Book Review – The Invitation by Claude Simon

French Nobel Laureate Claude Simon earned the reputation as one of the more challenging authors of the “New Novel” movement. In 1987’s The Invitation he addressed the new direction of Russian government following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I enjoy both challenging reads and political stories, I found this story inviting and couldn’t resist the bidding to read it.

Mr. Simon approached the novel in such an original way that to call it unique wouldn’t describe it adequately. I would label his prose as a hybrid of stream of consciousness with bizarre syntax and punctuation. For those reasons, his work doesn’t appeal to all readers. Here’s an example. I should add that I threw open the book and located this passage at random.

And finally (the plane had already been flying three hours—the plane specially chartered for the fifteen guests, their interpreters, and the five or six attendants whose true purpose, be it to take care of them, to watch them, or to watch each other while among them, no one knew for sure—the airplane, whose departure they had awaited for almost two hours (after having already waited about an hour (which makes three altogether: as though the waiting (because of mysterious orders, annulled by counter orders no less mysterious, themselves annulled in their turn) (Page 18)

I’m not sure how many more pages until a period appeared, so I’ll stop there.

While Simon delivered his prose in a befuddling way, his unorthodox means of expression made this novel worth reading. He presented some marvelous lyrical flourishes. He delivered an outstanding view from an airplane. “…Enigmatic pool of gold that continued to drift on the sea of darkness.” (Page 21) The line about nightfall from the Rush song “Presto” has stuck with me since I first heard the track in 1989:

The evening plane rises up from the runway
Over constellations of light

With the greatest of respect to Neil Peart, I think Simon’s portrayal much better.

Simon’s writing reminded me of the acerbic cynicism of former Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham. Here’s a description of the secretary-general addressing the group of dignitaries sent to meet him. Simon’s unusual syntax worked very well in this section.

…and now he (the secretary-general—or rather the interpreters seated in the little cubicles along the wall parallel to the long table: it was now no longer women that they heard, their unhappy voices tired, stumbling: but men now, whom each of the guests, headphones over his ears, could hear in his own language, the sure tones following the assured speech of the secretary-general speaking without looking at any one of them in particular (none of the fifteen seated guests, seven on one side, eight on the other, here and there at the table where the only element of luxury was the bottles of mineral water: the fifteen guests whom his counselors had said (or whom his counselors had been told) were, each in his own country, important men (or brought out already—or complacent—or sensitive to flattery) and whom he (the secretary-general) took for nothing more than that, though he judged it wise (which his counselors had judged wise) to spend (to have him spend) two hours of his time…with people whose only capacity was to write books, to act in movies, to paint portraits in the English style, or to draft economic treaties (and probably his own experience of economic problems made him see these as less important than the others—except to take into account their influence not on the laws of the markets but proportionally to their renown) (Pages 46 -47)

At times while exploring this passage, I thought I was reading one of Lewis Lapham’s Notebook pieces about a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations.

My main criticism of The Invitation centered on the plot, or rather, the lack of one. The dignitaries attended numerous events in Russia, but still, nothing related to an actual story or moving the narrative forward occurred. I understand the secretary-general sent “the invitation” for a good will tour. Simon described it at his sardonic best, but he made his point very well in the section I cited above. While the novel came in at a brief 65 pages, it did still drag in parts.

Mr. Simon was to literature what Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz was to that genre. The Invitation isn’t for everybody; no doubt it will frustrate casual readers. The passages I cited above give a good sampling of the author’s prose. For those willing to challenge themselves, I’d invite readers to check out this novel.

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