Claude Simon, 91, a French writer whose experimental novels made him a controversial choice for the 1985 Nobel Prize in literature, died July 6 in France and was buried yesterday in Paris. No cause of death was reported.
When he was awarded the prize, he was not well known, even in France, and seemed to be another in a string of obscure, difficult writers selected by the Nobel committee. In the 1950s and 1960s, he became a prime exponent, along with such writers as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor and Nathalie Sarraute, of le nouveau roman, the "new novel" movement in France. This literary style rejected the traditional narrative methods and other literary conventions in an effort to convey the direct sensations of memory and awareness.
For most of his life, Mr. Simon lived outside the mainstream of French literary society, growing grapes on a small, steadily shrinking ancestral estate in the Pyrenees. He published more than 15 books, often with little plot, few paragraphs, almost no punctuation and an undefined point of view.
One passage from his 2001 novel, "Le Jardin des Plantes," evoked his memories of the Spanish Civil War in stream-of-consciousness style: "about five o'clock yes probably death in the afternoon except that there was no one there to watch me no spectators no arena no little trumpet no applause only the cheerful green springtime countryside cheerful May sunshine so let's say five o'clock . . . "
Two of Mr. Simon's most admired novels were "The Flanders Road" (1960) and "The Georgics" (1981), both of which recounted his experiences in World War II, during which he was captured by German forces, escaped after five months and joined the French Resistance.
Some of his other works were far less accessible, dwelling for pages on such topics as chewing or the nature of briefcases. A critic for Britain's Times Literary Supplement said that in Mr. Simon's 1971 novel, "Conducting Bodies," "perhaps . . . the only important action is the gradual disappearance of a patch of sunlight on a floor."
When he won the Nobel Prize, Mr. Simon was so little known that Isaac Bashevis Singer, the 1978 Nobel laureate in literature, scoffed, "Who is this, a woman, a man?"
Calvin Trillin, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, quipped, "Susan Sontag better have heard of this guy or there'll be trouble."
But writer Joyce Carol Oates, who had published some of Mr. Simon's works at a small press she ran with her husband, said, "He's a wonderful writer -- experimental and poetic and iconoclastic."
Mr. Simon was born Oct. 10, 1913, in Tananarive, Madagascar. His father was killed in World War I, in 1914, and his mother died when he was 11. He was raised by a series of relatives and attended Stanislas College in Paris, as well as Oxford and Cambridge universities in England. His original ambition was to be a painter.
During the 1930s, he traveled widely throughout Europe, including parts of the Soviet Union, and was briefly involved in gunrunning for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
For much of the rest of his life, he divided his time between the small town of Perpignan in the south of France and Paris. He began his writing career in the 1940s as a relatively conventional novelist before changing his approach with "The Wind" (1957) and "The Grass" (1958). His works contained hints of autobiography, but until he won the Nobel, he had few readers, and some of those were detractors.
"Claude Simon's books provoke people to either rage or adulation," a Los Angeles Times critic wrote in 2001. "Sadly, there is no middle ground."
For his own part, Mr. Simon couldn't see why others found his work hard to reach.
"Difficult? Surely not," he said in 1985. "If the reader finds pleasure there, let him continue; if not, let him throw the book away."
"For me," he added, "the big chore is always the same: how to begin a sentence, how to continue it, how to complete it."
After his first marriage, to Yvonne Ducing, ended in divorce, he married Rhea Karavas in 1978.