Presentation Speech by Professor Lars Gyllensten, of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Claude Simon began to be noticed in earnest at the end of the 1950s in connection with the great interest in the so-called “new novel” in France. The new writers were against the more conventional fiction and broke its rules that a novel should have a realistic story and move along in a lucid and coherent way in time. Their prose works had the appearance of linguistic montages or collages. They took place in the dimensions of memory and the apparently arbitrary or free association. Fragments from different times were closely joined on the basis of their content or emotional correspondences, but not on the basis of how they might have followed each other in the ordinary course of time. Influences from the visual arts were strongly in evidence. In a picture everything is contemporaneous. The flow of things that follow each other is brought about by the beholder’s co-creative feeling moving over what actually exists as a single coherent now.
Claude Simon had begun with several partly autobiographical novels from the middle of the 1940s. The narrative method was almost traditional, but influenced by Faulkner. The change in Simon’s author-character came with the novels Le Vent, 1957, and L’Herbe, 1958. He himself counts the latter as the turning point in his writing. Both stories take place in the South of France, where Simon himself has his roots and lives as a viticulturist. The principal character in Le Vent is a mysteriously complex man, at once confused and discerning, exposed to the inquisitive provocations of his fellow men. He returns to the small town in the South of France to take over a bequest, a farm – and is caught up in conflicts of various kinds. And over it all howls the keen mistral, the wind that fills the people with its everlasting, parching, dusty indefatigability – an inhuman element in which the people live as if, despite their activities and meddling, they are imprisoned in conditions which are more lasting and more powerful than themselves. In both these novels the author weaves a close and evocative web of words, of events and environments, with glidings and joins of elements according to a logic different from what the realistic continuity in time and space prescribes. Here we perceive how Claude Simon’s linguistic art takes shape, such as we shall recognize his prose in later works. The language begins to live its own life. Each word and description leads on to the next. The text grows as if the language were an independently living organism which buds, puts out tendrils and sows seeds of its own accord and as if the author were a tool or a medium for its own creative force.
So too has Claude Simon himself described his way of working especially after his experiences when writing the book Histoire, 1967 – nothing short of a rapturous awareness of the sensual life and charm in giving oneself up to linguistic work and its surprises and seductions. The book is one of the peaks in Simon’s writing, perhaps the work in which his linguistic peculiarity is most clearly evident.
It was preceded by two other novels, in which we can find some of the basic themes that constantly recur in Claude Simon’s novels La Route des Flandres, 1960, and Le Palace, 1962. The first of these two novels made Simon’s name international. It is a broad and complex description with strongly autobiographical touches and with memories and traditions from Simon’s family. The profusely flowing narration, its fragmentations and piling up of parallel actions and its discontinuous joining of scenes and of stories within stories burst the framework for narrative art in the traditional sense. The novel takes the shape of a penetrating description of the French collapse in 1940, when Simon himself took part as a cavalryman. Simon’s experiences during this war, like during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, have been of immense importance to him, constantly recurring in his writings. Cruelty and absurdity are the dominating things – unforeseeable. What is apparently well-planned ends in confusion and dissolution. Each one lives through his hardships and has to save himself as best he can. Simon’s experiences from the Spanish Civil War were similar, depicted in Le Palace and his latest and most important novel, Les Géorgiques, 1981. For all the sympathies which he and others might have for those faithful to the government who fought against the fascists, it soon turned out that these government champions for their part could not follow any regular and intelligently planned strategies and operations. On the contrary, the fighters were split into factions and mutual strife, obstructions and hazardous enterprises. Simon’s picture of the Spanish Civil War and of the intellectual idealists who wanted to find an ideologically clear reason in the fight against oppression, shapes itself into a version, at once grotesque and tragic, compassionate and ironic, of war’s reality and of man’s inability to guide his fate and correct his conditions. La Route des Flandres and Les Géorgiques are richly decorated compositions which, with sensuous perspicacity and linguistic invocation, conjure up an extremely complicated pattern of personal memories and family traditions, of experiences during modern war and of equivalents from bygone ages, to be exact the Napoleonic era. The parallels are the same. The violence and the absurdity are common to all, likewise the painful compassion and feeling that the author expresses in paradoxical contrast to the fascination that these phenomena obviously have for him. A similar feeling is characteristic of Simon’s descriptions of erotic relationships. In these contexts too there is a fixation with violence and violation. The sexual contacts appear as conquests, the taking in possession, mountings which resemble what stallions and mares do, or outrages resembling what occurs in battle. A tragic feeling of life emerges also here – a picture of human loneliness and of how people are exposed to destructive passions and selfish impulses, disguised as vain striving for fellowship and intimacy.
Against these descriptions are contrasting elements of another kind – of tenderness and loyalty, or devotion to work and duty, to heritage and traditions and solidarity with dead and living kinsmen. In particular there appears as a contrast of a consoling or edifying kind the devotion to such as grows and sprouts independent of man’s lust for power and overweening enterprise. There is a growth which lives by its own power, despite what men can do. The best people in Simon’s novels are those who subordinate themselves to this growth and serve it. We meet some old women, loyal to farm and family and traditions. We even meet in the brutal and at last disillusioned warrior a loyal love for his dead young wife. We meet a serving and a patient endurance which, without any self-important airs, is reflected within these people, which lives with them even if otherwise in their ostentatious deeds and ways they seem filled with egoism and brutality.
First and foremost we meet this growth, this vitality and this creativeness and this viability in language and memory, in the shaping, the renewal and the development of what is and was and what rises again inspired and alive through the pictures in words and story for which we seem to be more instruments than masters. Claude Simon’s narrative art may appear as a representation of something that lives within us whether we will or not, whether we understand it or not, whether we believe it or not – something hopeful, in spite of all cruelty and absurdity which for that matter seem to characterize our condition and which is so perceptively, penetratingly and abundantly reproduced in his novels.
Monsieur Claude Simon,
Pour caractériser vos romans, on devrait pouvoir faire œuvre à la fois de peintre et de poète. En ce peu de temps qui m’était imparti, j’ai été force de me contenter d’autre chose: un compte-rendu assez abstrait et sommaire. Si j’ai pourtant réussi à exprimer tant bien que mal la haute estime que vos œuvres peuvent susciter chez un lecteur, je me déclarerai satisfait.
Sur ces mots, je vous prie, au nom de l’Academie Suedoise, de bien vouloir accepter l’expression de notre admiration et de nos felicitations les plus cordiales.
Enfin je vous invite à recevoir de la main de Sa Majesté le Roi le Prix Nobel de littérature de cette année.
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