Claude Simon Essay - Simon, Claude (Vol. 9)

Simon, Claude (Vol. 9)

Simon, Claude 1913–

A French novelist, Simon began his career as a painter, and painterly concepts are evident in his fiction. Like a painter, Simon attempts to convey, simultaneously, his thematic concerns. He does not deal in time sequences or successive events. In the New Novelist tradition, Simon presents a sensory picture through extremely long sentences lacking punctuation and requiring much of the reader. This accentuates Simon's belief, like Picasso's, that an artist's first duty is to himself. (See also CLC, Vol. 4.)

Perhaps … with the publication of "Conducting Bodies," his 11th novel and seventh to appear in English, Claude Simon will finally gain full recognition in the United States as one of France's most eminent novelists and as one of the most inventive and truly profound exponents of fiction anywhere. "The Flanders Road," "The Grass" and especially "Histoire" did earn critical praise this side of the Atlantic but Simon, like most practitioners of the French New Novel, is still insufficiently read. The highly complex structure of his works requires a great effort from the reader—an effort amply rewarded. Simon is concerned primarily with the outer limits of fiction: the probe into the process of fiction itself, the novel about the novel. However, where Proust analyzed its genesis, Simon explores the very mechanism of fiction, its fictivity.

For Claude Simon, literature is not expressed through language, it is language; the movement of language produces the work of art and is fully identical with it. McLuhan's dictum applies: the medium is the message, the writing is the novel. Simon's … recent works—particularly "Conducting Bodies"—are novels about the generative power of language, about the creative adventure of words, rather than words about an adventure. The visual orientation of all his books finds its fullest expression in "Conducting Bodies," with the theme of the work of fiction creating itself now intricately demonstrated through images. The mode of association and generation is pictorial rather than thematic or linguistic, proceeding via juxtapositions of visual stimuli.

Behind the dazzling inventory of sensations there are also elements of a story, although one cannot properly speak of a plot….

The narrative is propelled by means of elements (or "bodies"), fragmenting the present and radiating to different zones of past experience, conducting (as one might use the term in physics) to new associations of images: paintings, lights, posters, newspaper ads, shapes, colors, New York City. Simon uses a technique of literary collage, full of subtle resonances and with echoes constantly reverberating between the gradually revealed surfaces of things. The effect is not the usual, realistic, pseudo three-dimensional portrayal, but rather a flattening-out of surfaces so as to suggest simultaneity of elements, much in the Cubist manner.

The novel reaches no conclusion; it just ends. The traveler's illness persists, his memories continue to haunt him. The path of the novel has not been a linear journey from a beginning to an end, but an apparently random set of associations linked merely by the author's spontaneity.

Simon uses literary equivalents of cinema techniques to achieve rapid or striking transitions in time or space; he particularly resorts to the present tense to isolate some single factor beyond its habitual temporal and spatial context. Some 10 pages of scenes totally unrelated logically are linked exclusively through associations of various rectangles—their rectangular shape being their only common denominator.

Claude Simon has stated that his initial generator in the writing of "Conducting Bodies" was a collage composition in rectangles by Robert Rauschenberg. He has also said that a descriptive subtitle might be "properties of various figures, geometric and others." His book, however, is much more than an examination of properties, more than a work about nothing. It is a novel that brilliantly puts into focus the process of creation by enabling us to follow the artist's eye, his sensitivity, as it selects, shapes, integrates the material of the exterior world in order to turn it into images of creation, in order to fashion it into fiction. (p. 4)

Tom Bishop, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1974.

The title of [Conducting Bodies] (anti-novel, non-novel, post-novel) is rich with suggestion, mostly misleading. Corpsewatchers are not at issue here, nor is André Previn nor On the Buses, but rather the media, themselves unchanging, through which heat, magnetism and other passions pass; perhaps also the Indian guides of the Conquistadors, and certainly that pair of bodies rendered transparent by pain and regret whose slow coupling pulsates through the narrative.

It starts, ominously enough, with the punctilious description of a shop-window display, jump-cutting thence in various directions in space-time: one cannot speak of flash-backs, since the images are autonomous perceptions rather than part of a stream of consciousness. Sometimes the transitions are lucid and dazzling—the facade of a skyscraper into a page of print. Others are distractingly obscure…. In fact, the counterpoint of flesh and viscera is one of the hero-percipient's major preoccupations, as the themes of an abruptly ended affair and a gradually defined disease emerge from the flux of sharply visual images, dreamlike but never surreal.

The locus of action flickers between New York, a plane in flight, and a Spanish American city (Havana? But why shouldn't one know for certain?)…. It is no accident that the recurring images are ready-made—newspaper headlines, murals, the illustrations in an encyclopedia or a magazine. As in the flowchart of associations in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, all thoughts tend to a centre of gravity labelled "Death and Sex".

It is inappropriate, I am sure, to pick out a narrative thread like the old lost road through the woods; still less should one follow the advice of the blurb and piece together a jigsaw, which is to accuse the author of a piece of footling mystification. My own response, perhaps just as inapt, was to sort the fragments into separate piles, each crosslinked mainly by visual juxtapositions. The chronology is not that of a train of thought, but of a writer's drafts or cutting-room images.

The stream is directed by artifice rather than by natural gradient; not a roman-fleuve but a roman-canal. And as with a Roman candle, periods of coruscation are interrupted by fumblings in the dark with matches that do not strike. One is fatigued and irritated by banal passages…. Of course one can skip these passages, which is one reason writing can never approach the condition of music….

As I reread the novel, the images became sharper, the structure more precise, but more and more of it seemed a mere decoy: perhaps finally the only important action is the gradual disappearance of a patch of sunlight on a floor. One returns from an exhilarating Argonautic voyage, clutching a handful of damp wool.

Eric Korn, "Passing Passions," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 11, 1975, p. 753.

Although Claude Simon's work has developed quite clearly as an adventure into the invontive realm of language seen as an autonomous structure and not as the vehicle for expressing ideas about the world, this does not preclude the appearance in his novels of certain basic and familiar human themes. Such themes may remain implicit, particularly in his most recent writings, but they do give depth and body to his books, in a manner unlike that of any other 'new novelist'….

Simon's use of what we shall call 'visions of life in microcosm' provides a consistently effective summary of his major themes. Such is the scope of his writing that these metaphors range from sporting encounters to the chaotic experience of war and revolution, or they may concentrate attention on the communities and even the buildings in which the rituals of human life are enacted…. [They] function as concise distillations of his view of the world, and as invaluable landmarks in novels whose technique is that of poetic fragmentation. (p. 42)

In the scene at the rugby match [in Gulliver (1952)], there is a powerful vision of humanity en masse, absorbed in the aggressively concerted release of the pressures built up by a humdrum existence. Events on the field of play effectively liberate the crowd from the tensions born of inactivity and frustration. As one team threatens to gain ascendancy, violent emotions are aroused; when the promise is not kept, or is thwarted, the noise abates temporarily. The abstract and general terms used in the description suggest that life, like this game, is a perpetual sequence of hopes and disillusionments. (pp. 42-3)

The fact that there is no scoring underlines the futility of the players' efforts, and indeed the most striking feature of the game is that it is played amidst utter confusion. For the men on the field it is a totally mindless exercise; Simon emphasizes the blind, automatic manner in which they move around, goaded on by the roaring of the crowd, but unable to gain any decisive advantage. This in itself would not suffice to justify a reading of the episode as an illustration of the author's own 'philosophy', but the description is prolonged in terms which make it clear that this is rather more than a harmless dissipation of misplaced energies…. There is a bizarre atmosphere of hostility around the match…. [A] combination of pride and persecution … seems to be the principal motive, in Simon's novels, for human aggressiveness; the players are 'insulted' by the treachery of an enemy whom they have some difficulty in recognizing. There is something pathetic in the fact that so banal an occasion can produce so intense an effect upon the emotions of the herd. In this way, the rugby match, a straightforward physical encounter played in accordance with established rules, is expanded by the manner of its description into a metaphor of the human situation, which is one of aggression, the fundamental viciousness which Simon evokes time and again in his novels, whether in the exaggerated suspicions and revolt of young 'heroes', in the cut-throat bargaining of various commercial types, or in the paradoxical hostility of the sexual act.

Basic enmities apart, the match also serves to underline the absurdity of human enterprise. Although taking place in the aftermath of war, and therefore achieving a cathartic effect upon its spectators, the match is ultimately to be understood as futile, because of the conditions in which it is played…. [The] opening paragraph of the chapter establishes the familiar Simon pattern in which the effect of time is conveyed by the description of natural phenomena…. It also introduces the notion of dissolution which lies at the heart of every Simon novel. Despite its apparent insignificance, the rain is incessant and powerful: encompassing the whole scene, it wears down the resistance of things animate and inanimate alike. This then is an explicit parallel for the unselective work of time, dominating an event already overshadowed by the background presence of war. For all their clamouring, the human figures are temporary components in the scene, dwarfed by the dimensions of the natural landscape. (pp. 43-4)

[In] a much more recent novel, La Bataille de Pharsale,… the narrator, exploring the Greek countryside in search of the historic battlefield, comes instead upon a local football match…. Once again nature cancels out the expenditure of human energy as players and spectators are 'swallowed up' in the immense landscape; the terms of the description have become far less explicit and verbose. Simon's development as an artist is shown in La Bataille de Pharsale by his superb variations on the theme of history, in which even this match becomes an important factor. Simon uses it as an implicit commentary upon the 'historic' meeting of Caesar and Pompey on the plain of Pharsalus, which the narrator believes himself to have found. What, then, is he to make of the trivial spectacle of men chasing a ball?… [This] seems all the more meaningless in comparison with one of the most celebrated explosions of human violence. In this novel Simon creates a fascinating network of cross-references from one 'battle' to the other. Warfare and sport, it seems, differ only in degree as illustrations of the fundamental themes of aggression and transience. That the vocabulary of sport is essentially a vocabulary of war is borne out by its constant emphasis on terms of victory or defeat, and the two are juxtaposed…. The language of day-to-day existence is that of triumph and disaster, but even the greatest of these is as mercurial as its human participants, and it is the understanding of history as exaggeration that characterizes the narrators of Simon's best novels. (p. 44)

Some of the finest descriptions in La Route des Flandres concentrate upon the vividly imagined scene at a French race-course. At one point Simon broadens out the terms of the description to include a number of comments about the organization of society. The race-meeting attracts people from all walks of life, brought together by one mutual preoccupation: money. The gathering is broadly divisible into two categories; those wealthy enough to enjoy the spectacle, and those for whom something vital is at stake…. 'Decency' and 'morality', it is clear, are terms which become devalued when applied to those whose richness takes them beyond the reach of ordinary standards of behaviour. But this is equally true of people at the other end of the social (or financial) scale…. In a way, Simon is trying, with this financial theme, to show how the past shapes the present: the circumstances into which an individual is born dictate the pattern of his life, especially in terms of finance…. What [brings] the two sectors together … is their adherence to the principles of commerce, the only distinction being the sums of money involved. The passage as a whole underlines, in a totally unsentimental manner, the hierarchy of wealth which keeps the predators strictly apart from the poor. 'Luck', good or bad, is the determinant factor in the organization of social structures and of the individual's place within them, but in the last analysis 'le hasard' is depressingly indifferent to human aspirations, as the deserted race-course illustrates…. [The] serenity of time stands in ironic contrast to the ephemeral violence of human nature, and this is plainly a theme which has remained fundamental to Simon's work from its beginnings to its most mature development; his use of sporting encounters offers a highly effective synthesis of his major preoccupations.

It should not be surprising to find Simon using towns as the basis for microcosmic representations of life, since every township is both a reflection of human efforts and achievements, and the restricted space in which a typical cross-section of humanity evolves…. [For example], in Le Vent, the central character is brought into dramatic contact with a series of representative figures—notary, policeman, priest and so on—in an unspecified town in Southern France, but the most interesting examples are to be found in Le Palace and Histoire.

Over the fictional 'Barcelona' of Le Palace hangs a familiarly Simonian atmosphere of paralysis which, as the novel progresses, becomes indissociably linked with the theme of death and its inescapable presence in the city…. [As in La Peste], the city concerned is victim of a profound feeling of menace, but whereas Camus is deliberately setting out to elaborate a system of allegorical cross-references and to present characters who embody moral or philosophical attitudes, Simon is anxious above all to suggest and recapture atmosphere. Indeed he has been careful to disclaim all critical intention…. Subjective as it is,… the novel as a work of art may well provide a more telling account of events than the most objective of histories, and there is in Le Palace a distinct element of social or 'historical' commentary. The city described there is a microcosm in that it affords a summary of the 'lugubrious inventory' of history: it is a monument to the progress of civilization, the material configuration of the dogmas and credos of humanity. Stating this at the outset, Simon gives an ironic background to a novel whose broad theme is revolution. With the benefit of hindsight—historical perspective?—the central character of Le Palace is able to achieve a cynical reappraisal of the revolutionary ardour in which he had once been caught up. (pp. 44-6)

The revolutionary city [of Le Palace] is … a mirror of humanity against a background of extreme violence, and the whole point of the novel is that nothing is accomplished, largely because of the divergent and contradictory interests of the various individuals. (p. 47)

[The] townships which Simon describes are intended as microcosmic representations of life, and the one which appears in Histoire is no exception, containing as it does those institutions around which life constantly gravitates. Significantly enough, the narrator of the novel visits three buildings which have a symbolic function within the context of the novel: a bank, a restaurant and a bar. Situated in the very centre of the town, classical in design, the bank is the modern counterpart of the temple: not so much a place of public service as a bizarre and secretive institution whose occupants work out the life-patterns of the customers. It is the first stage in the narrator's renewed understanding of life as a depressingly commercial round…. The narrator's fixation with banknotes is an indication that life is an uninterrupted process of exchanging the infinite variety of reality for its mere synthetic counterparts. (pp. 47-8)

Paris and Barcelona in Le Palace, typical southern towns in Le Vent and Histoire: these are conventional and familiar human gatherings. But Simon has reserved his most powerful picture of life in microcosm for a community which is not actually a town but is still rigorously constructed upon the principles of all human society as Simon sees it. La Route des Flandres contains an important statement justifying a reading of the novel as a rapprochement of military disaster with the state of chaos inherent in the structure of the world…. In his account of the camp in La Route des Flandres, Simon uses some of his finest writing to create a picture of men clinging to the skeleton of civilized society. Somehow the occupants reinforce the commercial principles already observed elsewhere as the basis of that society. (p. 48)

[Another] vital element is the central symbol of men's enduring fascination with the game of chance as a means to improve their position. The scene around the card-table is a miniature within a miniature, in that it gathers together a further group of types from the camp's society…. The card-table is a familiar symbol of the influence of chance, described in Le Tricheur and Gulliver in particular, and seen as one of the standard rituals of life, where tension and the threat of violence are scarcely concealed. Here [as in the other novels] there are no individuals, only types…. The game provides an escape from a hideous reality….

Seen as a whole, this prison camp is a superb miniature of the structures of society. (p. 49)

The hospital in Le Sacre du Printemps is used as a symbolic reminder of transience, the captivity in time which is a major Simonian theme, evoked by the lowering atmosphere of the place…. The institution gives menacing shape to Simon's view of humanity's illusions. Fragility, insignificance and solitude: three terms which sum up the human condition, crystallized and exaggerated against a background of death. All the activities undertaken by men may be considered as the objectification of the desire to deny that condition, a kind of optimistic but tragic procrastination. Ultimately it is time that holds the key to this condition, standing as the fundamental theme of Simon's writing for the major part of his career. Even in so early a novel as Le Sacre du Printemps his art is established upon the familiar Shakespearean metaphor of 'the sound and the fury' which is the foundation for all the visions of life in microcosm discussed. If Simon seems to have abandoned this device in his latest novels, it is surely because the artist is moving towards a position where the book itself, and not any single part of it, is to be understood as a microcosmic distillation of reality. (p. 50)

S. W. Sykes, "Claude Simon: Visions of Life in Microcosm," in The Modern Language Review (© Modern Humanities Research Association 1976), January, 1976, pp. 42-50.

In Simon's writing, the constant narrowing of the range of the simile results in the continual frustration of the reader's expectations: the effect is one of anticlimax as the author's striving after an exact expression ties down the initial flight of fancy. The search for ever-greater precision echoes the over-all direction of Simon's books, where all is clear (supposedly) in retrospect…. Simon's [technique is one] of definition. (pp. 353-54)

[A] feature common to … [Simon and] a number of other nouveaux romanciers is the exploitation of sentence length. Abnormally long and complex sentences are often interspersed with very short ones, the grammatical links between them frequently being reinforced by repetition…. [The] repetition of certain images … may be used to suggest the obsessive workings of the mind, and this may also be true in the case of complex sentence structure with its increasing subordination as the mind seeks to define and moves off on new tracks….

[Simon makes] considerable use of images which dehumanize [his] subjects, frequently comparing people to animals or to inanimate objects. (p. 355)

[There] are a number of images in which there is some similarity between the various comparants, or vehicles of metaphor, with shared subjects including children, phantoms, masks and the notion of suspension, but their stylistic functions rarely coincide…. [Such] comparisons tend to fall … into the category of dehumanizing images…. (p. 356)

Paula M. Clifford, "The American Novel and the French 'Nouveau Roman': Some Linguistic and Stylistic Comparisons" (a revision of a speech originally delivered at University of East Anglia in December, 1975), in Comparative Literature Studies (© 1976 by the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois), December, 1976, pp. 348-58.

Critics of the nouveau roman have long contended that it is chosiste, that is, unduly preoccupied with inanimate things. As if in witty defiance of this charge, Claude Simon has entitled his latest novel Leçon de choses. Structurally, the novel is a long parenthesis within two texts, one repeating much of the other. The first, having the cinematographic title of "Générique," consists not of film-like credits but of a dreary description of the objects in a room. From this a whole work of fiction is generated.

The parenthesis contains four apparently independent tableaux presented simultaneously in fragments, a few pages from one, a line or two from another. These tableaux are replete with symbols and leitmotifs, many familiar from Simon's previous novels…. Perhaps the most characteristic of Simon is his fourth tableau, a sexual encounter which takes place in a field at night, recorded with Simon's singularly clinical and geometric touches. Completing the circle with a text called "Short Circuits," Simon shows how the same elements, rearranged, could form a different novel.

Leçon de choses is assuredly Simon's most abstract fiction thus far. In brilliant prose he vindicates the function that the choses fulfill in the consciousness of the narrator. (p. 56)

Katharine W. Carson, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.