Friday, April 1, 2011
THE FLANDERS ROAD by Claude Simon
Here's an amazing discovery. The Flanders Road by Claude Simon (who won the Nobel in 1985 but remains largely unknown outside France) is one of the great underappreciated novels of the 20th century. Published in France in 1960 and beautifully translated into English by the poet Richard Howard, it is an absolute masterpiece, easily the equal of any French novel since the death of Marcel Proust. This book and its author deserve to be as widely known and read as Sartre, Camus, Robbe-Grillet, Duras, et al. On the rare occasions when Claude Simon is mentioned outside France, it's usually in a list of nouveaux romanciers like the one that ended my last sentence, but the achievement of The Flanders Road is best appreciated in a less nationalistic, more High Modernist context. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust are at least as important as Alain Robbe-Grillet in any list of this novel's influences, and the most important and obvious influence of all is William Faulkner, whose Absalom, Absalom! Simon comes close to quoting in a few places. But all of my praise, however richly deserved, is perhaps only a strategy to delay the impossible task I have set myself in this post: to briefly describe this deceptively short (231 pages) and extremely intelligent novel. Here's my attempt: A stream-of-consciousness WWII novel centering around the rout of French forces by the invading Germans in 1940, The Flanders Road is a complex, difficult work that moves through time and space with the fluidity of Proust and views both the horrors of war and the ecstasies of love with the darkly poetic eye of an Atomic Age Baudelaire. Rarely has any war novel so effectively captured the atmosphere of an ignominious defeat: the mud, the rain, the filth, the fear of capture, the stench of death. Stock phrases like 'existentialist fiction' and 'the absurdity of existence' don't even come close to the terrible realities this novel describes. No reader will understand everything in this book on a single reading (I didn't), but it's beautiful and terrible and impressive enough to compel multiple re-readings. Seek out a copy and read it, then read it again. And then tell everyone you know about it. The Flanders Road should not remain a secret.