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Unsentimental Journey

The Trolley

A Novel; By Claude Simon , Translated from the French by Richard Howard; The New Press: 110 pp., $22.95

July 14, 2002|THOMAS McGONIGLE | Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

At 88, Claude Simon, the French Nobel Prize winner, is more engaged with the real world and more innovative in terms of form and content in his books than many well-known writers half his age. His brief new novel, "The Trolley," rendered in English by Richard Howard, demonstrates all that is great about his works.

"The Trolley" follows the journey of one of these quaint old vehicles on its passage from the center of an unnamed town to a beach in southern France. The trolley and its mechanical operations are lovingly described in so much detail as to rescue the actual vehicle from forgetfulness.

At the same time, our attention alternates between vignettes of a schoolboy--surely Simon himself--riding the trolley through town and a startling mosaic of memory: a complicated family history stretching both in pride and shame from an aristocratic ancestor who voted for the execution of the king during the French Revolution to Simon's capture and escape during the German invasion at the beginning of World War II.

Yet, in between these memories, the eye of the narrator does not miss the motorman's cigarette butt, "stuck to his lower lip for the entire journey ... a stubby grayish tube of saliva-steeped paper." Nor does he give us a clear sense of cause and effect: We wonder, are the memories of the trolley provoked by a sign reading "transit," which the aging narrator glimpses while he is in a hospital, subjected to the horrors of modern medicine?

One doesn't know the answer, for the narrative possesses a delicious ambiguity. For many years, Simon has blurred the line between fiction and autobiography not from a vulgar desire to reveal some dreary salacious sexual activity about himself, but to overcome the difficulty of seeing through words the world and a person's place in it. In this, "The Trolley" is perhaps the most accessible of his many books in its brevity and clear focus.

Description of a Simon book is always far more complicated than the actual book. Everything rests on the clarity of description, which sometimes jars, as when the story's narrator recalls a disturbing moment in his childhood when the family maid is "killing one after the other the kittens of her cat's incessant litters, flinging them violently against the courtyard wall, picking up the tiny sticky balls of bloody hair if they still moved, flinging them against the wall again and then dumping them on the compost heap out of a basket which she then rinsed several times until there was no trace of blood left in it."

Or else, there is a passage in which the narrator acknowledges that it is not only his task to describe but also to penetrate the veil that separates the past from the present: "the stifling immobility of the air in which there always seemed to be floating that hanging veil which no breath of wind stirred, slowly sinking, covering with a uniform shroud the leafy rose-laurels, the sun-scorched lawns, the faded irises and the basin of stagnant water under its impalpable layer of ashes, the impalpable and protecting mist of memory."

In these moments of distraction and distortion, Simon has modeled in "The Trolley" a sensuous--and scrupulous--attitude toward the world, and it is heartening to be not so alone.

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