Claude Simon's "Conducting Bodies" is an uncommonly puzzling, frustrating, and potentially rewarding novel--if it is a novel at all.
The "conducting bodies" of the title are several: the principal character's ailing body, for which he visits a doctor; the contentious body of delegates at the writers' conference he attends; bodies in minutely described medical diagrams, newspaper advertisements, and artistic reproductions; bodies eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, sitting, or in erotic poses; celestial bodies, such as the constellation Orion, whose myth seems to underlie the book.
But above all, it is the shifting images and whirling sentences of the text to which the title refers, as the objects of the impersonal narrator's focus evolve into one another and scenes recur repeatedly, modified by new juxtapositions. A sentence might, for example, begin with the image of disembodied legs modeling stockings in a store window and end with a description of anatomical prints in a doctor's office, or with the image of a meandering river that somehow turns into a snake coiled around a tree.
And so on. Though less given than fellow proponents of the nouveau roman, the New Novel, (Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet) to theoretical statements, Simon did compose a brief argument in 1970, the year before the first French publication of "Conducting Bodies" (the book was first published in English by the Viking Press in 1974), in which he rejected such traditional novelistic concerns as character, anecdote, and plot. Instead, Simon attacks the very nature of the novel itself, and for this, he received the Nobel Prize in 1985.
It must be said that eliminating most of the elements of the traditional novel fails to produce a page turner. (At one point, I lost my place and had a devil of a time finding where I was--was it the 7th, the 9th, the 13th description of the airplane presumably carrying the writer to his conference?)
Nothing is certain in "Conducting Bodies." I assume the airplane is carrying the writer to his conference, because Simon describes the person, the plane, and the event. But it is left to the reader to connect them, or to leave them unconnected. This strategy exposes the stubbornness of the reader, who can hardly resist making a story, whether from the exploding words of "Finnegans Wake" or from the cartwheeling sentences of "Conducting Bodies." Grove Press' copywriter, for example, somewhat desperately ventures on the back cover of the book that "it is perhaps true that the story tells of a man visiting an American city, who meets a married woman with children and spends the night with her."
The urge to connect Simon's images through the medium of a character's consciousness is so irresistible that we interpret the encyclopedic descriptions of jungle landscapes as reveries set off by the writer's view from his plane window, and we take the fragmentation of the conference delegates' speeches, together with the writer's lack of participation, to suggest his alienation of his rejection of the writers' platform of social engagement. Though time sequencing is largely eliminated, we suppose that he telephones the woman and then meets her, though nothing rules out an inverse order. When we follow him as he walks through the street, we guess that he might be meeting her--but in fact he simply walks, from an unspecified departing point to an unknown destination.
Since Simon has largely eliminated temporal relations, he produces a collegelike text that calls to mind his initial training as a painter, and in fact many of the book's images are drawn from works of art, whose elements seem to generate the novel. Already, in less radical earlier works--such as "The Flanders Road" and "The Palace"--Simon had proven himself a superb stylist with a special talent for precise and often compelling descriptive passages (these qualities are here masterfully captured by Helen R. Lane's sensitive translation).
One of the works of art described by Simon is a painting of Orion by Poussin, and if, instead of character or plot, we were to seek a theme or a message from Simon's text, we might find it in this image, to which he devotes considerable space. Orion, the seeker of light, was the blinded hunter whose vision was restored as he faced the rising sun. But in Poussin's painting, the titanic figure fades into the surrounding landscape and becomes indistinguishable from it. The promise of revelation is denied, and we find ourselves instead in an indeterminate and confused world where things fade into other things; nothing is fixed; everything is a conducting body, and it is up to us, the readers, to form our own conclusions from the kaleidoscopic text.
Finally it is in the plastic molding, shaping, and balancing of what become almost abstract units of prose that the book's greatest interest lies, and the author's most significant achievement: We might regard Simon as the Piet Mondrian of the modern novel.
How remote Simon's ambitious experiment seems in the context of today's mostly modest and conventional fiction! If the New Novel has become ancient history, it still has much to offer to readers and writers wanting to explore different avenues and approaches to fiction.