‘I read an awesome book and I want to tell you about it. Originally written in French by Claude Simon, and titled Les Corps conducteurs, the translation I read (by Helen R. Lane) is titled Conducting Bodies. It was originally published in 1971, but my version was published by Grove Press in 1974. Sadly, it appears to now be out of print — but used copies are out there.
‘I stumbled across it a few weeks ago at a used bookstore here in Tallahassee. It wasn’t like I saw it on the shelf and went “Oh yes! Oh my god, I can’t believe I found this.” It was more like, “Claude Simon sounds vaguely familiar…wasn’t he associated with Alain Robbe-Grillet and the Nouveau Roman movement?” I picked it up and did as I always do: I read the first sentence and prepared to put it back on the shelf if that sentence was not exceptional:
In the display window a dozen identical female legs are lined up in a row, feet up, the thighs lopped off at the hip joint resting on the floor, the knees slightly bent, as though the legs had been removed from some chorus of dancers at the precise moment that they are all kicking in unison, and put there in the window, just as they were, or perhaps snipped out, in monotonous multiplicity, from some advertisement showing a pretty girl in her slip pulling on a stocking, sitting on a pouf or on the edge of an unmade bed, her torso leaning backward, with the leg that she is pulling the stocking over raised up high, and a kitten, or a curly-haired puppy gleefully standing on its hind legs, barking, with its pink tongue sticking out.
‘Okay, talk about badass opening sentences. This one does much of what I look for: it creates mystery, it builds on tangents, it avoids introducing character, and it avoids setting up a story. Basically, it conveys to me that this writer is more interested in sentences than stories – which is what I look for in literature. I had to buy it. I paid $3.95.
‘For those unfamiliar with the Nouveau Roman (or, as it’s been translated, The New Novel) basically it was a predominantly French experimental literary movement in the 1950s-60s that sought to challenge the Aristotelian approach to novel writing. To get the full scoop, check out Robbe-Grillet’s slim little firecracker For A New Novel (which I would argue – aside from being informative re: the Nouveau Roman — is one of the most important works of literary theory ever written).
‘Anyway, this book, Conducting Bodies, is most definitely written in the Nouveau Roman style – you can tell after about two pages because of the strange camera-eye narrative p.o.v, overemphasis on physical details, the absence of any kind of interiority, the meticulous almost mathematic obsession with objects in space, the continual repetition of particular words or phrases with slight deviations: the way words get recycled in various arrangements as if you are reading something through a kaleidoscope, the way the narrative breathes akin to how a camera lens breathes: it moves in and out of focus, it shifts from foreground to background, from the insides of someone’s body to the landscape that person is inhabiting. Here is a cool example, from page 16-17):
She is a young woman with blond hair pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck, dressed in a blouse with the ends tied in a knot below her breasts, her hips, buttocks, and thighs imprisoned in a pair of tightfitting Bermuda shorts in an apple-green and lemon-yellow flower print. A leather bag dangles from a long strap slung over her shoulder. Between the knotted blouse-ends and the waistband of the Bermuda shorts a patch of bare skin is visible, tanned a tawny gold. Situated beneath the diaphragm and weighing between 1500 and 2000 grams, the liver is approximately 28 centimeters wide, 16 centimeters thick, and 8 centimeters high. It occupies all of the right hypochondrium, and extends a short distance over into the left hypochondrium. It is reddish brown in color; its consistency is firm but friable. It is marked with the imprint of contiguous organs. The hepatic artery (carrying oxygenated blood) and the portal vein (carrying blood from the digestive tract and nutritive elements which the liver chemically converts) feed into the pedicle located on its lower surface, from which the hepatic veins arise, carrying off bile to the choledoch and then to the intestine. The tall silhouettes of the skyscrapers are all of a uniform color, a dark, almost solid brown.
‘Such a wicked movement from observing the woman’s body to discussing her internal organs to observing the objects in the landscape. And this is the way the entire novel moves. There are no paragraphs and no chapters. The text is a 191 page block of text.
‘I’m not the kind of person who is interested in what a book is about, I’m much more interested in how something is written, but for those of you who are interested in what a book is about all I can tell you is that there is a sick man and there is a telephone and there’s a convention in which Spanish speakers are discussing magical realism. Oh, and I think the color yellow is pretty important, too.
‘This is the first book by Claude Simon I’ve ever read, but I’d be interested to read more. Dude won the Nobel prize in 1985. Here is a quote from his fantastic acceptance lecture:
“If (…) someone were to ask me”, wrote Paul Valéry, “if someone were to worry himself (as happens, and sometimes intensely) about what I’ve meant to say (…), I reply that I haven’t wanted to say anything, but wanted to make something, and that it’s this intention of making which has wanted what I’ve said.” I could take up this reply by point. If the writer’s array of motivations is like a wide-open fan, the need to be recognized, which André Lwoff speaks of, is perhaps not the most futile, demanding as it in the first place does a self-recognition, which in turn implies a “making”, a “doing” (I make – I produce – therefore I am), whether it is a question of building a bridge, a ship, of bringing in a harvest or of composing a string quartet.
— Christopher Higgs, HTML Giant
Association des Lecteurs de Claude Simon
Obituary: Claude Simon
Claude Simon, The Art of Fiction No. 128
Claude Simon @ goodreads
Philippe Sollers – Claude Simon, prix Nobel d’évasion
L’ancêtre révolutionnaire : le cas Claude Simon
Claude Simon: Narrativities Without Narrative
Claude Simon: We missed his centenary — don’t miss his books!
Language, the Uncanny, and the Shapes of History in Claude Simon’s The Flanders Road
Myth and Historico-Primordial Memory in Claude Simon’s “La Route Des Flandres”
Buy ‘Conducting Bodies’
Prix Nobel Claude Simon
Extraits d’entretiens avec Claude Simon sur la littérature et le cinéma (1966)
Claude Simon : Entretien avec Alain Veinstein, en 1988 (France Culture)
Claude Simon : extrait du Discours de Stockholm (1985)
from The Review of Contemporary Fiction
ANTHONY CHEAL PUGH: Claude Simon, a remark you made during our conversations in Dublin a year or so ago particularly interested me. You said that you did not consider that French writers were very strong in the field of the novel, but that they excelled, on the other hand, at autobiography. You spoke not only of Proust, whose A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs you were rereading at the time, but of Rousseau and Chateaubriand. Could I begin by asking you to comment upon this observation, from a reader’s point of view?
CLAUDE SIMON: Andre Gide says somewhere in his Journal that France is most definitely not the home of the novel. And in fact, if one compares the works of nineteenth-century French novelists and their inferior contemporary imitators (Mauriac, Sartre, Camus, etc.) with for example those of Dostoevsky, whose characters, as in life, are eminently ambiguous and contradictory, incarnating at once good and evil, torturers and victims at one and the same time, then the French “realist” novel, deriving from the fable, the comedy of manners, or the philosophical tale with its didactic intentions, appears desperately flat, putting on stage univocal social or psychological types, bordering on caricature. It was Strindberg who noted in his preface to Miss Julie, not without irony, that Harpagon is avaricious and nothing else, whereas he could at the same time be a great financier as well as a miser, a perfect father, an excellent public official. . . . Personally, this kind of novel has always produced in me a boredom only attenuated by the descriptive passages (and this is something I experience more and more). For example, it was only because during the Occupation I bought the complete works of Balzac second-hand from a bouquiniste (books were hard to find then through lack of paper) that I read my way through La Comedie humaine, and what is more, despite several attempts, I have never been able to get to the end of a novel like L’Education sentimentale. In works of a biographical kind, a character reveals himself, deliberately or otherwise, in all his rich complexity, with all his contradictions, and without any manner of teaching standing out at all from his adventures. Anais Nin said somewhere that the everyday world seemed to her so devoid of interest that she preferred to take refuge in “the imaginary” and “the marvelous.” No doubt she never took the trouble to look at the incredible marvels all around us, a simple leaf, a bird, an insect. She really should have meditated upon Picasso’s remark: “Kings do not have their most beautiful children with princesses, but with shepherdesses,” for if ever you apply yourself, as Proust did, to examining attentively the life of anyone in your entourage, it’s not long before you notice that it presents a thousand times more complexity, richness, and fascinating subtleties than the fictive and summary lives and the spectacles staged in so-called “imaginative” novels.
Thus, Rousseau, who never stops moralizing, and acts with great meanness, if not with great brutality, devotes himself lovingly, for example, to the problem of the education of children, even writes a complete work on the subject, and abandons his own, without a second thought, to the state orphanage. Chateaubriand, although he is a sincere Royalist (he will prove his fidelity to the royal cause right into exile) and a sincere liberal as well, gambles away, as quickly as he can, the sum of money his family had collected, with great difficulty, in order to allow him to join the emigre army, and what is more “mislays” the wallet containing the little money he had remaining in the carriage bringing him back home, none of which prevented him from nevertheless going off to fight for his king and getting severely wounded. . . . In the same way, L.S.M., who risks his life for the Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, finds it quite normal that his wife be given a negro as a present; a fervent Jacobin, he contrives to get an ardent Royalist out of prison and marries her—and what author of fictions would ever have unleashed his imagination to the extent of inventing the episode of the heart cut out of the General’s corpse!!!
Finally, and as a corollary to this, container and contained being, in art, one and the same thing, the form of these works (let’s say, for simplicity’s sake: their style) is always admirable. It is not a matter of chance that Chateaubriand and Proust are the writers of the most sumptuous prose in French literature.
ACP: What is it that one is looking for when reading a text calling itself an “autobiography?”—an imaginary identification with an author (or with someone else, quite simply)?—or does the special pleasure of the reader not come from the loss of a stable identity, to the extent that autobiographical writing seems to lead to a dissociation of the writer’s “self” and to the production of “doubles”?
CS: Certainly not, as far as I am concerned, an “identification” with an author, but other than the pleasure of the text itself, a pleasure whose nature you have just defined quite well.
ACP: Is not the reader of an autobiographical text in search of echoes from the past, echoes of experiences he might himself have lived, perhaps at an unconscious level?
ACP: Do you think it important for a novelist to establish a genealogy for his characters, whether real or fictional, or a series of historical relays, from father to son?
ACP: But I gather that in the novel you are now writing, you have gone back to some of the scenes in your first novel Le Tricheur (The Cheat) where the central character recalls being taken, as a boy, to the cemeteries of World War I battlefields, as his mother searches for her husband’s grave. . .
CS: Those are quite simply my first memories. My parents came from Madagascar when I was barely one year old, and my father was killed almost immediately, during the second battle into which his regiment was sent, on 22 August 1914. It is not surprising that it marked me. But if I am now writing about my father’s death—it may seem shocking to some for me to put it this way—it is because the subject is a “stimulus” to me: it is “writing matter” again.
ACP: When your narrator in The Georgics lifts his hand from the page and stops writing, doubting the possibility of communicating to a reader what it feels like to be under enemy fire- unless, as he says, the reader has experienced something similar—are you expressing there a doubt concerning that particular experience, or a more radical doubt over the relationship between what is lived and what is written?
CS: A doubt over the relationship between what is lived and what is written. In The Idiot, Dostoevsky says that the experience of a man who has thought for twenty minutes that he was going to be shot is uncommunicable.
ACP: I wonder if “experience,” in the sense of states of mind, is ever “communicable”: Merleau Ponty wrote that it was “inevitable that consciousness be mystified, inverted, indirect: its principle is to see things round the other way; its principle is not to know the nature of Being, and to prefer the object”.
CS: We would have to see the context of that remark, and what Merleau-Ponty meant by “Being.” For me, there is no object without a subject. As for the “unknowable,” we are, and always will be, grappling with it.
ACP: It has been claimed that in The Georgics “Nature” was “the main character”. As I see it, History has the principal role, especially since it is regularly personified. But History is defined in so many ways in the novel, in contradictory ways even, that one might be tempted to see in it a figure standing for the Absurd. Is History for you the repetition—in the life of every individual—of certain experiences which could be seen as so many “rites of passage”?
CS: Why do people always want to make what is “contradictory” into the same thing as “the Absurd”? Is it not rather absurd to consider the world and human beings who are in their very essence made up of contradictions, as “absurd”? Is that not to fail to see that the very salt of the earth comes out of conflicts between contradictions?
ACP: If History is characterized by repetition, do you see this as tragic, or as farcical—in the way Marx described certain historical cycles?
CS: It seems to me that there is never any “repetition,” but rather that History unfolds like a spiral whose definition is a curve rising progressively as it winds itself round a cylinder and which always passes over the same generating lines but with a greater or lesser degree of slippage. As for considering these “repetitions” (I use the word for the sake of convenience) as farcical, that is equivalent to forgetting that they take place amidst blood and tears. But of course one can laugh at everything—if one is a philosopher.
ACP: I was thinking, amongst other things, of the feeling of political impotence which is characteristic of the present period.
CS: Yes, the period of great political figures is over; there are just administrators now. We are at the end of an epoch.
ACP: May I ask you, in conclusion, what you think of the following remark by Blanchot: “The writer never reads his work. It is, for him, unreadable, a secret before which he cannot dwell14”?
CS: It is a perfect image of the position of the writer in relation to his work. The expression “before” appears particularly pertinent. He finds himself indeed always “behind” (I have myself compared the work of the writer to that of an artisan embossing copper or bronze, beating it out from behind, condemned to never being able to contemplate the result from the other side).
Claude Simon Conducting Bodies
‘Claude Simon’s “Conducting Bodies” is an uncommonly puzzling, frustrating, and potentially rewarding novel–if it is a novel at all.
‘The “conducting bodies” of the title are several: the principal character’s ailing body, for which he visits a doctor; the contentious body of delegates at the writers’ conference he attends; bodies in minutely described medical diagrams, newspaper advertisements, and artistic reproductions; bodies eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, sitting, or in erotic poses; celestial bodies, such as the constellation Orion, whose myth seems to underlie the book.
‘But above all, it is the shifting images and whirling sentences of the text to which the title refers, as the objects of the impersonal narrator’s focus evolve into one another and scenes recur repeatedly, modified by new juxtapositions. A sentence might, for example, begin with the image of disembodied legs modeling stockings in a store window and end with a description of anatomical prints in a doctor’s office, or with the image of a meandering river that somehow turns into a snake coiled around a tree.’ — LA Times
p.s. Hey. So I’ll be doing a lot of thanking here to you kind people, but just because I’ll end up sounding like I’m saying basically the same thing a bunch of times doesn’t mean I don’t meanly of it in the most heartfelt way. ** David S. Estornell, Hi, David, and thank you so much! I’m basically around, just working a lot, so let me what’s good on your end. ** Michael karo, Good to see you, bud, and thank you! ‘Garbage Man’! ** John Fram, Thank you, John! A pressed vegetable thing and of course a drink (maybe of iced tea?) sound lovely. ** Marilyn Roxie, Thanks a bunch, Marilyn. Yeah, I decided to make the new list without looking at the old one, and it’s interesting what survived or didn’t. No, I haven’t heard that Gram Parsons. I will, I will. Thanks for that! ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Thank you! You should be proud of yourself, and then there are the happy or satisfied recipients. Ha ha, not unexpectedly at all, the sales agent people don’t like our trailer one little bit. ‘Too conceptual’. So now we have to try to make another one that throws their requirement — giving a sense of what the movie is actually like, ha ha — a bone. Darn. Yesterday ended up being barely a birthday, which was fine by me. Trying to finish the PGL poster (didn’t yet). The sales agent wrote a ‘logline’, basically a very short description of the film, which we can’t stand, so we started working on an alternative. The lab made a DCP of the film — basically the file containing the film that will be sent to use at Rotterdam and other festivals — and Zac and I and a couple of people from Local Films needed to watch the film to make sure it was okay, so I watched PGL for the hundredth time (and still totally love it.) Stuff like that. The only b’day moment was Zac and I ate celebratory nachos at Hard Rock Cafe for dinner. They were delish, even though HRC’s music video show/onslaught while we were there was 80% Elton John who is misery incarnate to me. Now my b’day is over, yay, and onwards. How was your Thursday? ** H, Hi. I’m glad it finally opened, and thank you! ** Jamie, Hey there, mister. Thanks, man. I’m not a big believer in astrology but I do weirdly fit the Capricorn profile almost to a T. I love Donovan. The ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Mellow Yellow’ albums in particular are kind of masterpiece-y. Amazing hotel, yeah. It does beg to be a film location. I sent that photo to Zac for future reference. 4-6 weeks, okay. I’ll give my fingers a rest for the first few of those and then strangle them until you hear. I never actually read the Nancy Drew books. I mentioned the ‘best friend’ because there was a Nancy Drew TV series in the US in … the late 70s (?) and Nancy’s best friend in the show was played by a very good friend of mine at the time, a girl. But the TV version probably took liberties. Ooh, nice, that ballet. Let’s see … May your day be as delicious as the Hard Rock Cake nachos I ate last night but may it leave more of them on the plate than I did so that the day doesn’t end with you having a most unpleasant stomach ache. Penetrating all-seeing giant eyeball love, Dennis. ** Amphibiouspeter, Thanks, gilled one. I think that Randy Newman song is probably my favorite song of all time if I had to pick. Did you have a swell and even fun time in your holidays-bracketed away time? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi, D. Aw, thank you for the song. I like that song very much myself. There is heated debate here about Deneuve’s and the others’ statement but very civilised and thoughtful. The French haven’t forgotten that disagreeability and intelligence and patience are not antithetical. ** Steve Erickson, I did each nachos! Good guess! That’s funny, some people actually think I’m younger than I am because I like so much 90s music. It’s true that a lot of people my age’s fave songs don’t get much past the 70s. Disagree with it or not, the women’s statement is not in any way dumb or reactionary. It’s not soundbite friendly, but what valuable and thoughtful opinion is? I saw on FB that you finally saw ‘The Green Fog’, and now I’m really chomping for it to get over here. Is that calendar online? It must be, right? I’ll find it. Everyone, Mr. Erickson has two new film reviews ready for you who are interested. Of Daniela Thomas’ VAZANTE, here. And of Ziad Douieiri’s THE INSULT, here. ** Daniel, Daniel, holy moly, it’s so great to see you! It’s been almost literally forever. Wow! Thank you so much! If you have any jones to let me know how you are and what’s going on with you, I would gulp down the info. ** xTx, Yay! Thank you, thank you, thank you, my pal! I miss you! Tons of love from moi! ** Tosh Berman, Hi, T. Ha ha, the spooky part, as I would imagine you agree (?), is how fucking short that ‘long’ is. Jesus. That is one, maybe the only, good thing about getting up there/here: that I’m a better artist now than I ever was before. People might disagree, but I’m sure. You too, by the way. Love, me. ** Bill, Thanks, Bill! The list changed, and surprisingly, but weirdly not as much as I imagined it would have. Which is probably not a good sign? I think Ryoji is doing that here in Paris in a few weeks at the Pompidou. I’m going, so we can tete-a-tete about it. ** Sypha, Thanks, James! Twice the size of the smile. Ah, 4 for 4 floors, yeah, it could be as simple as that. Good luck in your battle with your muse. You always win that one, so it’s just a matter of how soon. ** MANCY, Thanks a lot, man! Excellent way to celebrate, I appreciate it. ** Ferdinand, Thanks a whole lot, F! ** Brendan, Thanks, B, and I’m proud to share that Venn Diagram with you and yours. ** Dan, Ha, thanks. I know, right? ** Shane Jesse Christmass, Thank you. I feel exactly the same way about the ISB song. I don’t know if I know about them and Woodstock, but I’ll read what you linked to straight away and find out. Thank you a lot for that. Bon day! ** James Nulick, James! Thank you, pal. More music-related things, yes! ** Ken Baumann, Aw, so good to see you, Ken, and thank you, man! Well, as your big fan, I can’t say that I’m sorry you’re bailing on the teaching and immersing in wordage, your own especially. Yes, apart from about twenty snowy minutes this year, Paris’s centuries of whitening in the winter are gone. Fucking shit. May this year give us both so much excitement we don’t know what do with ourselves. ** Schlix, Hi. Thanks really a lot, Uli! I hope everything is spectacular with you. ** Count Reeshard, Thanks, Count. Even I find it weird that when pressed to choose a favourite Sparks song, I choose ‘Mickey Mouse’, even though it is perfect and sublime. Wait, you wrote a 33 1/3 book about ‘Song Cycle’?! Wow. I’m going to go buy that the second I post this thing. That’s very exciting! ** Bernard, Well, barely. Thank you! Oh, B, can you, like, email me or FB me or something and remind me exactly what you need from me and where to send it? ** _Black_Acrylic, What a funny thing to sing. Why down the gutter? It sounds perfectly edible to me. Oh, man, so sorry about your topple and the consequences, although I’m happy to see it will only take a week or two to get right. But, yeah, that sucks, and hugs, B. Alert me/us when your callout is online please. ** Kyler, Hey. Uh, technically, it is so far exactly like it was before it happened, which is good. I love split pea soup, yes! You are a man of taste and style. ** Misanthrope, Thank you again and with more than just a ‘love’ icon. Okay, whew, about the minor cysts. Will they just die away or something? Your dream was scary. It made me nauseous. But in an interesting way. ** Jeff J, Hey, Jeff. Thank you. If you want to get a Groundhogs album, definitely get ‘Split’. Ugh, re: those clumsy motherfuckers. This weekend should work, yes. Let’s just find a good time for us both. ** Chris Cochrane, Thank you kindly, Chris! That’s my favourite Fugazi album too. I think #2 would be ‘Repeater’ for me. ** Saintflit, Oh my goodness, a visitation and shout out from a saint! Hi, Flit! So I think you’re now in the heart of your birthday. Fun? Weird? Both? ** B, Hi, Bear. Thank you very, very much! You good? Love, me. ** Paul Curran, Hey, Paul! Thank you a bunch! One of my birthday wishes, and an entirely plausible one, is that I will get to Tokyo and get to see you before the end of this year and hopefully well before. MegaLove in heavy return! ** Okay. I realised that I very strangely have never before devoted a full post to the great Claude Simon, the Nouveau Roman’s only Nobel Prize recipient. I hope you enjoy him/it. See you tomorrow.