One of the foremost members of a group of avant-garde writers in France usually designated by the term New Novelists, Claude Simon successfully merged critical theory with the practice of writing. In so doing, he extended the limits of the novel while at the same time elaborating a unique fictional universe. He referred to his novels as a “field of investigation”; that is to say, he constantly experimented with new modes of narrative discourse, not with a particular and ultimate form in mind but as a means of exploring diverse perspectives on the relationship between reality and its representation. By conceiving of the novel as production rather than product, by refusing to allow the text to become transparent and self-erasing as it progresses toward an inevitable resolution—as tends to be the case in the traditional, realistic novel—Simon obliged readers to change their habits. His novels require an active participation by the reader in the shaping of the text.
Unlike some of the New Novelists, Simon did not reduce the novel to an arid linguistic game or a treatise on narrative technique. His works, no matter how experimental, are never mere pretexts for the founding of a new science of the novel. He was able to combine brilliantly his aesthetic preoccupations with themes and images that probe the nature of the human condition and exert a compelling attraction upon those readers who are willing to undergo the demanding apprenticeship that his novels require.
Theprotagonists of Simon’s fictional universe find that once the complacent order of their everyday lives is disrupted, they are forced to confront fundamental questions regarding the human condition and the role of language in shaping, or distorting, their comprehension of reality and, ultimately, of their own identity. Simon’s doubt about the ability of words to seize the nature of experience gives rise to a literary language that can be extraordinarily rich, sensual, and evocative. This flow of language tends to create its own order out of the chaos of existence. Although Simon’s audience is a limited one, drawn largely from the university, he provided these “happy few” with compelling insights into the character of existence and the process of fiction-making. For his efforts, he was granted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1985.