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  • THE TROLLEY: Claude Simon’s Elegiac Artifice

    FullSizeRender-6The American composer and voluminous diarist, Ned Rorem, made the following entry in his Nantucket Diary, dated 17 October, 1985:

    “When it comes to prizes there is no right choice, although with hindsight every choice can seem inevitable. Most witnesses are uncomfortable, especially the losers, and even the Nobel Prize is a raffle. In honoring Claude Simon the Nobelists now show themselves to admire the trend of form over content which has been festering in all French art for three decades, and which at its most extreme becomes the very definition of decadence. It makes me sad. If they had to choose a Frenchman, why not Simenon?”

    In the previous entry Rorem recounts a discussion with a friend about the pleasures of the prolific Georges Simenon, known for his hugely popular detective novels. Positing Simenon (who, for the record, was Belgian) as a Nobel contender is clearly intended to be cute. Simple fun, perhaps, with the closeness of the names. But Rorem’s real subject here is the commonplace that institutions which bestow awards have biases which can make their choices perplexing to those who don’t share them. The Nobel Committee has been coy about a wide range of them over its 113 years. Certainly this year’s award, to Patrick Modiano, another Frenchman, raises again this by now rather tired problem which, any more, is good for an easy, if not terribly interesting, diary entry. But when Rorem blithely tosses an author like Claude Simon onto the apparent trash heap of the whole post-World War Two French artistic enterprise, it smacks of posing.

    First of all, I’m not exactly sure who he’s lumping Simon with. Perhaps he had in mind the painter Yves Klein, who instructed beautiful nude women to cover themselves in blue paint and roll around on his canvases. As a composer, he could be thinking of Pierre Boulez whose Le marteau sans maître (The hammer without a master) pits hyper-serialization against improvisation, at the expense of the uninitiated listener. Writer and mathematician Raymond Queneau, founder of the influential literary movement Oulipo, and Modiano’s acknowledged mentor, was at work in “all of French art” at the time; his Exercices de Style tells one story – a man runs into a stranger twice on the same day – in 99 different ways. And then there is cinema. The Nouvelle Vague. Really, Mr. Rorem?

    No one could argue that form wasn’t a primary concern for these French artists. But, on that account, to dismiss them and their work out of hand, and a rather high one at that, is careless. It ignores the water in which these fish were swimming. In a world new to the idea of total annihilation by human initiative, a world forever to be haunted by Auschwitz, and a country which, “for the sake of form”, had been cravenly complicit with real and evident evil, and which, as if in response to its own shame, was narcotizing on the vestiges of empire (Algeria), a broken capitalism, and an increasingly indulgent consumerism, form was of the essence. As the students of May, 1968, knew, the forms were broken. Fervid formal experimentation, far from being a sign of decay, was the only morally viable artistic response. Form was the content. To a certain extent, it always had been, but never before had this been so widely understood. Unless it be, perhaps, in the Soviet Union of the 1930’s, in which case Mr. Rorem might wish to be mindful of which side of the argument he pursues.

    If formal experimentation in art were a crime, Claude Simon would certainly have been charged, convicted and sentenced. He is usually associated with a group of French novelists writing in the decades after the Second World War known as the nouveaux romanciers. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Natalie Sarraute, and especially Margurite Duras are more familiar names to readers in English, even though Simon was the only one of this loose fellowship to garner a Nobel. There are more differences than similarities among them, but they shared the common cause of attempting to transcend the received nineteenth century parameters of fiction, such as the centrality of plot, setting, character, and motivation. As with Boulez’s music, their books can seem difficult to the uninitiated. At its best, their writing can be starkly, startlingly beautiful, if, unavoidably, cerebral.

    Claude Simon’s gorgeous final novel, The Trolley (2001), published when he was eighty eight, is all of these, and something more —it is haunting. To open this book is to find time splintering. On one page we read the impressions, or memories of impressions, of a young boy growing up in a coastal town in France, just after the First World War. On the next, an old man, presumably the same boy now in a stare-down with the end of his life, gives a somber, almost hallucinatory account of time spent in a modern hospital. A beginning and an ending, between which yawns an immense lacuna —the life lived. The novel is slim, where we feel it should, by rights, be long.

    To speak of its form: The Trolley belongs to a sub-species of novel which doesn’t seem to be a novel at all. Memoir, meditation, travelogue, history, essay — these can seem more apt designations. It is in good company. W. G. Sebald, for example, in The Rings of Saturn, his grand investigation of entropy and loss, casts a wide net, gathering into his narrative hull the writings of the 17th century doctor Thomas Browne, the silk worms of the Chinese imperial court, and the personal lives of historical figures such as Roger Casement and Charles Algernon Swindburne. The narrator seems to be the author himself, and what he shares of himself has the ring of of autobiography. The photographs, grainy, melancholy, distributed throughout the pages contribute to the impression of a documentary, rather than fictive reality. But this itself is it’s fiction. J. M. Coetzee’s Summer Time is written as a biography of a writer named John Coetzee, whose salient distinction from the author himself is that he is deceased. Among the strangest and most brilliant recent examples of this kind of un-novel is Australian novelist Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch, in which a subtle and poignant portrait of the artist emerges from a close examination of the unwritten lives of characters from his life in reading, and even from his own books.

    In The Trolley, objects, scenes, episodes, and characters are observed, often at dauntingly close range, but are never manipulated through a plot. Which is not to say there is no story, but it is a story the reader constructs. For example, we are shown a garden with an iris border. It is an old, established garden with full-grown trees. It belongs to the narrator’s aunt and uncle on his father’s side, the family to whom he and his mother came after his father was, we infer, killed in the War. We are shown his mother lying on a chaise longue in this garden. She is sick. Later, we are shown the same garden, the same chaise longue, minus his mother. No plot here, but, most assuredly, a story. Even a cursory perusal of Claude Simon’s biography makes it apparent that this story is, or in every important way seems to be, his own.

    Contrary to Simon’s reputation as a “difficult” writer, the writing here is not difficult. True, one has need of a healthy attention span to track with his immense, drifting sentences, but the language with which he fills these sentences attains a luminous, sometimes distressing, clarity. For example, we might almost wish for a filter through which to read his memory of the dour maid who tended his dying mother:

    That same long Erinye’s face permanently stamped with an expression of outrage which she seemed never to leave off, whether caring for Maman with a sort of fierce tenderness or (suddenly appearing in the dim kitchen, leaning over the flickering glow of the flames) contemplating the torments of those rats she was burning alive (which, reported by the children, was strictly forbidden — despite which (but without witnesses) she doubtless continued doing), or again, still outraged and inflexible for all our pleading and tears, killing one after the other the kittens of her cat’s incessant litters, flinging them violently against the courtyard wall, picking up the tiny sticky balls of bloody hair if they still moved, flinging them against the wall again and then dumping them on the compost heap out of a basket which she then rinsed several times until there was no trace of blood left in it.

    For all the violence here, it is that rinsing of the basket that most horrifies. Her tidying up, washing away all traces of the act, renders banal the preceding brutality, something brutality should never be. And it has the added effect of making this intimate horror echo against the great monuments of horror rising from a horrific century.

    It is this kind of detail, banal on the surface, with which the book abounds. The novel’s opening paragraph, for example, begins with a close observation of the streetcar which the narrator road, as a boy, between school and the seaside community of tawdry mansions where his aunt and uncle lived. So close is this observation, in fact, that what we actually see first, without knowing quite what we’re looking at, is the dial in the streetcar’s cab. The “lens” pulls back to reveal the accelerator lever to which the needle corresponds, then further to encompass, not the hand, but the palm of the hand of the conductor managing the lever. Toward the end of the paragraph we are told that most of the varnish has worn off the handle of this lever, leaving the wood unprotected, and we begin to wonder how long this can go on. In the hands of a lesser writer, such grinding accumulation could quickly sink to indulgence. But the effect here is more akin to looking through a kind of personal Hubble telescope, not into the knowable universe, but the author’s own “deep field”. The image of the galaxies in that now famous dime-sized patch of sky confronts us with the sober knowledge that what we can directly experience of the universe approaches a statistical zero, and even that zero is revoked at death. This is the sensibility with which Simon presents the streetcar lever and its varnishless handle. “This existed”, he’s telling us – his urgency shimmers – as if trying to make a record of everything, knowing that, even late in his ninth decade, “everything” won’t, finally, be very much.

    Death is a constant in this book, the rats and kittens being a stand-in for death on a larger scale, rarely seen but always in the offing. His father’s death precedes the narrative, and, though barely mentioned, is generative of all that follows. There are the physically and psychically decimated survivors of the War who, besides aimlessly pedaling go-carts around a stone monument at the town center, intensify the loss of those, perhaps luckier, who, like Simon’s father, didn’t survive. His mother’s death, alluded to rather than recounted, changes everything again.

    But it is his proximity to his own death that provides the most salient structural element in the novel. The perpetual incursion of one time frame into another is a characteristic feature in all of Simon’s writing. In this case, his hospitalization late in life continually interrupts the narrative of his childhood. These incursions make up for what drama is lost by his eschewal of the more traditional buildup of tension through plot. For example, a memory from his boyhood, in which he is running to catch the trolley after school, follows on the heals of an episode in the modern emergency room to which he has been transported by ambulance, “a sort of coffin”; so when we see him breathlessly watching the missed trolley disappear around a corner, we already know that, in something like seven decades, there will be one very important ride he will not miss, and both scenes acquire a luminosity they would not otherwise achieve, and the metaphor of the trolley, carrying its passengers across the length of its finite line, comes into its own without ever a moment of underlining. The weight of this slim book owes, not to novelistic expansiveness, but to this kind of juxtaposition.

    Another of Simon’s favorite techniques is the recurring image. In The Flander’s Road it is the half buried carcass of a horse. In The Grass it is a T of light cast through half-closed shutters onto an interior wall of a dying woman’s room. In The Trolley it is a woman on a hospital bed whom the narrator glimpses lying in the room opposite his. These images often hold a paradox. The horse, for example, is in an advanced stage of decomposition and buried in mud in spite of the fact that it can only have been dead about three, completely rainless, days. The paradox presented by the hospitalized woman is that her thick, well-kept blond hair, rosy complexion, and comparative youth don’t square with her lifeless, mask-like face. Not one to look for meaning, the narrator must, nonetheless, look for something, and so he looks for parallels. In her final appearance, she is on a bed designed to transport patients being wheeled away by two male nurses while the other patients on the ward look on. He sees in this somber procession a parallel to the parading of a saint’s effigy on a litter during a religious holiday. Then, at more length, he recalls witnessing a funeral procession in Benares, in which the cadaver, laid out on a litter, was borne, above a crowd of mourners, on the shoulders of two muscular men to the banks of the Ganges to be burned. He makes these parallels more or less explicit simply by their proximity to the image of the blond woman. More subtle is the parallel to his own mother’s face as she lies, slowly dying, on the chaise longue in his aunt and uncle’s garden. The two images, which never touch within the pages of the novel, call to each other, drawing the novel’s two dominant time frames into association. They orbit one another.

    Claude Simon (1913-2005) won the Nobel Prize in 1985.

    Reading The Trolley, one is aware of reading, not so much a novel, as an approach to the novel. This, in Rorem’s view, is what makes Simon, or artists like him, decadent. He clearly has in mind the word’s common implication of moral decline. But, as an aesthetic, all it really means is a preference for artifice over nature. In other words, the artist is happy to let you know he or she is up to something. There is a widespread, righteous criticism that praises the “artless”, the work in which the artist brilliantly hides or disguises all his scaffolding, so that the one receiving the work forgets that he or she is in the presence of a work of art at all. There are many pleasures in this approach. Marilynne Robinson writes like this, never calling attention to the weapon with which she quietly slays her readers. But there are equally great pleasures in the works of artists who want you to know that what they are making is art. Imagine a crestfallen Virginia Woolf whose readers never recognized that To The Lighthouse had significantly extended the reach of the form. I remember, as a twenty-year-old, reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, then saying to a friend, my age but wiser, “But people don’t really talk like that to one another.” To which he replied, “But, perhaps they should.”

    Simon’s artifice laid bare the artifice readers had been accepting, unchallenged, for more than a century (Simon himself pointed out that such readers had apparently missed Proust, Joyce, and Faulkner). In The Trolley, the shifting time frames, the fragmentary presentation of memories and impressions, the protracted sentences, all make off with the reader’s habitual question, “what happens next?”. With causality out of the picture, the reader is invited to consider how else the presented elements of the narrator’s life might be related. This amounts to a deeper way of reading. One pauses at the spaces where, like in poetry, the frisson happens. This is not a matter of form over content. It’s a different kind of content.


  • Claude Simon: We missed his centenary — don’t miss his books!

    imageOn October 10, 2013, the very day Alice Munro was busy winning the Nobel Prize, an altogether different kind of author was busy accruing general obscurity. Eight years after his death, in spite of being one of world literature’s dark giants, in spite of a Nobel of his own, and in spite of it being his centenary, readers of literary fiction everywhere were, quite vigorously, not talking about Claude Simon.

    What notice might have come to him on the occasion of his 100th was thwarted by the day’s main event; Canadian letters and the modern short story were finally getting their dues. Hard to say what Claude Simon would have made of Munro’s short, elusive epics. The frailties and vanities we sling against our mortality leap into her narrative net like fish on the far side of Peter’s boat. By contrast, Simon set himself the task of evoking the net of time itself, which holds our mortality, and against which it becomes as piffling a thing as our frailties and vanities. In Munro, the effect is one of piercing intimacy (not to be mistaken for warmth), as if the reader himself had been caught in flagrante delicto, and, rather than being either judged or forgiven, is delivered a parable. In Simon the effect is one of distance and grandeur (often mistaken for coldness), which we read in the way one might take in the paintings on the walls of the caves at Altamira, uncomprehending, yet alerted by rising neck hairs that something approaching the elemental has been uttered.

    Munro’s popularity has been like a long-held, well maintained financial portfolio, a steadily rising line over time, weathering the dips and flights of the literary marketplace. No modernist repudiations of the medium for her, nor post-modern repudiations of the reader. She writes as if words can and and do mean something, provided you write about what can be said, which turns out to be quite a lot. This is not to disregard her remarkable innovations of form and her starkly modern view of men and women. But she is the great exponent of the transparent surface. No sentence is either notably long or dryly clipped. No one would call her an adjective whore, but neither are her sentences self-consciously barren. A Munro story is written so that as you’re reading it you have only a shadowy awareness that you are doing so.

    By contrast, reading is often all you can be said to be doing with a text by Claude Simon. This is because he was a writer whose aim was to extend the parameters of writing itself, a dubious undertaking for those who hold to a certain literary prudery. His sentences, elastic with parenthesis and parenthesis within parenthesis, can stretch across many pages, and if you allow your attention to be held, you will be frequently baffled to discover where he’s lead you, and if, rather than being put off, you are fascinated then you may be compelled to backtrack down the narrow path you’ve just cut through the wilderness of often lyric prose in a search for the origins of the narrative present. If you find yourself doing so, in spite of how bewildered you might feel, then you have understood Simon perfectly; his great subject, more than the constants of aging and death, more than the gross and subtitle impact of war, more than the eternal return, is the question: from whence arrives the present?

    If, if, and if. It’s no surprise, really, that Simon’s popularity has, from the get go, been a non-starter. When he won the 1985 Nobel Prize, journalists were hard pressed to find any information about him. Calvin Trillin cagily noted, “Susan Sontag better have heard of this guy or there’ll be trouble.” Those few who did know his work were divided as to its merit. Even in his native France, one prominent critic speculated, half in jest and full earnest, whether the Nobel committee, by honoring Simon, had moved “to confirm that the novel has definitely died,” (an arrow Simon himself unfeathered by quoting in his Nobel lecture).

    imageSimon is most commonly linked with a group of mid-20th century French writers known as the nouveaux romanciers, a group which included, most prominently, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor. Marguerite Duras is also sometimes included, though she resisted the label. The aim of these experimental writers was to evolve a “new novel” which would subverted most of the tenets of the form as it had been received via the 19th century, including plot, character, motivation, and setting, aspects which, to most writers and readers, seemed no less fundamental than the paper on which a book is printed. Simon, like Duras, protested the association, feeling the term itself was misleading. In a rare interview for the Paris Review, he clarified his position: “Since the majority of professional critics do not read the books of which they speak, mountains of nonsense have been spoken and written about the nouveau roman. The name refers to a group of several French writers who find the conventional and academic forms of the novel insupportable, just as Proust and Joyce did long before them. Apart from this common refusal, each of us has worked through his own voice; the voices are very different, but this does not prevent us from having mutual esteem and a feeling of solidarity with one another.”

    Simon’s reservations notwithstanding, his literary experiments are consistent with the nouveau roman movement. Take, for example, his refusal to analyze causality. His novels are not plotless, as some have suggested, but neither are they linear. Rather than events birthing subsequent events, what happens in a Simon novel emerges, like the constellations, from collections of closely observed tableaux, or from repetitions of an image. For example, in La Routes des Flandres, the image of a horse recurs in many settings. There are the horses mounted by a small unit soldiers, fatally anachronistic in the mechanized theater of the Second World War. There are racehorses, one in particular ridden by Colonel de Reixach, the officer who would later lead this doomed unit and whose young wife is having an affair, or had one, with a jockey who works in his stables and who will later accompany him into battle, riding a horse just behind him. There is a dying horse in the stable where three of the soldiers wait out the night. Most abstractly, there is the recurring image of a dead horse, paradoxically covered in mud despite dry whether. Its first appearance, early in the novel, provides Simon with an opportunity to articulate his whole approach to the novel. The following passage I necessarily quote at some length:

    and that must have been where I saw it for the first time, a little before or a little after we stopped to drink, discovering it, staring at it through that kind of half-sleep, that kind of brownish mud in which I was somehow caught, and maybe we had to make a detour to avoid it, and actually sensing it more than seeing it: I mean (like everything lying along the road: the trucks, the cars, the suitcases, the corpses) something unexpected, unreal, hybrid, so that what had been a horse (that is, what you knew, what you could recognize as having been a horse) was no longer anything now but a vague heap of limbs, of dead meat, of skin and sticky hair, three-quarters-covered with mud — Georges wondering without exactly finding an answer, in other words realizing with that kind of calm rather deadened astonishment, exhausted and even almost completely atrophied by these last ten days during which he had gradually stopped being surprised, had abandoned once and for all the posture of the mind which consists of seeking a cause or logical explanation for what you see or for what happens to you: so not wondering how, merely realizing that although it hadn’t rained for a long time — at least so far as he knew — the horse or rather what had been a horse was almost completely covered — as if it had been dipped in café au lait and then taken out — with a liquid grey-brown mud already half absorbed apparently by the earth, as though the latter had stealthily begun to take back what had come from it,

    By “not wondering how, merely realizing that”, Simon refuses the softening effect of analysis, leaving this grisly vision hard, relentlessly material. And as the vision repeats throughout the book, we begin to see, glinting off its surface, Simon’s true subject — war. More, the cosmology of one who has survived it: we are all on our way to a vague heap of limbs, dead meat, skin and sticky hair, something like, but inexplicably other than what we are, and nailing down whether an object as incidental as a horse’s corpse, or as universal, was discovered a little before stopping to drink or a little after makes not one wit of difference. In fact one’s wits are notable only for their uselessness, at least when directed toward understanding. One senses rather than sees. The reader’s own wits are further beggared by the change from first person to third midway through this passage. So quickly are we shunted out of Georges’s consciousness and into the author’s that we, like Wily Coyote chasing Road Runner several feet beyond the edge of the cliff, may read along for several lines without quite realizing what has happened. This is Simon’s mimesis; life entails nothing so much as moments just like this. Don’t look down.

    The three novels I have so far read by Simon, The Trolley, The Flanders Road, and The Grass, are either about war or indelibly touched by war. War touched Simon early. World War I had been grinding up the young men of Europe for over two months when he was born on October 10, 1913 in Tananarive (now Antananarivo), Madagascar, and before he was a year old his father, a career cavalry officer, became one of them. His mother brought the family to the home of a relative in Perpignan, a city not far from the Spanish border near the Mediterranean Sea. He was eleven when his mother died of cancer, leaving him in the care of his aunt. He credited the strict Catholic boarding school in Paris to which she sent him with definitively destroying his belief in God. Memories of those earliest years reemerged eight decades later in his final novel Le Tramway (The Trolley).

    And it was the same the following summer, except that Maman was no longer there and during the month of October I no longer had to run to catch that four o’clock trolley, having already returned to my school in Paris, which freed me from participating in the traditional autumn move which brought my family to town and from having to listen to the traditional lamentations of my aunt whom this annual return plunged into an ostentatious collapse renewed each year when after four months in the country she found herself back in what she called her “tomb,” i.e. the huge apartment which, though overlooking spacious courtyards and a spacious garden, was, it is true, darkened by the branches of a huge acacia tree;

    In 1940, after The Battle of the Meuse, Simon was taken prisoner by the Germans. He managed to escape and joined the the resistance movement.

    His first direct involvement with armed conflict came in 1936 when his sympathies with the Spanish Republicans drew him into the Spanish Civil War. But it was with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 that he had his most dramatic experience of war’s absurdity. Like his father, he was drafted into a cavalry regiment, the 31st Dragoons. In a further mirroring of the past, the regiment was sent to the exact same area of the front where his father had been killed twenty six years earlier. One can only speculate that the resonance between his father’s experience and his own launched in young Claude a search for meaning which he finally had to abandon in favor of “not wondering how, merely realizing that”. This kind of repetition, of scene and circumstance across generations, was to become a hallmark of his writing. These recurrences cannot properly be called coincidences, at least not in the Dickensian sense of expediting the plot. But neither are they spiritualized “synchronicities”. Rather, they are treated more in the manner of a painterly motif, the way, say, expanding orders of triangles recur in a painting by Paul Klee. Often he allows a measure of ambiguity as to which iteration of a repeated event is under discussion.

    Simon got the starkest imaginable lesson, not only in life’s extreme fragility, but it’s sheer improbability when, at the River Meuse, the 31st Dragoons, picturesquely armed with sabers and rifles and mounted on horseback, were charged with trying to stop German tanks. That his unit would be decimated was a foregone conclusion. That he would survive was not. That he did netted him a formidable, decidedly 20th century vision –of war, of human suffering, of love, and the impossibility of knowing much of anything for certain. Twenty years later he would draw directly from his wartime experience to produce  La Routes des Flandres, which would become his most famous novel.

    A professor friend once told me, with a campy sneer, that “no one bothers with F. Scott Fitzgerald anymore.” I didn’t believe him then any more than I do now, but his surety (and his unwarranted happiness in delivering it) did raise the problem that, when trying to account for the changing positions of writers in the literary firmament, our logic remains hopelessly Ptolemaic. The eclipse of certain writers – Patrick White, for example – baffles me and I’d love to have someone patiently lay out for me the physical laws, the cycles and epicycles, behind it. On the other hand, that Alice Munro has remained sun-side for so many years seems easy to explain, almost Copernican; she’s a great writer who addresses head on the pain felt in a world whose understanding of gender has undergone major upheavals which the family unit, comprised of the gendered, has often failed to weather. She’s nothing if not perennially relevant.

    Claude Simon’s eclipse is perhaps equally understandable, if undeserved. For one thing, the whole nouveau roman project feels dated to us now. Like Schoenberg’s twelve-tone row, it constituted a brilliant, necessary, perhaps even inevitable departure from the way things had been done before, but, while its influence has been widespread and long-lasting, the movement itself was unsustainable. Just as Pierrot Lunaire, glorious listening to the initiated, is unhearable to most, so very few find Robbe-Grillet worth the effort. Simon is a difficult writer, slippery to anyone white-knuckled to the so-called virtue of clarity. But this is no reason not to read him. Difficult, yes, but never unintelligible, and readers who are up on their Faulkner will find nothing in him to deter them. Like Schoenberg, he was an uncompromising artist with an encompassing mind. A careful reading of him not only yields a potent, austere beauty, but, as with the greatest writers, expands forever one’s understanding of just what the art can do.

    Claude Simon, 1913 – 2005