent to which Simenon succeeded in transforming his reputation from that of a producer of well-crafted pulp fiction to a master of literary novels is debatable. In purely commercial terms his legacy largely rests on the widely translated seventy-five Maigret novels.

Simenonlogists consider the roman durs to be the author’s most significant literary achievements. The critical breakthrough came with the publication of seafaring saga The Pitards. French newspaper Les Temps published a critical essay by André Thérive which declared ‘I believe I have just read a masterpiece in its pure state, in its basic state.’ The journalist conceded that Simenon’s productivity had previously prevented critics from taking his work seriously and suggested that if The Pitards had been his first novel ‘there would be great enthusiasm in the republic of letters.’

Significant for ensuring critics began taking Simenon seriously, The Pitards is nonetheless a minor work from a major author. Unevenly plotted, the patchy novel is a laborious read. The account of a marriage disintegrating during a voyage to Reykjavik is a muddled work which only comes alive during the final twenty pages. Simenon’s trademark atmospheric prose is not enough to lift a novel tries to simultaneously romanticize the seafaring life, settle old scores (Simenon’s mother is present in the form of the ship captain’s wife Mathilde), and offer commentary on the French class system. The text’s primary appeal is that Simenon consciously drew from his life experiences. A lesser work in comparison to the remainder of the roman durs canon, it is nonetheless a key novel to read in order to solve the mystery of Georges Simenon.

The Pitards is published by Penguin.

Blu-ray Review: Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy)

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Retro-futurist classic from the Cold War era continues to delight.

One of the most significant names in the history of Czech animation, Karel Zeman has frequently been referred to as the Czech Méliès. Working in the pre-CGI era, his pioneering use of special effects anticipated digital techniques used in contemporary science fiction films.

Admired by Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson, Zeman was one of the few Czechoslovakian directors to receive international acclaim in the period before the Czech new waves searing satirical bite lit up art house cinema screens.

Previously the head of a department store’s advertising section, in 1943 he was offered a job at the Bata Film Studios in Zlín after film director Elmar Klos submitted a report on Zeman’s window-dressing. At the studio he collaborated with Hermina Tyrlova on the short film A Christmas Dream. Released in 1945, the film was Zeman’s first attempt at combining live-action footage with animation. The film won the Grand Prix International for best short fiction film at the Cannes International Film Festival.

In 1955 Zeman directed his first feature-length film Journey to the Beginning of Time. Predating Jurassic Park by several decades the film was a semi-educational adventure story that extensively employed animation, models, matte-paintings, and puppetry.

Today the director is best known to international audiences for his cycle of Jules Verne inspired films and The Fabulous Baron Münchhausen. Four years after the release of Journey to the Beginning of Time the director received widespread international acclaim for Invention for Destruction.

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A strong contender for the first steampunk film, Invention for Destruction (alternatively known as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne ) was exported to 72 countries. In America, a dubbed version was initially released as the bottom-half of a double bill with the kids’ friendly circus film Bimbo the Great. At one point 96 cinemas in New York City were simultaneously screening Zeman’s film.

Marketed in America as a children’s film, in other territories it was recognised as a major achievement in the development of European cinema. The film won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58 in Brussels and was praised by André Bazin in Cahiers du cinéma.

Ostensibly based on Jules Verne’s 1856 book Facing the Flag, Zeman’s film incorporates plot points from the French writer’s Voyages extraordinaires novels. The film presages the phantasmagorical imagery offered up in CGI heavy blockbusters.

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A 2010 Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication stated that Invention for Destruction was the most successful Czech film of all time. Despite the acclaim washed upon it and international box office success, the film is perpetually out of time. The techniques employed by Zeman may have been reused by Terry Gilliam but the experience of watching the film offers no other reference point except other Zeman movies. The director created cinematic art which was undeniably unique and stretched the boundaries of what it was possible to achieve with special FX in a pre-Star Wars era.

Commentators have suggested that the film is Zeman’s response to the detonating of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A warning of the dangers of technology should it fall into the wrong hands. The film celebrates science’s advances but strikes a cautionary tone.

Emphasising artifice the film’s distinctive retro-futurist visual style is a homage to woodcuts and illustrations featured in early editions of Verne’s novels. Posters for the film’s American release declared it was ‘The First Motion Picture Produced in the Magic-Image Miracle of Mysti-mation!’ Zeman’s smorgasbord of techniques incorporates multiple layers of effects and live-action to create one of Czechoslovakia’s most visually distinctive films.

Narrative cohesion is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of visual splendour but when every frame is filled with wit and inventiveness any discontinuities are swiftly ignored. Zeman’s playful juxtapositions emphasise the fantastic. The film is an inventive steampunk odyssey filled with mechanical wonders and an exploding octopus.

Invention for Destruction is available to order from the Karel Zeman Museum.

Desert Island DVDs: Douglas Skelton

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Douglas Skelton is a former journalist. He has written eleven acclaimed true crime and Scottish history books before making a splash on the Tartan crime fiction scene with his dark novel Blood City. Years spent researching Glasgow’s criminal underworld for newspapers and his non- fiction books have ensured his novels are packed with authentic details. His fourth novel, Open Wounds, was nominated for the 2016 McIlvanney Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award. His most recent novel is Tag You’re Dead.

Ahead of his appearance at Bloody Scotland Douglas Skelton chatted about the five DVDs he’d take with him if he was stuck on a desert island.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Spain, 1966)

‘I’m a huge fan of westerns and, although not overly enamoured by the so–called spaghetti western genre (apart from the music), I am very fond of the Sergio Leone films. This one carries all the trademarks of his later work – big, loud, bags of style and sly humour. And, of course, there’s Morricone’s score.’

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The Guard (Ireland 2012)

‘Proudly and defiantly profane, John Michael McDonough’s blackly humorous thriller is a sheer delight. Very much in the vein of his brother Martin’s classic ‘In Bruges’ – and sharing a star in the always wonderful Brendan Gleeson – this is pitch perfect and stands up to multiple viewings.’

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The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (Spain, 1973/74)

‘No, not cheating here – these were originally supposed to be one long epic but the producers released the footage in two parts, much to the annoyance of the cast who were paid for only one film. Director Richard Lester and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser tapped into the humour of the novel, attracted an international roster of stars and mounted a sumptuous production. Funny to think the producers originally planned it as a vehicle for The Beatles.’

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ZULU (South Africa, 1963)

‘Good old British grit was served up in this classic adventure along with a fine cast of well–known faces (Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, James Booth, the marvellous Nigel Green and, of course, Michael Caine), stunning location shoots, exciting battle scenes and a thunderous score from John Barry. ‘

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The Ipcress File (UK, 1965)

Michael Caine (again), Nigel Green (again) and composer John Barry (again), this time competing against director Sydney J. Furie’s camera angles in a stylish adaptation of Len Deighton’s book. The agent is given a name – Harry Palmer – and a pair of glasses and an icon is born. Nicely chilly and downbeat. And let me mention Barry’s work again – twangy, evocative and so sixties.’

Bloody Scotland booking information.

Douglas Skelton is published by Contraband

DVD Review: The Juniper Tree

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Slow-burning Icelandic Folk Horror.

Bleaker than Disney adaptations, this version of a Brothers Grimm fairytale is an overlooked film that viewed from a twenty-first-century perspective is a much-needed antidote to Twilightified narratives.

Director Nietzchka Keene was originally in Iceland on a Fullbright scholarship to make a different film when she decided to jettison the project and bring the dark Grimms story to the screen.

Keene’s melancholic and austere film evokes the story’s unsettling tone without being too slavish in following the original text. Wisely choosing to be free with the source material, the director relocated the story to Iceland. Removing the narrative from its original Germanic setting and placing it in a new historically specific context gave it a grounding which would have been resonated with Icelandic audiences. Trimming the story’s more fantastical elements, the director was committed to communicating a sense of plausibility.

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Recording a then vanishing folklore tradition, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales were originally written for an adult readership. Sanitized by publishers and Disney screen adaptations, the original versions of the tales are dark and disturbing explorations of a society’s social, cultural, psychological, and psychosexual fears. Nietzchka Keene had studied the narratives and wanted to wed their commentary on female sexuality with a study of Icelandic folklore traditions in the period immediately after the nation converted to Christianity.

In Icelandic folk tales, the divide between the worlds of the living and dead is not firm and fixed, deceased family members return to issue warnings or tempt the living into tasting death’s embrace. Nietzchka Keene’s changes to the Grimm’s narrative incorporates this strand of folk literature. Adding the ghost of a deceased mother to the story accentuates the already palpable sense of unease.

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Filmed in the summer of 1986, the film seemed fated to rot in an archive. Lead actor Bjork’s propulsion to internationally successful recording artist resulted in funds to complete editing being made available and the film was released in 1990.

Self-consciously meshing contrasts, the film demands total concentration. Its commitment to historical authenticity is deliberately offset by the decision to get Icelandic actors to record their dialogue in English. Filmed in stark monochrome, the dramatic beauty of an Icelandic summer has never before seemed so menacing on screen.

This Nordic Folk Horror is worthy to be placed alongside The Wicker Man, BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and Witchfinder General.

The Juniper Tree is available to order from Amazon.

Book Review: Getting Carter by Nick Triplow

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Comprehensive biography delivers everything you wanted to know about the rise and fall of an influential writer.

Despite being well respected in France and attaining cult status in America, Ted Lewis is largely forgotten in his native Britain. Author of nine novels, his legacy today largely rests on the move adaptation of Jack’s Return Home, filmed as Get Carter.

Fusing techniques borrowed from the hard-boiled American crime fiction with social realism he founded a new school of British crime writing. Continuing to exert a strong influence on contemporary fiction, echoes of his most famous work can be found in Jake Arnott’s underworld novels, Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast, David Peace’s Red Riding trilogy, and Shane Meadows’ film Dead Man Shoes. Notable fans of the author include Derek Raymond, James Sallis, Max Allan Collins, Ben Myers, and Cathi Unsworth.

In life and death, the author drifted into relative obscurity and his most famous work has been obscured by the better-known Michael Caine starring film version. Despite being championed by a small but dedicated group of admirers greater acclaim continues to elude Lewis and his work. Currently, most of his novels are out of print in print in the UK. For decades Ted Lewis was one of the most significant British crime authors most people had never read.

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Nick Triplow’s meticulously researched biography is the definitive account of Lewis’ life and his work’s continued relevance. The book is a nuanced study of a tortured soul that is as compelling and rich as anything written by Lewis.

Equal parts social document and crime fiction, the best of Lewis’ novels attempted to stretch the parameters of what it was possible to achieve within the confines of British crime fiction. Defined in the popular consciousness by the Mike Hodges directed film Get Carter, Triplow reveals that the adaptation was largely ignored or misunderstood until undergoing rediscovery and rehabilitation in the 1990s courtesy of Loaded magazine’s aborted attempt to publish a comic-strip version. Triplow suggests that Crime Time‘s publication of a Lewis retrospective issue in 1997 alongside the screening of a restored Get Carter at the National Film Theatre momentarily placed the author, or more specifically his most commercially successful work, in the new laddism zeitgeist. It was particularly apt that the book and film were reappraised in the dying days of Britpop having previously been recognised as signalling the end of the 1960s.

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Interviewing school friends, university classmates, work colleagues, drinking pals, and fellow writers Triplow examines possible causes of Lewis’ self-destructive behaviour and his excessive drinking. Discussing Lewis’ literary output in relation to his life Triplow reveals that the author frequently transposed real events, people, and places into his work. The experience of being tormented by a sadistic headmaster was retold in Lewis’ 1975 novel The Rabbit. Gangsters met in Soho drinking clubs inspired characters and events in Get Carter and subsequently written crime novels and TV scripts.

Getting Carter is an impressive study that shatters numerous half-truths and myths about Lewis that have circulated since his death. Triplow skilfully recreates a long lost era enabling the reader to momentarily walk in Lewis’ path and understand why he stood apart from other crime writers.

Getting Carter is published by No Exit Press

Book Review: Folk Horror by Adam Scovell

 

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What is Folk Horror? When did a group of disparate texts become linked under the banner of a relatively new subgenre? Do the works of M.R. James, Dennis Wheatley, and Nigel Kneale share common preoccupations? Were The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General exploitation films or did they reveal something deeper about that era’s attempts to reconcile conflicting views of past? How has this previously critically scorned subgenre become the focus of scholarship?

Writer and filmmaker Adam Scovell’s text is a subjective survey of the genre that explores its genealogy, formation of a cannon, and wider considerations about cultural shifts. Arguing that the subgenre is fluid, the author suggests that instead of using Folk Horror as a term to retrospectively categrorise books, films, and TV series, it should be employed to open up discussion about thematically connected texts and what present day attempts to form a cannon may say about the critical community.

Acknowledging that ‘Folk’ is an ambiguous term, Scovell’s study suggests that it may refer to cultural practices, aesthetic practices specific to a particular community, and thematic commonalities. Particular focus is paid to the 1960s counter-culture movement and the emergence of alternative lifestyles. This subculture sought to establish a socially progressive model of society which incorporated Folk traditions.

Scovell concedes establishing a precise definition of ‘Horror’ is equally problematic. The term is constantly modified and historically has incorporated Folklore based narratives.

The author suggests that the term may have been originated by director Piers Haggard in a 2003 interview for Fangoria Magazine.

Mark Gatiss’ 2010 documentary series A History of Horror used the term to categorize three films; The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, and The Wicker Man. Gatiss noted that the films ‘shared a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore, and superstitions.’ Scovell uses the same three films to form a Folk Horror Chain which provides a theoretical model for analysis of the subgenre, commercial imperatives, reception by later generations of critics and fans, alongside an analysis of contemporary cultural trends.

Scovell’s study is wide-ranging in scope and rigorous in its analysis. The book analyses a vast array of Folk Horror literature, films, and TV series demonstrating that the subgenre is still a potent creative and commercial force. Establishing a theoretical base for further academic investigation, he identifies core thematic elements and offers potential explanations for why Folk Horror continues to resonate.

Folk Horror is published by Auteur Publishing

Adam Scovell’s has written about key Folk Horror films for the BFI.