The Flanders Road

by Claude Simon

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Themes and Meanings

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Commenting on The Flanders Road, Claude Simon has drawn attention to its cloverleaf structure, thereby underlining the principles of doubling and repetition upon which this novel is structured. The physical presence around which the cloverleaf is drawn is the corpse of a horse killed in the ambush in which de Reixach dies. As in other instances in The Flanders Road, however, physicality is both a reality in its own right and the pretext for the mind’s efforts and anxiety to give form to the abstract. Thus, while the horse’s remains have significance as a casualty of war, and are the occasion for some striking meditations on the depredations of warfare, they also achieve greater significance by facilitating motifs of recurrence and duality.

These motifs are given their most sustained force in the manner in which the novel deals with time, a manner which provides the most obvious basis for its kinship with some of the great works of modernist fiction. Time is experienced in two ways in the novel. As a general, abstract phenomenon, it is present—to Georges, particularly—as an ineluctable, irreversible force whose iron path is starkly denoted by Georges’s rail journey to the prison camp.

That journey shows Georges in the grip of time, at the disposal of an agency which he cannot control: It is noteworthy that his condition is made synonymous with defeat and with the impotence that defeat confers. In the camp, however, Georges rehabilitates himself thanks to his memory, or, in effect, experiences time as relative, subjective, malleable. The coexistence of both views of time, the interplay between them, and the fact that not only Georges but also de Reixach and Corinne experience time in the same way create the source of the novel’s conceptual and psychological richness. While the last word of The Flanders Road is a grim tribute to the indifference and destructiveness of time in its objective character, there has been enough during the course of the novel to suggest that the alternative version of time has something of a saving grace.

The novel’s other main themes, concerning the operation of history and the force of desire, stem essentially from Simon’s investigation of time. A distinctive feature of the undertaking, however, is the degree to which cause, effect, intention, and accident are relativized, preventing the reader from eliciting any one solution to the problems adumbrated. The novel’s relativity supports its sense of the tentative and unknowable, a sense which both validates and frustrates the questing mind that keeps Georges alive.

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