(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Flanders Road, the work for which Claude Simon, the winner of the 1985 Nobel Prize for Literature, is best known in the English-speaking world, is a brilliant and satisfying novel on a number of levels. The novel appeals to the reader not least because of its dazzling demonstration of the ways in which various facets of public, private, historical, and erotic experience can be associated, dissociated, unexpectedly and exhilaratingly combined, and tragically divorced. The germ of the novel’s inspiration is Simon’s own family history and, to a greater extent, his experiences during the fall of France in 1940.

The novel’s plot, though the least obvious and to some extent the least significant aspect of the whole work, deals with the narrator, Georges, and his reactions to the death from a sniper’s bullet of his military commander, de Reixach, during an ambush into which de Reixach has perhaps knowingly gone. This event leads to Georges’s capture by the advancing German troops and to his incarceration in a prison camp for the remainder of the war. During that time, Georges’s mind plays back and forth on de Reixach’s action, on the commander’s family history, and particularly on de Reixach’s wife, the alluring Corinne. The novel concludes with Georges’s erotic assignation with Corinne after the war is over.

The fabric of the novel is suspended between two climactic events, the first being the killing by sniper of the narrator’s commanding officer, and the second being a night of love shared by the narrator and that officer’s wife immediately after the liberation of France. Between these two events, the novel weaves its complex, exploratory texture, invoking memory, desire, varieties of history, and contemporary exigencies in what becomes an embarrassment of imagistic, symbolic, and philosophical riches. Readers familiar with the narrative methods of Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, and James Joyce—novelists whom Simon has acknowledged as his major influences—will have some inkling of what to expect, though added to the lessons of these masters in The Flanders Road is strong and arresting evidence of the author’s prolonged involvement with the visual arts, particularly...

(The entire section is 918 words.)