The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By

by Georges Simenon
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

Kees Popinga

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Kees Popinga (poh-peen-GAH), a forty-year-old man who is proud of his family, possessions, and responsible position as managing clerk for Julius De Coster and Son, Ship Chandlers. He is a model citizen of Groningen, Holland. He changes radically, however, into the man referred to in Paris newspapers as the “Madman from the Zuider Zee” and the “Thug from Amsterdam” as a result of an unexpected meeting with his employer. De Coster tells Kees that he no longer has a job, that the firm is bankrupt, and that he himself is leaving town. These events, along with a vague longing for a change, prompt Kees to give up his respectable way of life. He finds that he enjoys reading about himself as a criminal. When police arrest unruly customers at a café where Kees waits for Jeanne, he hides in the lavatory. From that time on, he identifies himself with the criminal world. Having rejected the values that previously had ordered his life, Kees believes that he is free to do whatever he wants with impunity. As a result of his exploits, Kees is convinced that he is a superior person, and he wants others to recognize this. Newspaper articles continue to refer to him as a maniac. One of his letters directing the police to the car thieves’ base of operation results in the thieves agreeing to help the police find him. Kees realizes that he must severely restrict his behavior, the very thing he considers abhorrent, to remain free. In the end, he is sent to an insane asylum in Amsterdam. Ironically, Kees is institutionalized for trying to free himself from bourgeois values.


Mums, Kees Popinga’s wife, an amiable and dignified woman who is devoted to her family. Shocked by Kees’s abandonment, she believes that his behavior is a result of a fit of madness or loss of memory. To support her family, she finds work at the Van Jonghe biscuit factory. After Kees is institutionalized, she visits him regularly.

Julius De Coster

Julius De Coster (zhew-LYEWS deh koh-STEHR), a man nearly sixty years of age who heads the firm of Julius De Coster and Son, Ship Chandlers. At a chance meeting with Kees Popinga, he confesses that his family’s supposedly reputable firm always has been involved in fraudulent activities. Because the firm is bankrupt, he decides to fake suicide and leave Groningen. He advises Kees to give up his respectable life and begin again on a new plane.

Jeanne Rozier

Jeanne Rozier (zhahn roh-ZYAY), a prostitute and a car thief’s mistress. She tries to help Kees by introducing him to her criminal friends after she learns that he is a murderer.

Pamela Mackinsen

Pamela Mackinsen, Julius De Coster’s mistress, a cabaret dancer whom Kees Popinga murders.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836

In a sense, Georges Simenon has written the book that Kees did not write, but the truth contained in it remains subject to question. The title suggests that Kees Popinga watched longingly as life passed him by. His stifling home and rigid respectability enable the reader to sympathize with his wish to escape and to comprehend his dream of being a different Kees, his feeling that the rascally de Coster is the man who does what another, deeply buried Kees would like to do.

Yet even in the first chapter there are warning notes: “Kees tended to over-play his part...were he to give way in the smallest point there were no lengths to which he would not go.” The rigidity of his life has kept him safe. Associated with his love of night trains is “the streak of wildness latent in his mental make-up,” the longing for the improper, the idea that anyone leaving on the night train is gone forever. The distance from himself and from reality suggested by his vision of himself, playing himself, grows stronger as Kees’s mental illness increases.

The shattering of his illusions about his employer, the end of his security and respectability, are represented by Kees as the advent of freedom. Paradoxically, Simenon insists that free choice ended when Kees left home on December 22: “Then destiny took charge.”

Simenon is always concerned with the relation of environment to character, and he has said that he is interested in what a man shows himself to be when he is stretched to the limit. The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By shows how a shock unhinges a man who has spent his life conforming. Yet this shock does not make Kees a different being: It merely brings into play characteristics already present, though hidden.

The coincidence of person and circumstance produces the apparently uncharacteristic act with its predictable and inexorable consequences. Thus while Simenon seems to chronicle the decline into criminality of a conventional man who “lets go,” he also takes care to present the paranoid characteristics which increase during the course of the narrative. For example, de Coster remarks that his managing clerk has always had a high opinion of himself though he is unaware of the frauds perpetrated under his nose. Previously, Kees revenged himself in petty ways on those who attacked his image of himself. Both these characteristics, like his detachment from reality, become increasingly evident as the novel progresses. By the end of the novel, the world and everyone in it are unworthy of his attention, are merely comic. His wife’s concern for their children makes him discover her inferiority to a “man of wide experience like himself.”

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is essentially the study of one character. Certainly Mums, with her flannel drawers, her solid figure, her pasting, her stifling domesticity, is easy to picture and easy to understand. She is not belittled for the competence she brings to dealing with financial disaster, which underlines her husband’s irresponsibility, and her regular visits to him in the asylum indicate her family loyalty.

Jeanne, the Parisian prostitute, is presented with clear, neutral understanding. Her reactions to Kees as a client, her relationship to Louis, and her reactions to police questioning provide the reader with a coherent system of antisocial reactions and relations. The gang members are differentiated only in superficial ways; for example, Louis is merely a function. De Coster has solidity: He is an engaging rascal as he cheerfully reveals his years of skulduggery, his family’s tradition of fraud, his own established infidelities, and those of his wife. De Coster exists to provide both motive and example for Kees’s escape, but he exists quite vividly in the reader’s mind, perhaps because he is present in Kees’s own mind.

Although the novel is written in the third person, Simenon inhabits Kees; indeed, he knows more of Kees than Kees knows of himself. Thus the reader sees characters and events from Kees’s point of view, feels the stifling routine of his home, chuckles over the sugared soup and the drowned chessman. Kees appeals to the universal wish to break out of the traces: “I am not crazy....I am merely a man who at the age of forty has determined to live as he thinks fit, without bothering about convention or the laws; for I have discovered, if somewhat late in life, that I was the dupe of appearance.”

Nevertheless, Simenon’s technical skill is evident in his management of the reader’s sympathy. As Kees becomes divorced from reality, the reader becomes divorced from Kees. Although he is clearheaded, can eat, sleep, plan, and play chess, yet his enjoyment of his notoriety, his view of his own behavior as justified and reasonable, his increasing sense of superiority all limit the reader’s identification with him. Thus, by the end of the novel, Kees has withdrawn from reality and the reader has withdrawn from Kees.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31

Becker, Lucille F. Georges Simenon, 1977.

Bresler, Fenton S. The Mystery of Georges Simenon: A Biography, 1983.

Lambert, Gavin. The Dangerous Edge, 1976.

Narcejac, Thomas. The Art of Simenon, 1952.

Raymond, John. Simenon in Court, 1968.

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