What the Swedes Read: Claude Simon

Daniel Handler
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  • Laureate: Claude Simon (France, 1985)
  • Book Read: The Georgics, translated by Beryl and John Fletcher

Sometimes I find difficult books too easy. I think it’s because I’m not doing it right. I can make my way through thickety prose, untangling a thorny, hovering clause to find its proper antecedent, or mentally bookmarking some stray phrase until the other shoe drops a few sentences later and the meaning is plain. That’s one kind of difficult book, and although it means I can’t sip any whiskey while I’m reading it, I know how to proceed— it’s a tough hike, but the path is clear enough, and as with hiking, even when the view isn’t great, the exertion alone can be exhilarating.

But then there’s the other kind of difficult book, when the task is not one of untangling but of becoming entangled. The sentences might be perfectly clear, or so wild that to sort everything out would be to ruin the whole game. The meaning isn’t obscured by words; it’s made of them. I like these books a lot, and love the feeling of surrender when the grasping mechanisms of my mind come loose in the language— whiskey helps here, not hinders—and the book washes over me. But then I think, Am I doing it right? I go back to being twenty-one, studying Ulysses in a classroom. Everybody found the last chapter, Joyce’s famed, unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, to be challenging. I found it a delight. After head-scratching through hundreds of pages of mythological references and wacky puns, there was nothing to pin down or look up. Molly Bloom was sleepy; she was hungry; she was horny; she was dreamy. I thought it was easy.

Maybe I’m not supposed to be swept away, though. Maybe in the rush of language of, say, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, my grasp should be tighter, not looser, than when I read Henry James. I read The Making of Americans over the course of many drowsy summer evenings, and I loved it. But I must also admit that I can barely tell you a thing about it, so blurry and effervescent was the experience. What Maisie Knew, on the other hand, is another book I loved reading, and it’s firmly ensconced in my brain. It should be. I read it wide awake, parsing each tricky phrase like I was picking up grains of rice from the floor.

The Georgics, one of Claude Simon’s most celebrated novels, was described by the Nobel folks as one of the author’s “richly decorated compositions which, with sensuous perspicacity and linguistic invocation, conjure up an extremely complicated pattern of personal memories and family traditions, of experiences during modern war and of equivalents from bygone ages.” But this “extremely complicated pattern” is immediately discernible if you pick up a copy and flip through it. There are pages and pages of unparagraphed text, interrupted here and there by other hallmarks of the modern difficult book, including… frequent ellipses… italicized sections, sudden CAPITALIZED WORDS, and bouts (incidents?) of parenthetical (asides?) rethinks. You know what kind of book this is. It is the sort of book you must lose yourself in, or it will lose you altogether.

I was prepared. I’d read one other Claude Simon book before—The Jardin des Plantes, a wandery thing that occasionally divides into separate columns on the page—and remembered being unable to tell a friend, when I was halfway through the book, whether or not it was a work of fiction. The Georgics is a magnum opus, taking on the history of war, and Simon had an extensive and dramatic military career, as did many of his ancestors, so I was intrigued to see what he had to say about it. He has a lot to say, much of it fascinating, although I’m at something of a loss to tell you what it is.

I’ll try to lay it out for you as best I can. After a five-page, one-paragraph prologue describing a naked man sitting in a fancy room looking at a piece of paper, we meet our hero, at least for a while, an eighteenth-century French military figure whose resumé… well, I’ll let Simon take it from here:

He is fifty. He is the general in overall command of the artillery with the French army in Italy. His residence is at Milan. He wears a high-collared tunic with a front embroidered in gold. He is sixty. He oversees the completion of the terrace of his chateau. He is shivering, wrapped in an old military cloak. He sees black spots. By evening he will be dead. He is thirty. He is a captain. He goes to the opera. He wears a three-corned hat, a blue tunic gathered at the waist, and a dress sword.

I like this very much. I like how it moves. Various literary conventions— the flashback, the description of costume as sociological shorthand—seem stodgy and long-winded next to this terse and zippy laying out of cards. In fewer than one hundred words we’ve bopped around Europe and peeked into an auditorium and a coffin. But— or maybe just also—it’s blurry. You can’t keep track of all these details any more than you can keep track of a landscape when you’re on a Ferris wheel and the carnival ride is just getting started. Before long the book isn’t just jumbly biographically, but logistically, philosophically, and psychologically:

The heavy warships, black too, in the luminous haze, motionless, with their ranked gunports picked out in white… Their names taken from monsters, heroes, goddesses and muses of Antiquity (HMS Alexander, Goliath, Audacious, Minotaur, Colossus, Thetis, Terpsichora) like women’s dress, the long gowns gathered up under the breasts and surmounted by the crackled rouged masks of old queens and old duchesses decked out in plumes and feathers and gazing bird-like, wide-eyed, as if their eyeballs had been peeled.

The book yanked me along like this, with the image of naval forces meshing into hideous close-ups of noblewomen until the gleaming front of war and the gleaming front of court life seemed the same, which of course they are. But I also have the sneaking suspicion that dwelling a little on some of those names (Audacious?) or spending a moment to un-enjamb those images so the gowns and masks and plumes line up a little clearer, might make the book feel richer and weightier than the vertigo it instilled. But that passage is three pages into a paragraph that doesn’t end until twelve pages later, and all of it is like this, laden with images and ideas all working at cross-purposes when you look at them closely, but in a nice, blurry tandem when you don’t.

So I chose not to. I read the last two hundred pages of The Georgics one night alone on the sofa in a contented blur. I had some music on, too—Milton Babbitt, a composer whose background in mathematics led him to new music-making methods called things like “combinatoriality.” I don’t know a thing about that, but to me his work sounds like the nice spiky clitter-clatter of hail on a roof. I like it a lot, often as background music, with whatever I’m up to sputtering along with it. But, you know, maybe I’m not doing it right.

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