Simon, Claude (Vol. 15)
Simon, Claude 1913–
A French novelist, Simon began his artistic career as a painter, and painterly concepts are evident in all his fiction. Like a painter, Simon attempts to convey the multifaceted and fluid nature of reality. Simon's acknowledged indebtedness to Faulkner is evidenced in his preoccupation with time and memory as well as in his use of tense, elliptical syntactical formations, and other devices which he employs to portray reality as it is experienced and filtered through the creative perceptions of the artist. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 9.)
Claude Simon has not reached the magnitude of Butor or Robbe-Grillet, despite the fact that his last two books, Le Vent and L'Herbe, were generally praised by the critics and translated [widely]…. There is no doubt that his technique is not as geometrically defined as Robbe-Grillet's, nor has he invented a gimmick as striking as that of Butor's La Modification, nor can any one of his works be summed up in a term as clear-cut as that of "subconversation," used to describe Nathalie Sarraute's Le Planétarium.
At the same time, Simon's dense pages might well discourage those readers used to the liberal paragraphing of Françoise Sagan and the popular novelists à l'Américaine. His paragraphs often run to twelve pages or more, his sentences may continue on for three pages. Within his sentences, ordinary syntax is not respected, subordinate clauses and parentheses abound, the subject or main clause gets lost on the way. And even when the sentence finally falls back on its feet, the reader's grammatical memory is too short and his attention too often distracted for him to realize it. Even more disturbing to the French reader is the fact that all the rules of good style, as it is taught in school, are rejected: parentheses within parentheses, cascades of "que"s, conjunctions, and adverbs, occasional cacophony, an overabundance of present participles. (pp. 101-02)
Claude Simon has something to say and, without bothering about established rules, has developed the necessary technique and style for saying it the best way possible. Were he to write differently, he would say it badly or would say something else. Which is in fact somewhat the case with his first novel, Le Tricheur. There he used prefabricated techniques: the stream of consciousness and pointillism, as developed by the American novel, resulting in that mixture of Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck in translation so popular with young French writers in the 1940's. The technique emphasized a story which in itself is not terribly interesting. Simon's real "message" came through more by way of the book's failings than in its better pages. (p. 102)
By the time Simon's Le Vent was published,… [he] had developed along his own lines. Le Vent tells a story, a story objectively stated and without ambiguity…. There are many traditional elements of the novel on provincial life … and the populist novel …: a traditional naturalist foundation with a plot which unfolds in time and three-dimensional characters. As a "mirror of life," combined with suspense, it might well recall the content of a Georges Simenon novel.
But what matters in Le Vent is the way in which the story is told, giving it not only its meaning but determining its nature. Le Vent answers the question: What is the nature of a story that might be used as the subject of a novel? The title itself gives a double explanatory metaphor: Le Vent, Tentative de Restitution d'un Retable baroque. Several times in the novel, events, scenes, the coming and going of characters are compared to certain Spanish dramas, to the torment of baroque theatre, to its paroxysms and finally useless acts of extravagance, whose flow and rich mixture of noises, colors, movements are in fact life…. The story, or rather the reconstruction of a story, fades out of itself, because many of the characters are dead, others have disappeared. Although the hero and a few others continue to live, the story is ended—the story, that is, a certain arrangement of beings and things, a certain series of situations, a structure with its own passing existence. The structure is rather similar to a cloud, formed by the wind, which at a given moment takes on a recognizable—or at least noticeable—shape, then changes into another, and perhaps still another, finally becoming shapeless, lost in the greyness of a clouded sky. (pp. 102-03)
On the surface, Claude Simon tells us nothing very new. His attitude towards many things is common to the nonmilitant Left: he criticizes a certain bourgeoisie, rebels against poverty, has contempt for cowards, emphasizes the stupid brutality of the police, is anti-clerical, and refuses...
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[It] has remained quite easy to treat Simon as a naturalist, as a novelist who insists on writing about something and has never wholly accepted the generalities or the austerity of the nouveau roman's extremists.
The fact remains, however, that in his mature novels Claude Simon has moved very close to the theoretical standpoint of the other New Novelists. He has not strayed from or diluted the ideological position which he held when he started out as a novelist, with Le Tricheur…. But he no longer conveys this position in the same way; he has gone over, in fact, from being an explicit writer, ready to conceptualize his philosophy in an abstract language, to being an implicit one, whose philosophy must be deduced from its objective configurations in the minds of his fictional narrators. This important transition from one narrative mode to the other can be dated convincingly to the mid-1950s, between the publication of Le Sacre du printemps in 1954 and that of Le Vent in 1957. (p. 43)
[There] is one intimate and disturbing conviction that Claude Simon has never sought to keep secret and which quite dominates his fiction: the conviction that the human individual and the world are both in process, that they are irredeemably subject to transience or molecular exchange. In his novels Simon holds fast to his sense of the instability of matter to the point where he is led to undermine the fictitious stability which the order of a work of art imposes on the flux of experience.
The picture of matter which he proposes is a mercantilist one, from which the notion of increase has been excluded, no doubt because it might be held to mirror an optimism that is quite alien to Claude Simon….
There is evidence from his novels that Claude Simon is a lapsed and disappointed revolutionary; by denying us, as he does, any hope of an ultimate transcendence of the human condition along the plane of history, he is perhaps defining himself as a man who still accepts Marxian prescriptions about the reifications endemic to a market economy while now doubting man's will to re-humanize them. (p. 44)
But Simon is not limited by class considerations; he is attacking the foundations of everybody's world, including his own, and salvation, such as it is, depends not on the adoption of some handy creed, but on the brave acknowledgement that this is the way things are.
'Reality' then has two degrees of intensity in Simon's novels: there is 'everyday' reality, with its consoling intimations of immortality, and 'real' reality, which reinstates all the constituents of our world and our experience in time. Real reality is a disturbing and an aggressive order of things, that few people will be strong enough to live with….
The achievement of Cézanne, so far as Simon is concerned, is to have been able to paint the external world from, as it were, the standpoint of nature itself, and to strip it of all those human and, more particularly, those aesthetic associations that generally obscure its integrity and its independence of consciousness. (p. 46)
The parallel with what Simon himself attempts is a close one; description is no longer, as it was once thought to be, primarily illustrative in purpose, it is creative. The writer does not use the expression he wants to convey as a starting-point but instead works towards it as a goal. A state of mind thus comes to be expressed by a full and detailed configuration of its elements.
Simon has always known what picture of reality it was which he needed to present in his novels, and as his technique has grown more assured and consistent so the force of the confrontation for his readers has increased, to the point where exposure to his insistently shifting world has become a suitably uncomfortable experience. At the same time, there is a limit to this discomfort, because the poles of Simon's unshrinking materialism are not creation and destruction, but disintegration and reintegration. Some sort of solace is therefore to be had from the undeniable presence of the phenomenal world as a whole. As Merleau-Ponty puts it ['there is absolute certainty of the world in general but not of any one thing in particular'.] (pp. 46-7)
What Simon tries to do, like Cézanne, is to make us aware that … isolated manifestations, or things in the widest sense of that word, are a relative and artificial stasis of a substance constantly in flux….
In Simon we become conscious of just how inadequate a weapon language is, in the battle to immobilize a fluid reality. What he is trying to carry out is the task prescribed by the phenomenologists of re-situating objects in the flux, in the immediate certainty of their first appearance in the conscious mind. (p. 47)
The traditional road to timelessness has always led vertically upwards into the sky, our most convenient symbol for the void, molecularly speaking. But in Simon's novels things happen in the sky as well. La Route des Flandres for example is dominated by the rain, slanting endlessly down on the scene …, and frequently invisible until it can be seen against some suitable background, like a roof or a wall, the change of viewpoint being the device whereby the mind moves inward from appearance to reality.
In this novel Simon makes many comparisons between the rain and the destructive processes of time itself, and the analogy becomes blunter still once the rain has been transformed—another sign of substantial continuity—into the mud that slowly engulfs the bodies of men and animals along the Flanders road…. (pp. 47-8)
In the same way the most potent symbol for the withering and impersonal passage of time in Le Vent, a novel set in south-west France, is the wind itself, which blows through the town for two hundred and sixty-five days in the year. Like the Flanders drizzle, the wind does not remain an invisible force, but is continually filled with spiralling clouds of dust and detritus, whose frantic, futile motions are an apt epiphany of History itself.
Perhaps the subtlest and most surprising of all the ways in which Claude Simon has set about denying us the consolations of vacancy is in [Le Palace], where the air is full not of dust but of pigeons…. The restless, circular flights of the pigeons in Le Palace are one of this novel's several symbols for the circularity of the historical process itself, which is the main theme of the book…. (pp. 48-9)
Without ever for a moment having to warp the processes of nature for his own didactic ends, Simon has turned the pigeons into the humble but menacing messengers of his philosophy…. [The] use of the pigeons as a [curtain or veil] is crucial, because they form an obstacle interposed between reality and the eye; at such moments we have the illusion of immobility because memory replaces perception, and it is only when the pigeons again settle that things return to what they actually are, or what they have become. (pp. 49-50)
It is clear that Claude Simon is obsessed by time in its negative, regressive role. The movement he detects within the substantial scene is one extremely hostile to all human pretention. Time regarded as a possible agent of progress or improvement in the individual or common lot does have a part to play, but this part, too, is a discouraging one. The favoured 'heroes' of Simon's novels are men who have made a crushing discovery: that time operates independently of human aspiration, so that progress, when it comes about, does so in a wholly fortuitous manner which is a further bitterly ironic comment on the optimism of reformers. (p. 50)
The two periods of architecture and design from which he likes to choose his examples are the Baroque, and its more domestic relation, the Rococo, together with the Art Nouveau movement of the turn of this century. The resemblance between these styles lies, broadly speaking, in the fact that they abandon the straight lines and plain surfaces of more functional styles for a great amount of ornamentation and tension between structural elements. It is common for art historians to describe the Baroque as a painterly style of architecture, and Claude Simon can equally well be described as a painterly novelist. (p. 51)
[Simon's] preoccupations are very close to those of Baroque architects, as summarized by that style's first great analyst, Heinrich Wölfflin: 'Unlike the contour, which gives the eye a definite and easily comprehensible direction to follow, a mass of light tends to a movement of dispersal, leading the eye to and fro; it has no bounds, no definite break in continuity, and on all sides it increases and decreases.'
Simon in his mature novels has certainly suppressed all but the barest suggestion of contour….
Simon sees the Baroque as the aesthetic expression of minds obsessed with transience. It is in the Baroque that we are made acutely conscious of the instability of forms, which appear to be forever on the point of disintegration; it is a style that lacks altogether the rectilinear confidence of the early Renaissance…. [Wölfflin said]: 'The baroque never offers us perfection and fulfilment, or the static calm of "being", only the unrest of change and the tension of transience.'
These are precisely the implications of the term as it is found in Claude Simon. (p. 52)
There is one manufactured object in particular which acts as a memento mori in our lives, and that is a clock. Paradoxically, it is not the passage of the hands around the clock-face which Simon uses as a reminder of transience but the simple presence of the object itself. The clocks he describes are stopped; what he conveys is that it is our own intimate temps vécu that is under the threat of cessation, not impersonal or cosmic time, which we must suppose to continue without us. The clock in fact will survive those who consult it. (p. 54)
This perdurability of the inanimate, which Claude Simon makes so much of, represents, in relation to novelistic tradition, a reversal of values; the presence of human beings is here guaranteed, as it were, by the presence of their artefacts. As physical survival comes to dominate the ethical philosophies of the modern world it is probable that the underlying resentment that Simon expresses, that objects should outlast their creators, will become a more potent force in people's attitudes….
Simon does not attempt to make the isolated object or fact stand out from the surrounding fictions with anything of the geometrical fervour of Robbe-Grillet, but he is making the same point; objects are irreducible facts...
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J. A. E. LoubèRe
J. A. E. LOUBÈRE
[In Simon's] novels the rich sensuality and luxuriance of physical detail, the delicate arrangement of mass and shadow, the melancholy but often sumptuous appraisal of man's fleeting destiny turn the passageways of what might seem arid research into stretches of pure enjoyment. (pp. 35-6)
Claude Simon, with amazing persistence and logic, combines definition and production into a single act. Step by step, from his first novel, Le Tricheur, which retains many conventional aspects, to his latest, Triptyque, which has almost none, he explores the territory of the novelist and tests the tools he must use. (p. 39)
Each novel is … an...
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Thomas D. O'Donnell
[Leçon de choses illustrates] one manifestation of myth in recent French fiction: its displacement from the domain of the novel's content to that of its structure.
Structurally, Leçon de choses (1975) is both like and unlike Claude Simon's previous novel, Triptique (1973). It is similar primarily through its tripartite nature: like Triptique, it contains not one but three "plots," each fragmented and interspersed among the bits and pieces of the other two, all of the fragments attaching themselves to their respective neighbors through various exercises in metaphor and metonymy. The differences between the two novels are threefold. The three plots of Leçon de...
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