Not 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.