Claude Simon - The Invitation
Fifteen guests are chauffeured around on a tour of the Soviet Union. Their opinions, considered valuable to the outside world, are avidly sought, and genially listened to, but the men listening are paper dolls. It is important that the guests are impressed, but not necessarily that they are impressive. Pompous ceremony follows carefully orchestrated meeting, and the peasant grin of the bandit-mustached Stalin looms large and menacing, but always just out of sight. Dead forty years, he is everywhere in Claude Simon's The Invitation, a novella that is by turns harrowing, claustrophobic, and, with its excess of detail and intensity, almost unbearably uncomfortable.
Simon's style is very much his own, comprised of long, sinuous, muscular sentences which delve, ever deeper (oppressively so) into their subjects, adding clauses, asides, digressions and, always, more and more information. The truth is as diaphanous as a moth's wing, and cannot be properly grasped. All you can do is feel the faint rub of it on your skin.
Simon declines to name the fifteen guests, though many of the primary participants are obvious; the American President is clearly Reagan, the man dating the most beautiful woman in the world is Arthur Miller, and so on – but identifying characters is beside the point. Simon writes,
Perhaps he didn't concern himself about it (that is to say, about the identity or the name of any of them in particular: it was probably sufficient that they were there, that someone had told him that these were the men whose names were well known in their countries)
And he's right. The Soviet Union, to a certain group of people on the other side of the Iron Curtain (a group which, it should be admitted, shrunk with each passing year), was a fascination, an example of the Communist ideology done right. The 1930s is a primary example of this, as English and American intellectuals from the lightweight to the very prominent indeed, fell under the spell. The horrors, if they were known, were glossed over as the price of progress. But even in the 1980s, long after the cracks in the Communist state had become gaping chasms through which samizdat novels, political refugees, and endless reports of the GULag, the disappearance of thinkers, writers, artists and dissidents, poured, there were still those on the left enamoured with the experiment being conducted.
The Soviets, of course (as with the opposing superpower America), had it in their best interest to impress their visitors. The Invitation is a journey into this nightmare, a series of events where living and breathing people seem made of wax and Papier-mâché. Following a theatre performance, the guests retire to the Royal box, where emperors and nobility had sat and
...where, now, when he came, one of the two most powerful men in the world would sit, where, before him, doddering old men had sat, and before the old men, the man with the bandit mustache, with the paternal smile of a bandit, with the philosophy and the morals of a murderer and who, because of ambition, cruelty, amusement, fear, or simple stupidity, had had arrested, beaten, condemned, sent to prison, and put to death, with or without a verdict, human beings, men and women, infants and the aged, by the million...
Simon shuffles his characters from one neatly defined, and horribly grotesque, set piece to another, the Soviet officials prodding and prompting for neat, bite-sized comments of approval to send to the state-owned newspapers and, while smiling, asking for lengthy speeches, the details of which are not recorded, the words never listened to. It's all theatre, a farce except everyone takes it so seriously. Simon writes,
they had also to visit the library in front of which they had pretended to plant the young trees, mount the solemn staircase, seat themselves around tables on which dishes of fruit and doughnuts were spread, drinks cups of tea, shake hands, smile. The mayor gave a banquet, and during the speeches they exchanged and compared their porcelain plates on which couples of women tenderly intertwined were pictured, dressed in the classical style, tunics, mauve, or the green of the Nile, and around them flew cupids with transparent wings like a dragonfly's, shooting arrows from golden bows (the setting, glasses, and the porcelain service with the suggestive embraces seized without a doubt by decree from some sybarite prince or count of the previous century, now mass-produced, also by decree, by some huge manufacturing company – or by a department of the gigantic, and unique, factory that produced the lines of cities conceived by the computer, columns, frescoes, statues, table settings – coffee cups and sugar bowls included – delivered by whole trains, thoroughout all the republics of the Union, even the most isolated, in the middle of deserts, of forests where the ground never thaws, at the foot of the fabulous mountain ranges, and placed by quiet, diligent servants...
Oceans of detail from the ordinary trappings of a government-provided lunch. This is typical of Simon, both in its length (and the sentences stretch before and beyond the above quote), its accumulation of detail and amalgamation of concepts as disparate as factories and lesbianism, and the mounting feeling of dread and horror that such extended passages bring. These details are overwhelming, deliberately so, and they are just as overwhelming to the guests, who begin to smile with lips as fixed and frozen as their hosts.
flowers, armfuls of carnations, gladiolus that young girls put into their hands, children with red scarves around their necks, with flat, yellow faces, with black hair, sleek and shining, and from whom they (the guests) tried to extricate themselves, bouquets even at their departure in the airplane that would take them back to the capital, placed hurriedly on the carpeting, tipped over, stems broken, already wilting, strewn along the central corridor, trampled by the comings and goings from one armchair to another, papers in hand, stooping to compare, hastily corrected, words scratched out or scribbled in, grandiloquent sentences, empty of meaning, paragraphs empty of meaning, corpses of crushed flowers scattered over the carpet...
But there is no extrication, not ever, not until they have left (and even then the taint remains, like a bad smell or, worse, a bad memory remembered incessantly, deliberately, the way we touch our tongue to a cut in our mouths even though it hurts). A delivery of flowers becomes a nightmare, the words darkening as the paragraph continues, beginning with broken stems and ending with corpses.
Included after the novella is a short essay by Lois Oppenheim. The essay makes for interesting reading, but the language used is too academic, and may put off readers interested in further understanding Simon's text. A typical sentence reads,
Primordiality in Simon defeats the logic of representation, the rationale of symbolic or allegoric depiction, to effect in its stead, syntactically and paradigmatically, a tension between the transparency (or referentiality) and opacity (or self-reflexivity) or language.
This is fine stuff, and well said, but it is not a casual reading. I do not wish this criticism to sound anti-intellectual – not at all – but I believe that an essay such as Lois' is better placed with an academic text concerning Simon's work, and less useful as a descriptive or explanatory aside at the end of this novella. A prime example of a scholar who is well-suited to such a task would be the Harold Bloom's afterwords in the Yale Shakespeare series, essays steeped in erudition which, nevertheless, refrain from jargon. Again, though, patience, as with Simon's text, rewards, and there is much to be said of Lois' close reading. But keep in mind it is not a popularly-minded essay.
Simon's The Invitation is very, very short, but it is tough reading. The text is dense, and there is none of the relief normally provided by dialogue, character attribution, or internalisation. Everything is expressed, but nothing is ever anchored. This is deliberate, but the effect is disorienting. When read slowly, carefully, and with the intent of untangling the layers of meaning, Simon's novel is an exceptionally rewarding text. The language, as Simon builds to one of his many crescendos, is frequently astonishing, and over time the rhythms of the sentences and punctuation become familiar, and the text is able, for its brief length, to perform its hollow dirge. In a word: breathtaking.
Index of French titles under review
Other titles from The Dalkey Archive Press under review.
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
Boojum, L'animal Littéraire
Cairn (electronic journal archive)
Chroniques de la Luxiotte
Evene (Book section)
French Book News (English)
French Cultural Agency (English)
Gallica (Bibliotheque nationale de France digital library)
L'Express (Book section)
Lire: le magazine littéraire
La Femelle du Requin
La Vie des idées
Le Centre National du Livre
Le Magazine Littéraire
Le Matricule des anges
Le Monde (Book section
La République des Livres
Le Monde Diplomatique (Book section)
Le Nouvel Observateur (Book section)
Le Tiers Livre, littérature et Internet
English translation of François Bon's blog
Libération (Book section)
Palimpsestes (French and English)
Transfuge, literature et cinéma
"who in his novel combines the poet's and the painter's creativeness with a deepened awareness of time in the depiction of the human condition"
-Nobel Prize in Literature, 1985