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A hypnotic journey to 20th century France


By Claude Simon

Translated by Richard Howard

The New Press, $22.95, 112 pp

The pleasures of reading The Trolley, the new novel by Nobel Prize-winning French author Claude Simon come as a paradox _ here is a writer whose prose is rooted in the physical descriptions of a bygone neighborhood of youth, but whose real theme is mind _ the "impalpable and protecting mist of memory." Simon's fascination with the surface of things leads to profound observations.

Simon has claimed that his novels don't intend to entertain or teach. But in a very literal sense the author, who is 88 this year, is a master of the "show business" that is fiction. In The Trolley, he once again displays his power to make words do the physical labor of paint or stone. The Trolley rummages through recollections of bitter servants, pretentious farmers and ruined aristocracy of 20th century France without sentiment, but with a hypnotic precision.

Like Proust, Simon is able to conjure a textual reality that is so absorbing, one begins to feel that experiences were not just read, but lived for oneself. The prose carries an immediacy unmatched by any other writer I know. It's said that Simon's fans are hard-core readers (I count myself among them) and one reads his novels anticipating an invigorating ESP-like experience.

For Simon, memory is not so much a re-creation of reality as reality itself. His novels are dense, existing as works of art maybe even more than stories. The trolley of the title is the central image here, and as described with loving, near photographic detail the vehicle becomes both object and subject of memory. While carrying readers back to the beginnings of the author's life, The Trolley leaves Simon near the end in a hospital room where he details the indignities of age.

Simon, who employs occasional long stretches of prose unbroken by punctuation, has an ideal interpreter in Richard Howard, who has translated seven other of the author's works. Howard's fluid translation matches Simon's precision and lyricism.

The Trolley is a delightful introduction to readers unfamiliar with Claude Simon's work. The novel's parallel tracks of memory and description present an exquisitely detailed antique streetcar and a portal to the author's reminiscences. Travel to early 20th century France with Claude Simon as he mines a vein of pure memory, and get off The Trolley braced with the feeling of actually having been there.

Philip Herter writes the Times' Foreign Correspondence column.