On Claude Simon’s novel Conducting Bodies (1971)
I read an awesome book and I want to tell you about it. Originally written in French by Claude Simon, and titled Les Corps conducteurs, the translation I read (by Helen R. Lane) is titled Conducting Bodies. It was originally published in 1971, but my version was published by Grove Press in 1974. Sadly, it appears to now be out of print — but used copies are out there.
I stumbled across it a few weeks ago at a used bookstore here in Tallahassee. It wasn’t like I saw it on the shelf and went “Oh yes! Oh my god, I can’t believe I found this.” It was more like, “Claude Simon sounds vaguely familiar…wasn’t he associated with Alain Robbe-Grillet and the Nouveau Roman movement?” I picked it up and did as I always do: I read the first sentence and prepared to put it back on the shelf if that sentence was not exceptional:
In the display window a dozen identical female legs are lined up in a row, feet up, the thighs lopped off at the hip joint resting on the floor, the knees slightly bent, as though the legs had been removed from some chorus of dancers at the precise moment that they are all kicking in unison, and put there in the window, just as they were, or perhaps snipped out, in monotonous multiplicity, from some advertisement showing a pretty girl in her slip pulling on a stocking, sitting on a pouf or on the edge of an unmade bed, her torso leaning backward, with the leg that she is pulling the stocking over raised up high, and a kitten, or a curly-haired puppy gleefully standing on its hind legs, barking, with its pink tongue sticking out.
Okay, talk about badass opening sentences. This one does much of what I look for: it creates mystery, it builds on tangents, it avoids introducing character, and it avoids setting up a story. Basically, it conveys to me that this writer is more interested in sentences than stories – which is what I look for in literature. I had to buy it. I paid $3.95.
For those unfamiliar with the Nouveau Roman (or, as it’s been translated, The New Novel) basically it was a predominantly French experimental literary movement in the 1950s-60s that sought to challenge the Aristotelian approach to novel writing. To get the full scoop, check out Robbe-Grillet’s slim little firecracker For A New Novel (which I would argue – aside from being informative re: the Nouveau Roman — is one of the most important works of literary theory ever written).
Anyway, this book, Conducting Bodies, is most definitely written in the Nouveau Roman style – you can tell after about two pages because of the strange camera-eye narrative p.o.v, overemphasis on physical details, the absence of any kind of interiority, the meticulous almost mathematic obsession with objects in space, the continual repetition of particular words or phrases with slight deviations: the way words get recycled in various arrangements as if you are reading something through a kaleidoscope, the way the narrative breathes akin to how a camera lens breathes: it moves in and out of focus, it shifts from foreground to background, from the insides of someone’s body to the landscape that person is inhabiting. Here is a cool example, from page 16-17):
She is a young woman with blond hair pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck, dressed in a blouse with the ends tied in a knot below her breasts, her hips, buttocks, and thighs imprisoned in a pair of tightfitting Bermuda shorts in an apple-green and lemon-yellow flower print. A leather bag dangles from a long strap slung over her shoulder. Between the knotted blouse-ends and the waistband of the Bermuda shorts a patch of bare skin is visible, tanned a tawny gold. Situated beneath the diaphragm and weighing between 1500 and 2000 grams, the liver is approximately 28 centimeters wide, 16 centimeters thick, and 8 centimeters high. It occupies all of the right hypochondrium, and extends a short distance over into the left hypochondrium. It is reddish brown in color; its consistency is firm but friable. It is marked with the imprint of contiguous organs. The hepatic artery (carrying oxygenated blood) and the portal vein (carrying blood from the digestive tract and nutritive elements which the liver chemically converts) feed into the pedicle located on its lower surface, from which the hepatic veins arise, carrying off bile to the choledoch and then to the intestine. The tall silhouettes of the skyscrapers are all of a uniform color, a dark, almost solid brown.
Such a wicked movement from observing the woman’s body to discussing her internal organs to observing the objects in the landscape. And this is the way the entire novel moves. There are no paragraphs and no chapters. The text is a 191 page block of text.
I’m not the kind of person who is interested in what a book is about, I’m much more interested in how something is written, but for those of you who are interested in what a book is about all I can tell you is that there is a sick man and there is a telephone and there’s a convention in which Spanish speakers are discussing magical realism. Oh, and I think the color yellow is pretty important, too.
This is the first book by Claude Simon I’ve ever read, but I’d be interested to read more. Dude won the Nobel prize in 1985. Here is a quote from his fantastic acceptance lecture (which you can read in full here):
“If (…) someone were to ask me”, wrote Paul Valéry, “if someone were to worry himself (as happens, and sometimes intensely) about what I’ve meant to say (…), I reply that I haven’t wanted to say anything, but wanted to make something, and that it’s this intention of making which has wanted what I’ve said.” I could take up this reply by point. If the writer’s array of motivations is like a wide-open fan, the need to be recognized, which André Lwoff speaks of, is perhaps not the most futile, demanding as it in the first place does a self-recognition, which in turn implies a “making”, a “doing” (I make – I produce – therefore I am), whether it is a question of building a bridge, a ship, of bringing in a harvest or of composing a string quartet.