While scrolling through my Yahoo! news bulletins, I came across the news that one of my literary heros, Claude Simon, the 1985 Nobel Laureate and one of world's most distinguished and innovative writers, had died this past Wednesday, at the age of 91. Simon was one of the leading practitioners of the French literary movement known as the Nouveau Roman (New Novel), which emerged towards the end of the 1950s. Among its other best known exponents were Alain Robbe-Grillet, Natalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Robert Pinget, Claude Ollier, and the early Marguerite Duras.
Though French critic Émile Henriot coined the term in a 1957 Le Monde article to describe works by writers who appeared to create a new style with each novel, through critics such as Roland Barthes the term eventually came to characterize what could be described as a tonally and psychologically neutral, perspectivally objective and estranging, often documentary narrative practice that extended the literary project of European modernism in suppressing naturalism (though not always realism) and sentiment, and (early) post-modernism in the the collaging of tone, characterization and point-of-view. Its immediate parallels in the other French arts were the cinematic works of Alain Resnais (especially his marvelous Last Year at Marienbad for which Robbe-Grillet co-wrote the screenplay and a "ciné-roman") and Jean-Luc Godard's films of the mid-1960s, and the objective serial music of Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué. French and foreign critics quickly recognized the significance and innovation of the nouveau roman, and critics and artists outside France, including Susan Sontag (in her experimental novels of the 1960s), Christine Brooke-Rose (at least initially), Rayner Heppenstall, and Uwe Johnson, adopted some of its techniques. Sontag also served as one of the chief critical champions of the nouveau roman in the US.
I've always thought that Simon was the most formally difficult of the nouveau-romanciers, in part because his work breaks the most, at least formally, with traditional narration. This led to some controversy about whether he was truly a nouveau romancier, as some critics and proponents felt that his work, especially the novels of the 1960s, moved too far away from the "pure" nouveau roman style. Looking closely at his work, I cannot disagree about the impurity: Simon's particular version of the nouveau roman showed the strong influence of William Faulkner, especially in the American author's four remarkable novels of time and memory Light in August, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom, and The Sound and the Fury, Marcel Proust, and to a lesser extent Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Although his earliest novels, like Le tricheur (The Con-Man, 1945), La corde raide (The Tightrope, 1947), Gulliver (1952) and Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, 1954) were traditional in form, in a series of novels beginning with Le vent (The Wind, 1957), he began to experiment radically with perspective and temporality, creating dense, allusive, fragmentary, sometimes parallel, nonlinear texts that flowed in an almost montage-like manner, primarily through thematic, metaphoric, imagistic, and verbal association. Also characteristic from Le vent were Simon's riverrine sentences, eschewing punctuation and unfurling like the movement of thought or dream or memory themselves, and the use of sharp and indelible imagery. (In subsequent works Simon employs, or rather deploys, the parenthesis quite expressively.)
After Le vent and L'herbe (The Grass, 1958), he published the trilogy of novels that cemented his reputation and marked out his distinctive aesthetic approach, combining history, dream and personal memory, particularly of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and World War II: La route des Flandres (The Flanders Road, 1960 [Prix L'Éxpress and Prix de Nouvelle Vague]), an extraordinary work, and my favorite of all his novels, La Palace (1962), and L'Histoire (History, 1967 [Prix Médicis]). The next several works carried on the experimentation of the 1960s trilogy, with settings in Ancient Greece--La bataille de Pharsale (The Battle of Pharsalos, 1969)--and New York--Les corps conducteurs (Conducting Bodies, 1971). Triptyque (Triptych) followed in 1973. In 1981, Simon published another of his most noteworthy books, the grand and intricate Les Géorgiques (Georgics, 1981), in which he superimposes several different genres, temporal modes, and three protagonists. He has since published four other novels, the most recent being Le tramway (The Trolley, 2001), and also authored several volumes of essays and plays.
One of his slighter books that I especially enjoy is L'Invitation (The Invitation, 1987--Dalkey Archive Edition, 1991), published right after he'd won the Nobel Prize. It recounts his visit, along with a number of other famous writers, including James Baldwin, to various sites in the Soviet Union during the initial perestroika period. Though like all of Simon's novels it's hardly easy reading, as it employs his signature stream of consciousness method, labyrinthine sentences and precise use of detail, The Invitation contains mordant critiques of the dying Communist system and its staged "reality," which Simon and other visitors see right through, and is one of his most accessible works.
During a long stretch in my 20s, I was utterly entranced by his work and gleefully tackled The Flanders Road (one of many books that I first came across on the shelves of Boston's venerable Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore, on Newbury Street--does it still exist?), History and Georgics in swift succession. In my imaginary head-to-head authorial battles, he had Robbe-Grillet and Butor beat cold. (Sarraute was above such scuffles; I didn't learn of Pinget or Ollier until later.) Like I true adept, I then attempted several novels in a Faulknerian-Simonesque-Widemanian vein, never getting past page 20 or so with any of them. His influence, though heavily attenuated, I think, still lingers and always will (I think my tendency towards complex sentence structure, though, was hardwired in).
The influence of the nouveau roman has diminished tremendously, even in French literature, and now constitutes more of a historical school than anything else. Nevertheless, Butor at 79 and Robbe-Grillet at 83 soldier on (the latter was teaching at NYU as recently as a few years ago). The best works of the nouveau roman's exemplars, though heavily copied, still feel fresh--if you don't believe me, take a look at Georgics or The Flanders Road, or alternatively, Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie (Jealousy, 1957), Nathalie Sarraute's Le Planétarium (The Planetarium, 1959), and Michel Butor's La Modification (The Modification, 1958).