Simon, Claude (10 October 1913 – 6 July 2005)
Claude Simon (10 October 1913 – 6 July 2005)
Doris Y. Kadish
Kent State University
Catharine Savage Brosman
This entry was expanded by Brosman from Kadish’s Simon entry in DLB 83: French Novelists Since 1960. See also the Simon entry in DLB Yearbook 1985.
BOOKS: Le Tricheur (Paris: Editions du Sagittaire, 1946);
La Corde raide (Paris: Editions du Sagittaire, 1947);
Gulliver (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1952);
Le Sacre du printemps (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1954);
Le Vent: Tentative de restitution d’un retable baroque (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1957); translated by Richard Howard as The Wind (New York: Braziller, 1959);
L’Herbe (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1958); translated by Howard as The Grass(New York: Braziller, 1960; London: Cape, 1961);
La Route des Flandres (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1960); translated by Howard as The Flanders Road (New York: Braziller, 1961; London: Cape, 1962);
Le Palace (Paris: Minuit, 1962); translated by Howard as The Palace (New York: Braziller, 1963; London: Cape, 1964);
Femmes, sur vingt-trois peintures de Joan Mirό, text by Simon, paintings by Joan Mirό (Paris: Maeght, 1966); Simon’s text republished as La Chevelure de Bérénice (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983); translated by Simon Green as Berenice’s Golden Mane (London: Alyscamps, 1998);
Histoire(Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1967); translated by Howard (New York: Braziller, 1968; London: Cape, 1969);
La Bataille de Pharsale (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969); translated by Howard as The Battle of Pharsalus (New York: Braziller, 1971; London: Cape, 1971);
Orion aveugle (Geneva: Skira, 1970); enlarged as Les Corps conducteurs (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1971); translated by Helen R. Lane as Conducting Bodies (New
York: Viking, 1974; London: Calder & Boyars, 1975);
Triptyque (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1973); translated by Lane as Triptych (New York: Viking, 1976; Lodon:Calder, 1977);
Leçon de choses (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1975); translated by Daniel Weissbort as The World About Us (Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1983);
Les Géorgiques (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1981); translated by Beryl Fletcher and John Fletcher as Georgics (London: Calder / New York: Riverrun, 1984);
Discours de Stockholm (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1986);
L’Invitation(Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1987); translated by Jim Cross as The Invitation (Elmwood Park, III.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991);
Album d’un amateur (Remagen-Rolandseck: Rommerkirchen, 1988);
L’Acacia (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1989); translated by Howard as The Acacia(New York: Pantheon, 1991);
Photographies 1937-1970, preface by Denis Roche (Paris: Maeght, 1992);
Le Jardin des Plantes (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1997); translated by Jordan Stump as The Jardin des Plantes (Evanston, III.: Northwestern University Press, 2001);
Le Tramway (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 2001); translated by Howard as The Trolley (New York: New Press, 2002).
Collection: (Euvres, edited by Alastair B. Duncan with the collaboration of Jean H. Duffy (Paris: Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2006)—includesLe Vent, La Route des Flandres, Le Palace, La Chevelure de Bérénice, La Bataille de Pharsale, Triptyque, Discours de Stockholm, and Le Jardin des Plantes.
When Claude Simon died on 6 July 2005, Pierre Lepape, writing in Le Monde (12 July 2005), asserted that Simon was among the greatest writers of his period and, moreover, “I’un des plus grands écrivains du temps et de la mémoire” (one of the greatest writers on time and memory). Lepape added, however, that to the end of his life Simon was often misunderstood, overlooked, or discounted by the reading public. Another journalist, Josyane Savigneau, remarked similarly in Le Monde (17 February 2006) that Simon had been treated with indifference, even hostility, “nègligè par son époque et par une certaine critique qui préfère porter au pinacle des oeuvres honorables…mais beaucoup plus conventionnelles” (neglected by his period and by certain critics who prefer putting at the pinnacle works that are honorable…but much more conventional). When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in December 1985, a national daily newspaper called him, in its headline, “Un viticulteur de Salses” (a wine grower from Salses), as if he were an unknown needing identification. In his acceptance speech, the laureate himself alluded to the fact that Parisian journalists had searched frantically for information on the new winner, while Maureen Dowd, writing in The New York Times (18 October 1985), mentioned the perplexity of New York intellectuals, few of whom were acquainted with Simon’s name. Though the prize brought honor to France as well as to the writer, some observers remained unconvinced that it was deserved, looking upon the selection as another low moment in what James O. Tate called in Chronicles (January 2005) “the spotty history of the literature prize.”
Yet, others hailed the award as entirely merited. The Swedish Academy’s citation suggested the range of Simon’s achievement by noting that he had combined the creativity of the poet and the painter and expressed a profound sense of time and the human condition. He had not, moreover, been entirely disregarded by discerning critics and journalists in France, and evidence of his growing reputation appeared in unlikely places. In 1977, for instance, the Communist newspaper L’Humanité published extracts from Triptyque (1973; translated as Triptych, 1976), retitled and illustrated. Abroad, he was appreciated equally, perhaps more; as of 1997, works by him had been translated into twenty-six foreign languages. He traveled widely and frequently to lecture and participate in colloquia dealing with his work; his destinations included European countries, North America, South America, Egypt, India, the Soviet Union, and Japan. Dozens of books as well as scores of articles have been published on his work, which is now represented in the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series, reserved for those considered the greatest authors.
As Lepape rightly observed, Simon’s fiction, especially from his most productive decade, that is, Le Vent: Tentative de restitution d’un retable baroque (1957; translated as The Wind, 1959); L’Herbe (1958; translated as The Grass, 1960); La Route des Flandres (1960; translated as The Flanders Road, 1961); and Histoire (1967; translated, 1968), constitutes one of the most extensive literary undertakings since Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; translated as Remembrance of Things Past). Like Proust’s masterpiece, Simon’s work can be viewed as a cohesive whole, organic and indivisible, almost autonomous, as Swedish Academy member Lars Gyllensten indicated when he remarked in his Nobel Prize presentation speech that Simon’s texts grew as if the language were an independent, living organism. Lepape’s article used the same image, starting with its title, “Claude Simon, un ’arbre’ littéraire enraciné dans l’Histoire” (Claude Simon, a Literary Tree Rooted in History). Lepape then reminded readers that at the conclusion to Simon’s second book, La Corde raide (1947, The Tightrope), the authorial voice had spoken of feeling the branches of a tree grow toward him and its leaves fill his hands.
Paradoxically, as Lepape observed, this apparent quasi independence of language allowed Simon to be identified with his work to a rare degree, “l’homme se résorbant entiérement dans ses livres—au point de refuser toute tentative biographique; les livres se nourrissant exclusivement de sa vie d’homme, de sa mè-moire sans cesse rèexplorèe et recrèèe par la langue” (the man being reabsorbed entirely into his books—to the point of refusing all attempts at biography; the books feeding exclusively on his life as a man and his memory, ceaselessly re-explored and re-created by the language). In Le Jardin des Plantes (1997; translated as The Jardin des Plantes,2001) Simon himself let it be understood that he had scant imagination (in the sense of inventive ability) and that, except for his earliest novels, his writing was dependent on his personal experience or old family papers.
The causes of public disregard for Simon’s work can be found in the writing itself and in early critical misunderstandings, which persisted so long that the artist mentioned them in his Nobel lecture. His novels, particularly the most famous ones, are notoriously difficult, chiefly because of their style and construction, which involve long sentences and paragraphs (sometimes of many pages); absence or reduction of punctuation; digressions; repetitions; abrupt changes in narrative voice and in pronouns and their referents; similarly abrupt changes in setting and action; and other modernist features, some resembling elements found in the modernist fiction of James Joyce and William Faulkner, who both, along with Proust, were praised by Simon and whose works certainly influenced him. No allowances are made for readers’ possible fatigue or dismay at such prose. Other modernist characteristics add to the difficulty: reduction of the sense of causality, playing with time, and an absence of psychological explanation. Furthermore, unlike Proust’s work, Simon’s novels deny, in effect, the possibility of certain knowledge and, often, the efficacity of language; there are endings but few conclusions. In this respect he carried even farther the modernist experiments of his predecessors, to the extent that he has been called postmodernist. This precariousness of reference and meaning corresponds to what he called the impossibility of finding meaning in the world. In short, as Savigneau observed, Simon’s project called forth neither sentimental empathy nor collective approval.
Moreover, because from 1957 on his books were generally published by Jérôme Lindon at Editions de Minuit, he was labeled by critics as a member of the informal school of fiction writers called Les Nouveaux Romanciers (the New Novelists), likewise published by Lindon. This label led to the supposition that his aims resembled theirs. While this assumption is not entirely misleading in the case of Michel Butor, for instance, the aims of several others, especially Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, were, broadly speaking, contrary to Simon’s, for, whereas his writings depend largely on subjectivism, their project was to prune fiction of subjective points of view and treat only objective phenomena, in a spare style that can be labeled minimalist. (That there are certain subjective aspects in their fiction and objective ones in his does not invalidate the general tendency.) Simon wrote in Le Jardin des Plantesthat “il est impossible á qui que ce soit de raconter ou de décrire quoi que ce soit d’une façon objective” (it is impossible for anyone to relate or describe anything whatsoever in an objective way). Jean Dubuffet, a painter with whom he maintained a correspondence for more than fourteen years and some of whose works appeared juxtaposed with texts by Simon more than once, wrote to him that his task was to “retirer aux faits et aux corps leur opacité, de les rendre traversables” (to take back from facts and bodies their opacity, to allow one to go through them). Insofar as Dubuffet was right—and Simon did not contest his statement—Simon’s purpose is the opposite of Robbe-Grillet’s, whose approach to phenomena creates distance between reader and objects and makes them denser and less approachable.
Because there is to date no biography of Simon, any discussion of his life must be tentative. Several basic facts are known, however, either directly from comments he has made in published or private interviews or indirectly from his works, which he has openly declared to be largely autobiographical, especially La Corde raide and the novels beginning with L’Herbe. On 10 October 1913 Claude Eugène Henri Simon, son of Louis and Suzanne Denamiel Simon, was born in Tananarive, Madagascar, then a French possession, where his father was a cavalry officer. Because Simon was only six months old when he left there to return to Perpignan and the ancestral home of his mother’s family in the southern French region of Roussillon, his novels include little in the way of exotic colonial experiences other than evocations of the fragmentary scenes on postcards that Simon’s father, like the father in Histoire, sent back to France from his travels. Because his father was killed early in World War I and Simon was raised by his mother and her family, the paternal side, from Arbois in the Jura region of Franche-Comté— where Simon lived for part of his youth—also plays less of a role in his novels than the maternal side. Notable exceptions are descriptions in L’Herbe of the diary and photograph of the aunt who traveled across France in 1940 and the sale of the family property in the Jura region. His mother died in 1925.
After his father’s death Simon was brought up in the ancient family residence under the supervision of his maternal uncle, the model for Uncle Charles in several of the novels. Simon and his third wife, Réa Karavas (whom he met in 1962 and married sometime in the 1970s), spent part of each year living in Salses, situated in Roussillon between Perpignan and Les Corbières, in close proximity to the location of his maternal family’s vineyards and ancient home. Many biographical details connected with that location are relevant to his novels: a room in the house provided the point of departure for the opening description in Leôon de choses (1975; translated as The World About Us, 1983); the name L.S.M. in Les Géorgiques (1981; translated as Georgics, 1984) undoubtedly refers to Lacombe Saint-Michel, the name on the bottles from the vineyard in Salses that Simon owned, where he was known as Lacombe.
His secondary studies took place in Perpignan and then at the prestigious Collége Stanislas in Paris, which he entered in 1925. He successfully completed his baccalaureate studies in Paris in 1930 with a degree not in philosophy, as he has often pointed out when questioned by critics on philosophical matters, but in mathematics. In response to family pressures, he began studies for a naval career by taking advanced mathematics at the Lycée Saint-Louis, but his lack of interest was manifest from the start, and he was dismissed shortly. His family then agreed to allow him to study painting, which he did for a time in Paris with André Lhote, a master of constructions that Simon characterized as carefully designed but overly cerebral and lacking in a sense of color. Those studies were eventually abandoned because of what Simon has described as his lack of “plastic talent.” He regretted not succeeding in painting, his greatest love, and he continued to make drawings and collages and to express his acute visual perceptions in his novels. He was also an avid photographer.
Simon’s involvement in major historical events left a profound mark on his work. After doing his expected military service in the cavalry—for which he volunteered—in the 31st Dragoons at Lunéville in 1934 and 1935, he joined the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side (he was also a token member of the Communist Party in 1936 and 1937), acting for a time as a gunrunner. His participation was centered in Barcelona, the location of the Hotel Colon described in Le Palace (1962; translated as The Palace, 1963) and other works. He then served again as a cavalryman in the French army in 1939 and 1940, barely escaping death in May 1940 during the battle of the Meuse, recounted in La Route des Flandres and other novels. Captured at Solre-le-Château near Avesnes and sent to a German prison camp in Saxony, he managed to be transferred to a POW camp in southwest France in October 1940 by passing himself off as a Malagache (someone from Madagascar—which, strictly speaking, he was) when the Germans were repatriating many Africans. He escaped from the French camp and went to Perpignan, where he participated occasionally in the Resistance movement in contact with artists such as Raoul Dufy. He painted during the day, while pursuing his literary career in the evenings. Sometime during this 1939—1940 period, Simon married Lucie Clay, who died during the war. By 1941 he had completed not only Le Tricheur (The Cheater), which was not published until 1946, but also other works that he later destroyed. In 1944, learning that he would be denounced for his Resistance activity, he fled to Paris. For many years he spent long months there, though he returned to Perpignan for lengthy summer vacations.
Another decisive factor in Simon’s life came in 1951 when he was bedridden for five months with tuberculosis, unable to do anything but look out the window: vision and memory were all he had. Simon claimed that this confinement was a turning point that enabled him to appreciate fully the simple, nonintellectual pleasures of such favorite objects as stones, which he kept on his desk. During this period he fully developed his enduring fascination with matter seen through a microscope. He expresses this fascination in his novels, which he produced by closeting himself daily to think and write for hours after lunch. Although he traveled widely, including trips to Greece, the United States, and Latin America, Simon’s main activity was writing. Working steadily and peacefully, often removed from the bustle of Parisian intellectual life, Simon gave simple but stirring expression to man’s day-to-day experience.
In the late 1940s or early 1950s, Simon married Yvonne Ducuing. They were divorced in the 1960s.
In addition to the notions of causality and chronology, Simon calls into question by his fiction the supremacy of plot and psychology and the subservience of description to narration. Working against tradition, he presents a fragmented treatment of time and events in which the groping movements of memory, consciousness, and writing dictate narrative development. He described this movement as blindly moving forward “mot à mot” (word by word), comparing his efforts to those of blind Orion in the painting by Nicolas Poussin. Simon also works against tradition by presenting shadowy characters whose tangled drives and desires manifest sporadically and incoherently during the narration, failing to form an integrated psychological entity or self. Instead of a traditional treatment of time, plot, and characters, Simon and other New Novelists promote the poetic and structural importance of description. One kind is the New Novel technique of chosisme, in which objects are described in such intricate material detail that their connection with human concerns becomes problematic. Other distinctive descriptive practices are colorful, impressionistic sketches of perceptions and memories; erotic evocations of people and vegetal or animal life; renderings of pictures, photographs, and other works of visual art that generate narrative episodes; and miniature reflections within the novel of the entire work, a device known as mise en abyme. All of these elements function to provide the narrative coherence that plot and psychology supply in the traditional novel.
Simon’s importance far transcends, however, an association with the New Novel, which is chiefly a deconstructive process for clearing fiction of the encumbering practices of the past. His importance must also be sought in his constructive side, in his search to answer the question of how the novel can best speak to twentieth- and twenty-first-century readers. First and foremost, the contemporary novel should convey an intensely sensorial quality, a palpable and pleasurable sense of both language and the world. Holding that writing should be as concrete as painting and that the reader should respond to the novel in terms of sense impressions rather than abstract thought, Simon produced works that are replete with the sounds, smells, textures, and colors of such seemingly banal objects as blades of grass in L’Herbe, parts of a horse’s body in La Route des Flandres, or stone walls in Leçon de choses. The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in lectures given at the Collège de France in the early 1960s, used Simon’s work as an illustration of how consciousness responds to the world. Throughout his work, Simon explores the unexpected riches of daily sense impressions by considering the properties of objects, as in geometry one considers the properties of a figure; he fixes his mind upon a cloud, pebble, or painting until its properties have been discovered and brought into contact with the related properties of other objects.
Speaking of other artists, Simon consistently expressed his admiration for those who embody a sensorial notion of art. He frequently cited the sound of James Wait’s voice at the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897) to show that the artist should seek for truth in the visible world and appeal to the senses, unlike the scientist whose search bears on ideas and whose appeal is to the intelligence. He admired Samuel Beckett and Robbe-Grillet not only for their precision in describing the world but also because, like Gustave Flaubert, they practice a sensorial art of both the signified and the signifier, which enhances both meaning and narrative forms. Simon admired Joyce’s vividly sensorial stream of consciousness and contrasting levels of speech that produce a texture of language. Faulkner and Proust were models because they evoke the past sensorially and enhance the importance of linguistic and narrative forms; Faulkner also experimented with common speech, a narrative structure based on sensorial associations, and use of proliferating, poetic sentences. Several modern artists also stood as models: Joan Miró, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, and the three painters Dubuffet, Francis Bacon, and Paul Delvaux, whose works inspired the three narrative sequences in Triptyque. Simon admired their common desire to return to a basic and concrete art. How close the painter’s expression of this desire can be to the writer’s is evident in Femmes, sur vingt-trois peintures de Joan Miró (1966, Women, with Twenty-three Paintings by Joan Miro); republished as La Chevelure de Bérénice (1983, translated as Berenice’s Golden Mane, 1998).
Simon’s writing also transcends its association with the New Novel through its broadly historical and humanistic scope, which covers major moments of upheaval in European history and their effects on modern man. Looking backward, Simon’s narrators reconstruct historical moments through an act of imagination triggered by historical documents; some look back as far as the eighteenth century, where they discover the disarray of their aristocratic ancestors around the time of the French Revolution. The experience of earlier participants in history echoes their own in events such as World War II and the Spanish Civil War. The common thread among generations is a sense of futility in the face of the horrors of war or the pettiness of politics and a stripping away of naive illusions about the chances for meaningful social change. The resulting sense of human limitations and the cyclical nature of history is not coupled, however, with pessimism or despair. Simon’s work conveys a poignant sense of the enduring value of life, even after the idealism and illusions of youth have been lost.
Simon’s historical and humanistic writing differs substantially from the committed literature popular in France prior to and during World War II. Although his novels have a manifestly social and political content, Simon rejected the use of that content for political purposes and the use of the novel by André Gide, Louis Aragon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and certain writers of the absurd as a vehicle for expressing philosophical or political truths. In contrast, he praised Paul Cézanne’s aesthetic approach to art, unencumbered by signposts indicating the meaning of the work. Simon made a clear-cut distinction between artistically and politically revolutionary acts. Although both stem from the need to question and protest, they can meaningfully occur only in their prescribed arenas. He thus firmly rejected the notion of engagement, according to which the novel should further political causes such as socialism; engagement stymies the artist’s creative growth and makes him subservient to intolerant political revolutionaries.
Simon’s production can be divided into periods. The early period, from Le Tricheur to Le Vent, reveals an author experimenting with a variety of narrative and thematic materials, having not yet achieved the distinctive style and world view of the later periods. The early works are strongly marked by the tone and style of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Faulkner. The influence of the Russian novelist’s somber preoccupation with mystery and human frailty is especially marked in Le Tricheur, a haunting novel about adolescent yearnings and violence and about adult rejection, failure, and despair. The points of view of various characters are juxtaposed in Le Tricheur: Louis, whose actions and feelings in running away with his child lover, Belle, are interspersed with recollections of his past life at home and school; Catherine, Belle’s mother; Gauthier, Catherine’s husband and possibly Belle’s father, although the suggestion of infidelity figures prominently in Catherine’s thoughts; Belle herself; and Ephraϊm Rosenblaum, an outside spectator of the drama. The thoughts, memories, and sense impressions of these characters are revealed in a mixed third-person narration and interior monologue that lapses periodically into the first person. The central event is a seemingly unmotivated murder resulting from an obscure drive toward rebellion and liberation. Through parallel and converging stories about family members of different generations, the novel centers on rebellion against conventional and hypocritical values. It also develops the themes of war, activist politics, and time.
La Corde raide is a repertoire of elements used in later works: the experiences of soldiers; the civil war in Spain; and Spanish images such as posters, baroque architecture, tramways, and cigar boxes. La Corde raide also poses questions about the usefulness of art, its importance in modern times, French artistic tastes and tendencies, the artist’s ability to explain or justify his art, art as evasion, and the artistically uneducated public’s inability to understand modern art. The unifying thread is the narrator’s search to understand why Cézanne’s way of seeing the world is so unusual. La Corde raide comprises fourteen sections, from five to twenty-two pages each, intermingling essay and fictional or autobiographical writing. They are linked by the first-person narrative voice and the fact that the questions posed in the essays are frequently answered in the fiction: the answer to why Cézanne’s way of see
ing the world is so new is indirectly provided in the narrator’s vivid recollections and perceptions.
Simon has characterized Gulliver (1952) as an unsuccessful attempt to write a conventional novel and as the only one of his works that stands apart from his steady evolution as a writer. As in conventional novels, frequent descriptions of attire and habitat suggest the psychology of typical characters: Gérard Faure, an antifascist terrorist; Herzog, a Jewish intellectual; Jo and Loulou de Chavannes, decadent descendants of a formerly prestigious family; Max Verdier, a rich victim of metaphysical anguish. The politically motivated assassination on a Tuesday night of the de Chavannes servant, an accomplice in Loulou’s scheme to extort money from Herzog, opens the novel. On the preceding night, as a lengthy flashback reveals, a complex web of events results in the murder of Bobby, Max’s homosexual lover, and the suicide of Max. Further complications arise in connection with Eliane de Chavannes, Jo and Loulou’s sister and the mother of Max’s child.
The family plays an important thematic role through the grandmother’s blind hypocrisy and Eliane’s and Max’s futile attempts to transcend the confines of her society. Psychological and visual themes are also significant: perceptual effects of wind and rain; deformation of reality because of pain; postcoital recollections of the past; and visual impressions of postcards, signs, headlights, phone booths, trains, and games. The plot dwells on the irrational urge toward meaningless violence, at work in the antifascist group and illustrated by the de Chavannes twins, Bobby, and Herzog’s servant who, at the end, returns a kind gesture with a hateful insult. Another important theme is disillusionment resulting from a youthful devotion to a cause. Max views his activities during the war with bitter scorn; and Bert, a journalist in love with Eliane, finally understands the ridiculousness of his role as detective in attempting to prove that Max murdered Bobby.
Le Sacre du printemps (1954, The Rite of Spring) opens with the thoughts, perceptions, and recollections of the rebellious young Bernard Mallet, whose stepfather, a disabused veteran of the Spanish Civil War, has become the target of Bernard’s impetuous urge to rebel. Because the conflict between Bernard and the stepfather is central in the novel, there is some artistic justification for the switch, after the first part, to a mixture of the stepfather’s first-person narration and the third-person narration of the thoughts, words, and perceptions of both Bernard and the stepfather in the rest of the novel. The novel is thematically characteristic of Simon’s writing, despite its melodramatic plot: learning that Edith, the sister of a student whom he is tutoring, urgently needs money for an abortion, Bernard becomes embroiled in a violent adventure; later, learning of his stepfather’s relationship with the girl, he provokes a family confrontation that results in the termination of the pregnancy. The important theme is the stripping away of illusions about romantic devotion to causes. The stepfather experienced a similar “rite of spring” when as a student he devoted himself to the Spanish cause and unwittingly contributed to the meaningless violence of a fellow revolutionary’s death.
Le Vent, the first of Simon’s novels published by Editions de Minuit, was also the first of his works that the public associated with the New Novel and its characteristic techniques of blurring character and plot, describing nonhuman phenomena such as the wind, ignoring social and political events, and highlighting the writer’s efforts to construct the novel. In Le Vent Antoine Montès arrives from afar to farm the lands left to him by his father, whose infidelities prior to Montès’s birth provoked the permanent separation of the family; having befriended Rose, the lonely mistress of a town gypsy, and her two children, Montès finds himself embroiled in a melodramatic series of events that results in the deaths of Rose and the gypsy. The narrator is a professor whose research concerns Romanesque architecture, but whose interest is diverted to a human drama: the subtitle, Tentative de restitution d’un retable baroque (Attempt to Restore a Baroque Retable), highlights the narrator’s attempt to restore the complex reality of Montès’s life that, like the eponymous wind, represents undirected and unreasonable violence.
Because Le Vent is a transitional work, already displaying stylistic features perfected in the second period, it retains narrative features characteristic of the early period. Despite the hesitation surrounding events, the novel ultimately relies on a logically developed story and the resolution of enigmas to maintain the reader’s interest. Montés—both as a reporter of and participant in the events—is a complex individual, who has a marked affinity with Dostoevsky’s innocent Prince Myshkin: Simon has acknowledged that Le Vent is a remake of The Idiot (1868). In a largely traditional fashion, the novel dwells on Montés’s past history, physical appearance, and tragic conflict with society. Not until L’Herbe did Simon break decisively with the focus of the traditional psychological novel on the intricate workings of an unusual character’s mind.
L’Herbe is the first of the novels in Simon’s second period, which is characterized by a baroque, proliferating Faulknerian style. Distinctive features of that style include such formulas as “se rappelant” (remembering), “se demandant” (wondering), “se voyant” (seeing herself); long sentences and abundant present participles; parentheses, dashes, and ellipses; the truncating of events or the fusion of present and past actions; and plays on words. Adopting a syntactical arrangement that allows words and phrases to unfold and proliferate, Simon forges sentences that are often several pages in length, including many subordinate constructions set off by parentheses or dashes. The accumulation of words and phrases makes the reader conscious of the elaboration of the sentence and acts to surround assertions with an aura of doubt by proposing alternative meanings. Conjunctive constructions (”soit…soit…” [whether…or whether…]; “sans doute…ou peut-être” [probably…or perhaps]; “mais peut-être même pas” [but perhaps not even that]) act to cram the sentence full of acts, images, hypotheses, and recollections, sometimes building up to a coherent picture, sometimes canceling each other out. Comparative constructions (”semblable á” [like], “comme si” [as if], “ou plutôt comme si” [or rather as if]) propose comparisons while denying them a clearly defined meaning. Ellipses in characters’ thoughts or spoken words express the ambiguous nature of language and the groping movements of memory and consciousness. Logical conjunctions that fail to establish genuine connections between propositions express a futile striving for continuity. The present participle suggests a proliferation of actions in an imaginary world.
The novels of the second period, beginning with L’Herbe, are also characterized by a recurring group of family members and autobiographical events that a central consciousness seeks to understand through memory, imagination, and documents from the past. L’Herbe is about Louise; her husband, Georges, who turns to farming and gambling after World War II; Georges’s great-aunt Marie, who dies after sacrificing her happiness to raise her brother, Pierre, to the rank of university professor; and Georges’s parents—Pierre, obese and taciturn, and Sabine, jealous and inebriated. The events are personal ones: the aunt falls into a coma and dies; Louise’s marriage crumbles, and she makes plans to leave with her lover. It is not the people or events that are important but Louise’s efforts to understand them.
Uncertainty surrounds those efforts from the start, and even at the end no clear account is presented of either the aunt’s death or Louise’s departure, both of which are referred to only indirectly. As suggested in the epigraph, taken from Boris Pasternak, “Personne ne fait l’histoire, on ne la voit pas, pas plus qu’on ne voit l’herbe pousser” (No one makes history, no one sees it happen, no one sees the grass grow); there is no clear perception of when, how, or why events occur. Instead, Simon describes images connected with events, for example, the T-shaped pattern of light seeping through the openings between and above the shutters in the dying aunt’s room, or the sound of a train or of drops of rain. Those sounds suggest a fading out of the aunt’s life and Louise’s either leaving Georges or losing hope for the future by staying with him.
Louise’s decision is connected with but not strictly determined by the renunciation the aunt’s life and death exemplify. She admires and respects the aunt’s values to some extent, but she also rebels against her example, realizing that the aunt’s life was composed of sacrifices for people such as Pierre, Sabine, and Georges, who lead futile and unhappy lives. The notion of the aunt’s life, reduced to a meaningless repetition, provokes anguish in Louise, especially as she looks at some record books that she discovers in a biscuit box and at the pattern of repeated images on the cover of the box.
The biscuit box also provides a mise en abyme or miniature version of the entire text. The woman on the cover is lying on the grass holding a box, as Louise similarly holds a box in the novel; the picture in turn portrays a miniature version of the same woman holding the same box, with the repetition of the same image going on endlessly. The series of increasingly distant images suggests the retrospective perspectives of the novel: the reader looks back at the period when the narration took place and finds a narrator looking back at the ten days during which the aunt lay dying and at Louise looking back at the past life of the aunt and other members of the family. Narrative structure thus echoes the repetitive pattern of familial and historical events that Louise seeks to understand.
Simon’s next novel, La Route des Flandres, earned him the 1960 Prix de L’Express. Like L’Herbe, it focuses on a central character’s efforts to understand the past. Georges, prior to his marriage to Louise in L’Herbe, dwells on the enigmatic death of his distant cousin and wartime commander, de Reixach. Although he narrates some of the events to his cynical fellow prisoner Blum in a German prison camp, the central narrative situation is a night that he spends with de Reixach’s young widow, Corinne, after the war, and that culminates in her angry departure.
The novel begins with his meeting Captain de Reixach in the winter of 1939-1940 and then shifts to several days in May 1940 when two successive defeats and the deaths of de Reixach and the soldier Wack occur. Symmetrical in design, the novel also ends with the captain’s death, with the important central position given to the ambush into which the squadron falls that causes its destruction. A multiplicity of seemingly unrelated episodes is recounted: the wanderings of the cavalrymen, a horse race, the trip Georges and Blum make by train to prison, the stop de Reixach and his troops make to have a drink at an inn, and the recollections Georges has of his father on his farm. Simon has explained that during the final stages of writing the novel, he used colored threads and strips of paper marked with colored pencils to represent the different themes and visualize their interweaving. (Readers can see Simon’s outlines and maps in an appendix in the 2006 Pléiade edition of his (Euvres [Works]). Gradually, Georges’s interest focuses on the possibility that de Reixach actually sought death in battle because of Corinne’s adulterous relationship with the couple’s orderly and hired hand, the jockey Iglésia. The likelihood that de Reixach wanted to die seems all the greater as Georges learns from Wack the story of another adulterous relationship involving a lame farmer, in whose barn the soldiers are billeted, and as Georges trades stories with Blum about an eighteenth-century ancestor of the de Reixachs, whose suicide is suggested visually by a stain on a family portrait resembling a bullet wound. (Simon owned the portrait he described in the novel.) But a clear understanding of the events proves to be impossible. Igésia and Wack may have fabricated their stories of adultery in response to Georges’s and Blum’s teasing. Confusion surrounds the quarrel between the lame farmer and a town official as well as the motive for the lame farmer’s keeping his brother’s wife locked up in the farmhouse. Blum takes liberties with the facts about the ancestor’s having been discovered nude at the moment of his death and fails to establish whether his motive was personal jealousy or political disillusionment because of the failure of the French Revolution.
The central theme of the impossibility of understanding the past is furthered in La Route des Flandres by the narrative practice of calling into question the narrator’s identity. The “I” who narrates and the Georges, or “he,” whose actions are described seem to be two separate characters whose voices are discordantly juxtaposed. After some fifteen pages narrated in the first person, the novel abruptly changes to the third. The similar shifts throughout the novel can be compared to the opening and closing of parentheses, with a return to the previous narrative voice occurring several pages later. “I” strives to create his subjectivity through language; but he repeatedly finds his voice and subjectivity usurped by “he,” an impersonal object in his consciousness. The shifts from “I” to “he” occur at such moments of self-doubt as looking in mirrors or suffering from the effects of fatigue, alcohol, or tobacco. The opposition between “I” and “he” strips the central character of control over himself. Georges is merely a shadow of the traditional first-person narrator: as “he,” he is merely an impersonal object created by the narrator “I”; as “I,” he is merely an insubstantial, verbal presence in a text.
Description, which plays a key role in La Route des Flandres and other novels of the second period, focuses on the key motif of horses. Horses on a racing field, decorated with bright colors such as coral, evoke Corinne. The cavalrymen return on four occasions to a spot where a dead horse lies decaying, its physical deterioration symbolizing the same invisible change as the growth of the grass in L’Herbe. Simon has described the temporal pattern formed by the repeated descriptions of the dead horse as a cloverleaf drawn by beginning at a certain point and, without lifting pencil from paper, returning to it three times. The pattern evokes the passage of time during war, the succession of words that loop back on themselves, and the three-part division of the novel, with the stem of the cloverleaf formed by the introduction of themes in the “prelude.” It is intended to provide the kind of immediate apprehension of the diversity of war that Simon claimed to have experienced when, as he was returning on a bus from Etretat with Lindon, a group of trees seemed to pull back, revealing other trees, and the entire novel came to him in a flash. He was then able to write in fourteen months what he had been thinking about for twenty years.
The Spanish Civil War is described similarly in Le Palace, through memory and imagination, in an effort to understand and reconstruct the past. The novel is divided into five parts. Part 1, “Inventaire” (Inventory), begins with a description of a pigeon that the narrator observes on the balcony from inside a room, followed by a description of the room and the situation of the narrator’s return to the scene of his earlier participation in the civil war. The main characters are a cynical American; two doctrinaire revolutionaries, the schoolmaster and the officer or policeman; and an Italian gunman called The Rifle. It becomes clear that the American, who deplores the use of violence to silence opposing views within the revolutionary ranks, is irrevocably alienated from the others in the group.
Part 2, “Récit de l’homme-fusil” (The Rifle’s Story), presents the first of a series of acts of political violence. By telling his story to the narrator and drawing a diagram, the Italian describes how he entered a restaurant, passed through a series of points from the door to a table in order to kill a man, and then retraced his movements after having committed the murder. His passage through the points is echoed in a neon sign, on which flashing neon arrows create movement, and in the epigraph, which defines revolution as “mouvement d’un mobile qui, parcourant une courbe fermée, repasse successivement par les mêmes points” (the locus of a moving body which, describing a closed curve, successively passes through the same points).
Part 3, “Les Funérailles de Patrocle” (The Funeral of Patroclus), presents the assassination of the revolutionary leader Santiago. Members of a revolutionary party follow a circular path through the city in a funeral procession, carrying signs and banners that express their bewilderment about the reasons for the assassination. The circular trajectory of the procession is seen from a distance by the narrator and his companions; as they discuss its significance, the conflict between the American and the schoolmaster concerning the role of violence in furthering a revolutionary cause is heightened.
Part 4, “Dans la nuit” (In The Night), presents the American’s nocturnal departure, which the narrator now links to the political assassinations of the man in the restaurant and Santiago. His growing anguish about the Republican movement is indirectly expressed through a lengthy description of a cigar box. Part 5, “Bureau des objets perdus” (Lost and Found), presents his further anguish in seeking to understand the facts of the American’s departure and the larger meaning of revolution. Hints at the narrator’s suicide or the Italian’s death at the end suggest that the violence engendered by revolution will continue. As in the other novels of the second period, there is no solution to the enigmas of the past. Only the search for the solution has meaning.
A similar search is depicted in Histoire, winner of the 1967 Prix Médicis but one of the works Simon omitted from the Pléiade collection. The novel, whose title means either history or story, begins at night, as the narrator’s perceptions of the fragmented forms and movements of a tree give rise to recollections about members of his family: the death of his mother; his father’s travels through the colonial empire, recorded on postcards and stamps; the death or departure of his Uncle Charles; his grandmother’s role in raising Charles’s children, Corinne and Paulou.
The second chapter presents the narrator in the morning of the single day recounted in the novel, again looking at the tree and recalling the past. He remembers his wife, Hélène, who either left him or committed suicide when he was leaving for Spain. Because Charles’s wife also either left him or committed suicide, he abandoned his intellectual life in Paris and retired to the country, as has the narrator by returning to the house of his childhood.
Other acts recounted in Histoire are mundane: going to a bank to borrow money, eating in a restaurant, or selling some old furniture. The narrator recalls such seemingly unrelated episodes as Corinne’s provocative behavior as a young girl, de Reixach’s apparent suicide in battle, and an episode of street fighting during the Spanish Civil War. There is a lengthy description of a photograph depicting Uncle Charles, a painter named Van Velden, and a nude model in a studio. It becomes increasingly impossible to determine either the identity of the characters or the nature of the events—whether it was Hélène, Charles’s wife; Corinne; or the artist’s model who committed suicide, as is suggested by the headline about a woman jumping out of a fourth-floor window, or whether she merely left because her man was unfaithful, as is suggested by oblique references to an adulterous affair between an older man and a younger woman. Like the novels of the third period, the work ends with the same poignant sense of a mysterious past and a narrator’s valiant but futile efforts to understand it.
La Bataille de Pharsale (1969; translated as The Battle of Pharsalus, 1971), like Le Vent, is a transitional work. Although certain thematic features link it to the second period, other features announce the third period. The arrested movement of an arrow evoked in the epigraph from Paul Valéry and the discontinuous perception of a bird described in part 1 announce the emphasis in the new period on fragmented words and images—sun, shadow, arrow, wings, flight—which are paired and interwoven with other words and images, yet which are not meant to result in the same degree of thematic and linguistic unity evident in the second period. For example, O, a phoneme in the first word of the novel, jaune, appears later as a sound or letter in key words and serves to designate the narrative voice as well as to represent the circular form of the novel. That the generative process, not the story, attracts the reader’s attention is characteristic of Simon’s third period.
Part 2 explores the poetic qualities of seven words presented as unrelated units in a lexicon. The entry for Bataille describes fragmented battle scenes depicted in works of art, with no relation to a temporal context. Machine presents an abandoned agricultural machine that has been reduced from a functioning system to a collection of fragmented parts. Part 3 establishes additional new narrative patterns. The tense is the present; the narrative voice is objective; and the style is simple. There are no intrusions of subjectivity, such as refrains or vituperative expressions, and virtually no parentheses, long sentences, present participles, or explicit metaphors. Simon perfected a style that purportedly reflects the workings of language, not consciousness. According to Simon, the idea for that style came to him upon discovering the stark vertical lines of New York, in contrast with the extravagant curves of baroque architecture in Europe. La Bataille de Pharsale closes on a distinctly optimistic note. Instead of the negative images with which the works of the second period come to an end, this novel presents the writer actively at work, not destroying but constructing, not rejecting but affirming. Reality no longer oppresses him but yields to the patterns of writing. The closing image is of sunlight progressing across the page: “La ligne de séparation entre l’ombre et le soleil coupe aux deux tiers et en oblique la feuille de papier posée devant O” (The line separating shadow and sunlight falls two-thirds of the way across the sheet of paper in front of O).
Simon also makes a transition in La Bataille de Pharsale by refusing to subordinate all narrative situations to one central situation. The difference between this novel and the preceding Histoireis striking in that both include many of the same episodes and characters: the artist Van Velden and his model in the studio; Uncle Charles in the dimly lit office where he helps the narrator with his Latin translations; soldiers defeated in battle and fleeing in the countryside; the narrator in Greece; the narrator suffering pangs of jealousy and remorse. Not all of these are related in the narrator’s memory, experience, or imagination in La Bataille de Pharsale as they are in Histoire. A radical departure from the use of a single point of view occurs when the narrator and other characters come to be designated as O, l’oeil (the eye) or observer who serves as the center of vision of the novel. O can be anyone, anywhere, at any time. O is seen on a train during a trip through Italy, in Greece looking for the Pharsalus battlefield, in bed making love with the artist, in Charles’s office seeking help with Latin translations. O is like a camera that enables a movie director to dwell on the artistic properties of people, places, or objects. Unity is no longer provided by memory and consciousness.
The third period of Simon’s writing begins with the publication of Orion aveugle (1970, Orion Blinded), followed by a greatly expanded version of the same text retitled Les Corps conducteurs (1971; translated as Conducting Bodies, 1974). Adopting the view that the author should exercise only limited control over the narrative process, Simon during this period allowed generating images and words to determine the content and narrative coherence of the novel, in the absence of a preconceived narrative design. The connotative and material properties of words and images combine and send the writer down new and unexpected “sentiers de la création” (paths of creation). The author’s role is to choose powerful and poetic generators that actively produce meaning. These generators transmit what can be called an electrical charge to the entire novel.
Orion aveugle, Les Corps conducteurs, and subsequent novels include a multiplicity of narrative sequences, with an increasing deemphasis of the central narrative situation. Simon’s goal was to consider material properties of words and things—the original title of Les Corps conducteurs was “Propriétés de quelques figures, géométriques ou non” (Properties of Several Geometric and Nongeometric Figures)—and then to join or superimpose those properties from one sequence to another. Les Corps conducteurs presents several episodes: a sick man moves along a street in an American city; a column of soldiers or guerrillas advances through the jungle with difficulty; a man takes a long and exhausting plane ride; a man visits a museum and a doctor’s office; a writer attends an endless writers’ congress in Latin America; blind Orion moves gropingly through the sky toward the sun; and a man spends a night with a woman whom he has tried to reach repeatedly by phone. Although the efforts of the sick man to reach his hotel a short distance away may seem to provide the link among the various series, Simon has said that no element should be viewed as privileged or providing an anchor in reality. To dispel any realistic assumptions, he presents each series not only in its normal narrative form but also as a text (sign, book, movie, and so on) read or viewed by characters in the other series.
Simon’s method is perhaps more evident in Orion aveugle than in Les Corps conducteurs. The former is illustrated by a diverse collection of visual materials: works of art by Rauschenberg, Pablo Picasso, Poussin, and Dubuffet; anatomical drawings; geographical and commercial photographs and designs; and an astrological map. Based on these visual generators, the text develops the theme of perception, culminating in the final image of an anatomical drawing of the internal parts of the eye. In Les Corps conducteurs, in which the visual generators disappear, the reader is less conscious of the process of generation itself and more aware of the protagonist’s consciousness as the locus of perception. Since the closing visual image of the eye is replaced by an episode in which the sick man falls facedown on the rug of his hotel room, an individual subjectivity seems to replace the anonymous perceptual presence in Orion aveugle. In the novels written shortly after Les Corps conducteurs, Simon strove increasingly to eliminate or minimize the role of this central consciousness.
In Les Corps conducteurs the passage among sequences is based on the sensual, textual, and thematic properties of these series. Thus, the reader moves from the tubular forms of skyscrapers to the similar forms of the digestive tract, from the “colonnes” (columns) in the hall where the delegates’ meeting takes place or in written texts to “colons” and “côlons” (colonialists and internal organs). The text shifts from the human body, in pain or engaged in the sexual act, to political bodies, bodies of land, celestial bodies in constellations, or artificial bodies of mannequins. Whatever body is at issue, certain problems arise. Remoteness from reality is common to the writers’ meeting, the view of South America from a plane, and the state of intense pain. Arrested movement is common to the sick man in the street, the figure of Orion in the sky, and the colonialists or guerrillas moving through the forest. Another common theme is the fragmentation of bodies, their separation from an organic whole. In modern society, the novel suggests, man is cut off from himself and the external world. His blind and hesitant attempts to give meaning to his fragmented world correspond both to Orion’s in moving through the sky and the author’s in writing.
Triptyque, published the year Simon received an honorary degree from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, successfully accomplishes what the author achieved partially in Les Corps conducteurs: the elimination of a central consciousness and privileged narrative situation. The tripartite structure highlighted in the title, which was inspired by a painting by Bacon, maintains equality among the various three-part arrangements in the novel. There are three sections, of which the central one is the longest; three settings (a country village, a northern industrial city, and a resort city that resembles Nice); three main types of artistic representations that link the various sequences (postcards, posters, and movies); and triangular images of all sorts, including geometrical figures drawn by a boy. Within and among these tripartite arrangements, complex verbal and visual connections are formed. To combine and arrange pieces, to create a complex whole from fragmented forms—as in a puzzle, one of the closing images of the novel—these are Simon’s most noteworthy accomplishments in Triptyque.
A series of implied events underlies each sequence. In the village, a girl drowns because the woman responsible for watching her goes off to the barn to have sex with a farmworker. The two boys, who are supposed to take care of the girl during the woman’s absence, are spying on the lovemaking through an opening in the wall of the barn. In the northern city, a young man deserts his bride immediately after their wedding and returns to her late that night, bloody from a drunken brawl and disheveled from having had sex with a barmaid. In the resort city, an older woman lying undressed in a hotel room enlists the assistance of two men (Lambert and Brown), undoubtedly current or former lovers, to extricate her teenage son from the police on drug charges. (Readers of Simon’s other novels will identify the woman as Corinne, based on references to the de Reixach name and her aristocratic title of baroness.) In addition to the three main sequences, a circus scene featuring a clown, his companions, and a monkey is developed.
Common to these sequences is the central issue of how reality is represented. Each emphasizes angles of vision and lighting, making the reader acutely aware of who is viewing, from where, and under what perceptual conditions. Frequently, the viewer of a scene first watches and then is watched by others, as when the boys watch the lovers in the barn and are then themselves watched. Shifts also occur in the medium of the representation, as when the boys look at the world directly and then hold up to the light a filmstrip that depicts another world, or when the reader focuses on the scene in the barn and then on an engraving of a maidservant seduced in a barn. The shifts in the medium of representation are the most pronounced in the sequence of the resort city, which is presented through direct narration, as a story in a novel, described as a picture on the cover of the novel, and presented in verbal equivalents cinematographic forms and activities—as stills, transparencies, moving film, posters, and the actual filming on a set. There is no longer any separation between reality and its imaginary or artistic representation.
Another common theme in Simon is eroticism, which is treated in a new and startlingly graphic way in Triptyque and in the later novel Leçon de choses. Explicit descriptions of genitalia and sexual acts become longer and more important as the novel progresses, especially in the story of the bridegroom and the barmaid. Closely associated with the erotic theme are certain recurrent colors (pink, yellow, purple), forms (triangles, vertical lines, openings), and words such as lips. These colors, forms, and words are the basis of the passages from one sequence to another. Asked to comment on the graphic nature of his sexual descriptions, Simon has simply noted that they are no more or less detailed than his descriptions of trees, clouds, flowers, battles, or stones.
Leçon de choses is noteworthy because it reintroduces thematic features from Simon’s second period into a work that adheres to the narrative practices of his third. The result is a partial synthesis between the earlier subjective, historical vision and the later impersonal, strictly literary approach. From the latter, Simon adopts the tripartite structure used in Triptyque, in which the three parts are of equal importance and in which no central consciousness provides a stable narrative focus. But as in earlier novels such as La Route des Flandres, Leçon de choses also presents the drama of war and on several occasions adopts the first-person voice of a participant in that drama. Of the seven parts of the novel—“Générique” (Generic), “Expansion,” “Divertissement I” (Diversion I), “Leçon de choses” (Object Lesson), “Divertissement II,” “La Charge de Reichshoffen,” “Courts-circuits” (Short-circuits)—the two “divertissements” are long first-person monologues in slang that present a soldier’s frantic viewpoint on war.
The soldier’s viewpoint also plays a highly significant role in parts 2, 4, and 6, in which the tripartite structure is developed by the interweaving of three narrative sequences. Their common thread is the setting of a house; it enables Simon to develop what he has called the theme and variation form of this novel. In the first sequence, two masons are demolishing a wall while remodeling a country house. The time is the present or recent past. In the second, four cavalrymen are defending a house against the Germans during World War II. Threatened with being surrounded, they are angry about their officers’ failure to order a retreat. In the third, several women, a child, and a man are walking along the cliffs near the sea; they stop on a cliff while the little girl has a snack; they watch a fisherman bring in his catch; as a subplot, one of the women, whose husband is away, meets the man later that night and commits adultery with him in a field near the country house. She becomes furious and finally runs away because he shows insensitivity to her concerns about becoming pregnant. Because of the women’s old-fashioned clothing, this sequence appears to take place in the nineteenth century. Although nothing dramatic happens in any of the sequences, a sense of closure arises at the end, suggested by the decreasing light of day, the departing movement of a boat, the concluding rhythm of the sex act, and the falling down of the wall. Simon has commented that as he was finishing the book, he happened to open the dictionary to the word chute (fall), and realized that the whole novel consisted of variations on the diverse meanings of that word.
As in other novels, there is no privileged sequence in Leçon de choses. Constant shifts occur among the three sequences, often based on passages from movement to stasis; one sequence is presented as a newspaper item or is frozen and is described as a framed representation in another sequence. It may be true that the soldiers and the workers assume a greater degree of reality than the characters in the seaside sequence, who appear more frequently as representations viewed by the other characters in calendars, books, or paintings (especially impressionist paintings). Moreover, an important link between the soldiers and the workers is established at the end when it becomes apparent that the older of the two workers was one of the soldiers and thus that his point of view has special significance. That point of view becomes important only in retrospect, however, and does not keep the reader from viewing the three sequences as equal during the reading of the novel.
The process of association in Leçon de chosesis also characteristic of Simon’s third period. Sequences are linked through key words such as boudin, which at various times gives rise to associations with the impressionist painter Eugène Louis Boudin, a tightly fitting garment, rolls, the fender on a boat, and a swollen finger. Other links hinge on the two meanings of the word voile, sail and veil, and on the similar sounds of ombelles (the botanical term umbels) and ombrelles (parasols), or mer (sea) and mère (mother). The associative process used to generate the narration is highlighted in the first section, “Générique,” which includes a two-page description of a wall that is common to the setting of the three main narrative sequences; partial verbatim repetitions of that description occur in the last section, “Courts-circuits.” The second section, “Expansion,” begins with the depiction of an impressionistic seascape, later identified as Claude Monet’s Nymphaeas, Effet du soir (1897, Water Lilies, Evening Effect), and continues by extending the verbal and visual associations to which the opening description gave rise. These associations provide the thematic and narrative core of the work.
The title Leçon de choses is a significant comment on Simon’s narrative techniques as well as a reflection upon their significance. It suggests a school lesson on objective observation and refers to an elementary-science textbook that one soldier is reading. In the textbook he finds illustrations and a didactic text that unsuccessfully compete with things around him and fail to provide an escape from reality: the text attempts to tell, for example, how to build a house, but the soldier reaches this explanation at the moment when their shelter is crumbling. The other soldier, who talks in the two “divertissements,” comes closer to providing a true “lesson of things.” His lesson, like that of the novel, teaches not only how to use things but also how to appreciate their properties, texture, color, sound, and smell.
A similar synthesis of Simon’s second and third periods is accomplished on a more extensive, epic scale in Les Géorgiques. Although there are again three main narrative sequences that form a tripartite structure, the themes developed in those sequences are reminiscent of the second period. Each treats a participant in a major historical event: General L.S.M., who plays various military, political, and diplomatic roles before, during, and after the French Revolution; an unnamed French soldier in World War II, who retreats from Belgium during the French defeat in 1940, crosses the Meuse shortly before the bridges blow up, is captured, and escapes from a prison camp near Dresden; and an English volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, designated as O, who fights on the Aragon front in 1937, is wounded by a bullet in the neck, and is chased by the police in Barcelona after the anarchist insurrection in May.
The prologue and first part of Les Géorgiques set a tone that is characteristic of Simon’s work in the third period, with later parts developing themes from the novels of 1958 to 1969. The seven-page prologue introduces the generative image of the general, presented first as a character and then as a drawing. The prologue also introduces a metatextual element in reflections on the unfinished nature of the drawing and the contrast between its realistic foreground and schematic background. That metatextual element underlies the rest of the novel with its obvious allusions to novels by Proust and by Simon himself.
Part 1 interweaves characters, different periods in the general’s life, and several different types of language to represent the general’s official documents and records of daily activities; the soldier’s war experiences, which he is reported to have told in a novel; and O’s supposedly objective reports and his naive trust in language. The style consists of the short, simple sentences characteristic of the novels after Orion aveugle. The interweaving of the three sequences in part 1 is so strong, with all three narrative figures similarly referred to as “he,” that only such details as the mention of airplanes indicating the modern period and Simon’s use of italics at times and of roman type at others enable the reader to distinguish one from the other.
In the rest of the novel, the themes and separate treatment of the three narrative sequences are reminiscent of earlier novels. Part 2 recalls La Route des Flandres through its focus on the hardships and reality of war. The subject is the breakdown of command during the debacle of the French defeat at the beginning of World War II and the almost total decimation of the squadron to which the soldier belonged. Part 3, reminiscent of Histoire, introduces the narrator and establishes his link with the general; the narrator’s grandmother owned a bust of the general that is the stimulus for his attempt to reconstruct the general’s past life.
Part 4, which recounts the hardships endured by a participant in the Spanish Civil War, recalls Le Palace. While the participant is initially identified as O, like the “oeil” or observer in La Bataille de Pharsak, he is later identified as George Orwell through descriptions of his English milieu. Simon has acknowledged that Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) was the prime stimulus for this section. Three locations are described: the Aragon front, Barcelona, and England. The Barcelona location figures in two episodes, in chronologically reverse order: O’s return after having been wounded, only to learn that he is wanted by the police; and his arrival in Spain. The return, with its focus on the frightening presence of political figures who pursue mercilessly the so-called enemies of freedom, reveals the profoundly antitotalitarian thrust of Simon’s thought, while the arrival reveals Simon’s critical attitude toward Orwell’s omission of the basic fact that the Russians were controlling the Spanish Left. Orwell’s recounting of the Spanish Civil War is thus contrasted with the one Simon presents, as the two lessons about things are contrasted in Leçon de choses. The contrast is between an authoritative text and a hesitant one, between one that tries to imagine what happened and one that claims to know. Orwell, as an impersonal journalist, pretends to capture reality, but he too, Simon suggests, ends up writing a novel.
Part 5 dwells on the general’s return to France after the Revolution and the hidden facts of his relationship with his family. The main fact is that L.S.M. unwittingly caused his brother’s death by voting for a law whereby any aristocrat who emigrated at the time of the Revolution and who returned to France armed would receive the death penalty. Another hidden fact is that L.S.M.’s son by his first marriage removed money and valuables from the chateau at the time of his father’s death, prompting the second wife to dispute his will and eventually regain the inheritance. Throughout this part the narrator’s imagination is at work, attempting to reconstruct the truth of the general’s past from the documents relating to the dispute over his will and his brother’s trial for desertion. A tension is created between the legal text, which pretends to know the truth, and the novel, which seeks to discover it.
Although diverse in subject and technique, the parts of Les Géorgiques form a coherent thematic whole. All of them address the primary issue of the relationship between reality and literature. That relationship is central to the georgic tradition highlighted in the title allusion to Virgil’s Georgica and the epigraph from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782, 1789). Unlike Virgil, whose didactic tone encourages men to turn to working the land, Simon is concerned simply with the concrete reality of nature: the general’s perceptions of his property from his chateau looking out over the valley, and the perceptions of the soldier and O enduring the hardships of battle. Common to all three characters is a strong sense of the rhythmic progression of the seasons and the cyclical, repetitive nature of life. The passivity of merely conforming to the cyclical nature of things, however, is contrasted with the activity of writing. Writing is Simon’s response to the deterioration exemplified in history and by the advanced age of the narrator and the general. Writing means putting together the pieces of the past, as the narrator does with the pieces of the general’s life and Simon does with the pieces of his former writings. It is the response to disillusionment such as that experienced by the soldier, the participant in Spain, and the general. Out of the ruins of the revolutionary spirit and values for which L.S.M. fought, his descendant succeeds in creating new values and meaning through literature.
Simon’s L’Invitation (1987; translated as The Invitation, 1991) reveals the same antitotalitarian viewpoint as Les Gèorgiques, in this case directed specifically at Soviet Russia under Mikhail Gorbachev. The biographical basis for this work was an international writers’ conference that took place in October 1986, in Frunze, at the Chinese border. L’Invitation, a brief narrative based on this event, adopts a sarcastic, satirical tone, directed notably against the same kind of seemingly interminable official discourses that were mocked in connection with the writers’ conference in Les Corps conducteurs. At the same time it explores in sensorial images and metaphors the Russian landscape, culture, and language.
Album d’un amateur (1988, Album of an Amateur) is a fifty-four-page album of photographs, labeled “Objekt N° 8” in the publisher’s Signatur [sic] series, limited to fewer than 1,000 copies, all signed by Simon. The photographs, some in black and white, one sepia, most in color, bear commentaries by Simon of varying length, translated into German at the end by Werner Zettelmeier. The photographers are not named, but it is known that most of the photos were by Simon, exceptions being a family photograph from Madagascar and perhaps certain photos of artworks and a portrait of the author. The subjects include scenes of European countries and Japan. Among the artworks is a wash by Poussin; another image is the supposed scene of the battle of Pharsalus. The photographs can be viewed as constitutive of a partial autobiography, an artistic identity; or one may take them as random samples of Simon’s experience.
L’Acacia (1989; translated as The Acacia, 1991) can be said to initiate the final period of Simon’s fiction, although there are no rigid breaks in his work. In this novel, instead of experimenting further with such means of generating text as isolated words, objects, or images, he returns to memory as text generator. Featuring a central consciousness, L’Acacia functions as a brilliant summary or reprise, in fictional form, of the author’s background and life, presented in considerable detail. It is his version of the family saga as practiced by other writers including Faulkner. It can be usefully compared as well to Albert Camus’s posthumous unfinished novel, Le Premier Homme (1994; translated as The First Man, 1995), which treats Camus’s childhood and his father’s life in barely fictionalized form. There is resemblance in their stories, for each author was born in autumn 1913 and the father of each died in 1914, in the early fighting of World War I; both writers were clearly concerned with the absent, shadowy father figure. While Simon had already devoted many pages to evoking characters modeled on his mother and members of her family, whom he knew much better, since he spent his childhood among them, and whose ancestral stories, dating back to the French Revolution, interested him especially, he had also evoked the father figure, in Histoire, for instance.
The style and paragraph composition of L’Acacia are somewhat like those in L’Herbeand La Route des Flandres, but pronouns have stable referents within each chapter, and names or descriptive tags are often used to identify the characters. In addition, reading is facilitated by a division into twelve dated chapters, not arranged chronologically but rather according to a loose alternating pattern that may be taken to follow the movement of memory. (An epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” from Four Quartets —”Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / and time future contained in time past”—emphasizes the fluidity of time and copresence of different periods.) Parallels are established between the man who can be taken to be the author’s father and the one recognizable as his son, who is the central consciousness in this third-person narration, although, strictly speaking, Simon’s acknowledgment that his fiction is highly autobiographical does not warrant calling this central consciousness the “author,” only “presumed narrator.” The writer calls on what must be his own memories but also engages in imaginative reconstitution of the past (using scraps of information from his family, postcards, and photographs but going well beyond what they would provide, imagining conversations, evoking atmospheres and scenes). Many scenes are like tableaux, momentarily fixed, with a painterly quality—figures and setting; coloring; light. The intertextuality between this novel and others—references to the same objects, events, characters, similar treatment of material—is considerable.
The action can be reviewed according to the temporal clusters of the chapters, dated chiefly in 1914, 1919, 1939, and 1940 (notably 17 May 1940) but also including “1880-1914,” “1982-1914,” and “1910-1914-1940.” One cluster is concerned with the father and his family. The novel begins in 1919, as “the widow” (that is, Simon’s mother, unnamed but easily recognizable) and her two sisters-in-law search for her husband’s grave somewhere on a battlefield. Chapter 3, dated 27 August 1914, recounts fighting in Belgium, during which the regiment experiences heavy losses and a forty-year-old captain (Simon’s father) is killed. A long analepsis, or flashback, recounts the man’s life, from his family background and boyhood through his military training. In chapter 9, dated August 1914, the setting is a mountain spa, or resort, to which the young mother and child and maternal relatives repair after the captain is called up, and where his death is announced to them.
Another cluster, including chapter 5, labeled “1880-1914,” is concerned with the maternal family. It evokes the woman who eventually married the young officer, their meeting, courtship, and marriage (which one can date in 1910), and their few years of happiness together in Madagascar, before the approaching war necessitated their return to France. In chapter 7, dated “1982–1914,” the presumed narrator revisits cousins living in a family house and once again hears how his father’s death was announced, even as he imagines the captain’s departure for war three weeks earlier; but the narrative evokes also a general of the empire (1801—1815) whose bust (which Simon owned) stands in the house, and the suicide of an ancestor in 1794, after he had lost a revolutionary battle.
A third cluster concerns the presumed narrator, that is, Simon. Chapter 6 takes place in 1939, exactly twenty-five years after the captain’s death (27 August), as trains make their way across France, bearing reservists—one the presumed narrator— who have been called up to join their units (World War II will be declared on 1 September), but also flashes back—partly by the motif of trains—to the author’s experiences in 1937, when he and a fellow art student crossed Poland and visited the Soviet Union, and in 1936, when he managed to get to Barcelona during what one identifies as the civil war in Spain. Chapter 8, “1939-1940,” evokes the month of September 1939, when the presumed narrator, now a corporal in the cavalry, and his squad (including characters known as Blum and Iglésia in La Route des Flandres) are deployed in a squadron in Belgium; he feels taken over by what he calls History, in the form of horses’ hoofbeats on the road. The chapter then sketches the months from September to May 1940, the “drole de guerre” (phony war). Chapters 2, 4, and 10 recount the rout in Flanders in May, including the German ambush in a village, which decimates the squad; the corporal’s survival in the fields and woods; his return to the remnant of his regiment; and the colonel’s death. Readers of La Route des Flandres will recognize the same narrative techniques as well as many repeated episodes and motifs—physical misery, loss of sense of time and reality, mechanical movements, crawling through fields, vaulting over a hedge, hearing the cuckoo call in a clearing, riding again, drinking beer in a courtyard, and seeing the colonel die, sword raised.
Chapter 11, “1910–1914–1940,” consists of short apposed scenes or vignettes that range over the time periods and revisit previous events and circumstances: the captain’s marriage and his sisters’ devotion to him; a train bound for Germany loaded with prisoners, including the presumed narrator (a scene adumbrated earlier); scenes from the May debacle; a glimpse of the colonel in 1940; the father’s death as known or imagined. There are also new elements: a child looking for old bullets on a World War I battleground; a military ceremony and a German personage with a withered arm, that is, Kaiser Wilhelm II; a prison-camp scene; a sketch of someone who may be the German feldmar-shal Erwin Rommel. Chapter 12 begins with the presumed narrator’s arrival home in November 1940 after escaping, then moves by analepsis to more prison-camp scenes, the escape itself, and its aftermath. There is reference to a marriage during a leave (in 1939 or 1940). The final paragraph explains and justifies the title for the novel, as, months afterward, the presumed narrator, freed enough to waken, from the dreadful experiences of 1939-1940, sits at his desk in front of a sheet of blank paper and observes the feathery leaves of an acacia tree, green, animated. This ending can be compared with Proust’s in A la recherche du temps perdu, where the narrator realizes that he is ready to compose the work that readers can take to be the novel they have just finished.
Denis Roche, an eminent poet, wrote the preface for Photographies 1937-1970 (1992), a 144-page album of photographs in black and white; there is also a brief introduction by Simon, sketching the beginnings of his interest in photography and exploring aspects of the art. A valuable distinction is drawn between photography and painting, the first allowing for subtraction, the second built on addition: after a photograph is taken, nothing can be added (except by trick), but portions can be removed by scissors, whereas painting consists in adding to a blank canvas. All photographs are titled, but only one is dated. One assumes from the front matter that all are by Simon. Some from Album d’un amateur reappear. The subjects include landscapes, boats, street scenes (with acrobats, cyclists, an old woman), walls and rooftops, graffiti, and human subjects (many with Mediterranean characteristics). Wind blowing in tall grass, female nudes, horses, racetrack scenes, and an old tramway create intertextual connections with Simon’s fiction. With one exception—a portrait of Robbe-Grillet—the photographs are straightforward, not collages or other types of art photography.
Referring to his work as a whole, Simon wrote to Dubuffet in 1982 that it made him think of an advanced mathematics course he had taken in the lycée called “Arrangements, Permutations, Combinaisons” (Arrangements, Permutations, Combinations). The phrase applies particularly well to Le Jardin des Plantes, which is a complicated, often discontinuous collage of memories, scenes, detailed descriptions, characters, and experiences juxtaposed and confused with each other, a “magma d’images et de sensations” (a magma of images and sensations). The title refers to the Paris botanical and zoological gardens, described at length. The novel is divided into four parts. In the first, the narrator speaks in the first person; in the others, third-person narration is used, sometimes speaking of “S.” Both “S.” and the first-person narrator can be identified by internal evidence with each other and with Simon. There are many anecdotes and facts, presumably veracious, from Simon’s life, which could be useful for a future biography. The epigraph, borrowed from Michel de Montaigne—”Aucun ne fait certain dessain de sa vie, etn’en délibérons qu’a parcelles” (No one makes a certain picture of his life, and we reflect on it only by pieces)— echoes Simon’s insistence in Le Vent that one knows experience only by fragments.
The mosaic-like juxtaposition ranges temporally (scenes, actions, other fragments from different time periods merging into others, not in chronological order) and spatially (with settings in France and many foreign countries Simon visited). In sections with frequent geographical shifts that emphasize exotic places and manners, there is some resemblance to Butor’s Mobile (1962; translated, 1963), another discontinuous work. The collage arrangement seems arbitrary in places, depending on free association, but elsewhere transitions are made through identifiable sounds, images, or thematic or verbal connections that underlie the novel as a whole. Various clues make scene changes easier to identify as the novel progresses. In the opening twenty pages and on later occasions the collage principle is carried out visually, not just narratively, as more than one compositional element (scene, account, description) is pursued on the same page, by means of division into small squares or columns, straight or angular. On these pages, the reader cannot proceed in the traditional linear fashion but must pursue one element, then another, or skip. A radical approach to reading would be to leaf through the book like an album, beginning here and there, going back or leaping forward, as certain other postmodernist fiction such as “deck-of-cards” novels invites one to do.
Among the dozens of constitutive elements, some are familiar, notably those connected to the Spanish Civil War, the debacle in Flanders, and the events of 17 May 1940. The latter are also retold at length to a journalist interviewing “S.,” who makes explicit his desire to relate them again in such a way that the incidents and his reactions will be better understood. Other passages present scenes from the presumed narrator’s travels, including some (such as in the Soviet Union) where he was an invited guest and participated in banquets and colloquia. There are also details on his escape from prison camp. The theme of painting arises frequently, once in connection with Pablo Picasso, whom he visits. Among additional compositional elements are descriptions (leaves, gardens, landscapes, buildings), erotic scenes, and quotations. The latter range widely: lines from Rommel’s letters and diary, bits from Proust’s correspondence and A la recherche du temps perdu, fragments of a police interrogation of Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky (spelled Brodski in the book) at his trial in 1964, titles of paintings by Italian artist Gastone Novelli, excerpts from a movie scenario in draft, and fragments of a discussion on the New Novel. The latter allows the author to assert the importance for him of referents—the pieces of reality that serve to create or support his fictions.
The first-person narrator of Le Tramway (2001; translated as The Trolley, 2002), Simon’s last book-length publication before his death, can easily be identified with the author on internal autobiographical evidence. In addition, when the narrator, who discusses Proust more than once, notes that the authorial voice in A la recherche du temps perduonce gives the name Marcel to himself, readers of Le Tramway are obliquely encouraged to do something similar here and think of the narrator as Claude.But the work is identified on the cover as a novel. Two epigraphs suggest strategies of reading. One, from Conrad, speaks of the meaning of an episode as being not interior to it, as a hazelnut, but exterior, wrapping around it like vapor. The other, from Proust, identifies the image (to be understood as either visual or figurative, or both) as the essential element in literature, and suggests that elimination of characters would thus be an improvement. The reader is invited thus to rely on visual images to derive meaning, as the narrator does, and to consider the lighting of the whole.
Le Tramway is a paean to memory, like most of Simon’s other fiction, and because it is the final one, it is particularly moving. Its last words are “l’impalpable et protecteur brouillard de la mémoire” (the impalpable and protective fog of memory). It is constructed around two principal narrative lines (or lines of musings) between which the narrator alternates, one from the distant past, when he was a schoolboy and took a tramway from his family house outside town to go to school or to the beach in the summer, the other from the present, as, much older, he is ill, in a hospital (initially in “transit” from one section to another), perhaps close to dying. “Je ne parvenais pas … à situer exactement les choses dans le temps” (I didn’t succeed…in situating things exactly in time), he notes, recalling similar scenes of temporal confusion in Proust’s long novel. Other past scenes are mentioned occasionally, including the Flanders retreat in 1940, a German prison camp, and funeral practices in India. Family members are evoked—cousins, aunt, uncle, and especially the widowed mother, whose sadness turns to illness and finally to death. This death, adumbrated over several pages but explicitly depicted (with the body in the coffin) only at the end, allows connections to be made with the mature narrator’s experience in the hospital—visions (perhaps delirious) of other patients, especially a beautiful woman, probably near death (a key word), and of flowers, those brought to the hospital or used at a funeral. The burden of the novel is the pain of living, whether one is young or old, male or female, favored or disfavored by fortune; the narrator speaks of “un viol” (a rape) that might have occurred, but continues: “ouplutot, plus probablement, non pas un viol dans sa chair mais comme si la vie elle-meme avait une fois pour toutes porté en elle une atteinte irréparable” (or rather, more likely, not a violation of her flesh but as if life itself had once and for all attacked her irreparably).
Visual imagery and express comparisons with paintings are frequent. The style, in Simon’s usual manner, is marked by digressions, often convoluted, set off by parentheses within parentheses. These digressions serve sometimes to explain or shed additional light on what precedes but elsewhere suggest alternative explanations or hypotheses, or note unanswered questions. One can speak thus of a tendency toward narrative expansion and absence of closure, as in previous novels, notably La Route des Flandres; yet, generally, the sentences are not so long as in that novel, and the author furnishes clearer and more frequent identifying features to facilitate understanding of the places and times evoked and transitions among them.
Despite the many twists and turns of his career, Simon clung tenaciously to a distinctive set of themes, goals, and worldviews. In his Nobel lecture, he returned to his frequently articulated belief in the importance of the novel for heightening one’s awareness of the material density of the world and the internal logic of language. His goal was to bring out the harmony of sounds, images, and words, as have musicians, artists, and his favorite writers, Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, and Conrad. That he returned continually to the same themes in pursuit of that goal and to the same episodes drawn from his own familial and historical experiences is not surprising. Those themes and episodes recur not because they are special but because they continue to produce associations for an author less concerned with literature as reproduction than as production. The memories and impressions are the same, from Le Tricheur to Les Gé’orgiques; what changes is the writer’s encounter with language and the discoveries about the world he makes through language. As Simon said in his Nobel lecture: “Je fais—je produis—, done je suis” (I make—I produce—, therefore I am). Simon renounced the lofty goal of saying something philosophically significant and adopted instead the more modest goal of making something aesthetically harmonious.
The critical reception of Simon’s works over the decades has passed through various stages. During the early 1960s criticism of Simon was confined to book reviews and articles that attempted to interpret his distinctive ideas and worldview, often adopting a phenom-enological approach centered on the themes of memory, perception, and imagination. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s full-length books on Simon began to appear; and the influence of Jean Ricardou, who focused on the formal, structural properties of Simon’s use of language, was predominant. In the 1980s that influence decreased, opening the door to the application of a variety of poststructuralist, psychoanalytic, and deconstructive approaches.
In the last decades of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first, critics have approached Simon’s work from many viewpoints. Jean H. Duffy has read it in light of the phenomenological theory of perception put forth by Merleau-Ponty; other critics have emphasized history in Simon’s fiction and especially war, as in Anthony Pugh’s article on the May 1940 defeat. Comparative studies often mention Faulkner, Proust, and Orwell. Stylistic studies stress discontinuity in Simon’s style. Genetic and other textual studies have not advanced, since no edition so far has been based on extensive examination of manuscripts. (Only a few pages of Simon’s outlines and manuscripts have been reproduced.) Other approaches include music, as in Patrick Longuet’s 1995 book subtitled La Polyphonie du monde (The World’s Polyphony), and art, as in Michael Evans’s 1998 study Claude Simon and the Transgressions of Modern Art and in Brigitte Ferrato-Combe’s study published the same year, Ecrire enpeintre: Claude Simon et lapeinture (To Write as a Painter: Claude Simon and Painting). Dubuffet spoke in 1981 of Simon’s “très grand art.” Simon’s prose has inspired at least one composer, Walter Feldmann, who published in Stuttgart in 1999 a piece for baritone saxophone, piano, and kettledrum titled Comme si le Froid (As If the Cold), subtitled Géorgiques II, 1998–99.
With the publication in 2006 of a one-volume collection of major novels by Claude Simon in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, new critical attention was drawn to his work. Since the author himself selected the novels to be included, the choice can be considered revealing. Alastair Duncan, the chief editor, noted in Le Monde (17 February 2006) that Simon “avait horreur de passer pour un chroniqueur de la vie familiale” (abhorred being taken as a chronicler of family life) and thus omitted such transparently family based works as L’Acacia. The fact remains that the latter is a major novel, and that autobiography, even if half-disguised or broken and rearranged as in a kaleidoscope, was the major source of Simon’s work. Duncan added that critics had not stressed enough Simon’s humanistic compassion and his affirmation of the value of human life. Even marked by death, his work “est la vie dans sa substance meme” (is life in its very substance). Whereas Simon’s novels ask repeatedly “Comment savoir?” (How is one to know?) and imply the lack of meaning of which the author spoke in his Nobel address, his fiction nevertheless affirms that, provisionally at least, meaning can be found, or created, by aesthetic ordering.
Simon and Jean Dubuffet, Correspondance, 1970–1984 (Paris: L’Echoppe, 1994).
Claud DuVerlie, “Entretien: Claude Simon parle,” Express, 5 April 1962, pp. 32–33;
“Pour qui donc écrit Sartre?” Express, 28 May 1964, p. 33;
“Rendre la perception confuse, multiple et simultanée du monde,” Monde, 26 April 1967, p. 5;
“Tradition et révolution,” Quinzaine Littéraire (1–15 May 1967): 12–13;
“La Fiction mot à mot,” in Nouveau Roman: Hier, aujourd’hui, proceedings of the colloquium at the Centre Culturel International de Cerisy-la-Salle, 20–30 July 1971, 2 volumes, edited by Jean Ricar-dou and Francoise van Rossum-Guyon (Paris: Union Générale d’Editions, 1972), II: 73–116;
Ludovic Janvier, “Réponses de Claude Simon à quelques questions ecrites,” Entretiens (Claude Simon), 31 (1972): 15–29; translated by Barbara Bray in Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5, no. 1 (1985): 24–33;
“The Crossing of the Image,” Diacritics, 7 (December 1977): 47-58;
“Un Homme traversé par le travail,” Nouvelle Critique, 105 (1977): 32–44;
DuVerlie, “The Novel as Textual Wandering: An Interview with Claude Simon,” Contemporary Literature, 28 (September 1987): 1–13;
M. Alphant, Ocèaniques: Les hommes-livres, entretien Filmé avec Claude Simon, directed by Roland Allar (La Sept/INA, 1988).
Randi Birn, “From Sign to Saga: Dynamic Description in Two Texts by Claude Simon,” Australian Journal of French Studies, 21 (May-August 1984): 148–160;
Birn and Karen Gould, eds., Orion Blinded: Essays on Claude Simon (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press / London: Associated University Presses, 1981);
Joan Brandt, “History and Art in Claude Simon’s Histoire” Romanic Review, 73 (May 1982): 373–384;
Maria Minich Brewer, Claude Simon: Narratives without Narrative (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995);
Brewer, “An Energetics of Reading: The Intertextual in Claude Simon,” Romanic Review, 73 (November 1982): 489–504;
Celia Britton, Claude Simon: Writing the Visible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987);
Britton, ed., Claude Simon (London & New York: Longmans, 1993);
Cahiers Claude Simon(Paris: Association des Lecteurs de Claude Simon, 2005 - );
Mireille Calle, ed., Claude Simon: Chemins de la mémoire (Sainte-Foy, Quebec: Griffon d’Aigle / Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1993);
Mireille Calle-Gruber, Le Grand Temps: Essai sur I’éuvre de Claude Simon (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2004);
Calle-Gruber, ed., Les Sites de l’ecriture: Colloque Claude Simon, Queen’s University (Paris: Nizet, 1995);
“Claude Simon,” Revue des Sciences Humaines, no. 220 (October-December 1990);
Claude Simon: Colloque de Cerisy (Paris: Union Générale d’Editions, 1975);
Critique, special Simon issue, 37 (November 1981);
Lucien Dällenbach, Claude Simon (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1988);
Jean H. Duffy, “Claude Simon, Merleau-Ponty and Perception,” French Studies, 46 (1992): 33-52;
Duffy and Alastair Duncan, eds., Claude Simon: A Retrospective (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002);
Alastair Duncan, Claude Simon: Adventures in Words (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1994);
Duncan, ed., Claude Simon: New Directions (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985);
Michael Evans, Claude Simon and the Transgressions of Modern Art (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998);
Brigitte Ferrato-Combe, Ecrire en peintre: Claude Simon et lapeinture (Grenoble: ELLUG, 1998);
John Fletcher, Claude Simon and Fiction Now (London: Calder & Boyars, 1975);
“Le Jardin des Plantes” de Claude Simon: Actes du colloque de Perpignan, Cahiers de L’Universite de Perpignan, no. 30 (Perpignan: Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, 2000);
Salvador Jiménez-Fajardo, Claude Simon (Boston: Twayne, 1975);
Doris Y. Kadish, Practices of the New Novel in Claude Simon’s “L’Herbe” and “La Route des Flandres” (Fredericton, N.B.: York Press, 1979);
Jacqueline de Labriolle, “De Faulkner à Claude Simon,” Revue de Littérature Comparée, 53 (July-September 1979): 358-388;
Morton P. Levitt, “Disillusionment and Epiphany: The Novels of Claude Simon,” Critique, 12, no. 1 (1970): 43-71;
Patrick Longuet, Claude Simon (Paris: Ministère des Affaires Etrangeres, 1998);
Longuet, Lire Claude Simon: La polyphonie du monde (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1995);
J. A. E. Loubère, The Novels of Claude Simon (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975);
Stéphanie Orace, Le Chant de I’arabesque: Poé’tique de la répétition dans I’oeuvre de Claude Simon (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005);
Mary Orr, Claude Simon: The Intertextual Dimension (Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1993);
Anthony Pugh, “Defeat, May 1940: Claude Simon, Marc Bloch and the Writing of Disaster,” Forum for Modern Language Studies, 22 (1985): 59-70;
Review of Contemporary Fiction, special Simon issue, 5, no. 1 (1985);
Jean Ricardou, “La Bataille de la phrase,” in his Pour une théork du nouveau roman (Paris: Seuil, 1971), pp. 118-158;
Ricardou, “Un Ordre dans le débâcle,” in his Problèmes du nouveau roman (Paris: Seuil, 1967), pp. 44-55;
Ralph Sarkonak, Claude Simon: Les Carrefours du texte (Toronto: Paratexte, 1986);
Sarkonak, Les Trajets de I’écriture: Claude Simon (Toronto: Paratexte, 1994);
Sarkonak, Understanding Claude Simon (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990).