One of the principal French writers of the New Novel, Claude-Eugène-Henri Simon (see-mohn) has combined the exploration of new modes of novelistic discourse with a trenchant view of the human condition to create a unique fictional universe. He was born in Tananarive, Madagascar (then a French possession), on October 10, 1913. He left the African island one year later when, with the onset of World War I, his father, an army officer, was called up for active military service. After his father was killed in the war, Simon spent his childhood in Perpignan, a small town in the eastern Pyrenees. Simon received his secondary education at the Collège Stanislas in Paris and later studied at both Oxford and Cambridge universities. He then began to train as a painter with André Lhote, who had been one of the early cubist painters. Paintings of various kinds appear in several of Simon’s novels. Simon spent the years 1936 to 1939 traveling in Europe. His peregrinations included a brief stay in Spain, where he participated in the Civil War on the Republican side. When World War II started, Simon was drafted into a cavalry regiment. After the French defeat at the Battle of the Meuse, he was captured by the Germans but managed to escape from his prison camp. Simon’s reflections on the two wars in which he took part appear in La Corde raide (the tightrope), a journal that he published in 1947. War is a major theme in many of Simon’s novels, for, in addition to its specific devastation, it exposes the chaos underlying the apparent order of existence as well as emphasizing humankind’s lack of progress. After the war, Simon returned to the Pyrenees region, settling in the village of Salses and becoming a vintner. He later moved to Paris, where he stayed.
Simon’s first novel, Le Tricheur (the cheater), was published in 1945. The works that he produced during the 1940’s and 1950’s, which constitute his first phase, present many of the themes that appeared in later, better-known novels but are largely traditional in form. Yet The Wind and, to a lesser extent, The Grass already point toward the more innovative fictions of Simon’s second period with respect to such matters as narrative perspective, temporality, and the nature of representation. The anonymous narrator of The Wind attempts to restore the reality of a series of incidents in a small town in southern France. The ceaselessly blowing wind is a metaphor of the destructive passage of time that blurs events and characters. The narrator succeeds in establishing a pattern of criminal activities but begins to suspect that his discovery is an invention created by his desire to give meaning to the events he is investigating, by language that has imposed its own particular order. What is baroque in this novel and in so many of the later novels is the tension between the work of art as an illusion and the self-consciousness of the processes that engendered it.
Simon’s first recognition as a novelist came with the publication of The Flanders Road in 1960, which won for him the Prix de l’Express and placed its author among the foremost practitioners of the New Novel. These writers, among them Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor, were attempting to elaborate a new poetics of the novel by calling into question its traditional structures. In The Flanders Road, considered by many to be Simon’s best work, the protagonist Georges had been a soldier in World War II and was captured by the Germans after most of his unit had been killed. After the war, Georges spends a night with Corinne, his dead captain’s wife, about whom he had fantasized while a prisoner. In the course of this night Georges pursues his memories of the war, in the hope of determining the true nature of the events with which he was involved and thereby seizing his own identity. Georges discovers that he cannot adequately separate fact from imagination, however, and that his memories have become mental images, re-presentations that have lost their spatiotemporal coordinates as they have combined with one another in associative patterns. The self, fragmented in proliferating language, becomes a fictional construct.
Triptych ushered in the third phase of Simon’s novelistic production. Simon eliminates the central narrative consciousness of his earlier works in order to emphasize further the novel as text. Like a piece of cloth, a textile, the work becomes an interweaving of many strands. As its title implies, the novel consists of three principal stories, which become progressively interconnected through various processes of association and generation. A particular element may function in a variety of contexts, within one or several stories. For example, a couple making love in a barn is linked to a nude woman in another story. She resembles a woman on a strip of film in the possession of two boys spying on the couple in the barn–and that figure is linked to a film being shown locally and, in another story, to a film being made. The Georgics creates a complex polyphony through its interweaving of three historical events–the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and the defeat of France in 1940. Yet given Simon’s concept of the cyclical nature of history, the convergence of these moments tends to restore the unifying narrative consciousness more typical of Simon’s earlier works.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Simon in 1985 was met with some opposition in both France and the United States. Simon’s detractors felt that his experimental writing had impoverished the novel instead of enriching it. Unlike the works of some of the writers with which he is associated, however, Simon’s novels are never arid intellectual exercises reflecting solipsistically on their own elaboration. For Simon, the activity of writing is inseparable from an exploration of the human condition. Simon’s vision of the human condition is, admittedly, a relatively pessimistic one. The specious order of everyday existence is easily shattered by war, crime, and passion. History is cyclical, belying apparent progress and imposing predetermined roles on the actors who occupy its stage. The demarcation between the real and the imaginary is illusory. Enmeshed in the labyrinthine web of language, the pursuit of identity and meaning generates other fictions. Although Simon continued to break down differences between the real and the imaginary, his work took an increasingly autobiographical turn with The Acacia, continuing in The Jardin des Plantes and The Trolley. He also told the story of a trip to the Soviet Union in The Invitation. Yet this apprehension of reality is coextensive with the creation of new novelistic forms and with the assumption by Simon’s readers of a greater share in the creative process.