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Claude Simon: L’Acacia (The Acacia)

This novel is about war. In fact, it is about two wars, the two world wars. Much of it is autobiographical, with Simon himself being the key character in the World War II story and his father being the key character in the World War I story. The novel consists of 12 chapters, each with a date, either a specific date (i.e. day, month, year) or a more general date (i.e. year or range of years). We actually start off with 1919, i.e. after World War I. Three women and a young boy are travelling around ruined France, looking for something. Simon gives a wonderful picture of France just after World War I, a country in ruins, completely devastated with few facilities and transport networks destroyed. We soon learn that the group consists of a widow, her sisters-in-law and the widow’s son. They are looking for the grave of the widow’s late husband, killed in the war. The young boy is Simon himself, with his mother and his aunts, who actually did go looking for the grave of Simon’s father (this was confirmed by Simon in an interview with Marianne Alphant, a journalist for La Libération). They find the grave from a description they have been given. Simon’s father and another French officer are buried in a grave with German soldiers, as they were killed in a fight with the Germans but the French, in retreat, had no time to recover the bodies.

The next chapter jumps to 17 May 1940. The Germans invaded France on 10 May 1940 and, by 17 May, France was in chaos, with the Allied forces in full retreat. In this chapter we get a picture of a small cavalry troop, hungry (like their horses) and unsure what they are doing and where they are going. We then go back to August 1914 when a regiment is moved up to the front (it takes nearly two days) and huge amounts of soldiers (officers and men) are slaughtered (we are given the figures). In between we learn what happened prior to World War I, where the two aunts of the first chapter make sacrifices so that their brother, Simon’s father, can go to the military academy of Saint-Cyr. They learn of his marriage in a letter and they do not approve of his decision. The book continues in this way, jumping between the two eras and telling the story of Simon’s father, who, as we know, is killed during World War I and Simon himself who, as we know, survives.

The story is told in the third person and characters are rarely named, referred to either as he or she or by a title such as the colonel or the mother. At times, it is not clear who is being referred to or, indeed, where they are in the story. Of course, all this is meant to show the chaos of war where no-one is really sure what is going on. The fifth chapter, called 1880-1914, is calmer, as we follow the two sisters supporting their brother’s military career. We also learn of Simon’s mother, descendant of a famous French general, meeting his father for the first time and her admiration for him. But the novel is about war and that is what we see most of, not just Simon and his father but others as well, many victims. We meet the colonel (a real person according to Simon in an interview in Le Figaro for the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of France) who led his cavalry troop into an ambush and we see the general chaos of the events of those days, with no-one seeming to be in charge and all the army in headlong flight. Above all, Simon gives us a graphic and detailed description of what went on in the two wars, from the perspective of the individual soldier. It is not glory, honour and valour but incompetence and chaos. Simon tells his story extremely well, as we would expect from one of the best-known books of a Nobel Prize winner.

Publishing history

First published in French 1989 by Editions de Minuit
First published in English 1991 by Pantheon Books
Translated by Richard Howard