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Claude Simon: La Route des Flandres (The Flanders Road)
This is Simon’s best-known book. It is also one of a series of books about the same characters. Given that one of the main characters is killed in this book and it is about the disastrous French resistance to the German invasion in 1940, it does, however, stand alone. Many war books are about the chaos of war but, all too often, though the topic may be about the chaos, the style is anything but chaotic but, rather, written in standard linear fashion so that the reader does not really get a sense of the chaos of the war. Simon, in writing this book, decided on two things. Firstly, as he said, he wanted to give all the thoughts of one man in a single instant but written out over an entire book. Secondly, he intended to show the chaos of war not just with the subject matter but with the style. He has succeeded on both counts.
Georges and the I-narrator – they may or may not be the same person and may or may not be Simon himself – are clearly based on the events that Simon himself experienced when France was overrun by the Germans in 1940. As the war was chaotic, so the narration is also chaotic. It recounts, in a series of snapshots, mixed in with other thoughts and impressions that a man like Georges would have had, the events of the unit in May 1940, as well as the period both before and afterwards (when Simon/Georges was taken prisoner and spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp) and the period when he is trying to recollect these thoughts long afterwards, having told the story to Corinne, wife of his Captain, de Reixach (pronounced rye shack) as well to one of the soldiers in the unit.
Though we do get this haphazard picture, there are key events. The main one is the death of de Reixach, who is shot from behind a wall by a lowly German soldier. Did he deliberately seek death because Corinne was having an affair with Iglésia? And is the death of de Reixach a symbol of the end of the old-fashioned, aristocratic France? (Simon’s unit was one of the last horse-based cavalry units to be used in modern warfare and clearly was not even vaguely a match for modern German technology.) Because this is a nouveau roman, it is never exactly clear what the various motives are, if everyone is telling the truth or correctly remembering past events or what is happening when. Soldiers who fought in this war apparently praised Simon for accurately portraying what they saw and felt and there is no question that, along with Barbusse‘s Le Feu (Under Fire), it remains one of the best descriptions of the chaos of war.
First published in French 1960 by Editions de Minuit
First published in English 1961 by Braziller
Translated by Richard Howard