Claude Simon Essay - Critical Essays


Most of Claude Simon’s critics divide the evolution of his novels into three principal phases: an initial period, consisting largely of traditional novels and ending with two transitional works, The Wind and The Grass; a middle period, commencing with The Flanders Road and concluding with Conducting Bodies; and a third period, beginning with Triptych, which includes The Georgics. These divisions, although somewhat arbitrary, are based on Simon’s developing formal concerns.

Thematically, there is considerable unity among Simon’s novels. Indeed, it is this thematic material, with its psychological, social, and cultural richness, that—combined with Simon’s experimentation with the novelistic form—separates him from other New Novelists whose works often serve as pretexts for the demonstration of a particular theory of novel writing. Simon’s novels are not confined within a prison of solipsistic self-reflection that reduces all the elements of fiction to metaphors of its own creation.

At the heart of Simon’s universe lies a fundamental absurdity—a tension between the inherent disorder of reality and those means by which the human consciousness attempts to impose upon it a logic and coherence. War, sexual desire, and, to a lesser extent, avarice are the violent forces that tend to shatter the specious order of everyday existence and thus reveal its underlying chaos. Simon’s vision of reality is pessimistic: Matter is in a constant state of mutation; the passage of time ineluctably undermines human activity; history seems to mock the human desire for progress, for it offers only patterns of cyclic repetition that reduce human beings to actors playing out predetermined roles; eroticism becomes a means of provisionally escaping from time and history.

A crucial aspect of the absurdity of the human condition lies in the attempt to discern the reality of experience and hence establish a definitive identity. The intrusion of human consciousness into the world results in the transformation of perceptions into images. No sooner does a given perception take place than it becomes a mental image, stripped of its original spatiotemporal coordinates and shaped by and connected with other images by a variety of associative processes. Thus, if knowledge of the real is essentially subjective, a creative representation, the self becomes an imaginary construct. A crucial complication arises from the use of language as a tool of discovery. For Simon, there is an inevitable “slippage” between word and thing. Experience is filtered through the order of language and thus becomes the material of fiction.

Simon’s early novels differ from those of his middle and recent periods in that their largely traditional plot structure, character development, and language create a coherence that is not consonant with Simon’s view of reality—style and vision are not integrated. With The Wind and notably the novels of his middle period, The Flanders Road, The Palace, Histoire, The Battle of Pharsalus, and Conducting Bodies, the central narrative consciousness becomes aware not only of the nature of experience, such as Simon depicts it, but also of the inadequacy of the means by which one attempts to seize its reality and that of the self immersed in it. This awareness converges with the search for new forms by the novelist. Thus, one finds in these novels, among other characteristics, the dissolution of chronology and plot, the fragmentation of character, and an unstable narrative perspective.

These novels are also marked, to varying degrees, by the proliferation of language: an abundance of descriptive terms to circumscribe a given phenomenon, syntactic dislocation to accommodate various associative links as well as appositions and rectifications, frequent use of the present participle to detemporalize actions and transform them into states. The inevitable generation of fictions transforms the novel into a mode of knowledge. Other media are frequently used to put into sharper relief the illusory movement of the text. Frequent references to paintings and other kinds of “stills” as well as to the cinema reflect upon the nature of that movement through the animation of the isolated, static image. Like the optical illusion created by the movement of frames in a film, a painting or postcard is narrated and is transformed into a text with its complex web of associations. This process has been compared to the reconstruction of a fossil, where a few bare bones may evoke an entire epoch. Other literary texts may also serve as part of the cultural inventory by which fictions are generated and in which the narrative consciousness attempts to locate itself.

In the phase of Simon’s writing that comprises Triptych, The World About Us, and The Georgics, the central narrative consciousness disappears and is replaced by the text constituting itself as tissue through the interweaving of several stories. The proliferating language of Simon’s middle phase gives way to more coherently structured intersecting sequences that serve as elements of a particular story as well as associative junction linking one story to another.

Simon’s departure from traditional modes of narration has resulted in the need for a more active participation by the reader, who must create (rewrite), through the process of reading, those patterns and structures that are suggested by the text. Only through this difficult but ultimately rewarding participation can the reader share with the writer the conception of the novel as a means of exploring the shifting, complex relationships between self, world, and word.

The Wind

Although The Wind bears many resemblances to Simon’s earlier, more traditional fiction, it poses, both thematically and stylistically, several of the questions regarding narrative perspective, temporality, the elusive nature of reality, and the structuring role of language that would henceforth preoccupy the author.

The novel’s title refers to the ceaselessly blowing wind that characterizes the climate of the unnamed town in southern France where the events of the novel take place. More than a simple indication of local color, the wind functions as a metaphor of the destructive passage of time—its ceaseless activity, its erosive power, its effect of intermingling disparate elements. Its pervasive presence underlines the transitoriness of the characters’ lives and their futile attempts to impose a coherence upon reality.

The novel’s subtitle—Attempted Restoration of a Baroque Altarpiece—adumbrates the narrator’s failure to adequately restore the past. The notion of an altarpiece suggests that the reconstitution in question will be an artistic endeavor that will leave the past still mysterious and even mystical. One can apply the term “baroque” to the sort of fiction that Simon produces in The Wind and also in his later novels. In this context, one can think of the baroque as the dynamic tension that exists between product and production, between the completed work of art as an illusion and the processes that engendered it and that tend to undermine that illusion.

The mysterious past that the anonymous narrator of the novel attempts to restore has as its locus the protagonist of the story, Antoine Montès. He is a thirty-five-year-old man whose development seems to have been arrested during his childhood. Like Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prince Myshkin in Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887), a novel to which The Wind is indebted, Montès is an innocent, an almost saintlike figure to whom people are mysteriously attracted. He is incapable of comprehending the complex and sometimes sinister events that swirl around him and for which his presence acts as a catalyst. The naïveté of Montès makes it even more difficult for the narrator to reconstitute the story of what transpired during the seven months that Montès had recently spent in the town.

Montès returns to the town where he was conceived in order to claim his deceased father’s estate—a valuable but rather dilapidated farm. Montès arrives in town as an obvious eccentric. His shabby, ill-fitting clothes are covered by an even shabbier, stained raincoat. Around his neck hangs an expensive camera—he is a photographer by profession—and he carries with him a worn leather briefcase stuffed with documents and letters of various sorts.

He quickly discovers that claiming his inheritance is more difficult than he had expected. The resident steward of the property ties up the estate in litigation. Montès is compelled to spend most of his time in legal affairs and is forced to take a room in a seedy hotel. There he falls in love with a maid named Rose—if love is indeed the term one can apply to the curious affection he feels for the woman. Rose lives with a Gypsy boxer named Jep, who has fathered her two children. Montès’s involvement with Rose is further complicated when he discovers that she is concealing the loot from a jewel theft in which Jep was involved. She is persuaded to give the jewels to Montès for safekeeping, an act that leads to her death. She is stabbed by Jep, who in turn is shot dead by the police.

Also living at the hotel is a traveling salesman named Maurice. He tries in vain to obtain the jewelry and is forced to settle for an attempt at blackmail. He steals a letter written to Montès by his young cousin Cécile. The letter asks for a rendezvous with Montès, whom Cécile, having broken her engagement, is apparently attempting to seduce so she can get a share of the property. Cécile’s sister Hélène snatches the letter from Maurice before he can extort money from her father, Montès’s uncle, a gentleman farmer living in a crumbling house, surrounded by the portraits of his illustrious military forebears.

With Rose dead, her two daughters in an orphanage, and the case against the steward lost, Montès is obliged to sell the property and leave town. Once his disturbing presence is removed, the town resumes its former patterns of existence as if nothing had ever happened. Rose is replaced by another maid, Cécile returns to her fiancé, the steward occupies the farm. The narrator is left behind, as it were, to try to piece together what has taken place. He begins to suspect that the melodrama he has established in his attempt to reconstitute the past is but an illusion, based, in part, upon his inherent desire to give an order and coherence to events and personalities that would by their very nature otherwise elude him. He is also aware that his means of ordering the past—language—is suspect. He compares language to a thick sauce by means of which one holds together the disparate components of a dish and renders them edible. The logic of grammar and syntax restructures and domesticates reality. The disparity between the order of language and the disorder of reality is also manifested in certain stylistic traits that in later novels, particularly in The Flanders Road, would become characteristic of Simon’s writing. Among them one can note a proliferation of descriptive terms used to “capture” a given phenomenon and the frequent use of the temporally indeterminate present participle.

The Flanders Road

The publication of The Flanders Road placed Simon in the first ranks of the New Novelists, bringing him the critical attention he had hitherto not enjoyed. It remains the best known of his novels. The protagonist of the novel is a young man named Georges. As a soldier in World War II, he is a victim of the rout of the French army by vastly superior German forces. His cavalry unit is decimated, and its leader, Captain de Reixach, Georges’s aristocratic cousin, is killed. Georges is captured and placed in a German prisoner-of-war camp along with two of his comrades, Blum, a Jew suffering from tuberculosis, and Iglésia, a jockey formerly in the employ of de Reixach. Two years after the end of the war, Georges has a brief affair with Corinne, de Reixach’s beautiful wife, now remarried. During the course of a night of lovemaking in a hotel room, Georges, his memory stimulated by the presence of Corinne, attempts to recapture the events of the war and, in so doing, determine his own identity.

Two questions emerge as leitmotifs in Georges’s search for the past. One concerns the circumstances of de Reixach’s death. Was he simply a casualty of the war, surprised in a German ambush, or had he sought to expose himself to death after having discovered that his wife had been unfaithful with Iglésia? The second question is more fundamental, encompassing the doubt about the Captain’s death and the whole of Georges’s enterprise: “How do we know?”

Georges is faced with the problem of separating fact from fantasy. He must somehow reconstitute his perceptions of the war, such as they took place at the time, freeing them from the network of mental images in which they are bound. Furthermore, he must in some way also find a language that will not transform his experiences into fictions. This search upon which Georges has embarked can result only in failure.

War reveals to Georges the tyranny of time and history. In a previous novel, The Grass, Simon compared the process of history to the continuous showing of a film—the same pattern of events returning at regular intervals. In The Flanders Road, the story of a de Reixach ancestor who served as...

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