At the very end of 1939, a young soldier in the 31st dragoons of the French Army was granted leave to be married. His regiment had been stalled in Northern France, in the endless pattern of military manoeuvres typical of the so-called Phoney War. A few days later, on 2 January 1940, he sat in a stiff chair at the Mairie of the southern city of Perpignan wearing a suit he had bought second-hand and rummaging through his pockets for his mother’s ring. He had not laid eyes on his fiancée, Renée, who sat beside him, and who would commit suicide four years later, for fourteen months, when she had seen him off at the train station and had handed him a sandwich wrapped in tissue paper, which he did not manage to eat.
Almost as soon as he was married, Claude Simon was sent off again, back to the northern front, where his comrades had to remind themselves that the German enemy might strike at any moment. It was there in the Ardennes town of Les Deux-Villes, as the ground froze and thawed and froze again, that Simon heard for the first time a phrase that would stay with him for the next twenty years of his life: les chiens ont mangé la boue – or, as Richard Howard has it in his authoritative translation of The Flanders Road (1960): ‘the dogs ate up the mud’.
This odd expression was one of many memories from the most disastrous war in French history to haunt Simon. The shocking, brutal, and swift collapse of France in 1940 became for Simon –as for all his compatriots – a bleeding enigma, a macro-event bursting with incommensurable details that called at once to be repressed and to be accounted for. The earth along the frontlines which seemed to have been torn up by rabid beasts; the dead horses which appeared, in their process of decay, to be returning to the mineral and fungal substrate that created them; the hurried holiday matrimonials; the military so anachronistically and poorly equipped for the coming onslaught that it was almost laughable (almost); the image of a man so desperate to die in battle that he appears, under the cover of courage, to commit suicide: these were some of the black holes from which Simon sought over and again to retrieve the light of clarity.
That last image, of a mounted army colonel frozen like ‘an equestrian statue’ before a barrage of sniper fire, is the centrepiece of Simon’s most remarkable work devoted to the war: The Flanders Road, republished in English this year. In it, the novel’s narrator, Georges, relives much the same experience as the author himself. Simon’s division was one of 18 stationed in the Ardennes, the weakest segment of the Allied lines, where the Second and Ninth Armies were operating under the assumption that a German assault through the forest would be so slow and difficult as to give France plenty of time to prepare a defence. On 10 May, 59 Wehrmacht divisions, ten of which were armoured, blindsided the French and their English allies and began the blitzkrieg which would push both armies to the sea. When Rommel’s 7th Panzer division crossed the Meuse in the early hours of 13 May, it proceeded along the very road between Solre and Avesne where Simon’s regiment was stationed – the Flanders Road of the novel.
What Simon lived through in the war would never leave him: the collapse of the French Armies at the Meuse, being taken prisoner by the Germans (a period of petrifying limbo examined in the novel); his early morning escape from a POW camp to the zone libre; his three years spent in the chaotic fringe of displaced artists gathered in southern France; his recruitment into the Resistance, for which he acted as a sort of intelligence agent; his return to painting (the artist’s first love), fueled by an infatuation with the works of Cézanne and Picasso, whose innovations would bleed into his prose; his plunge into novel-writing, with the completion of Le Tricheur (1945); his return to Paris before liberation, where he would lend his apartment on the rue Montparnasse to the Resistance, the same apartment where Renée, his wife, committed suicide (for reasons we will never know), mere weeks after the war’s end. It was the material of and for a lifetime.
The basis of the central event in The Flanders Road involved one colonel Rey, commander of the 31st dragoons. In the novel, he is Georges’s commander, Captain de Reixach, the altered name looking like a crossroads at which a word sounding like ‘king’ and another sounding like a pained grunt meet. Decimated after six days of retreat and repositioning, the regiment hides along the road littered with ‘wreckage and refugees’. The lines of command are scrambled. An order comes in to proceed on foot. Another to mount horses. In the novel, Captain de Reixach, riding senselessly into the middle of the road with his sabre, knowing that German soldiers are hiding nearby for an ambush, proceeds with
his arm raised brandishing that useless ridiculous weapon in the hereditary gesture of an equestrian statue which had probably been handed down to him by generations of swordsmen…the sun glinting for a second on the naked blade then everything – man horse and sabre – collapsing together sideways like a lead soldier beginning to melt from the feet up and leaning slowly to one side…
Like Rey, de Reixach is slain by sniper fire, right before the young soldier’s eyes. Had he simply been stupid? Gone crazy? Or did he ride intentionally toward his death in an act of suicide disguised as valour? The question is simple enough, and the ambiguity of its answer mysterious enough, to drive a plot. But for Georges, the significance of de Reixach’s death has much more to do with the remarkable pose he strikes, like an heirloom from his nation’s past, that ‘dim figure against the light so that it looked as if he and his horse had been cast together out of one and the same material’.
The problem of understanding the war, for Simon, was equivalent to the problem of historiography. To impose a line or an arc upon time is, as Hayden White put it, to emplot the past – to make it tragic, romantic, epic, and so forth. Simon’s primary characteristic as a novelist – indeed that which made him an exemplary Nouveau Romancier and a rare jewel among Nobel Laureates when he received his prize in 1985 – was his desire to find and create other narrative shapes, ones which frustrated the closures of life and death, comedy and tragedy. Ones which allowed him to linger among the difficulties and the traps of storytelling as such.
In articles written and interviews given throughout his life, he was quick to explain that he constructed the narrative of The Flanders Road according to the shape of a three-leafed clover, or trefoil. That is, the narrative proceeds in three loops or lobes, each one beginning and ending at the same point, a motion which repeats itself in the manner of the uncanny: difference through repetition. We see this repetition most memorably in the image of a decomposing horse, which Georges and his infantry-mates encounter three times in the course of their travails within the blasted landscapes of the Ardennes. The horse, ‘no longer anything now but a vague heap of limbs, of dead meat, of skin and sticky hair, three-quarters covered in mud’, is both there and not there, both at the end of its life and at the beginning of its recomposition into earth, both ‘horse’ and ‘what had been a horse’, lying dead with its legs in a foetal position, as if about to be born.
The idea that the soldiers do not reach the end of their route, but rather constantly return to the intersection of the end of one loop and the beginning of another, is one that ramifies through Georges’s (and, by extension, Simon’s) interrogation of history’s emplotment. If history is conceived as a kind of eternal recurrence, as repetition with a difference, what do such repetitions offer us? The novel does not quite provide an answer. What they don’t offer us, to be certain, is progress. This is embodied by the figure of de Reixach himself. He is in fact related to Georges through the latter’s mother, Sabine, whose letter explaining the relation de Reixach holds in his hand at the start of the novel. Georges grew up contemplating a portrait that once hung in his home depicting de Reixach’s (and, thus, his own) ancestor, a man who lived during the French Revolution, admired Rousseau, and voted to execute King Louis XVI. As a revolutionary, de Reixach’s ancestor dropped his noble particle, becoming, simply, Reixach. He, too, died by apparent suicide: after commanding a Napoleonic regiment as a cavalry officer in the disastrous failure of the Peninsular War (1808-1814), Reixach returned home and was soon after found dead from a bullet wound to the head. Two French military disasters, two suicides, separated by more than a century, and, seemingly, no lessons precipitated by history.
With each repetition, in fact, Georges grows more uncertain. As he seeks out and seduces de Reixach’s wife, Corinne, in order to find answers about what really happened to the captain, he comes to believe that perhaps de Reixach killed himself because of Corinne’s past infidelities. He wonders, in turn, whether the same might have been true for his ancestor, or whether the latter case was not a suicide at all, but a homicide committed by his wife’s lover. Was it the war, then, love of country and the pain of national defeat, that brought both men to their deaths? Or was it something much more personal? The possible emplotments begin to multiply as George narrates them, and as Simon writes them, coagulating without cohering.
In an essay for a conference volume exploring the works of the Nouveau Roman, Simon writes that The Flanders Road follows ‘the horsemen in their wandering (or the narrator wandering in a forest of images)’. As with many of Simon’s parentheticals, this one is more significant than the main text alongside which it appears. The looping motion of the horsemen reverberates across narratological layers, passing from performed action to Georges’s attempt at historiography. This is mirrored in the novel’s unexplained shifts between the first- and third-person perspectives: we begin with an ‘I’, telling of the letter in de Reixach’s hand, and then, at first sight of the decomposing horse, the ‘I’ becomes ‘Georges’, indicating that the narrating subject has become estranged from himself, and therefore from the events being narrated, i.e., the past. (In an essay on the novel, Merleau-Ponty credits Simon with inventing an ‘intermediate person’, a narrator both there and nowhere.)
The French experience of the Second World War offers two possible narratives of recurrence, as the critic Lynn A. Higgins has put it: ‘reversal disguised repetition’ or ‘repetition within reversal’. In the first instance, the Flanders disaster’s apparent repetition of Napoleon’s 1813 defeat in Spain is a reversal of circumstances: in 1813, France was the invading force; in 1940, it was being invaded. In the second case, 1940 is a shocking reversal of French victory in the Great War which betrays, at its core, the thoughtless – and catastrophic – repetition of the forms and gestures of that earlier conflict. In his book Strange Defeat (1946), the French historian Marc Bloch, who lived through both wars, describes in sober terms exactly what was so shocking to Georges about de Reixach’s pose as the latter was gunned down: France’s greatest mistake in 1940 was to believe that the new war could be fought with the same tactics and the same equipment as had won them the previous one (‘our leaders, blind to the many contradictions inherent in their attitude, were mainly concerned to renew in 1940 the conditions of the war they had waged in 1914-18. The Germans, on the contrary, had been thinking in terms of 1940’). The image of de Reixach brandishing his glinting sabre contains, in nuce, both the paradox of the French war effort in 1940 and the dialectic of history that both Georges and Simon are trying to grasp.
All of this repetition, all of this looping, creates a pooling effect whereby the concrete particulars of the past become vaguer and more dissolute as the waters of confusion rise, and which Simon captures with his trademark, digressive style. I am not exaggerating when I say that the meat of his work is to be found in his many parentheticals. As the critic Daniel Deneau has argued, there are about 550 sets of them across the novel, ‘enclosing approximately 25% of the total text’. In at least 40 passages, Simon nests parentheticals within parentheticals, further provoking the state of suspension into which this common typographical sign is designed to throw readers. As Deneau writes, ‘an opening parenthesis is like an order to inhale air and then to pause – with the expectation that there will be a signal to exhale’. Simon closes all but five of his parentheses (probably left open by accident), though many of them are pages long. The movement of his prose, which some have justifiably called Faulknerian (Simon adored Faulkner), is commensurate with the movement of the narrative. It is indeed like a series of looping breaths: the long inhale deepening and expanding, and then the exhale which can happen quickly or slowly, bringing one back round again, the end of one breath signalling the beginning of the next.
We may wonder why Simon returned again and again to his experiences of 1939-1940, which continued to drive his major works, including Les Georgiques (1981), and L’Acacia (1989). We can gain a clue from the context in which Simon wrote The Flanders Road, nearly 20 years after the events it describes. France, after two decades of deliberately repressing the cataclysmic, self-indicting nature of its collapse in 1940 – two decades, that is, of operating a black-and-white regime of morality, of collabos versus résistants, in a bid both to apportion and to psychologically export responsibility and guilt – now found itself embroiled in another conflict spelling failure for the nation: the Algerian War. In Napoleonic fashion, Charles de Gaulle, hero of the previous war, returned to the helm of the republic to restore order. Simon, looking up from his novel manuscript to glimpse the tall, awkward figure of de Gaulle on his TV screen, might have seen another reversal disguised as repetition, or else a repetition within a supposed reversal.
To decide, he would have to remember. And to remember, he would have to work, to wander like his horsemen, and indeed like his narrator, in a brief flash of Quixote, throughout the forest of signs. This is the opposite of Proust’s famous ‘involuntary memory’, whole worlds of association opening out to Marcel with the slightest pinprick of specific sensation. Simon must retrace the event to return to it under a different aspect, ever so slightly different. As he writes in the preface to Orion aveugle (1971), there are no paths of creation other than ‘those opened step by step, that is to say, word after word, by the forward progression of writing’. In a way, he must become, like the old Reixach, a devotee of revolution, whose definition he included as the epigraph to Le Palace (1962), the novel that succeeded The Flanders Road: ‘Revolution: a body’s motion around a closed curve, retracing the same points in succession.’ History was taking another breath; he would try to trace its contours.
Read on: Alain Robbe Grillet: ‘Condition of the Novel’, NLR I/29.