The Flanders Road
I found this French novel to be strangely evocative of a trio of German novelists: Böll, Sebald, and Remarque; that is to say, The Flanders Road reads like a severely hyperbolized mash-up of Billiards at Half-Past Nine, Austerlitz, and All Quiet on the Western Front. It is not a book for everyone.
Claude Simon / French / 1960 / 193 pages
Translated from the French by Richard Howard
Here is a novel that takes some well-worn tropes and wraps them up in such a unique and challenging presentation that we almost forget we’re really just reading about some rather basic truths: war is hell, people are obsessed with sex, and reality is subjective. Simon renders in staggeringly convincing detail the more mundane and hellish activities of professional soldiering while at the same time splicing in bits of erotic (or maybe outright pornographic?) depictions of physical love which are augmented by hazy recollections of assassinations, suicides, and the relentless Nazi advance toward France during the second world war. Far from a straightforward novel about the horrors of modern warfare, however, The Flanders Road juxtaposes scenes of destruction with accounts of rapturous love, horse racing, and drunken forays into pubs, hotels, and brothels. My reading of the novel hinges a great deal on Simon’s fairly overt cynicism toward these activities: the humans in his novel lead pretty base lives, not much different than those of animals, and their attempts to adorn their memories with sterilized and poetic elaborations ultimately fail to rid them of psychologically taxing truths.
The novel tends to be billed as a shifting-perspective take on the events surrounding the death of an infantry captain during the German occupation of Belgium (and, eventually, France) in the early years of World War II. To an extent, this is an accurate description. Captain de Reixach is shot off his horse by a German sniper in the first handful of pages and the three main characters of the novel — Georges, Blum, and Iglésia — spend a good deal of time rehashing the details of this event. But as The Flanders Road progresses, we’re given far too many details about Georges’ ancestor’s murder / suicide and Iglésia’s past as a horse jockey (and both of their sexual histories) for the story to be simply confined to an examination of de Reixach’s inability to pick the sniper out of the trees. And with the presence of a relentlessly empirically-minded character (Blum) who meticulously interrogates the other two characters when he feels that their memories are straying off track, the reader is left to conclude that Simon is trying to fry much bigger fish than the historical intricacies of WWII. The Flanders Road, then, is predicated to a large extent on characters attempting to disabuse themselves of unpleasant memories — either through altering truths or seeking cheap pleasures. In this pursuit, they, in a word, fail.
Simon pioneers a hazy swirl cloud of a prose technique to give the reader a window into the psychological machinations of his characters. A death of one person calls to mind the death of another, an account of a horse race is spliced into frantic descriptions of routed French soldiers fleeing a mechanized Nazi advance, and images of warfare flit into Georges’ mind while he’s making love to a woman years later. But the chronological / spatial back-and-forth isn’t quite enough. Simon also omits punctuation routinely, passes seamlessly from first- to third-person narration, and relies heavily on lengthy asides (think ellipses inside ellipses inside ellipses … literally) to draw out his incredibly rambling sentences. A Simon sentence is longer than something you’d see in James, but with poorer grammatical syntax; longer than what you get in Fuentes and at the same time more hallucinatory; longer even than the lengthiest ramblings you might encounter in the writings of David Foster Wallace or Thomas Bernhard, but flightier and less grounded. It is, simply put, an incredible struggle to make it all the way through The Flanders Road‘s 193 pages. I’ve read several accounts online of people who abandoned the novel at all stages: page 3, page 180 ( ! ), and page 56.
The novel is divided into three sections, each of which loosely corresponds to one of the three main characters, but there is so much variation in the narrative within each section, that I’m less comfortable with the “story told in three perspectives” description than some other reviewers seem to be. Each section opens with a quote and, considered in synthesis, they offer a somewhat clear-cut synopsis of the novel’s thematic thrust. The first is by da Vinci and is the sort of thing you’d expect at the beginning of a novel about war: “I thought I was learning how to live / I was learning how to die.” But the second quote will throw you for a loop: it comes from Martin Luther and articulates his befuddlement at the way God designed men and women such that they had to have sexual relations in order to procreate. And the third quote tries to wrap these into a common framework: “Sensual pleasure is the embrace of a dead body by two living beings.” The dead body, seemingly, is “time murdered for a time” by which the author means, I suppose, the “time out of mind” provided by the ballistics of sex, but also provided by the ballistics of warfare and other similarly psychologically taxing experiences. If the passage of time troubles me, then I long to murder it in whatever way I can manage; if my recollections contain facts that horrify me, then I long to murder them either through revision or recreation. The fact that Simon’s characters, despite their best efforts, are completely unable to do this reveals something about his outlook on the human condition. It is not positive.
In reading the introductory material for this novel and in poking around a bit on the internet, it seems the most often invoked points of comparison are Faulkner and, to a lesser extent, Proust. My experience with the former is sparse (I’ve only read As I Lay Dying) and the latter is nonexistent, so I have to draw on other comparisons. Simon’s novel is a bit like Böll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine in its stream-of-consciousness narration that is heavily predicated on overlapping (and interconnected) time periods, though it surpasses Böll in a big way: Simon’s style is much more fugue-like and considerably more disjointed. Substantively, The Flander’s Road is also similar to Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald in the sense that it rigorously interrogates the limits (and, indeed, usefulness) of memory and storytelling. Whereas with Sebald we’re given a gradual revelation of something approaching actual reality, however, Simon’s memory tropes are largely based on the bait-and-switch: instead of “Oh, now I remember more clearly!” or “Oh, now it’s all coming back to me!” we instead get “Well, maybe that thing I just told you was totally false.” This sort of thing can frustrate less patient readers, especially when its couched in such tortuous prose that you’re struggling simply to keep your head above water. Finally, from a thematic standpoint, Simon strays rather closely to All Quiet on the Western Front: although he seems to be more interested in the give-and-take between creation and destruction, between life and death, he’s just as apt as Remarque in rendering the total desolation (both moral and physical) of warfare. The closing line of the novel brilliantly describes a war-stricken landscape in gray colors and tired prose: “the world stopped frozen crumbling collapsing gradually disintegrating in fragments like an abandoned building, unusable, left to the incoherent, casual, impersonal and destructive work of time.”
In the final analysis, then, I’m left to conclude that The Flanders Road is well worth reading; a perfect book for really aggressive readers looking to broaden their horizons, but not for everyone. There are, after all, much easier-to-digest postmodern novels out there (Under the Volcano and The Crying of Lot 49) and more emotionally devastating novels about warfare (The Return of the Soldier and, well, War and Peace). But Simon undertook something unique and challenging with this novel and I give him points for that.
Rating: 5 / 10