Simon, Claude

views updated

Claude Simon

BORN: 1913, Tananarive (now Antananarivo), Madagascar

DIED: 2005, Paris, France


GENRE: Fiction

The Wind (1957)
The Flanders Road (1960)
The Palace (1962)
Histoire (1967)
The Invitation (1987)


Claude Simon is commonly identified as one of the first of the French New Novelists. Like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, and others connected with the New Novel movement that emerged after World War II, Simon does not attempt to impose artistic order on the chaos of human experience. Instead, his works reflect the fragmented nature of reality. In his major novels, including The Wind and The Flanders Road, Simon dispenses with conventional narrative structures and concentrates on the essential processes of language, memory, and perception. The destructive effects of war, as well as the ravages of time itself, are themes repeated throughout his work.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Born in Madagascar, Raised in France On October 10, 1913, Claude Eugene Henri Simon, son of Louis and Suzanne Denamiel Simon, was born in Tananarive (now Antananarivo), Madagascar, then a French possession where his father was an army officer. Because Simon was only six months old when he left Africa to return to the ancestral home of his mother's family in the south of France, it is not surprising that his novels contain little in the way of exotic colonial experiences other than evocations of the fragmentary scenes on postcards that Simon's own father, like the father in Histoire, sent back to France from his travels. Soon after Simon returned to France, however, his father volunteered to serve as a cavalry officer in World War I and was killed in one of the early battles of the conflict. Though Simon would spend many summers of his youth visiting with his father's relatives, he would be raised primarily by his mother and her family, explaining perhaps why the theme of the maternal plays such a large role in his works.

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 his novels. For most of his life, Simon spent part of the year living in Salses, situated in Roussillon between Perpignan and Les Corbieres, 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.

Art and War Simon's secondary studies took place in Perpignan and then at the prestigious College Stanislas in Paris. He successfully completed his baccalaureate studies in Paris with the final year of study being devoted not to philosophy, as he has often pointed out when questioned by critics on philosophical matters, but to mathematics. In response to family pressures, he began studies for a naval career 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 Andre 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 described as a lack of “plastic talent.”

Simon's involvement in major historical events left a profound mark on his work. After having served as a cavalryman in the Thirty-first Dragoons at Luneville in 1934–1935, he joined up as a volunteer in the Spanish civil war on the Republican side, acting for a time as a gunrunner. His participation was centered in Barcelona, the location of the Hotel Colon described in The Palace and other works. He then served again as a cavalryman in the French army in 1939–1940, barely escaping death in May 1940 during the battle of the Meuse. Captured at Solre-le-Chateau near Avesnes and sent to a German prison camp in Saxony, he managed to be transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in France, from which he escaped in November 1940. He then spent the remainder of the war years participating in the resistance movement in Perpignan, in contact with Raoul Dufy and others. He painted during the day, while pursuing his literary career in the evenings. By 1941 he had completed not only The Cheater, which was not published until 1946, but also other works that he later destroyed.

A Microscopic Illness Another decisive influence in Simon's life came in the postwar years when he was bedridden for months with tuberculosis, a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease that usually affects the lungs. While ill, he was 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. It was then that he fully developed his enduring fascination with matter seen through a microscope. Working steadily and peacefully, removed from the bustle of Parisian intellectual life, Simon gave simple but stirring expression to man's day-to-day experience.

Simon was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1985, and continued writing until his death in 2005. During one speech, when asked why he wrote, he said simply: “Because I was not capable of doing anything else.”


Simon's famous contemporaries include:

Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929): Prime minster of France and promoter of the Treaty of Versailles, the truce that ended World War I but contributed to the development of World War II.

Marcel Proust (1871–1922): French writer most known for his Remembrance of Things Past, an autobiographical book that focused on what some might call the mundane details of everyday life.

William Faulkner (1897–1962): American novelist who often used a complex, disjointed literary style to emphasize Southern hypocrisy.

Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008): French writer and filmmaker responsible for the “new novel” movement.

Works in Literary Context

Cubist Words Simon, who studied art in his youth, claimed to have adapted the methods of proto-cubist painter Paul Cézanne for his own literary experiments. Indeed, critics frequently point out the influence of visual aesthetics, such as those borrowed from painting or cinema, in his novels. Simon disregarded linear plot in favor of evocative descriptions full of sensory details. His later novels take Simon's exercises in literary cubism even further, as Simon adopted a new method of composition. Working from separate visual images, Simon wove a series of associations between them, to form a unified narrative. In order to organize these complex word tapestries, Simon reportedly uses colored pencils, color-coding each narrative strand as he wrote.

Horses Perhaps paying homage to his father's career as a cavalry officer, the descriptions in The Flanders Road- and several other novels focus on the key motif of horses. Air and water, whose fragmented forms merge with hoof-beats, are symbolic of the human perception of time during war. Horses on a racing field, decorated with bright colors such as coral, evoke Corinne. The cavalry-men 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 The Grass. Simon described the 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.

Works in Critical Context

The critical reception of Simon's works over the decades has passed through various stages. Though considered one of the most important New Novelists in France, Claude Simon has been slow to gain recognition in the United States. Because at first glance Simon's writing “seems incoherent, merely a series of disconnected fragments, a lyrical but meaningless collection of images,” observed Morton P. Levitt, “even a reasonably conscientious reader is apt to be confused by what appears to be, in the worst modern tradition, a narrative experiment without meaning or substance.”

Histoire Superficially, Histoire (1967) is “the history of the narrator's story of his family as it is captured on the page by reminiscences of intimately evocative material possessions: the ancestral home, bits of furniture, family portraits, faded album photos and postal cards,” stated the Virginia Quarterly Review. But Georges Schlocker noted that “the essence of the book lies in the confrontation of its characters with passing time and in the states of mind resulting therefrom.” “The past often invades the present without the usual typographical warnings of a new sentence or paragraph,” Leo Bersani observed, “and the mixture is made even more confusing by the fact that the whole novel is written in past tenses. The ‘he’ referred to in one line may not be the same person as the ‘he’ mentioned in the next line.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Simon's style has often been compared to those of William Faulkner and Marcel Proust. Choose one of these writers and read either one of their stories or an excerpt from their novels. Do you see similarities or differences? Has Simon used or developed their techniques?
  2. Look up the word “minutiae” and think about why small objects and items resonate through Simon's work. How do characters react to these objects? Why does Simon focus on the physical world instead of the spiritual world?
  3. Simon's work can be divided into three periods. What do you think defines these periods? How do the themes of the works in these periods relate to the historical events of the times?
  4. Do you think Simon writes effectively about war? Why or why not? Does he make distinctions between the experiences of World War I and those of World War II? If so, what are they? How do they affect the characters in his novels?
  5. Simon has resisted the idea that he is one of the New Novelists. Research this literary movement and the beliefs of those involved with it. Why did Simon deny association with these writers? Do you think he can be categorized with the movement regardless?


Though creative and innovative, Simon wrote primarily autobiographical novels, relying on incidents from his life to give his work honesty and originality. Here are some other works based primarily on real life events and experiences:

The Sun Also Rises (1926), a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The main character of this novel is an injured war veteran who journeys to Spain with several friends, all of whom are emotionally lost or damaged in different ways.

On the Road (1957), a novel by Jack Kerouac. This novel chronicles a cross-country road trip where the characters are thinly disguised versions of the major figures of the Beat Generation.

The Bell Jar (1963), a novel by Sylvia Plath. Based on her real-life experience with depression, this book was Plath's only novel.

Ham on Rye (1982), a novel by Charles Bukowski. From the name of the protagonist—Henry Chinaski—to the events based in Los Angeles, this novel is highly true to the life of its author.



Brewer, Maria Minich. Claude Simon: Narrativities without Narrative. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Britton, Celia. Claude Simon: Writing the Visible. London: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Duffy, Jean H. Reading between the Lines: Claude Simon and the Visual Arts. Liverpool, U. K.: Liverpool University Press, 1998.

Duncan, Alistair. Claude Simon: Adventures in Words. Manchester, U. K.: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Fletcher, John. Claude Simon and Fiction Now. London: Calder & Boyars, 1975.

Gould, Karen, and Randi Birn, eds. Orion Blinded: Essays on Claude Simon. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1981.

Jimenez-Fajardo, Salvador. Claude Simon. London: Twayne, 1975.

Kadish, Doris Y. Practices of the New Novel in Claude Simon's “L'Herbe” and “La Route des Flandres.” York: York Press, 1979.

Loubere, J. A. E. The Novels of Claude Simon. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Troiano, Maureen DiLonardo. New Physics and the Modern French Novel: An Investigation of Interdisciplinary Discourse. New York: Lang, 1995.