Claude Simon

Leading exponent of the nouveau roman best known for 'The Flanders Road'
Click to follow

Claude Simon, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985, is considered by some other writers and by many academics to be one of the most significant authors of our time, but he was never popular with the general reading public, even in France.

He was a principle member of the group which became known for the nouveau roman (the "new novel") and sought to break away from the conventions of the traditional novel. With Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Simon was one of its most-admired exponents. He worked mostly in isolation and in his Nobel speech contrasted the solitude necessary to the writer to achieve his best work with the pomp that celebrity brings.

Simon was born in 1913 in Tananarive (now Antananarivo) in Madagascar, then under French control. His family returned to France at the beginning of the First World War (during which his father was killed) and he grew up in Perpignan, studied in Paris and spent a short time in Oxford and Cambridge universities to learn English. Simon studied painting with André Lhote and continued to paint all his life, but, as with other French writers like Eugène Ionesco and Robert Pinget, his reputation as a painter was dependent on his fame as a writer.

Visits to pre-war Germany and Russia turned Simon politically to the left and he visited Spain during the Civil War, declaring his solidarity with the Republic, but never actually becoming a combatant. His observation of that blood-bath affected him strongly and in his eighth novel Le Palace (The Palace, 1962), he recalls the inefficiency of the left, the struggles and in-fighting between different Republican elements, and the waste and desolation of war, emphasising that revolutions nearly always fail because they lack the right leaders.

Having done his military service in France during the Thirties, Simon returned to the army at the outbreak of the Second World War and served in the 31st Dragoons, a cavalry regiment. Wounded at the battle of the Meuse in May 1940, he was taken prisoner, but escaped from prison-camp the same year. The spectacle of French cavalry charging German tanks stayed in his mind and became part of the subject matter of his most famous novel, La Route des Flandres (1960, translated as The Flanders Road, 1962). During the rest of the war, he fought against the German occupation in the underground.

In 1945 he published his first novel Le Tricheur ("The Cheat"), which was heavily influenced by Camus. This was followed by a sequence of novels that increasingly moved away from normal narrative and tried to find a new style that would enable him to re-evaluate the lessons of history and imitate the way the mind works, shifting the emphasis of thought, moving away from and then back towards its major preoccupations, going off on tangential associations and filtering observation through the lens of thought and memory.

His fifth novel Le Vent (1957, translated as The Wind, 1959) and L'Herbe, which followed it the next year (and in translation as The Grass, 1960), are both packed with a language that moves with the force of a hurricane, juxtaposing images and happenings to give a picture of small and large events, witnessed by a mind trying to understand them and carrying all these fragments in its wake.

Once established by The Flanders Road, Simon continued after The Palace with Histoire ("Story", 1967), La Bataille de Pharsale (1969: The Battle of Pharsalus, 1970), Les Corps conducteurs (1971: Conducting Bodies, 1975), Triptyque (1973: Triptych, 1977) and Les Géorgiques (1981: The Georgics, 1989). After the Nobel Prize his writing slowed down, partly because of the numerous invitations to speak at conferences and to travel around the world to lecture at universities. His last novel was Le Tramway (2001: The Trolley, 2002).

Simon's style owes something to both Proust and Faulkner and he has often been compared to them. He condenses and lengthens time according to the thought-patterns of his hero-observers: it is always the observing, thinking mind of his protagonist that tells the story and that mind can be diverted by a thought or provoked by a memory or an association for many pages before returning to the main theme.

His narratives are full of interruptions and sometimes different minds and wave-lengths cross, but he is trying to explain the grand patterns of history, especially its repetitions, as well as the small miseries and joys of ordinary individuals; erotic incidents and thoughts occur frequently in his work, especially in the novels written after 1960. Usually, some historical event is the trigger for a book, or sometimes the description of a painting that comes to life as its details start the mind associating and comparing.

Simon's work is deliberately constructed on cinematic principles, moving pictures that can run forward and backward, cut into other places and times, shift between centuries and locales, either with a clean break or a fade-in and fade-out. They have a logic of their own which derives from the way the mind works, not an objective sequence of events. The other art beside the cinema which is evident in his work is painting, both as a metaphor and in his use of technique. There is an element of brushwork about his writing.

Indeed, Simon himself compared criticisms of his work with early reactions to the work of the Impressionists:

. . . reproaches have always been levelled at any artist who even to the slightest degree upsets acquired habits and the established order of things. Let us wonder . . . at the way in which the grandchildren of those people who in Impressionist paintings once saw nothing but shapeless (i.e., illegible) daubs today form endless queues outside exhibitions and museums to admire the works of those very same daubers.

John Calder