Friday, 15 December 2017

Book Review: The Trolley by Claude Simon me it’s ever again amazing to see how vividly some people remember their childhoods even many decades later. Of course, everybody knows forceful experiences, good and bad, that seem to be burnt inerasably into our minds, while others simply fade with time until there seems to be no trace left of them in our memories. At certain times, notably at family reunions of any kind, some of us like to evoke the past and at other times, the recollections come just over us if we like it or not. The latter is what happens in The Trolley by Claude Simon who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1985. At the age of 88 years the author and narrator finds himself in the emergency unit of the hospital and he remembers his school days in Perpignan commuting every day on the trolley connecting the city with the beach where he stayed with his fatally ill mother.

Claude Simon was born in Antananarivo, French Madagascar (today: Madagascar), in October 1913, but grew up in Perpignan, France. After stints at the universities of Paris and Cambridge he studied painting and then travelled around Europe fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He also started writing his first novel Le Tricheur (tr. The Cheat) that was published in 1946. As a soldier in World War II he was taken prisoner, escaped and joined the French Resistence. Most notable among the novels he wrote after the war are La Corde Raide (1947; tr. The Tightrope), Le Sacre du printemps (1954; tr. The Rite of Spring), The Wind (Le Vent: 1957), The Grass (L’herbe: 1958), The Flanders Road (La Route des Flandres: 1960), Histoire (1967), Triptych (Triptyque: 1973), The World About Us (Leçon de choses: 1975), and The Georgics (Les Géorgiques: 1981). For a living he produced wine in the Roussillon. In 1985 Claude Simon received the Nobel Prize in Literature after which he published four more novels, namely The Invitation (L'Invitation: 1987), The Acacia (L'Acacia: 1989), The Jardin des Plantes (Le jardin des plantes: 1997), and finally The Trolley (Le tramway: 2001). Claude Simon died in Paris, France, in July 2005.

Shortly after the end of World War I, the author as a boy went to school on The Trolley connecting the beach of Canet at the Mediterranean Sea where he and his family stayed during the warm season with the centre of Perpignan about a dozen of kilometres inland. He is a feverish and sleepless old man whom tubes and electrodes confine to his hospital bed in the emergency unit, when childhood memories linked to the place, notably to the trolley, come back to his mind with full force. But he doesn’t only recall in great detail the strange electric vehicle that fascinated him so much as a child, the mute men in grey driving it always with a cigarette between their lips or the much admired grown-ups who dared to stay on the forbidden platform instead of moving on into the cabin. There are also the cinemas in the city or the vine-covered hills and the bourgeois villas along the line. He remembers the beach houses, the tennis court and the children – friends and relatives – with whom he played. And most importantly there is his loving, though fatally ill mother who passed her days enveloped in her bed-jacket and motionless like a mummy on a chaise-longue in the garden and reluctantly ate raw meat burgers until one day he returned from school and she was no longer there. The white-haired man whom he can see from his hospital bed reminds him of her because he is just as pale and weak as she used to be. He also recalls the mutilated men in their hand-bikes who gathered at one of the head stations. They made him shudder, but his mother they painfully reminded of the terrible war that robbed her of the only man whom she had ever loved.

In The Trolley the author himself as first-person narrator tells his story without a plot as guidance, but he pieces together seemingly at random very vivid as well as detailed memories and impressions that evoke unconnected scenes from his own long life or, to be precise, from his childhood and from what he feels might be his last days. In other words, the book contains literary ruminations of a sick old man who allows his thoughts to flow freely in the face of death. Naturally, the tone of the novel is melancholic and it becomes increasingly sinister as it advances towards the end. There are no dialogues at all, just plain narration in exceptionally long sentences that in many ways remind of Marcel Proust. In addition, the author likes to make long insertions in parentheses. As a result, it’s a read that requires quite some concentration to avoid losing the thread. Descriptions of scenery, people and events use to be extremely meticulous, but also very picturesque, not to say impressionistic because they create the emotions corresponding to the “snapshot” of life. Part of the latter effect certainly comes from the poetic language that made the book a pleasure to read.

Although The Trolley by Claude Simon turned out to be a difficult and somewhat confusing read, I enjoyed it very much for its beautiful language and impressive descriptions. In retrospect it almost felt like leafing through an old photo album or a picture book displaying in rich colours the most memorable moments of a life and giving later generations an idea of the world as it used to be. The effect of the novel is stronger, however, because the author portrayed his childhood in moving rather than still pictures transformed into words notwithstanding that there is no plot nor much action. It was this combined creativeness of the poet and the painter that earned the writer the Nobel Prize in Literature 1985 and that intrigued me from beginning to end. It’s a novel that won’t easily appeal to lovers of mainstream, but it definitely was my cup of tea. Therefore it deserves my warmest recommendation.

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  1. I have yet to read this Nobel winner. I had no idea he had written so many novels. Is this one his best do you think? Or have you read others you liked even better?

    1. This is the only one of Simon's novels that I ever read, so I can't tell you if it's his best. It's his last, I know as much.


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