The Flanders Road by Claude Simon
The Flanders Road
by Claude Simon
Oneworld Classics; Paperback;
224 pages; Price £7.99;
Not one for those scoping a quick and easy read, The Flanders Road is a book concerning the death of one aristocratic and thoroughly idiosyncratic World War II cavalry captain named de Reixach (pronounced, central character Georges informs his counterparts on more than one occasion, as ‘Reishach x like sch, ch like k’), and looks to piece together an account of the mysterious captain through the shared and personal memories of his war-time subordinates.
It’s a difficult process. Readers encounter the muddled accounts and interpretations of various acquaintances of the dead captain, as filtered through the impressions of those who served under him, from the emotional and poetic Georges (a member of de Reixach’s company and a distant cousin), to a former jockey in his employment – a man, incidentally, who has made the captain a cuckold – named Iglésia, plus the cynical and straight talking Blum, with whom Georges enters into long and complicated meditations when the two of them are held in captivity following de Reixach’s death.
Simple, you might think? Fortunately not. For in distancing his narrative from the very event which the narrative is looking to explore and define, Claude Simon is able to subvert and distort the centre of his own story quite dramatically, mixing memories and stories, entering into and leaving the thought patterns of his core characters, and playing with punctuation in a way that makes the novel incredibly difficult to follow but brilliantly multifarious.
An example: see the opening of the novel.
He was holding a letter in his hand, he raised his eyes looked at me then the letter again then once more at me, behind him I could see the red mahogany ochre blurs of the horses being led to the watering trough, the mud was so deep you sank into it up to your ankles but I remember that during the night it had frozen suddenly and Wack came into the bedroom with the coffee saying The dogs ate up the mud, I had never heard the expression, I could almost see the dogs, some kind of infernal, legendary creatures their mouths pink-rimmed their wolf fangs cold and white chewing up the black mud In the night’s gloom, perhaps a recollection, the devouring dogs cleaning, clearing away: now the mud was grey and we twisted our ankles running, late as usual for morning call, almost tripping in the deep tracks left by the hoofs and frozen hard as stone, and a moment later he said Your mother’s written me.
Seeming to contain several locations and memories – plus a garbling of time frames – at once, this opening encapsulates what Simon looks to do with the idea of the thought process, of memory and recollection, and of storytelling. It is incredibly disorientating: you’re never quite sure who is speaking, or thinking, and whose memories or utterances belong to whom.
Though tough to handle, this disorientation is an important part of the charm of The Flanders Road: a dramatisation of the difficulty inherent in creating meaning (should that be accuracy?) from recollections, memories and narrations, the incredible complexity and confusion of voice disorientates the reader as much as it does the novel’s characters. Slipping from first person to the narratorial voice as it wishes, the whole book reads like something in the middle of Ulysses‘ Molly Bloom monologue and a volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
The novel practices stylistically what it preaches thematically: through this device the book subtly sets up its own foundations and then aims to crumble them. Gradually introducing Georges’ odd fascination with the symbolic history of his distant family the de Reichax’s, Iglésia’s fraught relationship with his employer, and the strange reverence of his orderly for his boss’ aristocracy, the novel, in several complex conversations between Blum and Georges, undermines each and every detail of the story it perpetuates, angrily questions the value of memory, and de-constructs the value of narrative and storytelling as a means to understanding. For, from the story of de Reixach’s insistence on riding a race horse in defiance of Iglésia’s possession of his wife, to Georges’ vivid memory of the captain gallantly and ridiculously drawing his sabre before being gunned down on the aforementioned Flanders Road, the book seems to hold at its crux Blum’s angry denunciation of Georges’ story-spinning and memory games:
You’re always sifting, supposing, embroidering, inventing fairy tales where I bet no one except you has never seen anything but an everyday piece of sex between a whore and two fools…
Certainly, for this reason alone The Flanders Road should not be considered a novel for the faint of heart. Sometimes needlessly complex, often nihilistic in its approach to human endeavour and the search for meaning in the events that shape our lives, it takes concentration, guile and a bundle of willpower.
Luckily, though, it’s not all doom and gloom: the novel is permeated with a strange rhythm and an odd cadence that, combined with Simon’s beautiful poetic imagination, gives the book a genuine poignancy and linguistic beauty that makes the arduous task of fact hunting, and the frequently depressing deconstruction of our human capacities, thoroughly worthwhile.