The Snow Was Black Summary
by Georges Simenon

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The Snow Was Black Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Frank Friedmaier is a young man who lives on the third floor of a tenement in an unnamed city under foreign occupation. Frank shares his apartment with his mother, Lotte, who runs a brothel, and various prostitutes in her employ. Frank is a pimp, and he is the antihero of The Snow Was Black, a novel often critically acclaimed as Simenon’s greatest work.

Almost all of Simenon’s novels are studies of a single character. Simenon explores the world through Frank’s sociopathic perception. Early in the novel, Frank kills a man he does not like but hardly knows in order to impress other men he hardly knows who do not like Frank. Law has been replaced by a perverted state of nature, dividing citizens into two camps: those who quietly endure or secretly resist the occupation, or those, like Frank and his mother, who cater to the occupiers.

Frank’s great obsession is his neighbor, Gerhardt Holst, and Holst’s virgin daughter, Sissy. Sissy is infatuated with Frank, and Frank abuses Sissy’s affection in order to capture her father’s attention. Holst represents dignity and decency and paternal discipline, qualities Frank has never experienced but seeks to understand.

One of the key events in the novel is when Frank leads Sissy to what she believes will be her first sexual experience, but Frank substitutes his friend, Fred Kromer, for himself, and Kromer rapes Sissy while Frank listens at the door. Frank wants to be recognized, to get attention for his awful deeds, and especially to force Holst to deal with him as a person. However, Holst continues to ignore him, even as Sissy suffers a nervous breakdown and a lengthy illness.

Defying authority, Frank yearns to be arrested, to undergo correction. Frank wants discipline, a father figure. One day, with no warning or any resistance on Frank’s part, he is arrested. His crime, one he is unaware of committing, is possessing stolen currency.

Frank languishes in prison, and every morning a group of prisoners is marched into the courtyard and executed. He is treated like an animal, isolated from the other prisoners, tormented by his interrogator, a man Frank thinks of as “the old gentleman.”

Months pass, and Frank’s mother and her prostitutes come to visit. Frank is questioned routinely in long sessions with “the old gentleman” punctuated by beatings. Finally, Holst and Sissy come to visit him. In Frank’s tired, twisted mind this visit vindicates his existence, provides him with redemption. Holst finally recognizes Frank’s existence, and Frank finally surrenders his will. He confesses everything. He only wants to die at a place and time of his captor’s choosing. One rainy morning, at long last, he joins a line of prisoners and is taken out into the yard and shot.

This sobering book is Simenon’s war novel, though written in 1948 in the comfort of the United States. Simenon did not abandon France during the Occupation, but Simenon was not French, and the occupation he writes of is not based on the occupation of France in World War II but is based more on the occupation of Simenon’s home country of Belgium during World War I.

The occupation Simenon knew best was that of Liège, when, as a boy, he learned that everyone cheated the system in order to survive. Simenon believed that a man learned most of what he needed to know by the age of eighteen, and if he had not learned a lesson by then, he probably was not going to learn. The Snow Was Black represents what Simenon learned, as a youth, of enemy occupation.


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Snow Was Black begins in a cafe during winter, in a city occupied by unidentified troops, probably Nazis. Frank Friedmaier, nineteen years old, having borrowed a knife from a friend, Fred Kromer, decides to kill a noncommissioned police officer sitting at a nearby table with two women. Frank does not know the officer’s name; he has no apparent reason to kill, as he is not a member of the Resistance. Frank waits outside in an alley, his back against the wall of an...

(The entire section is 1,542 words.)