Claude Simon Simon, Claude (Vol. 4) - Essay

Simon, Claude (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Simon, Claude 1913–

Simon, a French novelist, is considered one of the most brilliant of the New Novelists.

Along with other experimenters among recent novelists, Claude Simon attempts to bypass literature in communicating an experience directly and with an immediacy such as painting could have; but few styles are more consciously literary than his. The overall impression is that he possesses the greatest gifts of any prose writer among the modern French since Huysmans and Giono, but hardly those of a writer of fiction, if fiction must engage and maintain a reader's interest. Poets, since Mallarmé and George, have eventually created a limited audience of fervent lovers of their poetry and influenced philosophers, fiction writers, painters, and musicians. It is more doubtful whether novelists can likewise relinquish the spacious realm which once was theirs, cultivate an impossible purity, and survive. The history of the artistically written novel, from Chateaubriand to Walter Pater and George Moore, is strewn with mishaps.

Henri Peyre, in his French Novelists of Today (copyright © 1955, 1967 by Oxford University Press; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press-Galaxy, 1967, pp. 375-79.

Claude Simon learned much from both Albert Camus and William Faulkner. His first novel, Le Tricheur (1945; The Trickster), is very much in the vein of Camus's The Stranger. By the time he had reached his fifth novel, Le Vent (1957; The Wind), Simon was using Faulkner-like thousand-word sentences and elongated parentheses. But, like Faulkner, Simon by means of such methods often achieves impressive effects; the wind of his story, for example, is supremely orchestrated, the wind blowing across the vineyards over which Simon's central character, the saintly simple Antoine Montès, wanders. L'Herbe (1958; The Grass) is even more poetic, and the story plays a more important part in the book this time, as a group of characters look back on their lives, which once covered the earth like the blowing grass….

In La Route des Flandres (1960; The Flanders Road), Simon seems more the follower of Conrad and Proust than of Faulkner, though by this time he has developed a vision distinctly his own.

Harry T. Moore, in his Twentieth-Century French Literature Since World War II (copyright © 1966 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966, pp. 143-44.

Claude Simon began his literary career after the Liberation with a traditional novel, Le Tricheur, whose hero is very close to Meursault in [Camus's] L'Etranger. But there is no question of direct influence. Simon expresses through his hero not so much the impossibility of taking an absurd world seriously as a difficulty in living at all. After some years of self-searching and silence, he wrote Gulliver and Le Sacre du Printemps, in which obsessive material breaks through the traditional narrative style that is imposed upon it. The rhythm is a syncopated one. A number of separate stories interweave and overlap. One feels that the author has read Faulkner and that he has learnt something from his reading. He appears in his own guise in Le Vent … and L'Herbe….

[History, in] all Claude Simon's novels, is fatalistic…. The characters of L'Herbe … have, in fact, no history, or at least one so banal as not to be worth mentioning. What interests the author is the material that can be extracted from the events of a life; and again, it is this matter that he makes so fascinating. His unimportant, scarcely distinguishable characters take on a relief that no analysis could have given them. The whole construction of the novel forms a block in which we are made prisoners.

[In] La Route des Flandres … each individual carries about him a boundless world which intersects with other worlds. It is enough for him simply to live, and it is this life, merging with others, taken up by the vast movement of the world, tossed about at the mercy of events, sinking into memory or spreading out over the surface of things, that Claude Simon has striven to express in words, in a language dense and obscure….

[In Le Palace] Claude Simon makes brilliant use of his heavily-weighted, meandering, serpentine sentence. Imperceptibly it has become for him an instrument of discovery and creation. It passes over reality like a sponge, sucking it dry.

Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; copyright © 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 137-38 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).

[Claude Simon] started his career as a painter and he envisaged the problem of writing fiction as not dissimilar from that of the painter: to convey, not a succession in time and a sense of duration, but simultaneousness; to transpose one dimension into another and organize images which coexist in memory. Hence his inordinately long sentences, meandering over several pages, and his dismissal of all punctuation. His demands upon the reader's attention are cruelly exacting and not a few critics have refused to accede to them…. As to the public, Claude Simon, who nowhere attempts to outwit his readers with detective story trickery, firmly asserts that it can be disregarded by the novelist, as it was by Van Gogh and Picasso: the primary duties of a creator are to himself….

What distinguishes "Histoire" from so many dreary and boring nouveau roman attempts at capturing the truths of reality is that Claude Simon structures his remembrances around crucial centripetal happenings that manage to sustain the reader's interest in the novelist's frenzied and puzzling involvement with past events and impressions. The clever counterpointing of banal incidents with lyrically intense realities rescues the novel from deteriorating into the painfully labored and pretentious exercise on human complexity that has marred so many of the new French novelists' excursions into the fictional world. "Histoire" is a novel worthy of a second reading and careful examination.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Autumn, 1968), p. cxlviii.

Like his predecessors, the narrator of Histoire seeks to discover in the past the meaning of his present existence and finds only reasons for discarding what remains of his ideals. Because he achieves no epiphany, however, he falls short of the heroic possibilities suggested by Montès [in The Wind] and Georges [in The Grass]. These two figures best represent Simon and best express his view of the dignity of the man who maintains his ideals and aspirations despite his disillusionment. In the tradition of Leopold Bloom, they are the heroes of the contemporary novel; theirs is a humanity which the essentially intellectual heroes of Robbe-Grillet and Butor can never achieve.

Because of them Simon must be distinguished from the New Novelists, even though his narrative method seems so closely to parallel theirs. We find in his works the same balance of strict objectivity and intense subjectivity; the same use of myth and symbol as a form of analogue—functioning, in effect, as a parallel point of view; the same combination of logic and uncertainty as in Robbe-Grillet, and the same interaction of various levels of time as in Butor. If this technique differs from theirs, it is only in the frequent occurrence of the word "reconstruction" and the Proustian process which it entails. But the possibilities which Simon has developed in this process are wonderfully enriching.

By affording his narrators the power to recreate events of which they have little direct knowledge, Simon provides them with much of the freedom of authorial omniscience at the same time that he offers insight into the characters themselves. In their need to recreate the past, in their effort to understand their present lives as a product of their past, in their need to make of their lives—past and present—a formal and consistent pattern like that of Proust's Marcel, Simon's characters are most enlightening. This compulsion makes them susceptible to disillusionment and makes them figures with whom the reader can identify, providing for character and reader alike the possibility of epiphany and catharsis. The peculiar contemporaneity of their narrative method arises because their apparent omniscience provides not greater certainty—as in the traditional novel—but greater possibilities of uncertainty, reasons for abandoning their ideals at the same time that they retain them. It is this ambiguity which makes their situations so moving.

Morton P. Levitt, "Disillusionment and Epiphany: The Novels of Claude Simon," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, 1970, pp. 43-70.

Of the French novelists who have come into prominence in the last twenty years, only two have emerged from the blurred crowd of new names as genuine artists, as writers of genuine wisdom and stature: Alain Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon. Both are difficult writers, for they are testing the very fiber and form of the novel with each book they write. Robbe-Grillet is better known because of his association with films, but Simon is as brilliant and exciting a writer and deserves a wider audience in this country than he has. "The Battle of Pharsalus" is his sixth novel, and it is a rich exemplification of the power of the imagination to create value in the flux of experience, to make the real from a confusion of sensations, of percepts and concepts. Like Robbe-Grillet's "In the Labyrinth" or Nabokov's "The Gift" and "Pale Fire" the novel becomes itself the tangible fact of the imagination of its central character. In it, O. the man without certain identity unravels his personal past and the larger past of Caesar's battle at Pharsalus, but he does not arrive at a static moment of truth but rather at an open door into the living future. By being able through an imaginative act to be both his wife in an adulterous sexual act and himself outside the door discovering her, he frees himself to be all men, to become not what the past made him, but whatever he chooses to be. Just as no memory or landmarks of the battle of Pharsalus exist in the present Greek town called the Battle of Pharsala, the past does not exist in O.'s present unless he chooses it, unless he transmutes it into words on the page as Caesar did in his war commentaries. One may believe Caesar or present fact. O. may believe in his present or allow himself to be locked in the past. He chooses the present in the form of the novel, "The Battle of Pharsalus." And by making that choice he creates the values of his own future and influences those of us, the readers of the novel, as well. The novel is a brilliant book.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Summer, 1971), p. civ.

Claude Simon is plainly the most "impure" artist among [the New Novelists], in the sense that he excludes no aspect of life from his purview: "birth and copulation and death," politics, economics, science, the arts. In his crowded, turbulent books we find scenes of war, crime, revolution, and imprisonment; details of farming and the care of horses; the lure of alcohol, fast cars, and gambling; the technicalities of sport, dress, and interior decoration….

If we are tempted to regard Simon as an impure artist because of his great concern with the minutiae of life, we run the risk of classifying him as impure in another, related, way by attributing to him an insufficient concern with form. Such a judgment would be a gross error, whether it referred to Simon's intention or to his achievement. Far from being unconcerned with form, Simon consciously strives for it, as his apprenticeship to painting presumably trained him to do. His less successful novels—notably The Palace—suffer from too great rigidity of structure rather than too little. As epigraph to The Wind he quotes a dictum of Paul Valéry: "The world is incessantly threatened by two dangers: order and disorder." Simon himself, as a novelist, is threatened by these twin dangers, but in his best work to date, The Flanders Road, he triumphantly passes between Scylla and Charybdis, creating a precarious balance between order and disorder. Paradoxically, though life is meaningless to Simon as a man, to Simon as an artist it is never entirely formless. This concern with form, even more than his skepticism about the possibility of knowing anything for certain about the stream of phenomena, classifies him indisputably as a New Novelist.

Two other characteristics of many of the New Novelists have become increasingly important in Simon's work. One is the passion for minute description which has led some critics to name the New Novelists l'école du regard ("the school of the gaze")…. As a result, "things are there" in Simon's novels, often endowed with an intrinsic importance unrelated to their symbolic value for the human mind that perceives them. The other characteristic, ultimately of more importance, is the attempt to convert the novel from an art of time to an art of space, so that when we have read a book through—probably not for the first time, however—we can get the impression of "seeing it all at once," just as we do a painting or a map….

Simon has been deeply influenced by Proust, and all his later novels are "remembrance of things past."… Note that the final word of The Flanders Road, as of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, is temps, "time."…

[If] the pattern of … lives [in The Flanders Road] is shattered, the pattern of Simon's book remains, raising its triune symbol of order triumphantly above the fragmentary disorder of history and time. And hand in hand with order, as always, goes beauty, not merely the sort of beauty one can find in Goya's terrifying series of etchings, The Disasters of War, but also a more familiar kind that gains poignancy from Simon's oppressive awareness of its transience: the beauty of young women, of jockey's silks and thoroughbred horses, of a cavalry squadron before battle, of the French landscape not yet defaced and eroded by the tide of war, of the archaic ideals upheld by a dying aristocracy. Life may be meaningless for Simon, but he cannot persuade either us or himself that it is not good. Thus a book like The Flanders Road is not merely a work of art, it is a means to knowledge—of ourselves and of the world.

Vivian Mercier, "Claude Simon: Order and Disorder, Memory and Desire," in his The New Novel: From Queneau to Pinget (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1966, 1967, 1968, 1971 by Vivian Mercier), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 266-75.

After somewhat difficult beginnings, Claude Simon is today prominent, prolific, and probably the most solid writer on the French literary scene. His tenth novel [Les corps conducteurs] shows a significant evolution in his art. In previous novels there still was, if not a story, at least a visible anecdotal level which has disappeared altogether here….

[This] novel is made up of a series of descriptions seemingly disconnected, for it is impossible to place them in any sort of logical time sequence. The impression given by the book is that of a giant collage or patchwork, reminiscent of contemporary art works and especially of the famous "combines" of Rauschenberg whom Claude Simon admires very much….

This particular conception of the novel can best be appreciated through a rapprochement with painting because it attempts to escape time in order to achieve a spatial representation of the mind. As in painting, it requires a great artist to select the material, arrange, blend, and link the varied components so masterfully. Visual, auditive, emotional associations or pure word assonances are used in a fade-dissolve technique to transport us from one theme to the other, and back and forth. Another point of comparison with the plastic arts is that, just as an amateur in art is free to imagine a story while looking at a work, say, by Rauschenberg, a reader can do the same with Claude Simon. Of course, in an "abstract" novel, a myriad of possible "stories" exists.

Claude DuVerlie, in Books Abroad, Vol. 46, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 262-63.

I have nothing but admiration for M Simon's intrepid integrity in the solution of technical problems of style and form in the novel. His novels are properly experimental and this one [The Battle of Pharsalus] shows great ingenuity and considerable powers of imagination. He has more than once been compared with William Faulkner, and it is clear from his method and style that he has been indebted to writers like Beckett and Joyce. But I am beginning to wonder now whether the 'stream of consciousness' technique, which has been exploited on and off for at least 50 years, can be much furthered.

J. A. Cuddon, in Books and Bookmen, August, 1972, pp. 69-70.

Claude Simon's latest book Triptyque is another product of the art of "scription," as understood by some new novelists…. As in some of his former fiction, particularly Histoire …, Bataille de Pharsale … and Les corps conducteurs …, Simon explores language. Opposed to the concept of the omniscient writer who tells a story, Simon … claims that he is "the product of his work." Words generate the text in constant transformation. Combining fictional fragments and placing them into new contexts, the scriptor creates a closely-knit network of textual relationships as the fiction develops.

Triptyque, composed of three major fictional fragments, is an example of how close Simon's art of writing is to the painter's form. (In painting, a triptyque consists of three different segments, placed side by side, which share theme, form, and/or colors.) His outline, unfortunately not included in the book, shows that he divided his pages into three sections: A deals with a wedding that ends in sorrow; B gives episodes from the lives of two boys in the country and the drowning of a little girl; and C refers to an evening on the Mediterranean (and contains references to a former book). There is a great deal of intertextuality, particularly with references to movie and circus posters on a billboard, marked by lines and arrows that overlap the three divisions.

In the book itself the fragments occasionally offer a substantial portion of thematically connected prose. At other times, there is also overlapping. For example there is the same blond actor in two of the film posters, as well as in two fictional fragments….

Although it is tempting to analyze Triptyque in terms of structural components, it is better to step back, as when viewing an impressionistic painting, to enjoy the impact of the whole work. At the end, we may, like one of the characters, destroy the jigsaw puzzle, or step out into the street with the audience that has just seen the film. All is over, all can begin again.

Anna Otten, in Books Abroad, Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 86-7.