The Battle of Pharsalus is not an easy novel to read. It has no linear plot, but rather presents a set of images or basic scenes that constantly recur. In these repetitions sometimes the elements are the same, but more often they shift, reassemble themselves, or have additional material in them. In these ways, Claude Simon forces the reader to participate actively in the reading of this novel.
Although the book is divided into three basic sections, it is not until the second section that Simon clarifies the elemental scenes reiterated throughout the work. The first section introduces these elements to the reader without making them fully intelligible. These basic scenes include several interesting pieces (as in a puzzle) that reflect various layers of time. These time layers represent the ancient Roman battle at Pharsalus, the narrator’s boyhood struggle to translate the Latin account of that battle, his experiences in World War II, his recent train journey through Europe, his recent trip to Greece to find the site of the battle of Pharsalus, and the present time, represented by the narrator sitting in an outdoor cafe in Paris.
Scattered among these time levels are the various motifs of the novel. These motifs include O.’s memories of translating Latin with Uncle Charles,O. struggling to survive when he is unhorsed in a battle in Flanders, the story of a redheaded soldier who goes berserk in O.’s barracks one night, O. trying to break down his lover’s door while she makes love to another man in her room, Uncle Charles watching his artist friend paint Odette nude, O. and a friend Nikos seeking directions on their trip in Greece, a soccer match on the fields near Pharsalus, the wreckage of an abandoned McCormick harvester-reaper on a field in Greece, O.’s train trip through Europe, the views O. sees from his outdoor seat at the Paris cafe, and the students in a political demonstration on a Paris street.
Most of these motif pieces merge frequently with one another, so the reader finds a battle scene from World War II blended into the ancient battle of Pharsalus. Such scenes are not merely juxtaposed to one another; they are literally woven together so that only a very close reading can discern where one ends and the other begins. Simon’s point in doing this is to show that time is really continuous and that the past is always with his characters, even in the present. This disregard for a normal time continuum can confuse an unprepared reader.
Scattered throughout the three sections of The Battle of Pharsalus are moments in which the action freezes or stills itself. At such points, Simon reverts to descriptions of relevant paintings or works of sculpture. Most often these artworks he describes are of battle scenes depicting famous warriors. In this manner, Simon reiterates the timelessness of man’s existence. All battles and sexual struggles become one; the experience is always the same. Even the young men playing a friendly game of soccer on a summer day in Greece are in fierce contention and conflict with one another.
When the novel closes, Simon has led the reader full circle. The narrator is sitting at a desk with a blank sheet of paper in front of him; on this sheet he inscribes the first lines with which Simon had begun part 1 of The Battle of Pharsalus.
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