“The Flanders Road” by Claude Simon

Cover of The Flanders Road by Claude SimonNot an easy read, this. The style is experimental, with prose that mimics the way we think rather than the way we’d normally tell a story. So there’s a lot of jumping around from memory to memory by association rather than logic or chronology. The sentences are often long and winding, with digressions and then digressions within digressions, and often the narrator contradicts himself or changes his mind, or says there’s really no way to tell anyway, and just as often it’s not even clear who the narrator is or what story he’s telling at what period of time.

The overall effect is at first simply confusing and then, when you get used to it, powerfully disorientating. It’s a book I had to concentrate on more than usual, and even then I always felt on edge, never knowing when in mid-sentence the story would shift to something completely different. Often the shifts were so subtle that for a few lines I thought I was still in the main scene on the Flanders Road in World War Two, when in fact things had changed and we were at an earlier stage of the war when dead characters were still alive, or we were later when the war’s over and one of the characters was meeting his dead comrade’s widow, or we had gone back 200 years to the story of a distant ancestor who blew his brains out.

Did I enjoy reading it? I have to be honest and say not really. But, on the other hand, I don’t regret reading it at all. I read it because Romanian writer Cosmin Manolache listed Claude Simon as one of his influences in the book Best European Fiction 2010, and I liked Manolache’s story so thought I would try this. I did find it an interesting experiment, and one which made me think and question, which is always good. Claude Simon is apparently part of the nouveau roman school of French writers in the 1950s and 60s who tried to find ways of departing from the traditional story-telling techniques, which they saw as imposing an artificial order on events which are really senseless. But isn’t that what a writer is supposed to do – to interpret events, to select from the random chaotic mess of reality and use certain skills and techniques to shape it into a story? Yes, it is artificial in a sense, and bad novels can drastically oversimplify the world, but what do we gain by abandoning the attempt altogether?

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Well, I suppose maybe we do gain that sense of disorientation and questioning, maybe we think a little more about the novels we read, and maybe that’s beneficial. Claude Simon won the Nobel Prize for his efforts, and I can see why – it is quite an achievement. But still I’m glad that this technique remained an experiment, and that most of the novels I read do have such artificial elements as plot, logic, chronology, clarity, helpful punctuation, etc. To give you a little taste, here’s the first sentence:

He was holding a letter in his hand, he raised his eyes looked at me then the letter again then once more at me, behind him I could see the red mahogany ochre blurs of the horses being led to the watering trough, the mud was so deep you sank into it up to your ankles but I remember that during the night it had frozen suddenly and Wack came into the bedroom with the coffee saying The dogs ate up the mud, I had never heard the expression, I could almost see the dogs, some kind of infernal, legendary creatures their mouths pink-rimmed their wolf fangs cold and white chewing up the black mud in the night’s gloom, perhaps a recollection, the devouring dogs cleaning, clearing away: now the mud was grey and we twisted our ankles running, late as usual for morning call, almost tripping in the deep tracks left by the hoofs and frozen hard as stone, and a moment later he said Your mother’s written me.

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There are 15 comments

  1. I applaud your commitment by finishing this novel. I have to say that I am really bad about quitting a book that I do not like.

  2. Ooh I must admit I have even written about Claude Simon as part of my research – but then he is a fantastic writer to write about. I agree that reading him is a bizarre and disconcerting experience, but if you get into what he is doing, he’s most intriguing. Looking back, I realise how much stuff I happily read, never questioning whether it was giving me pleasure because I was going to teach it or write about it. In fact, I suppose it always did give me pleasure, because figuring out what was going on and how was always fun for me. But would I pick up Simon now and read him, just for the fun of it? Probably not. The last thing I wrote about Simon concerned one sentence in L’acacia that went on for 11 pages… great sentence, though!

  3. I haven’t read Claude Simon in years but when I did I actually liked him. It felt very cinematographic. I just read it as if I was watching a movie and that worked well. What he does is pretty close to cutting. I remember a scene in which someone falls down on a road and when we go on reading the person lies on the bed with someone. In a movie this is easy to follow, in a book, I agree, not always. Maybe his writing has become more obscure. In any case there are others writing nouveau roman that I found really insipid. Nathalie Sarraute for example.

  4. Hi Celawerd, yes I know what you mean. If I’m not getting anything from a book, I quit as well – there’s no point in wasting time. But with this one I did feel that I was getting something from it. That something was not enjoyment, but it was a different sense of what the novel can do. So I was happy to continue, even if I wasn’t strictly enjoying myself, if that makes sense!

    Hi litlove, I can certainly see that there would be a lot to write about! I did find his writing intriguing and fascinating and admirable, as well as disconcerting and at times baffling. As I said, I’m glad I read the book but, like you, I probably wouldn’t read another one just for fun 🙂

    Hi Caroline! The reference to cinema is spot on – I think a lot of what confused me was the sudden cutting across time and space. You’re kind to say that perhaps Simon has become more obscure, but I think the problem lies closer to home for me 😉 Perhaps if I had read this book when I was younger, I would have liked it more. In those days I used to read for hours at a time in silence. Now, I am much busier in my life, and read on buses, in quick half-hour bursts between other activities, or at night when I’m tired. I think a book like this really demands time and unbroken attention, and I have the sense that if I’d given it that, it would have repaid me. Still, I had to give my reaction to the book as I read it. Made me think a bit about my reading habits!

  5. Hello
    That’s a writer I’ve heard about and never read because of his Nouveau Roman tag. According to the quote, I’m not sure I should give it a try.

    Now you’re ready for Proust’s long sentences if you haven’t read him yet. He allies the “stream of consciousness” experience with classic construction.

  6. Hello Emma! Yes, that’s a good description of Proust’s style, and interesting that you brought him up. I read Swann’s Way I think it was, many years ago now, and have been thinking it may be time to read him again.

  7. Heard of him but I’ve never read. But now I want to based on this review. I like a little disorientation every now and then. Thanks.

  8. Hi Kinna, yes, some disorientation is definitely good! I’m glad I read the book, and hope you pick it up too – would be interested to hear what you make of it!

    Emma, that sounds great – I’ll check it out. Some reviews can definitely provide the motivation to get reading again!

  9. I didn’t know this book, and I’m definitely rather sold on it now.

    That’s the thing with reviews. It’s not about whether they’re positive or negative. It’s about whether they give a fair view of the book allowing people to form their own view.

    I don’t think a writer is “supposed” to shape form from chaos (in fact I don’t think a writer is supposed to do anything beyond write). That said there is of course vast power in that old lie of narrative. At the same time though it is a lie. The world is without narrative. That for me is the attraction of this sort of novel – an attempt to reflect reality on the page in all its absurd disorder.

    Should every novel be like that? Absolutely not. Should some? I think so. What we gain by abandoning order is a closer examination of reality which does I think have value.

    Lovely comment by Caroline about cinematic cutting.

    Anyway, nice review Andrew and one that’s given me a real appetite for the book.

  10. Hi Max, glad I whetted your appetite! You’re right, of course, that a writer is not “supposed” to do anything beyond write. I think what I meant was that people have told stories through the ages as a way of understanding the world. Writers are generally people who have something to say, a point of view to communicate, even though in fiction it’s done indirectly and through a lot of artifice. Formless chaos is what we already have, so why put it down on the page, even if it is authentic? That said, I do see the value of doing it this way sometimes, and as I mentioned in the conclusion I do find the sense of disorientation and questioning of traditional techniques quite beneficial. Definitely not a commuting read, though!

  11. Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay (reviewed over at mine) is a collection of four (I think) linked short stories the last of which rather dazzlingly embeds story within story within story so that the whole thing becomes a celebration of the immense power and joy of narrative.

    I guess the thing with chaos is that by putting it on a page we can perhaps better understand what it means to live in chaos. The answer though is typically fairly bleak. Camus, JG Farrell in Troubles and Derek Raymond in different ways all grapple with this and while Farell is funny as hell the answer in each case tends to be a tad on the depressing side.

    For me it’s simply that the experimental stuff interests me. In the end although I’m sure some would violently disagree a taste for modernism and embracing the artificiality of the novel and the chaos of reality isn’t really any different from a taste for romance or elves and dragons. It’s a question of aesthetic preference.

    That said, I’d never bet against narrative. It’s hardwired in human beings I think. Experimentalist novels are swimming uphill against our natures which is I think why they disquiet but also why they’ll never be popular. Madame Bovary remains for me the high point of the literature I’ve read and that’s partly due to the power of its narrative.

  12. The experimental stuff definitely interests me, too! But I agree that narrative is hard-wired – I remember EM Forster writing about it in Aspects of the Novel, giving the example of cavemen sitting around a fire and referring to this “primitive” need to know what happened next. https://andrewblackman.net/2010/04/aspects-of-the-novel-by-e-m-forster/

    Forster says that a strong basic story is the foundation of any novel. I’d say that the more experimental works can function without it, but it certainly helps to have it pulling you through.

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