Like a breath of wind through the grass Apr 2, 2007
Claude Simon, Nobel Laureate of 1985, puiblished this splendid novel in 1958. A veteran of the Second World War who fought among French tanks while riding horseback, Simon is a little-known novelist to the English-speaking world. After escaping imprisonment by the Nazis, Simon wrote and published his first novel in 1945. The Grass, heralded by Simon's contemporaries (like Robbe-Grillet) as an instructive example of the French nuveau roman, is actually far more than a mere experimental novel, but is rather one which emanates so many of life's important emotions, depicted in a montage that is like a breath of wind through the grass. Although a Nobel Laureate, Simon was not the type of novelist who, like Hemingway or Coetzee--though no one can doubt the mastery of the writings of those two in particular--stuck to the same types of stories, or even the same types of forms for his books. In the intellectual tradition of Laureates, one would have to find Simon closer to someone like Faulker (this is an easy comparison when one examines the long-winded, stream of consciousness method used by Simon) or Thomas Mann, who, while structurally differing very little from book to book, sought avidly to express the kind of analogic thinking that makes writing interesting for those who spend a lot of time reading.
In that sense, Simon is not the writer for everyone, and I surely do not mean to say so in a foppish kind of way, but one cannot look to Simon expecting a newer, more-enlightened version of the 19th century novel; that's the style that he and the other members of the nuveau roman school (to the extent they would allow you to call it a school) worked most diligently to fight against in their work. A valuable passage from Simon's Nobel speech may elucidate the point: "Like painting, the novel no longer claims to draw its pertinence from its association with some important topic; but from the fact that it, like music, struggles to reflect a certain harmony." There are many problems with this statement that I can see: for one, Simon's novels are topic-laden. War is a perpetual topic, always in the background, seeming to prefigure every thought that's written down, casting upon his work a sort of dark shadow, an inimitable presence, lurking there, hovering. Another problem is, of course, the simile respecting music: is he thinking of the music we know, the avante-garde (music that could only be analogous to Simon's writing, for that of someone like Bach or Beethoven certainly could not be so likened), is that music really seeking to reflect a certain harmony? (and if it's the case that Simon was contemplating Bach, for example, what an odd notion, given his predilection, within even this very sentence, for breaking with the past. . . . ) Finally, the question arises from his point, is not the pertinence of painting, the painting Simon was thinking of, of Picasso, of Dali, of Klee--of all those who painted in the wake of the surrealist explosion of the twenties (and its dada predecessors)--is not the pertinence of those artists' work drawn from the fact that they have rejected old forms, that they have rejected traditional subject matter (we no longer see the Blessed Virgin, though she may be lumbering past in subtle ambience), and turned instead to making a statement, the truth content of which gains its right to mention by those very rejections? Anyway forgetting all these points--and one can see that many of Simon's statements have this kind of truth content themselves, and that is what makes them so valuable to those of us who consider the parsimony of fictitious writings to be valuable ipso facto--the notion that Simon's work is like modern painting was in the fifties is an obvious point, but the sort of comment he probably needed to make in order to demonstrate his affinty with what is (nuveau) rather than what was (Balzac, for example).
The Grass, then, specifically, until one reaches page two hundred we see no denouement. This is not the kind of work that follows any kind of common dramatic structure: it is a story, yes, but it is not told in the traditional manner. In what manner is it told? It is told in the manner of life, indeed, of existence. Simon's The Grass is a story of two sisters (although their relationship is unstated), their lives and sorrows, the death of one (and the death of the other?). One is reminded, incidentally, of Coetzee's Youth (a brilliant book), which closes with the death (?) of one character and the death (?) of the protagonist. Yes, we are certain that there will be a death in The Grass--"And what's death without tears?" the main character in Simon's novel asks on the very first page, the character who will die (?) speaking of the character who will die (no question mark)--but we are certain, too, that there have been many lives lived in the hearts of these women, of the men who came into their lives, of the women those men have had on the side. But all of this is only important if one wants to understand the plot; what we are dealing with in terms of Simon's books is, above all, form. Form, form, form--that's what the nuveau roman novelists were looking to change, and did.
It is not incidental that the English-speaking world is unfamiliar with Claude Simon. One tends to think that these novels are the sort that people only read when they, too, like Simon et al., have tired of the old forms, found they needed to move on to something else. But we are busy in this life, all too busy for things like books. One must be fed up with Tolstoy and Balzac if one wants to read Simon. But we do not even read Balzac and Tolstoy anymore. The hours are too long, the days disappear under the crush of labor and engagements. To get a breath of fresh air one must seek it (we cannot all be Picasso). Read Simon, watch the films of Jean -Luc Godard. You don't have to know French to do so anymore. Adieu.