restricted access Claude Simon: Narrativities Without Narrative (review)
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Reviewed by
Mária Minich Brewer. Claude Simon: Narrativities Without Narrative. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995. 183 pp.

Claude Simon has remained curiously absent from the postmodern canon, perhaps because a certain suspicion of male chauvinism hovers over this Nobel laureate’s work. Women as sexual objects are hardly lacking therein. Brewer is willing to take on that feminist issue, as well as any suggestion that Simon is complicitous with ideological deviance, for one intent of this critical study is to show that Simon’s work, especially [End Page 896] his last two novels, are consonant with the ideology that allows writers into the multicultural canon. I certainly second her readings in this regard, for Simon is a politically progressive writer whose main problem, for his assimilation, has been the difficulty of reading that he imposes in his long, fragmented narratives that demand a capacity for reading motifs as much as events. Unfortunately, recent history of Simon reception seems to show that only professional readers, such as Brewer, are capable of entering into Simon’s world, one generated by intertextual collages embracing the entire historical past of Western culture. A sustained reading of these collages often demands a capacity for making historical juxtapositions that are often beyond even the fairly well-educated reader, or at least such has been my experience in asking intelligent, advanced students to read major novels like La Route des Flandres or Histoire.

Brewer’s book is addressed mainly to those professional readers who have used Simon’s work largely as a springboard for debates about and demonstrations of literary theory. Confronting every recent theorist from Derrida to Lyotard, Brewer engages her reader in a constant debate about various theories so as to justify her critical reading of Simon. (Or is this theoretical overlay due to the fact that one cannot get a book on literature published these days, as David Lodge recently observed in the New York Times, if the book merely deals with an author and his or her work?) Worrying about Jameson’s view of postmodernity or the Lacanian nature of the imaginary is actually more distracting than useful; and this study would have been more useful if the writer had simply stated her theoretical position: to wit, that she rejects a general semiotics as the proper approach to dealing with the specificity of Simon’s narratives, narratives that clearly challenge the belief that history can be reduced to simple narrative history or chronology. Her rejection of semiotics is much like Barthes’s recanting in writing S/Z: one does not wish to find the same narrative in every narrative. It is not always easy, however, to reject general categories and study only specific narratives, for language obliges us to use general categories. To get around this difficulty she has recourse to the distinction of narratives and narrativity, a cumbersome distinction by which she seems to mean that general narrative categories do not apply to Simon’s work which, nonetheless, possesses “narrativity” and can therefore be described in some way as (almost) telling stories as [End Page 897] well as describing scenes. Brewer is an intelligent reader who has much to tell us about Simon, especially about figural practices and the way specific motifs engage ideological issues, but her constant elaboration of theoretical concerns is almost a caricature of what we have come to see as academic chic.

Several key areas of Simon’s work do emerge here in spite of the theoretical meandering. She is good at showing the functioning of mythic motifs in Simon’s novels and, again in the wake of Barthes, pointing up the ideological implications that myth has for discourse. Her historical considerations of how Simon’s works enact narratives of legacy is suggestive of the way his novels can be taken as a kind of vast cultural history that exposes even as it reenacts the basics myths of France and indeed European culture, especially since the French Revolution, and beyond. She argues at some length that Simon’s novels are parodistic, by which she seems to mean that they engage in replication of preexisting discourses. I agree with that latter point, though I don...