The 1985 Nobelist joins Doris Lessing and Hortense Calisher in demonstrating, in this year of wonders, that old age need not inhibit creative power.
Simon, who is now 88, offers in this 2001 récit an enchanting Proustian reverie, assembled (as are his other 21 novels, such as The Palace, 1962, and The Flanders Road, 1960) from recurring images presented in swooping, dreamlike run-on sentences and emotion-laden stream-of-consciousness meditations. The starting point is a recollection of the trolley car that took the young narrator to and from school, and possessed his imagination as a virtually magical conveyance in which he was granted the occasional “privileged position” of standing in the vehicle’s cab alongside its driver. The logic of imagery then creates transitions to the beginning and ending points of the trolley line (a “garish” movie house and a popular “society beach”), thence to the narrator’s recent ordeal as an elderly man in a hospital ward, required to share space with a moribund, scarlet-pajama–clad roommate, on to memories of his beloved mother’s final days, backward to remembering her as the center of his childhood, which triggers further memories of the trolley, and so on. It’s a beautiful technique, which Simon has long since refined and perfected. This brief story is crammed with gorgeous word pictures (“the bulging pouch [of a fisherman’s net] in which a silvery mass of fish throbbed in chaotic desperation”; public monuments which appear to be “somehow emerging from the realm of the dead and conversing among themselves”) and sharply observed peripheral figures: a phlegmatic housemaid who burns captured rats alive in their traps; the narrator’s indomitable “Maman”; and that old man in the hospital, stubbornly, almost obscenely clinging to the vestiges of life.
Proust himself seldom did it better. A small but substantial masterpiece from one of the world’s greatest living writers.