The Flanders Road

by Claude Simon

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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 painting. There are moments in this novel when the only word sufficient to describe the effects being created is “ravishing.” Given Simon’s preoccupation with repetition and the ambiguity which is the inevitable result of his narrator’s all-too-human instability of perspective, it is appropriate to consider ravishment itself as a double entendre expressing the impact of beauty and the effect of violence—a term applicable to the novel’s two definitive realities, love and war.

The interval between the death of de Reixach, under whom the narrator, Georges, has been serving, and the erotic encounter between Georges and Corinne, is spent, for the most part (in a physical sense), in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. Nevertheless, the obvious physical constraint of such a context, while periodically intruding on the narrative, functions also as a pretext for Georges’s inner life to assume preeminence. It is not the dehumanizing conditions of the prison that claim the reader’s most intense concern. Rather, it is to those elements of the individual’s makeup which are so uniquely and distinctively human to which the narrative and the narrator turn. In Simon’s terms, these elements are expressed by Georges’s twin capacities to remember and to desire, capacities which are given free rein by the novel’s stream-of-consciousness narrative technique.

Georges’s thoughts are largely consumed with de Reixach, to whom he is distantly related and who carries an ancient and honorable name. There is enough evidence from the incident in which de Reixach was killed to suggest that he went knowingly to his death...

(This entire section contains 918 words.)

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and in effect committed suicide. A reason for his doing so is the disgrace he had sustained because his wife was having an affair with a lowly employee, Iglesia the jockey. The willfulness of Corinne’s behavior, its challenge to the politesse embodied by her husband’s name and heritage, is as much a source of ardent reflection for Georges as is de Reixach’s final act. Georges’s consciousness, which is the signature of his humanity and his means of sustaining himself in the dark days of imprisonment, has been authorized by, and seeks authentication in, the experiences of this couple. Thus,The Flanders Road attains its power not because of the dramatic nature of its narrative material but because of that material’s effect on a consciousness which is seduced by it.

This novel’s elevation of aftermath over motive, and of the mind’s rhythms over the body’s stagnation, is not given its most crucial expression by a character’s specific action or statement, since every action or statement in the novel exists in the shadow of its opposite. What gives The Flanders Road its characteristic priorities is its formal nature. The novel begins as if it were a complex, but nevertheless direct, reflective account of Georges’s wartime experience, but the reader soon realizes that it may be more accurately read as an explosion of memory ignited by Georges’s night with Corinne. The interchangeability and interdependence of these two narrative perspectives provide the reader’s potential, temporary disorientation, placing the experience of the text on the same provisional but engrossing level as Georges’s restless analysis of de Reixach and Corinne. In the enactment of the fundamentally tentative and experimental procedures of consciousness lies this novel’s unique reality.