REVIEW: THE FLANDERS ROAD
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Claude Simon: The Flanders Road
© 1960; trans. Richard Howard © 1961, 1985
– March 31, 2021
The central incident of The Flanders Road is that of four horseman retreating from the rout of the first days of the German invasion of France in WWII: the captain of the unit, his lieutenant, his lackey, and a forth cavalryman, the last the central voice of the book. They are all that remains of their unit, who were decimated in the first moments of battle, as would be expected when horsemen are sent forward against Panzers. Indeed, that absurdity is brought forward again and again, as with this passage:
Apparently they use those tanks as. . . then he was too far away I had forgotten that such things are merely called a 'business' the way you say 'that business' when you mean 'fighting a duel' a delicate euphemism a more discreet more elegant formula well so much the better not all was lost since we were still among well-bred people say don't say, example don't say 'the squadron has been massacred in an ambush', but 'we had a bad business outside the village of [. . .]" (101)
But the incident is not merely the four of them trotting down Flanders Road, both them and their horses completely exhausted, most likely already behind the German advance if not, because of the age of their orders of retreat, on their way right to German forces, yet trotting nonetheless, the captain and his lieutenant talking about what the other two cannot hear, the captain leading the way, just trotting, head on into the sights of a german sniper, who kills the commander.
But then that is by extension the central incident of the squadron, riding head on, lead by a captain with sabre drawn, into the sights of advancing German armor. And yet again, it is the central incident of the "well-bred" French who "had a bad business" along the whole of the Eastern front. And there are plenty of moments in The Flanders Road that makes that extension clear.
That is the central incident. (And it was a real incident, of which Simon was a part.) However, the central question is whether the captain, slowly trotting down that road back straight in plain sight, was looking for that very thing to happen, for a kind of suicide he was unable to bring upon himself in response to humiliating defeat.
That extension of thought from one context to the next, carrying ideas from each to the other, is the mode of The Flanders Road. As Stephen Fletcher points out in the introduction in my Calder Publications edition, Simon was heavily influenced by William Faulkner, and The Flanders Road is written in a style of long flowing sentences, at times pages long sentences running on from one thought to the next, sometimes created merely by removing the periods and the following capital letters. And yet, it works to the desired end of creating continuous flow. Which is necessary in this book where scenes blur into each other and need to blur into each other and where thoughts should not ever be confined by punctuation. It is false to call it "stream of consciousness" because the stream is more in the mind of the implied author and not in that of a character. But it is very much yet a "stream," a flow of ideas, less like a river, more like a pool of swirling eddies.
Indeed, when it comes to it, there are only a handful of scenes in the book, primarily centered on Georges, and the captain, de Reixach (a distant relative), and the lackey, Iglésia, who before the war was de Reixach's jockey for his stable of horses, and the text, which does not reach 200 pages in my edition, moves back and forth between the scenes, without warning or cue. But as said, this is how the book operates, by not permitting any one scene to form borders and discern itself from any other. One example is an important steeplechase race that in the middle becomes the squadron's advance into battle and then returns to that equally fateful race. They are not discerned in the text, and should not be wholly discerned by the reader. One can perhaps do an essay on how mud appears and functions throughout the text as an idea that ties scenes together. Because of the style you flow right through the text — indeed, I read the whole of it in three sittings. Though, it is a text that requires concentration so at the same time there is want to read slowly. And even in translation the language offers its own delights. But, then, the language is important to Simon's aims.
But the work pays off with the whole of it becoming one thought — or, perhaps, three thoughts as there are three chapters. But, they cannot wholly be separated, nor are they intended to be. This is a story about a horse soldier, and it is a story about his captain. But it has to be said it is also a story about France in its facing down the German threat as, perhaps, well-bred, but in the end, wholly inadequate people, of whom de Reixach is representative. The back of my edition describes the book as "a haunting portrayal [. . .] of the chaos and savagery of war." I disagree with that description entirely. There is wreckage, and the book closes on that theme in a scene that is in the moments prior to de Reixach's death, the four riding through the quiet aftermath of the German advance:
[. . .] the war somehow stagnant, somehow peaceful around us, the sporadic cannon fire landing in the deserted orchards with a muffled monumental and hollow sound like a door flapping in the wind in an empty house, the whole landscape empty uninhabited under the motionless sky, the world stopped frozen crumbling collapsing gradually disintegrating in fragments like an abandoned building, unusable, left to the incoherent, casual, impersonal and destructive work of time. (193)
Yes, there is wreckage, but the book is not a book about war, it is about defeat. As said, humiliating defeat. The devastation is, simply, the consequence of an utterly unprepared army facing an utterly capable army. And as description in The Flanders Road only infrequently stands on its own as mere description, it is usually put to the work of ideational depth, so also should that last thought be taken. The Flanders Road might be a book that occurs during war, but it is not a book about war. It is "about" something else entirely, in a different way entirely.