Association des Lecteurs de Claude Simon

Pugh, Anthony Cheal. « Claude Simon : Fiction and the Question of Autobiography » (1986)

Dernière modification le vendredi 10 janvier 2014



Je n’ai pas le projet d’écrire ma vie. Ceci dit, qu’est-ce que je peux écrire en dehors de ce que j’ai senti, subi, imaginé ? Même l’imaginaire est autobiographique. [1]

As well as being notoriously scornful of the claims made for the “realism” of narrative forms representing time in terms of a continuous chronological sequence (as opposed to descriptions of “fragments” of phenomenally apprehended experience), Claude Simon has a marked aversion for novels that rely upon the concept of the “character”. The mobilisation of “des types sociaux ou psychologiques” within the deterministic causal framework of a “plot” can only produce, he says, species of moral fables. [2] As a reader, Simon prefers works of a “biographical” kind, a broad category in which he includes Rousseau’s Confessions, Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Stendhal’s Vie de Henry Brulard and above all A la recherche du temps perdu. Real lives, when written - that is, transformed into texts rather than simply “narrated” - « présentent mille fois plus de complexité, de richesses et de subtilités fascinantes que les vies fictives mises en scène dans les soi-disant romans d’imagination ».  [3] Chateaubriand and Proust are, for Simon, « les plus somptueux prosateurs de la langue française »  [4] not only because their writings reveal the complexities and the contradictions of “experience”, when remembered and transformed by writing, but because the work on language - in language - also reveals the part played in biography and autobiography by the formal requirements of narrative and rhetoric common to all the narrative arts.
Simon’s observations on (auto)biography are the fruit not only of many years of reading, but above all of his own experience as a novelist increasingly ready, in recent times, to allow that the majority of his novels are themselves « practically autobiographical ». [5] It is therefore increasingly urgent to examine, within the terms of the renewed critical and theoretical debate over the relationship between autobiography and other narrative forms, the apparently conflicting claims of a concept of writing based upon the notion of fictional “production”, to which Simon still adheres, and one that remains in contact with ’experience’ and its historical contexts. [6] It is not, however, a question of simply filling in, around a corpus of fictional writings, a framework of facts, references, or anecdotes, for as several recent studies show, Simon’s novels raise a series of problems concerning the status of the very discourses - of “history”, of “science”, of “theory” - that we appeal to in order to make the distinctions that separate “fact” from “fiction”. [7] What is more, while much critical attention has been given to the theoretical and aesthetic implications of this aspect of Simon’s work, it has been difficult, through lack of biographical evidence or more detailed autobiographical statements, to put the texts and their “contexts” together and assess how the autobiographical dimension might affect our reading of what remain, nevertheless, “novels”.
In the first part of this article I shall consequently look at some of the ways in which Simon’s early novels confront the key issue of the narrative representation of time, since the opposition between “fiction” and “autobiography”, if it supposes distinctions between fictional facts and true ones, clearly depends upon a prior distinction between fiction and history which is itself dependent upon the assumption that we can distinguish between representations of “real” and “unreal” (or invented) temporalities. Making use of autobiographical material generously provided by Claude Simon, I shall then examine a passage from Leçon de choses that appears to me to highlight these problems in a particularly acute way. Finally, I shall indicate why, in the light of what these comparisons between fictionalized autobiography and direct autobiographical statements reveal, we should examine carefully the assumptions concerning the representation of temporality conveyed by the proposition that it is « natural [...] to think of the self in narrative mode » [8]
Already, in Le Tricheur, Gulliver, Le Sacre du printemps or Le Vent narrative and “thought” about the self are shown to combine in a far from “natural” way ; indeed what some critics have referred to as Simon’s “obsession” with passing time, change and death in these novels is demonstrably linked to a persistent doubt concerning the possibility of representing time at all, let alone understanding its role in the constitution of a “self”. I shall indicate latter on how this might key in with the specific problematics of autobiography as a genre, but for the moment it is enough to note that the overburdened plots of the early novels, with their loose ends, and the gloomy metaphysical commentary which gave Simon the reputation of a pessimist also constitute an analytical and exploratory “working through” of narrative structures that is far from being merely negative or self-indulgent, for without this sustained critique of the kinds of narrative that depend upon rational and chronological structures, the deeper level of autobiographical writing we are concerned with here could not have emerged.
In Le Tricheur the hero’s recollections of visits to war cemeteries with his widowed mother, as she searches for the lost father’s tomb, introduce this central problem of autobiography, the nature of personal identity, in terms of a lack, or a dialectic of absence and presence revealing the impossible tension between the reality of memory and the unreality of what is remembered. Simon has stated that these scenes correspond to his own first memories, [9] and I would argue that it is this, more than anything else - for example the purely technical problems of organizing a novel involving many different “points of view” - which creates a climate of doubt and uncertainty with regard to the representation of time in the narrative. The dialogue with history that characterizes all Simon’s novels could also be said to start here, for the writing already involves a problem of origins in which neither the self nor the text can claim anteriority with respect to the other : if the “self” cannot identify itself without telling the story that it does not or cannot know (according to the Oedipal paradigm), then the absence of the genitor, and the impossibility of locating his grave, create a situation in which there can be no rational basis for history other than one where the subject is doubly “lost”, a nameless pawn in a game played out according to rules necessarily unfathomable to him. The fatalism of the protagonists in the early novels could well be traced to this same dilemma, for they are, quite literally, rebels without a cause, or origin, just as the narrators are voices without an identity. In the context of the ideology of authorship that is implicit in the very concept of “autobiography” we are bound to want to relate the conflict between first and third person narratives in novels like La Route des Flandres and Histoire to some such founding uncertainty. [10]
In the early novels, time is almost always a dimension represented in terms of characters’ subjective perceptions : there is little in the way of external or “historical” points of reference to protect Louis (Le Tricheur) or Max (Gulliver)) from a past that threatens to drag them down with it, just as the narrators of L’Herbe or Histoire succumb to the fascinating appeal of multiple, circular and discontinuous temporalities. Linear chronology is merely arbitrary, like the list of dates in tante Marie’s notebooks in L’Herbe. From the beginning – that is from the beginning of the Simonian corpus - time is serial rather than linear, and perspectives collapsible : the mise en abyme emblematizes a permanently dual focus of “now” and “then”, and is not just the stylistic tic of a “New Novelist”. Memories cannot be “fixed” (like photographs), for they are part of a constant process of revision involving the rewriting of the past and producing curious effects involving the re-animation in later novels of fragments of earlier ones extending as far back as Le Tricheur. [11] What I have called “textual memory” [12] in Simon’s writing is therefore the scriptural correlative of “real” memory (by definition unrepresentable) or the texture of autobiographical “experience” itself, if we understand the term “autobiography” as a practice of writing that alters its subject, and “experience” as a process which “tests” (essays and evaluates) the subject against models, copies, rivals and other imitations or doubles. The “real” self, the “original” experience, cannot be recovered : both are produced by writing. “Then” and “now”, model and imitation, are in constant osmosis ; what the writing produces is a continually revised essay in alter-biography in which the ideal of self-knowledge is permanently deferred.
Looked at in this way, the autobiographical act is essentially linked to a process of desire, but is blind to the true nature of that desire. What is desired, classically, is the desire of the Other, but this cannot be represented : like any representation, it will only call up its negative, the absence of what is represented. Simon’s only work specifically labelled as autobiographical, the “souvenirs” entitled La Corde raide, defines the writer’s quest in terms of a revelation of the true nature of desire : « ce que je ne savais pas que j’attendais. Ce que je désirais réellement au lieu de ce que je croyais désirer » (CR 182). The whole text, however, is haunted by a sense of the negativity of fictions, a theme that centres on a vehement denunciation of “truquage” in art in general.
The “self” that writes of itself in La Corde raide, aware of the contradictions at the heart of the assertive style adopted in the text, dissolves finally among the objects of its perception, objects it knows can only be rendered in terms of their otherness, their difference and their radical absence : « "Je est d’autres". D’autres choses, d’autres odeurs, d’autres sons, d’autres personnes, d’autres lieux, d’autres temps » (CR 174). Continuity and logic, the mainstays of realist fictions, are the antithesis of true autobiography, if autobiography is defined as a cognitive process leading to the discovery of what the subject really knows and really does not know :

Comment peut-on être toujours conséquent pendant six cent vingt-trois pages. Voilà ce que je me demande, moi qui ne suis jamais le même pendant dix minutes à la file, moi qui ne suis pas le même pendant la durée d’un millième de seconde, puisque je ne suis pas moi. (CR 175)

A psychological and ontological question becomes, as a result of a reflection upon the relationship between “experience” and its description or narration, part of a more general problem of writing (in Derrida’s sense [13]), for the writing subject cannot hope to keep up in what will become a “course de vitesse” (CR 177) : the “difference” between what is felt, intuited or otherwise subjectively “experienced” and what can be expressed (written) cannot be stated or measured without opening further the gap between what is always already over, and what can only be de-scribed by being first in-scribed or made into signs, and then read, which is to say re-written. Both writing, and writing about (explaining) what is meant by écriture, involve “playing with words”, as the narrator-subject of La corde raide tries to explain to his mystified rationalistic interlocutor (CR 182).

An approach to fiction that involves any degree of reflection (conscious or practical) on the interpenetration of the real and unreal worlds within both “fiction” and “reality” will tend to make this problem a part of its thematics or restate it in symbolic, allegorical or rhetorical ways. And if the correction, or rereading, of one side of this equation through the other is part of a more personal investigation of a tacitly autobiographical kind, then this process will be reflected in the ways all the components of the fiction relate to each other. In Simon’s early novels, for example, the structures of family relationships appear symbolically (unconsciously) to state the impossibility of knowing the identity of the subject without the intervention of desiring rivals or mediators : mothers, brothers, sisters, step-fathers, lovers and observers all conspire to block the access of the subject (the narrated subject) to knowledge of desire, while the running commentary of the ironic narrating voice echoes an authorial subversion of fiction achieved by the invention of viciously circular plots (Le Tricheur, Gulliver, Le Sacre du printemps, Le Vent). Such negativity is however transformed into its contrary, and endowed with positive aesthetic value when perceived (read) within the occulted metaphysics of modernist writing, where a critique of existing literary models and a search for new forms makes the subject’s difficulty in “relating” (to) a world now perceived as the battleground of competing fictions (familial, cultural, mythical, political, religious, critical and theoretical) the raison d’être of the novel itself. The genre is attractively “lawless” (Gide), and appears to be the only literary practice capable of denouncing the anonymous discourse of histories and biographies, as well as the voice or the voices of the subjects lost in them. Irony is built in to this situation from the outset, however, since every narrative instance, however unusual or anarchic (mystified adolescents, criminals, idiots), presupposes prior access to the very knowledge whose availibility has been challenged. The problems supposedly specific to “autobiography” (whose discourse has been described as inherently « propaedeutic in structure » and « prone to a concern with method as well as a "stuttering", fragmented narrative appearance » [14] are seen to be repeated within “fiction”.
It was not for “technical” reasons alone, therefore, that Claude Simon abandoned plots and ironic commentary at the expense of his fictional characters in the novels following Le Vent, for in so far as the early texts represent a “working through” of available models, the stages in this evolution can be seen to follow that of the novel genre itself - if we accept, that is, the framework suggested by Paul de Man in his essay « The Rhetoric of Temporality ». [15]
According to de Man, irony (which Lukács had pointed to as the characteristic rhetorical mode of the novel) voices an impossible form of historical knowledge, and if it is so prominent in the period during which historical narrative reaches its apogee - the nineteenth century - it is because it undoes or subverts what history constructs, that is, a rational temporality. If, therefore, irony is a « problem that exists within the self » [16], as de Man suggests, it is because it consists of a strategy of denial, or a way of keeping at a safe distance a series of increasingly acute contradictions which emerge when the rationality and the “scientific” basis of history as writing are exposed as de-scribable (or capable of being unwritten by a process of reading that starts by questioning the very presuppositions on which readability and understanding are based). Far from representing a “superior” or transcendent mode of understanding (Hegel), irony is just another rhetorical trick (Nietzsche). The subject (whether of fiction, history or philosophy) seeks refuge from this knowledge, but by adopting irony as a defense, only gets more deeply entangled, and as a consequence, irony itself « becomes increasingly conscious of itself in the course of demonstrating the impossibility of our being historical ». [17] The ironist (de Man mentions Kierkegaard, Baudelaire and Mallarmé among others) contrives to maintain his distance from the spectacle of human folly, but finds that « ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that only exists in the form of a language that asserts knowedge of this inauthenticity ».  [18] Modern fictions, typically, illustrate the inevitable outcome : « before long the entire texture of the self is unravelled and comes apart. » [19]
We have seen how, in La Corde raide, Claude Simon’s reflections upon his own writing already demonstrated the consequences of this “unravelling” of the “texture of the self”, and how the simulacre of temporal and ontological continuity created by narratives was ironically debunked, and it is consequently possible, now, to appreciate better how this aggressive text, at this point in time Simon’s only published “autobiographical” work, anticipates descriptions of autobiography, by literary theorists, as not simply a genre inhabited by « unsurmountable contradictions », [20] but as an inherently “suicidal” discursive mode. [21]
If this is the case, there is a self-destructive, or self-deconstructive element in any text, for according to Paul de Man, this time in a challenging article entitled « Autobiography as de-facement », autobiography is neither « a genre nor a mode, but a figure of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts ». [22] What de Man calls « the autobiographical moment » occurs as « an alignment between the two subjects involved in the process of reading in which they determine each other by mutual reflexive substitution ». [23] The “ two subjects” are “aligned”, we are told, in a “specular moment” that cannot be specific to autobiography, for it reveals, in de Man’s words, « the tropological structure that underlies all cognitions ». [24] Any act of reading, according to this argument, presupposes the readability of what is read ; what is read is therefore always accompanied by another reading that must have already taken place. De Man’s “specular moment” consequently cannot align two empirical subjects (what he says is ambiguous at this point) but involves a reading subject and a spectral other who must somehow be located in language itself. The argument thus suggests that just as the “self” is “unravelled” when it attempts to take up an historical (ironic, or distanced) stance with regard to itself, so the reading self is lost in the “specular moment” that derives not from the confrontation of two empirical readers, but from the self-reflexive structures of language and the abyssal perspectives of narrative time, an impossible domain totally deprived of referential security. Autobiography, viewed in this light, would therefore appear to be a special case only in so far as both the writing self and the reading self are even more liable to “capture” by the “specular moment”, as a result, quite simply, of the identification effects associated with the first person discursive mode ; it may even constitute, as Rodolphe Gasché has suggested, « a paradigm for writing as such ». [25]
If we accept de Man’s argument, however, it is difficult to see how anything could be transmitted by an autobiographical text : the deconstruction of both writer and reader rules out any form of understanding beyond the “figuring out” of a game in which the mind is always already outwitted by language. This is why David Carroll is surely correct when he denounces exclusively formalistic readings of Simon’s La Bataille de Pharsale, suggesting that « when the only experience engendering a text is the experience of the text itself, both experience and the text have been seriously reduced ». [26] On the other hand, I would argue that it is precisely because « Simon still interfered too much with the workings of fiction itself », and because the text was « engendered not simply from within itself but from various “outsides” - from a complex intertextual network (Simon’s other fictions, his "life" etc.) » [27] - that this novel, rather than illustrating « a confusion of motives on the part of the author », [28] reveals (as all the others do, to a greater or lesser extent) a confusion of critical readings characterised by the undervaluation of the important role of the author’s « "life" etc. » in his published work. The crucial conflicts in Simon’s writing are not between theory and fiction, but between the means offered by narrative forms (including those of theory) for describing an awareness of the historicity of the self in relation to the world, the text and the Other.
It would be unwise, nevertheless, to dismiss de Man’s analysis of the problems of autobiography as a genre too hastily, for as we remarked earlier, the interweaving of the autobiographical subtext with fictional matter in Simon’s novels, and the writer’s continued attachment to the notion of textual productivity, tend in fact to support the most paradoxical implication of Paul de Man’s whole approach, namely that both the writer and the reader of an “autobiographical” text are caught in a game of mirrors determined not so much by psychological projection as by the « turning motion of tropes ».  [29] « Are we so certain », he asks, « that autobiography depends upon reference, as a photograph depends upon its subject or a (realist) picture on its model ? We assume that life produces autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself determine the life ...? » [30]
As can be seen from the epigraph to this article, Simon denies ever having entertained such a “project”, but de Man’s thesis is not quite as perverse as it appears, for it is clear that what I describe as “textual memory” in Simon’s novels, since it is not a real human memory (a material, mortal, and notoriously fallible thing), but a configuration of textual traces, could well be examined in terms of a reversal of the kind of causality which (or so we habitually assume) relates, for example, an historical event to the narrative that makes it a part of “history”. If historical “events” are in fact created by narratives, as the New Historians claim,  [31] in accordance with a similar reversal of commonsense perspectives, then a “life” too is what the autobiographical act “produces” : what the philosopher quoted earlier saw as a “natural” narrative mode turns out to be no more “natural” than any other form of writing, and what he describes as our « clearly correct conceptual insights about human actions », [32] if dependent upon this “naturalness”, appear far less firmly founded than he assumes.
Clearly, neither the extreme formalist position (Ricardou) nor Paul de Man’s version of deconstructive approaches nor the commonsense view are acceptable : if narrative is “natural” what we really mean is that it is part and parcel of the symbolic order of our culture, and that it repeats, as an extended discursive form, the same denials and the same contradictions that are manifest (or latent) in any and all attempts to represent, narrate or describe human experience by means of linguistic signs. We can agree, perhaps, that there will always be « a degree of referential productivity »  [33] in autobiographical discourse, deriving both from« the structure of the figure » (de Man) and the internal dynamics of language (Claude Simon), but even when the autobiographical project might appear to “determine the life” (could not this be said to apply, to some extent, to Proust ?) the crucial difference is that autobiographical writing, like historical narratives, continues to refer to something that has happened. The process of “reference” to real events (historical and/or autobiographical) is however both a referral back to an “event”, and a “course de vitesse” in which writing tries to defer the paralysing knowledge that it has itself created what is thought to have happened “ before”. “Intuitive” knowledge concerning reference (to history, to others and to the self) is contra-dicted by what happens as the text is written/writes itself. Only “contexts” save true stories from madness.
A novel such as Simon’s Histoire grew from descriptions of non-fictional referents (the post-cards), and thus retains, through a series of relays, a contact with public and private history, but while it is certain that the text is inhabited through and through by autobiographical echoes, these are impossible to verify (I am reliably informed that Simon bought some of the post-cards from bouquinistes). In any case, “referential productivity” ensures that this historical and personal dimension is distanced : each “reference” (such as a message on a post-card, from the narrator’s father to his mother) is narrativized, transformed, and detached from its original context. Despite this, something prevents the process of fictional “generation” from taking over completely, for even if fiction is “produced” by the writing, what is produced also acts as a trigger that leads back into the world of “textual memory” (a long section in Histoire returns to the scenes of Le Palace). To the extent that this “textual memory” has itself been produced by a “life” (or “experience”) common sense would indicate that it can be related back to autobiographical incidents. But what, once again, does this mean, to “relate back” ? How can the past of the autobiographical subject be represented in the present, if that past is in fact a present in which the subject is never present to himself as subject of his own discourse ? A “self-conscious” practice of writing that is conscious of itself as text, and which is also concerned with representing a “self,” even indirectly, is bound to be fascinated by abyssal structures.
There are no guarantees proposed, in Simon’s novels, as to the authenticity of the recurring scenes we are likely to identify as “autobiographical”, such as the ones involving the death of the narrator’s mother, a suicide, and a dismounted cavalryman running for his life in a railway cutting. On the other hand, it would be absurd to ignore completely the writer’s statements concerning the autobiographical origins of his work. I will therefore use an example of the recurrent scene depicting the soldier in the cutting, taken from Leçon de choses, to show how we might be able to make use of de Man’s arguments, but without necessarily abolishing the historical and biographical, but endlessly deferred subject of his own writing : Claude Simon.
The passage in question occurs in the second of the two virtuoso dialogue pieces entitled « Divertissement » I and II, where the two masons exchange reminiscences arising out of a television series apparently about the Second World War. The older man objects that the war has been reduced, in these programmes, to « quinze épisodes avec orchestre et cuivres » : for him, a single day was enough - and there was nobody around to film it. He remembers being hit in the face, possibly by the guard of his own sabre :

tout ce que je me souviens c’est que je sais pas si c’était une pédale ou le pommeau ou la coquille du sabre mais j’ai morflé un de ces gnons en pleine poire que je te dis que ça chandelles romaines et tourniquets feux d’artifesse en tous genres (LC 119-120)

No mimetic techniques can recreate the dilation and compression of time that occurs when consciousness bursts into flashing lights and spinning images, but there remains one perceptible trace of the incident : the mason still bears a scar on his lip. The younger man, with no war-time tales to tell, tries to match the anecdotes of the older man by recounting his experiences in a circus, horses and rear ends, “produced” by the artifice/artifesse pun, being the common - and the lowest - denominator in the exchanges. The older of the two men continues retailing a jumbled series of war reminiscences, whose continuity is almost exclusively assured by word-play, as when he tries to remember the name of his commanding officer :

Sans offense je dis cirque c’est une expression alors tout ce cirque ils appelaient ça une affaire mince chaude affaire chaude-pisse oui Et ce pauvre Saint-Euverte ? qu’il leur demande parce qu’il faut dire que ces types-là ils ont tous des noms qui se dévissent trois fois [...] tu croirais lire le calendrier, ou la carte des vins dans un restaurant Saint Emilion Saint Estève Sainte Rose Saint Romain Saint Rémy Saint Michel Saint Eustache lui le kador comment c’était déjà son blaze [...] je sais plus mais l’autre ça faisait plutôt choucroute quelque chose comme Brissach ou Ritmeister Reichenbach ça y est ça me revient Reixach j’y suis baron de mes deux pas étonnant qu’avec des officiers chleus pour nous commander ça ait tourné à l’abattoir (LC 123)

Through the screen of onomastic games with literary references, brand names and the (in fact Catalan, not German) name of the commanding officer portrayed in La Route des Flandres (modelled on a certain Colonel de Rey) enough traces remain of Claude Simon’s memories of a week in May 1940 in the countryside between the Meuse and the Franco-Belgian frontier, to identify this passage as one of many which embody transformed autobiographical fragments. [34]

The traces of the past have however been reduced to scattered particles of names and words : no illusion of a full “autobiographical referent” (which can itself only ever be memories, themselves probably unstable, discontinuous, and subject to both omissions and distortions) is permitted to take over. The split between past and present, sign and referent, autobiographical self and fictional character is inscribed, literally and metaphorically, as « une coupure » (p. 124). In the incident described, the mason and ex-cavalryman has been forced to slide, still mounted, down an almost vertical railway embankment in order to escape enemy fire. The « coupure » that saves him - the railway cutting - is re-figured as a cut on his lip, and these « fissures » in turn produce the fesses of the horses.
If we now go back to the interruption of consciousness signalled by the blow to the mason’s head from the guard of his sabre, we can better appreciate how the text acts out the loss of the “real” incident (which Simon has described in detail in a letter to me complete with sketch maps and Stendhalesque diagrams). What we have instead of a “referent” is verbal play subverting the illusion of representation produced by the mason’s récit. The temporal void, or abyss, that narrative conceals is re-figured as cuts and gaps of all kinds. Writing is both a matter of life and death, and a farcical game : art, artifice, and artifesse. Just in case we had not noticed all this, the polysemous, intertextual and corporeal dimensions of the “cutting” are brought together as the mason recollects how his squadron fled towards the safety it offered :

Une coupure que je dis I se retourne l’air de quoi [...] Coupure dans le cul que je me suis retenu de lui dire l’a pris une valda dans les miches votre Saint-Euverte du coup c’était Sainte-Ouverte ah ah je peux vous le raconter moi rapport à ce que j’étais juste derrière lui quand i se cavalait comme nous bille en tête direction la coupure je veux dire la tranchée de chemin de fer (LC 124)

The whole “entertainment” has risen up out of this “cutting”, upon which the writing has superimposed the motifs of a cut lip, a cut rein, and ’fissures’ of all kinds. The memory of the vertiginous slide into the « tranchée de chemin de fer » comes to close the circular narrative, or the circus performance the text has enacted, and the younger mason adds, in a coda, the missing musical touch that leads back to the starting point (the documentary about the war in fifteen episodes complete with orchestral accompaniment) :

j’avais assez à m’occuper de ma pomme la tête rentrée dans les épaules [...] rapport à ces merdes de bastos qui nous rasaient les oreilles c’est comme ça que tout à coup à la place des sabots j’ai plus rien vu que ces putains de rails au fin fond du fond quarante mètres plus bas tout ce que tu te rends compte dans un cirque de ce genre Sans offense hein ? Moi j’étais dans la musique répète le jeune maçon une fois seulement j’ai remplacé un clown ( LC 124)

This sequence, just one of many examples of the rewriting of autobiographical fragments in the novel (which has tended to be read largely as an exercise in “self-referential” writing), is also a rewriting of a scene that appeared as early as La Corde raide (1947), and which has continued to haunt the novels ever since.

The “referent” it calls up for the writer was effectively his baptism of fire, the incident in question having taken place several miles beyond the east bank of the Meuse, when Simon’s squadron was ordered to hold an indefensible position near the railway line south of Namur, despite the fact that their flank had already been turned. Until now, no direct testimony from Claude Simon has been available, but his description of the incident, and the sketch map, do not miraculously sweep away the problems dealt with here, nor the paradoxes revealed by the fictional texts when they return to these “referents”, for while the figures in the text do not determine what they refer to as completely as de Man suggested in the article quoted earlier, it is nevertheless evident that they do “produce” an extraordinary profusion of new verbal matter. To this extent, the logic of cause (a life) and effect (a text) are indeed reversed, but the circularity of the whole sequence makes this reversal itself reversible, since the referent produced by the text, when reread throught the contextual frame of another narrative that gives it a “ground” (in the form of spatio-temporal coordinates that can be verified on maps, in history books, in other testimony and in the locations themselves) tends to assume, once again, its apparently “natural” anteriority. The effect is not however conclusive, for it cannot be proved that the contextual matter is not itself already partly or even wholly fictionalised : we are left, as always, with the conditions of belief upon which depend the generic distinctions that allow us to differentiate the idea of a “life” from the idea of “fiction”. This cuts both ways, moreover, for just as we seek out the security of “references” in order to save the autobiographical sub-text of Simon’s novels from the premises of his own fictional metaphysics, so, as the writer of his own alter-biography, he seeks via his readership some confirmation that what he has fictionalized remains in some sense “real”. Louis A. Renza accounts for this aspect of the problem by stating that « In autobiographical writing the intuited "reader" is phenomenologically absent from the signified reference - the writer himself thus cannot immediately apprehend the verifiability of his own references. » [35]
The writer’s dilemma is explicitly stated in Simon’s most recent novel, Les Géorgiques, where another autobiographical incident, narrated in the third person, is interrupted in an unexpectedly direct way :

Ils comprennent alors qu’ils sont tombés dans une embuscade et qu’ils vont presque tous mourir. Aussitôt après avoir écrit cette phrase il se rend compte qu’elle est à peu près incompréhensible pour qui ne s’est pas trouvé dans une situation semblable et il relève sa main. (Les G 47)

In order to see all that is involved here we have to distinguish between the empirical writer of an autobiography, the writing subject and the written subject, for the text of Les Géorgiques, by avoiding first person narration, makes it possible to perceive this triplicated “person” in a variety of guises : a cavalryman, a writer writing about that cavalryman in the third person, and later on a writer criticising another writer’s narrative of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. The “empirical writer” remains absent from the scenes involving his own past because, as Renza puts it, « the autobiographer’s intentional act aggravates the duality inherent in personal memory-acts », [36] whereas in rewriting the account « O » has given of his memories the empirical writer assumes a hierarchically superior position, or a ’presence’ denied to the subject of his discourse (« O »). We see in the quotation above, however, that such “presence” is illusory, the product of a double frame that strives to conceal the discontinuity of all self-narration : the break in the narrative highlights the ontological gap and what Renza calls the « split intentionality »  [37] in autobiographical discourse. Distanced by the third person narration, the visibly double but implicitly triple “voices” of autobiography are revealed. The criticisms of « O », which undoubtedly represent the views of the empirical author, cannot be authoritative, [38] for they can also rebound upon the represented writer rewriting his own story, impersonating his past selves, and revising his text in the present of its writing. None of these “persons” can be present in the text. Any autobiographical “message” at this point in the novel is sabotaged by the deconstruction of autobiographical discourse that has taken place as a result of the contradictory representation of both the writing subject and the written subject as third persons. The text itself confounds its author’s “intentions”.  [39]

In the passage quoted a moment ago it is also clear that Simon is well aware that « the text the reader reads is at odds with the text the autobiographer writes ».  [40] There is more to the intervention than a mere “avertissement de l’auteur”, however, for the incident described, in which the leading riders of the squadron, ambushed as they go down a narrow country lane, fall back under fire and collide with those following them, is a retelling of what Simon recalls as the moment when he felt nearer to death than at any other moment in the battle. In his account of the movements of the squadron Simon initially left out details of this ambush, a lapse of memory apparently repeating the syncope or momentary loss of consciousness that occurred as he fell from his horse. We observe in the text a curious effect of carambolage as the reader too is “thrown” by the interruption of the narrative : across the existential divide separating writer and reader something seems to “connect”. What happens is a reversal of the illusion of truth produced by more conventional novels based upon autobiographical incidents, for Simon’s writing depends upon a negated and sometimes even derided code of vraisemblance : radical scepticism makes conditions of disbelief into the new norm. The represented writer’s doubts and hesitation are instrumental in convincing the reader of the authenticity of the narrative.
The incident described in Les Géorgiques has a particularly interesting literary (and historical) precedent, to be found in Book II, chapter VI of Montaigne’s Essais, where the writer describes how he familiarised himself with the idea of his own death as a result of an incident in which, after being knocked from his horse, he was taken for dead by his companions. Louis Marin’s analysis of the passage draws attention to the way Montaigne’s narrative points to a gap at the place of enunciation, and identifies this gap as the hiatus filled by narratives as they “trap” the understanding into the denial upon which they depend : the denial of the impossibility of representing the past in the present. [41] In a longer essay on memory and autobiography Marin sums up in the following way : « Le récit autobiographique ne pourra s’effectuer qu’à la faveur d’une machination d’écriture qui manipulera le temps passé de l’histoire par celui présent de la narration et produira le sujet de l’énoncé narratif comme le simulacre du dispositif d’énonciation. » [42] There is thus a denial of temporality within discourse itself, a denial that Marin, in a searching article on the philosophical implications of Benveniste’s distinction between the sujet de l’énonciation and the sujet de l’énoncé, declares to be the very precondition of metaphysical thought. [43] The writer in Les Géorgiques comes as close as he can to representing himself writing without entering into the endless “tourniquet” of self-representational writing, [44] but by textualising the “coupure” - the hiatus between the enunciating and the enunciated subject - and by turning the “syncope” into a structure implicating the reader, the text transmits the knowledge that narrative denies : that death is inscribed in that gap. Any text that represents the past faces the temporal paradox, and in the absence of external verifications or the tacit guarantees of “history”, can only rest its truth claims upon the less referentially secure, but more morally binding value of fidelity. The re-examination of the place of autobiography in Simon’s novels starts therefore with the writer’s retrospective claim regarding La Route des Flandres : « on peut considérer ce récit comme une relation des faits aussi fidèle que possible » (Les G, 52), a claim automatically relativized by the nature of autobiographical discourse itself, quite apart from the fact that the narrator’s critique of « O » demonstrates clearly how “fact” is turned into “fiction”. Have “facts” produced the narratives of La Route des Flandres and Les Géorgiques, or is it the other way round ? Does it have to be a case of either/or ? Claude Simon’s novels are very much more than experiments with language for its/their own sake, for they face the reader with problems and paradoxes that are at the core of the whole literary edifice. [45]

Durham, 1985.


[1] « Entretien avec J. Van Apeldoorn et Charles Grivel. Claude Simon », Écriture de la religion, Écriture du roman, Mélanges d’histoire de la littérature et de critique offerts à Joseph Tans (Groningen : Centre Culturel Français de Groningue & Lille : Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1979) p. 106. References to works by Claude Simon quoted above are as follows : CR : La Corde raide (Paris : Editions du Sagittaire, 1947) LC : Leçon de choses (Paris : Editions de Minuit, 1975) Les G : Les Géorgiques (Paris : Editions de Minuit, 1981)

[2] See A. Cheal Pugh, « Interview with Claude Simon : Autobiography, the novel, politics », The Review of Contemporary Fiction, V, 1 (Spring 1985), p. 4.

[3] Ibid. (Quotation from original text of interview before translation).

[4] Ibid. p.5.

[5] See Alastair B. Duncan, « Interview with Claude Simon », in Claude Simon, New Directions, Ed. A. B. Duncan, (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press, 1985), p. 12. (The original text of the interview gives « Tous mes romans depuis L’Herbe sont pratiquement autobiographiques. » Dr. Duncan’s translation reads : « From L’Herbe on, all my novels verge on the autobiographical ». An alternative translation might be : « … all my novels are for all intents and purposes autobiographical ».

[6] See my article, in Cross-References, Ed. D. Kelly & I. Llasera, Society for French Studies, 1986, « Describing Disaster : History, Fiction, Text and Context », in which the relationship between La Route des Flandres and its historical and theoretical contexts are examined.

[7] See Paul Veyne, Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes ? (Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1983) for a discussion of this issue. Veyne remains broadly within the pyrrhonist tradition, and is much indebted to both Nietzsche and Foucault. For a more rigorously argued approach, see Suzanne Gearhart, The Open Bounday of History and Fiction (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1985).

[8] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame : Notre Dame University Press, 1981), p. 192.

[9] In the interviews already quoted in notes 2 and 5.

[10] See Michel Foucault, « What is an author ? », in Textual Strategies, ed. V.J. Harari (London : Methuen, 1980), p. 151.

[11] See my article, « Du Tricheur à Triptyque, et inversement », Etudes Littéraires Université Laval), IX, 1, avril 1976, pp. 137-160.

[12] See my monograph on Simon’s Histoire (London : Grant and Cutler, 1982), pp. 25-27.

[13] J. Derrida, L’Ecriture et la différence (Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1967).

[14] Louis A Renza, « The Veto of the Imagination : A Theory of Autobiography », in Autobiography, Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. J. Olney (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 279. )

[15] In Interpretation : Theory and Practice, ed. C.S. Singleton (Baltimore : The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 173-209.

[16] Ibid., p. 194.

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid., p. 197.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rodolphe Gasché, in his introduction to « Autobiography and the Problem of the Subject », Modern Language Notes, XCIII (1978), p. 574.

[21] Renza, p. 278.

[22] Paul de Man, « Autobiography as De-facement », Modern Language Notes, XCIII, p. 921.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 922.

[25] Gasché, p. 574.

[26] David Carroll, The Subject in Question, (Chicago : Chicago University Press, 1982), p. 178.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] De Man, p. 922.

[30] Ibid., p. 920.

[31] See, for example, Paul Veyne, Comment on écrit l’histoire (Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1971), pp. 13-20.

[32] MacIntyre, pp. 191-192.

[33] De Man, pp. 920-921.

[34] See my article, « Supplementary History : Before, and after La Route des Flandres », in The Second World War in Literature, ed. I. Higgins (Edinburgh : Scottish Academic Press, 1986). The article reproduces Claude Simon’s own day by day account of the actions in which he was involved. This account was written at my request, and contains geographical and historical references resulting from my research in Belgium, along the routes taken by Claude Simon’s regiment before and after the battle. The photographs of the place where the ambush took place that I sent Simon provoked a response that is reproduced in my later article « Claude Simon et la route de la référence », in La Revue des Sciences Humaines, Tome LXXXXIV – No. 220, octobre-décembre 1990, pp. 23-45.

[35] Renza., p. 293

[36] Ibid., p. 275.

[37] Ibid., p. 279.

[38] See C. Britton, « Diversity of Discourse in Claude Simon’s Les Géorgiques », French Studies, XXXVIII (1984) pp. 423-442, in which Dr. Britton regards autobiographical intrusions as implying that the narrator assumes « superior knowledge » (p. 439) with respect to « O » (Orwell). For this reason, Les Géorgiques is compared unfavourably with the earlier Histoire, which is said to be « in some sense the textual correlate of perfect, non-polemical knowledge » (p. 441)

[39] See Simon’s explanations regarding his retrospective (retrodictive ?) argument with Orwell in the interview mentioned in note 2.

[40] Renza, p. 292.

[41] Louis Marin, « Montaigne’s Tomb, or Autobiographical discourse », The Oxford Literary Review, IV, 3 (1981) pp 43-58. See also the same author’s Le Récit est un piège, (Paris : Editions de Minuit, 1978).

[42] La Voix excommuniée, (Paris : Editions Galilée, 1981), pp. 42-43.

[43] « Remarques critiques sur l’énonciation : la question du présent dans le discours », Modern Language Notes, XCI (1976) pp. 939-951.

[44] For R. Gasché, autobiography is an “impossible” genre that leads to the « radical disappropriation of a subject in search of an identity » (Gasché p. 574). The « fictionalization of the self » being the inevitable outcome of the enterprise, critical analyses of the internal contradictions involved « aim at the displacement of a presumed auto-reflexivity of texts ». This, for Gasché (in common with others critical of Paul de Man’s versions of deconstructive theory) « represents a final, and all the more redoubtable, offspring of the metaphysics of the subjet » (ibid.). Looked at in this way, the theory of “auto-représentation” (Ricardou), from which Claude Simon has expressly distanced himself in recent years, appears as the final resting-place of the very ideology of expression/représentation that Ricardou has always sought to oppose, subvert and denounce as constitutive of the idéologie dominante.

[45] « L’autobiographie est le genre littéraire qui, par son contenu même, marque le mieux la confusion de l’auteur et de la personne, confusion sur laquelle est fondée toute la pratique et la problématique de la littérature occidentale depuis la fin du XVIIIe siècle. » (Philippe Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique (Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1975, p. 33).

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