The Swedish Academy today patched up a 21-year-old lover's quarrel with France by awarding the Nobel Prize for literature to Claude Simon, a pioneer of the French "new novel."
Simon, 72, whose novels reject traditional conventions such as plot and character development, was the first French writer to be awarded the world's most distinguished literary prize since Jean-Paul Sartre turned it down in 1964. Until that date, French writers had received the Nobel Prize for literature with greater frequency than writers of any other nation.
The decision to award the $225,000 prize to Simon, one of several French writers believed to have been on the Nobel short list, represents a boost for French literary prestige after many lean years. There are few countries in the world where literary trends are followed so avidly -- or writers taken so seriously -- as in France.
In a congratulatory telegram to Simon, President Franc,ois Mitterrand (himself a distinguished writer) described the new Nobel laureate as "one of the most demanding and one of the most inventive" of French writers.
"Thanks to you, and through you, all of French literature has been honored today," the president wrote.
Ironically, even in a country where successful novelists can become television stars, Simon is relatively unknown. His dense, intricate, free-flowing prose style has won him considerably more acclaim from literary critics and university professors than from the reading public.
The official Nobel Prize citation said that Simon's novels combined "the poet's and the painter's creativeness with a deepened awareness of time in the depiction of the human condition."
"It takes a lot of work to read him. You must have a good memory," acknowledged Lars Gyllensten, the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, after the official announcement of the award.
The French "new novel," or nouveau roman, is a literary style first developed by Simon and such writers as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor in the 1950s. It marked a break with the realistic tradition of French literature dating back to great 19th-century novelists such as Honore' de Balzac and Emile Zola.
In Simon's novels, time and space are confused. His characters live in a state of emotional turmoil, sometimes obsessed with memories, sometimes preoccupied with their immediate surroundings. The writing is neutral, stripped of any hint of lyricism. Punctuation is erratic, occasionally suppressed altogether.
"I never write about things that have happened in the past but about things that are happening at the moment I am writing. You know, the nouveau roman was once called, correctly, the school of observation. It is much more concerned with how things are than why," Simon explained today in his home village of Salses in the French Pyrenees.
Simon, the descendant of a family of French winegrowers, received the news of the prize in a telephone call from the Swedish Academy. He said he would go to Stockholm to receive the prize Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel.
Born in 1913 on the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa, Simon fought briefly on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. He was captured by the Germans in World War II but escaped and joined the French Resistance. His first novel appeared in 1945.
Simon made his literary breakthrough in 1960 with "La Route des Flandres" ("The Road to Flanders"), in which he described his World War II experiences. His most recent novel was "Les Georgiques," published in 1981, which is about the Spanish Civil War.
At a press conference in Stockholm today, Gyllensten praised Simon for remaining hopeful despite the "cruelty and absurdity which . . . seem to characterize our condition and which is so perceptively, penetratingly and abundantly reproduced in his novels."
"Claude Simon's narrative art may appear as a representation of something that lives within us whether we will it or not, whether we understand it or not, whether we believe it or not," the secretary of the Swedish Academy said.
The long gap between Nobel awards to French writers has sparked some controversy here, with opinions divided over whether the Swedish Academy has been penalizing France or whether France has failed to produce suitable candidates. Whatever the reason -- the secretive academy rarely explains its choice -- the friction caused by Sartre's rejection of the prize has now clearly been forgotten.
There was a sequel to the Sartre affair in 1975, when some of Sartre's friends contacted the director of the Nobel foundation to ask if the leftist existentialist philosopher could receive the prize money even though he had turned down the award itself. They were told that this was impossible, since the two went together. Sartre later denied that he had asked his "so-called friends" to make "such a stupid request."
French Nobel laureates for literature have included Sully Prudhomme (in 1901, the first year the prize was awarded), Anatole France (1921), Andre' Gide (1947), Franc,ois Mauriac (1952) and Albert Camus (1957). A total of 12 Frenchmen have won the award -- compared with nine Americans and eight Britons.
Although public lobbying for the prize is forbidden -- and in any case counterproductive, given the Swedish Academy's fiercely independent spirit -- Mitterrand let it be known that he thought it was time a Frenchman won the award again. His own preference was said to be Michel Tournier, one of France's best-selling authors.
French Culture Minister Jack Lang, accompanying Mitterrand on an official visit to Brazil, said that Simon was a writer "who never got the recognition that his genius deserves."
Simon is known to have been on the Nobel short list since at least 1983, when one of the most influential members of the Swedish Academy, Artur Lundkvist, said that he had missed the prize by a "whisker." Lundkvist, a renowned critic and translator, caused a controversy by coming out publicly in favor of Simon over British novelist William Golding, who was the choice of other members of the committee.
A tour of several book shops in central Paris demonstrated Simon's relatively low standing in the eyes of the French reading public. One bookseller had never heard of him, a second did not stock any of his books, and a third seemed happy to be rid of an 18-year-old copy of his novel "Histoire."