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by Bamber Gascoigne

Claude Simon (1913-2005)


French writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985. Simon described in several works with photographic objectivity his own family history. He became known as a major representative of the nouveau roman that emerged in the 1950s, although Simon's ideas of metaphor, history, and storytelling were rejected by the purists of the movement.

"One never describes something that happened before the labor of writing, but really what is being produced . . . during this labor, in its very 'present,' and results not from the conflicts between the very vague initial project and the language, but on the contrary from a result infinitely richer than the intent. . . . Thus, no longer prove but reveal, no longer reproduce but produce, no longer express but discover." (from Simon's Nobel lecture)

Claude Simon was born in Tananarive, on the island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa. At that time Madagascar was a French colony. Simon's father, Captain Louis Antoine Simon, was stationed there as an officer in the colonial regiement. The family returned in May 1914 to France. Simon's father was killed in action in August of the same year. His childhood Simon spent in the city of Perpignan, near the Spanish border, where he was raised by his mother, Suzanne Denamiel in the strongly Catholic atmosphere of her family home. She died of cancer when Simon was eleven.

Simon attended Collége Stanislas in Paris, and Lycée Saint-Louis for naval career, but was dismissed. He also studied at Oxford and Cambridge and took courses in painting at the André Lhote Academy. His mother would have liked him to be a priest or a soldier. From 1934 to 1935 Simon served with the French army's Thirty-first Dragoons. As a reaction to the aristocratic values of his mother's family, he joined the Communist Party, which faciliated his journey to Barcelona. During the Spanish Civil War, he became involved in gunrunning to the Republicans. At the height of Stalin's purges in 1936-38, he travelled in the Soviet Union and subsequently became disillusioned with politics.

With the outbreak of World War II, Simon rejoined the Dragoons, and took part in the Battle of Meuse in 1940. "I belonged to one of those regiments that are cold-bloodedly sacrificed in advance by the staff headquarters, and of which, after eight days, there was practically nothing left," Simon said in an interview in Les Nouvelles in 1984. (Claude Simon, edited and introduced by Celia Britton, 2014, p. 3)  Following the disorderly retreat of the French army, he was captured by the Germans, and sent with his fellow prisoners to a prison camp in Saxony. On the transition to a P.O.W. camp in Western France, he escaped and by November 1940 he had made his way back to Perpignan. At home, he was active in Resistance activities for the remainder of the war.

After the war Simon divided his time between his Paris apartment, and country estate near the village of Salces, earning his living as a wine producer and writer. He also tried his hand as a photographer. Some of his pictures were published in photography magazines. In 1951 he contracted tuberculosis and lay bed-ridden for many months, looking out of his bedroom window, observing the minute details of all objects around him. Later he recalled how the experience sharpened his appreciation of the sights and sounds of the everyday.

Simon's literary career lasted over 50 years. "I am a difficult, boring, unreadable, confused writer," he once mocked his critics. His last novel was the autobiographical Le Tramway (2001). Claude Simon died on July 6, 2005, in Paris. He was married twice, first to Yvonne Ducing in 1951. His second wife was Réa Karavas, whom he married in 1978.

Simon began to work on his first novel, Le Tricheur, just before the beginning of the war. It was completed by the end of the war and published in 1945. The critic Maurice Nadeau compared it to Camus's L'Etranger, which had appeared a few years earlier. Simon's other early novels include the autobiographical La Corde raide (1947), Gulliver (1952), and Le Sacre du printemps (1954). These novels are largely traditional in form – they have plots and identifiable characters. International fame Simon gained when his novel Le Vent (1959, The Wind) was translated into English. Adopting ideas from the nouveau roman, Simon started to develop the style in which the plot is little more than one main event seen from different angles. Above all, his novels are concerned with vision, imagination, and memory.

"Those who reproach my novels for having neither a beginning nor an end," Simon said, "are perfectly correct." The new novel developed in France in the mid-1950s. Writers rejected the traditional framework of the fiction – chronology, plot, character, the narrator – and offered texts that are open to several interpretations and demand more attention of the reader. Over the years, as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Ricardou, and others exchanged ideas, their narration in some respect – the use of the present tense, objective description of the physical things, attention to surface, etc. – took a similar form. In addition, the new novel was open to influence from the New Wave filmmakers and vice versa; Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras wrote also film scripts.

The emphasis on visual perception came to the fore in Simon's work from L'Herbe (1958), set in the year 1940 when German invaded France. The book, which took its title from Pasternak's poem ("No one makes history, no one sees it happen, no one sees the grass grow") was an attack on the traditional writing of history. Nothing actually happens in the story of an old woman, Marie, who is dying. Marie represents the unwritten side of the past. History is everyday occurrences, filled with descriptions of houses and gardens.

The sequel, La Route des Flandres (1960), tells about Marie's nephew Georges and his wartime experiences. After the war Georges becomes sexually involved with the beautiful Corinne. Scenes of Georges lying in a field as a prisoner are juxtaposed with scenes of postwar sex with Corinne.

La Route des Flandres earned Simon the L'Express Prize in 1961. In spite of being a work of fiction, a retired colonel of cavalry verified in a letter addressed to Simon, that the account of the four horsemen in the book was portrayed exactly how he remembered it. In 1977, Simon wrote a script for a screen adaptation of the novel, but it was not filmed.  Triptyque (1973) dealt with a wedding party, the drowning of a boy and a scene in a hotel room. These narratives – brutal, tragic, monotonous, and anguished – are mixed together, running concurrently and without paragraph breaks. "The old woman in black has placed the bowl full of blood at the foot of the plum tree and is cutting the skin of the rabbit away from each of the hind paws, a little below the place where the string is tied around them. She then slits the skin longitudinally along each thigh, throws the bloody knife down on the grass, and begins removing the rabbit's skin, rolling it down in somewhat the same manner as one takes off a sock."

Much of Simon's fiction is autobiographical. Histoire (1967), Les Géorgiques (1981), which was very loosely connected to Virgil's Georgics, and L'Acacia (1989) are about the author's father and mother, as well as their ancestors. The 'George' in Les Géorgiques referred to George Orwell, whose account of the Spanish Civil War Simon dismissed as "faked from the very first sentence." L'Invitation (1987) was based on Simon's journey to the Soviet Union in 1986, and demonstrated that even totalitarianism can be attacked with the methods of the new novel.

Simon's family tales, memorablia from the past, personal experiences, are interspersed with fragments of 20th-century history. References to the author's own novels and other texts are also used. Simon rewrites the adventures of George Orwell during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), but events are relayed non-chronologically, sentences are packed with parentheses that themselves contain parentheses. All three of The Georgics' plots concern wars from the campaigns that followed the birth of the French Republic to World War II. General L. de St. M. writes letters to his fellow generals, speeches and instructions for the upkeep of his estate. In the Spanish Civil War section the reader meets the Republican volunteer O.

Simon's style is a mixture of narration and stream of consciousness. His prose frequently lacks punctuation, and is densely constructed, sometimes with 1 000-word sentences, typical is also the use of parentheses. This example of his style is from Leçon de choses (1975): "La description (la composition) peut se continuer (ou être complétée) a peu prés indéfiniment selon la minutie apportée à son exécution, l'entraînement des métaphores proposées, l'addition d'autres objets visibles dans leur entier ou fragmentés par l'usure, le temps, un choc (soit encore qu'ils n'apparaissent qu'en partie dans le cadre du tableau), sans compter les diverses hypothèses que peut susciter le spectacle. Ainsi il n'a pas été dit si (peut-être par une porte ouverte sur un corridor ou une autre pièce) une seconde ampoule plus forte n'éclaire pas la scène, ce qui expliquerait la présence d'ombres portées très opaques (presque noires) qui s'allongent sur le carrelage à partir des objets visibles (décrits) ou invisibles – et peut-être aussi celle, échassière et distendue, d'un personnage qui se tient debout dans l'encadrement de la porte. Il n'a pas non plus été fait mention des bruits ou du silence, ni des odeurs (poudre, sang, rat crevé, ou simplement cette senteur subtile, moribonde et rance de la poussière) qui règnent ou sont perceptibles dans le local, etc., etc."

In his youth Simon was influenced by the aesthetic theories of painter Raoul Dufy, who stated that "one must be able to give up the painting one wanted to do for the painting that demands to be painted." Simon himself clarified once that he approaches writing with an emphasis on artistic composition of language. Accordig to Simon the artist do not have a special gift to see beyond or behind our everyday reality. While the influences of William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce have undoubtedly been great, Simon's works basically reflect his own personal visions. – "Everything is autobiographical, even the imaginary." His firiendship with the painter, sculptor, and writer Jean Dubuffet was recorded in Correspondance, 1970-1984 / Jean Dubuffet & Claude Simon (1994).

For further reading: Claude Simon: Fashioning the Past by Writing the Present by Alina Cherry (2016); Dictionnaire Claude Simon, edited by Michel Bertrand; preface by Dominique Viart (2013); Claude Simon: A Retrospective by Jean H. Duffy and Alistair Duncan (2002); Claude Simon by Mária Minich Brewer (1995); Claude Simon: Adventure in Words by Alastair Duncan (1994); Understanding Claude Simon by Ralph Sarkonak (1990); Claude Simon by Lucien Dällenback (1988); Claude Simon: Writing the Visible by Celia Britton (1987); Sur Claude Simon by Jean Starobinski (1987); Claude Simon by Alastair Duncan (1987); Orion Blinded, ed. by Randi Birn and Karen Gould (1981); Claude Simon's Mythic Muse by Karen L.Gould (1979); The Novels of Claude Simon by J.A.E. Loubére (1975) - Nouveau roman: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras, and Nathalie Sarraute. See also Henri Bergson's concept of time.

Selected bibliography:

  • Le Tricheur, 1945 [The Cheat]
  • La Corde raide, 1947 [The Tightrope]
  • Gulliver: roman, 1952
  • Le Sacre du printemps: roman, 1954 [The Rite of Spring]
  • Le Vent: tentative de restitution d'un rétable baroque, 1957
    - The Wind: Attempt Restoration of a Baroque Masterpiece (translated by Richard Howard, 1959)
    - Tuuli: yritys barokkityylisen alttaritaulun uudelleen koostamiseksi (suom. Jukka Mannerkorpi, 2007)
  • Le Cheval, 1958
  • L'Herbe: roman, 1958
    - The Grass (translated by Richard Howard, 1960)
    - Ruoho (suom. Jukka Mannerkorpi, 1986)
  • La Route des Flandres: roman, 1960
    - The Flanders Road (translated by Richard Howard, 1961)
    - Flanderin tie (suom. Olli-Matti Ronimus ja Pentti Holappa, 1963)
  • Le Palace, 1962
    - The Palace (translated by Richard Howard, 1963)
    - Loistohotelli (suom. Olli-Matti Ronimus, Pentti Holappa, 1965)
  • La Séparation, 1983 (play, from the novel L'Herbe)
  • Femmes, 1966 (notes for painting by Joan Miró)
  • Histoire, 1967
    - Histoire (translated by Richard Howard, 1968)
    - Historia (suom. Jukka Mannerkorpi, 1989)
  • La Bataille de Pharsale, 1969
    - The Battle of Pharsalus (translated by Richard Howard, 1971)
  • Orion aveugle, 1970
  • Les Corps conducteurs, 1971
    - Conducting Bodies (translated by Helen R. Lane, 1974)
  • Triptyque, 1973
    - The Triptych (translated by Helen R. Lane, 1976)
  • Leçon de choses: roman, 1975
    - The World about Us (translated by Daniel Weissbort, 1983)
  • Les Géorgiques, 1981
    - Georgics (translated by Beryl and John Fletcher, 1989)
    - Georgica (suom. Jukka Mannerkorpi, 1984)
  • La chevelure de Bérénice, 1983
  • Discours de Stockholm, 1986
  • L'Invitation, 1987
    - The Invitation (translated by Jim Cross, 1991)
  • L'Acacia, 1989
    - The Acacia (translated Richard Howard, 1990)
    - Akaasia (suom. Jukka Mannerkorpi, 1992)
  • Photographies, 1937-1970, 1992 (preface by Denis Roche)
  • Le Jardin des Plantes, 1997
    - The Jardin des Plantes (translated from the French and with an introduction by Jordan Stump, 2001)
  • Le Tramway, 2001
    - The Trolley (translated by Richard Howard, 2002)
  • Œuvres, 2006 (ed. by Alastair B. Duncan)
  • Quatre conférences, 2012 (ed. by Patrick Longuet)
  • Le Cheval, 2015 (Les éditions du Chemin de fer)

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