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This novel was a very difficult read for me. Parts of it were simply fascinating, parts of it a bit mystifying, and the whole did not, for me, add up as a “story” of any sort, only bits and pieces of the lives of the principals.
As the novel opens we are following a troop of French horse soldiers. At first I was thinking this was in the early days of WWI, but very soon the reader discovers this is early WWII, in 1940. This horse troop seems so out of time. They are riding in Holland where the Germans have attacked. When they see Germans and prepare to engage their leader starts waving his sword and the horse troop attacks. This is utterly bizarre since the Germans were fighting with machine guns, artillery, airplanes, both strafing and bombing them. It seemed like two groups from different centuries were at war.
The novel is not really a “story” in any normal sense. It is a stream of consciousness diary-like entries of whatever the groups is doing. There really is no story, not really any “complications” and “resolutions.” Rather, it is what the author offers, set in this particular time, and about whatever it is he wishes to relate.
As the novel opens the narrator is riding along, seemingly with only 3 other survivors of their horse troupe, seemingly in Holland. Most of their troop has been killed by snipers, bombs, airplane gun fire, and like characters out of a much older historical novel, they are riding along on their horses!
The narrator creates a terribly bleak and scary picture of the darkness, mud, dead bodies everywhere, and uncertainty in every moment. One character, George, tells what his father used to say:
“And his father still talking, as if to himself, talking about what was his name that philosopher who said man knew only two ways of taking what belongs to others, war and commerce, and that he generally chose war first because it seemed easier and quicker and then, but only after having discovered the disadvantages and the damages of the former, in other words commerce which was a no less dishonest and brutal way but more comfortable and that moreover every nation had necessarily passed through these two phases and had each in its turn put Europe to fire and sword before being transformed into incorporated joint stock companies of traveling salesmen . . .”
4 of them from their horse detail have survived. They are in retreat. 10 days out. There are the Captain, Iglesia, the second-lieutenant, George and Blum, a Jewish soldier.
Three of them had connections before the war. George, the narrator, was a distant relative of the Captain and Iglesia, a jockey before the war, had worked for the Captain and even had an affair with his wife, Corinne. Iglesia is closer in age to the Captain, and some 15 years older than the other two soldiers.
Captain de Reixach was a wealthy man and used to power and control of those around him. However, he could never really control his wife who was beautiful, head strong, independent and some 20 years younger than de Reixach.
George’s mother, Sabine, was the line of connection to de Reixach and she had told George much of the history of the family, including stories of older de Reixachs who had fought in other wars.
There is a long story of a horse race before the war where de Reixach rides and his wife challenges Iglesia to bet a great deal of money on him (her money, but he needn’t bet it). De Reixach comes in second, and Iglesia had bet all the money on first. Later in the novel they return to this story again and again.
Soon the commander of the horse troop, de Reixach, is killed by a sniper (as he leads a charge waving his sword). The three other principals survive the encounter that killed de Reixach and for a while are hiding out with locals in the area, but soon, while trying to escape back into territory held by the French, they are captured by the Germans and taken to a prison camp in Germany.
While in captivity they talk about two main things: the war and their survival and the strange story of de Reixach and his family.
George and his mother were from the de Reixach family, thus he knows its history and relates much of it to Iglesia, and Blum, the Jew who is very sensitive about being a Jew.
The de Reixach family had a long history of men who held positions in war for France, and much of that history of the family is recounted over time.
Many of their discussions are not really tied to the war, and this just isn’t a story about the war, nor their early defeat, and path back to France, but is just about the telling of what went on in the lives of these men and what they did and talked about in that long period. The author was asked by a reporter what “message” he had to deliver. He replied:
“They’ll (readers) learn nothing. I have no messages to deliver. I hope only that they will find pleasure. The nature of this pleasure is difficult to define. One part is what Roland Barthes has called recognition - the recognition of sentiments or feelings one has experienced oneself. The other is the discovery of what one had not known about oneself. Johann Sebastian Bach defined this sort of pleasure as “the expected unexpected.”
Alas, I must admit that I struggled to follow what was going on, and was too busy trying to figure out where this was going and why it was going that I just didn’t find a great deal of “pleasure” in the read. There were certainly interesting parts, especially about the actual live people and their struggles to survive the war, but the historical retreat to the history of the de Reixach family was just not very grabbing or interesting to me.
The novel appears to be about early WWII, but I do trust the author on this point there. He tells us that there really isn’t a “story” here in this novel about WWII; it is what it is, this, admittedly, often fascinating and interesting, stream of consciousness reporting of the lives of these three main characters in the time of their experience of and in early World War II.
However, the “main character” in one sense is Captain de Reixach himself, though he dies in the very early pages of the novel. We then follow his three underlings, first hiding out and sort of escaping from the war, then in a German prison camp and finally freed and returning to French soil.
Shortly after the war George, the distant relative of dead Captain de Reixach, is visiting the late captain’s property, and, having heard so much about his beautiful wife, he simply has to make love to her. This is totally out of character for him, but he’s been obsessed about what he heard of her in the past 6 years that he simply has to do it. When he does make his advances to her she is seemingly uninterested, but very soon becomes wildly involved in their love making told in a stream of consciousness which covers the whole of the past six years, goes on for about fifty pages, all while they are making love. The whole scene is simply surreal.
What Claude Simon himself has said seems to me true: the novel is not really about anything, there is no real story, it is a set of a few fictional events written about with great power, imagination, and unending, if not always connected, detail. It can be gripping, and I would be reading quickly, totally absorbed, and realize I haven’t the slightest idea what is going on, or, perhaps more accurately, almost nothing is actually going on, one is only talking about it as though it were happening. It’s strange to describe.
I don’t think I will read any further writings of Claude Simon. I respect his right to write as he wishes, and I think he is good at what he does. However, the work required of the reader and the “payoff” in the end simply wasn’t worth it for me.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com