The Flanders road

Image: Julien Sinzogan


Commentary on Claude Simon's novel

A few words about a novel that I consider one of the most impressive, thought-provoking and interesting works in the history of literature: The Flanders route, in Brazil The Flanders road, by Claude Simon, Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1985. It is one of the most important books in my development as a reader and as a writer and I think it is not difficult to understand why.

It's actually difficult to read this book. Yes, it must be said that it is a harsh, yet sublime, book. Sublime, mainly, in what he manages to read and translate from the sensitivity of the world around him, the world of the second half of the 20th century, a world transformed by the Second World War, in which even affective and narrative structures were destroyed. A world, effectively post-structuralist: without referents and with overlapping temporalities.

The plot of the novel is relatively simple: A soldier in the French army, Captain Reixach, is shot down by a German soldier. It turns out that this death seems strange in the eyes of a soldier, Georges, cousin of the dead captain and who is a knight in the same regiment as him. Georges suspects that Captain Reixach, in fact, decided to be shot down, decided to die, and the novel is, effectively, his investigation into this fact.

Georges knows very well that he and the captain had an ancestor, in the Napoleonic wars, who probably concealed a suicide by killing himself in battle. He also knows that this ancestor disguised his suicide as a death in combat and that he had decided to die because he discovered that he was being cheated on by his wife.

Georges talks to Iglésia, a boy with no military training, whom the captain had made his aide-de-camp, and discovers that this boy was the lover of Corinne, Reixach's wife. Later, Georges talks to Corinne and becomes, in turn, her lover.

The Flanders route is part of the tradition, very German, by the way, of formative novels (the Bildungsroman) – but it is, in fact, a deconstruction of these novels... Claude Simon's book seems to doubt the real possibility of training, or learning, because it ironizes the fact that we live in a world that the Germans destroyed, a world without referents , which depends on an immense effort of interpretation, of hermeneutics, to be, once again, understood.

The novel has several temporal layers, starting with the cover of the first editions, which reproduces what would be the image of the characters' ancestors, a painting purposely stained red to signal that he had committed suicide. The most technically important layer, what could be considered as “the present of the narrative” is “announced”, right in the first pages in the form of a prolepsis, that is, as a projection that indicates what will come, in the future, from the center, of balance, for the narrative.

It turns out that this “narrative present”, the main temporality of the novel, is written in a somewhat hallucinated way, with the alternation of the narrative voice between the 1a and to 3a person. Between this prolepsis and this “narrative present”, there are several layers of temporality: that of the ancestor, who apparently committed suicide; that of his descendant Reixach, who may or may not have also committed suicide; that of the years before the war; that of war itself; that of the years following the war and the idealized temporality, placed only symbolically, of what a world would be like if it had not been destroyed by war.

Indeterminacy structures

The Flanders route is marked by a non-linear discourse. From a moment on, the reader understands the different overlapping scenes, the plots and the personalities of the characters, but as there are no markers of linearity, we are constantly lost in the transition from one element to the other. Thus, the same scene is resumed, suddenly, in the middle of another scene, and this happens throughout the book. In fact, this is the great charm of the book, this discontinuity, this non-linearity. And the worst thing, actually the best thing, is that some of these scenes are repeated on at least two different planes: a symbolic plane, but, let's say, eventful, and another symbolic plane, but which is not eventful, and is purely archetypal.

I'll give you an example: one of the scenes in the book, spread throughout the entire narrative, talks about the character George's encounter with a dead horse. This is a symbolic scene, but an event. It is symbolic because the dead horse suggests a reference to war, or a certain form of war destined to be lost. And it is eventful because it narrates a concrete event in the character’s journey. However, at the same time, this scene is symbolic-archetypal: in this case, symbolic because it evokes a set of references to horses, not exactly the one, present in the plot and archetypal because this horse suggests the idea of ​​another time, or of an ideal , associated with the culture of chivalry, the culture of honor and nobility, destroyed by war.

The non-linearity of Claude Simon's book is complemented by another hallmark of the book: its syntactic transgressions, always very visible, present, for example, in its punctuation, in its phrastic decoupage – that is, in the structure of the chain of its sentences – and in the syntagmatic agency of ideas.

The Flanders route It is a transgressive book, which breaks with the writing canons of traditional, or conventional, novels with a realistic structure.

The book is effectively composed of structures of indeterminacy. Structures that denote, that evoke, the feeling of a world in ruins, or rather, a ruined world. Precisely from the world destroyed by the Second World War and a humanity demoralized by fascism. In this world, all transcendent truth has disappeared and no stable and univocal system of references remains. It is a world without referents and without parallels, in which all traditions of reference coming from rationalism and the Enlightenment have been destroyed.

Syntax maze

In this scope of work, I highlight a stylistic element that I find particularly interesting in the novel, something that we could call anaphoric illusion: the effect of suddenly throwing the reader, through a dazzling break in the structure of the sentence, into another context, or plane. , or temporality. For example, when a personal pronoun is suddenly disassociated from the verb to which it supposedly should be linked, brutally opening a parenthetical narrative segment – ​​that is, a section that would normally be in parentheses and which, thus, leads to another approach, the another referentiality, to another plane of history.

These effects disorient the reader. We have the impression of entering a syntax labyrinth, with trapdoors, false walls and convex mirrors made through logical connectors that become pernicious and, out of nowhere, transform into illogical connectors.

The anaphoric illusion produces, in short, a chronotopic discontinuity. Simon deconstructs the linear phrastic order and, in doing so, equally deconstructs the linear narrative order and the linear temporal order. And it is precisely here that we can point out the proximity between the book and Heidegger's understanding of temporality in Being and Time.

A phenomenological novel

The Flanders route It is a phenomenological novel and, more than that, phenomenological-hermeneutic. The entire book revolves around interpreting and compressing the experience of individuals in light of the experience of history.

And not only: the phenomenological horror of being in a world that has had its entire order of meanings suddenly shattered and needing to reconstitute the idea of ​​the universe through senses and references.

We can see Georges, the central character of The Flanders route, as an anaphora for the To be there (Heideggerian Being-there). And we can also understand his exhausting effort to reconstruct the story of his cousin Roxarch as a gigantic effort to accept that being-there is in a world shared with other beings-there, which, in turn, produce a being-with- others that, after all, don't mean much more than the eternal search for a meaning that probably doesn't exist.

Precisely this idea of ​​meeting the other constitutes a very interesting aspect of Claude Simon's book: its dialogical dimension. One has the impression that the entire book is built on dialogue, but this impression is deconstructed all the time, as if the author provoked us, was provoking us, to overcome the immediate dimension of the dialogue occurring between the characters and realize that, in In fact, we, the readers, are dialoguing with these characters and, eventually, with the author himself.

This dialogical structure is all the more confusing because the dialogues are sometimes made up of long monologues, which are not always answered by the interlocutors. And, even worse, these monologues are sometimes one character's account of another character's account. This is the case with the report that Georges gives to Corinne of the report that Iglésia gave him during the war.

And the worst (or best) thing is that these dialogues generally do not have the textual markers that characterize dialogues, such as quotation marks, dashes or the textual indication of the speakers.

But well, as if that weren't enough, in addition to these dialogues that we don't know when they begin or whether they will end, there are also false dialogues, another stylistic resource that Claude Simon uses. False dialogues are short, punctual dialogues that are not included in the long narrative threads of the book. They are what we would properly call dialogues. It turns out that, pathetically, they generally don't result in anything: either because they don't have concrete information; either because what a character says is simply not understood by another character; or because the event is of no importance to the plot.

It is as if Claude Simon told us that concrete dialogue, concrete communication, is impossible in life and that true dialogue is that perceived evil, carried out in the intersubjective flow of consciousness and social memory. This idea is very important to me, whether as a writer or as a scientist, and it shapes much of what I understand about communication and culture.

 The author and his wars

In conclusion, a few words about the author. Claude Simon was born in 1913, in Madagascar, then a French colony, where his father served as a soldier. His father died in battle, in 1919, in World War I. In fact, Simon recounted, in a novel called “The Acacia”, a traumatic experience from his childhood: the journey his grandmother took with them, at the age of five, to the battlefield where his father had been killed.

A few weeks after the conflict, his grandmother traveled through this field, trying to locate the exact location of his father's death. His mother, in turn, died of cancer when he was 12 years old. Claude Simon lived with his maternal grandmother and later became a boarder at the Stanislas school in Paris. At that time, he spent his summer holidays at the house of his three paternal aunts, all of whom were single, a theme that is present in the novel. The grass.

Claude Simon served in the military and was mobilized in World War II. In 1940 he was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans, but managed to escape and returned to Paris, where he participated in the Resistance. In 1944 his wife, with whom he had lived since he was 18 years old, that is, since 1931, committed suicide. After the war, Claude Simon went to live on a small rural property and became a wine grower.

And this also marks the beginning of his activity as a writer. In the 1960s he demonstrated against the war in Algeria and in favor of that country's independence. At the end of that decade, Simon received the important Médicis literature prize and was part of the literary movement as nouveau roman.

Claude Simon wrote about 30 novels. The Flanders route is from 1960. Besides him, I particularly like The Battle of Pharsala, which is from 1969. The Nobel Prize for literature came in 1985. Claude Simon died twenty years later, in Paris, in 2005.

* Fabio Fonseca de Castro He is a sociology professor at the Núcleo de Altos Estudos Amazônicos, at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA). How Fábio Horácio-Castro published the novel The melancholy reptile (All time lap record).


Claude Simon. The Flanders road. Rio de Janeiro, Nova Fronteira, 1986, 250 pages. []

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