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Portrait of a Memory

From that moment on there will simultaneously occur several events which, despite or perhaps precisely because of their apparent incoherence, constitute a virtually homogenous and coherent whole.

One of the presiding motifs in Claude Simon’s The Jardin des Plantes is the image of a man – the author, thinly disguised as “S.” – looking in a bathroom mirror and examining himself, the objects in front of him, and the things he sees behind him over his shoulder.   As S. playfully makes the mirror image of the room and objects behind him disappear and reappear simply by moving his arm or shoulder, these scenes subtly comment on the nature of autobiography.

At the core of The Jardin des Plantes is a single life-changing event.  Over and over S. revisits the fateful days of early May 1940 when his meager, antiquated cavalry unit was quickly overrun by the advancing German army, leading to his capture, imprisonment, torture, and eventual escape.  As he revisits his own numerous memories, the recollections of others, the published record, and the archival evidence he has unearthed of the events of those days, the end result is not a definitive story, but a rich, contradictory holographic recreation that presents a different perspective from every angle.

But other threads are woven around this crucial war story.  There are excerpts from the trial of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky in which the Soviet judicial system defines him as a parasite. There is the story of the Italian painter Gastone Novelli, who, after being tortured by the Nazis, tried to escape civilization altogether by living with a remote Brazilian tribe.  There are various scenes of S. being placed in the role of “the famous author” (Simon won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985), scenes that take place in cities around the world involving a seemingly endless parade of annoying bureaucrats, government handlers, inept translators,  fatuous tour guides.  (S. refers to this parade of the “representatives of the global intelligentsia” as the “sideshow phenomena.”)  There is a sustained interview on the subject of fear with a journalist who seems set on predetermining the outcome.  There is a visit with Picasso.  There are ruminations on Proust, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and other writers.  These various threads are sometimes presented as two ongoing columns of text side by side like a movie containing “several screens with different images running simultaneously.”  As Simon noted, this is “impossible in speech of writing.  But one can try all the same.”

But above all else, there are pages of achingly beautiful writing.

Perhaps, in the silence, they could then hear the tiny, implacable sound of the mechanism of the clock, the implacable rotation of little toothed gears, the wild oscillations of the flywheel, the clicks of the little hook falling and rising, holding back and then liberating the miniscule parcels of time one after another, the elegant golden hands, with their intricate ornamentation, imperceptibly progressing from one austere Roman numeral to the next, while the plump cherubs continued to frolic over the cornices and among the gilded leaves, until he decided (maybe clearing his throat, seeking, weighing the words that he was about to speak (at this point it must have been about six o’clock), maybe adopting a genial tone as when one speaks to children or cretins (or simply to people born on the Continent), recalling memories of the last war, the breakthroughs that they had seen run out of steam, the flanking counteroffensives)…

The Jardin des Plantes does not add up to a life.  Instead, it points toward the countless threads and fragmentary moments that compose our living.  It also suggests the difficulties in maintaining the essential complexity and confusion of one’s life.  For Simon, the continuous act of living is defined by his resistance to letting a single narrative dominate.  Not surprisingly, he referred to this novel as a “portrait of a memory.”

The Jardin des Plantes features in the early pages of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.  I wrote recently about Austerliz, Simon and Gastone Novelli.

Claude Simon, The Jardin des Plantes.  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001.   Translated from the French by Jordan Stump.  (Winner of the 2001 French-American Foundation Translation Proze)

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