Claude Simon, the French novelist who has died aged 91, was one of the foremost exponents of le nouveau roman, the "new novel" style of the 1950s and 1960s which rejected the literary conventions of plot, narration and character development.
Although his books - which contained little punctuation, jumbled chronology and meandering description - did not command a wide readership, Simon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985, after the publication of Les Georgiques (The Georgics), about three men's experience of war.
Those who could navigate their way through Simon's labyrinthine sentences and extensive parentheses (even parentheses within parentheses, the longest of which runs to 30 pages) were rewarded by rich and innovative writing that has been likened to the work of Proust, Joyce and Beckett. And while his style could be impenetrable, the novels themselves explored traditional subjects. "Literature," Simon once said, "always deals with the same things: love, death, the passage of time, hope, disillusion, man's sorrows."
Most of his 17 books were influenced by his participation, in 1940, in the Battle of the Meuse, during the German invasion of France; as a cavalryman defending French borders, Simon escaped certain death when the majority of his comrades were massacred by shell-firing tanks. He was taken prisoner, but later escaped from his PoW camp and spent the rest of the war working for the French resistance at Perpignan in the south of France.
La Route des FlandresHYI (1960, The Flanders Road) describes the French retreat at Meuse, focusing on the death of a French captain through the eyes of three other soldiers. It was, wrote one critic, "a deeply moving meditation on war". It was written, like much of his work, in fractured sentences entangled with dreams and memories. But Simon was dismissive of accusations that he was, as he put it, "a difficult, boring, unreadable, confused writer". Such complaints, he would say, had "always been levelled at any artist who even to the slightest degree upsets acquired habits and the established order of things".
Claude Eugene Henri Simon was born in Madagascar on October 10 1913. His father, an officer in the French army, was killed in 1914 at the start of the First World War. His mother died when Claude was 11.
Educated at Perpignan and at the College Stanislas, a Catholic boarding school in Paris, Simon studied at both Oxford and Cambridge during the late 1930s, and travelled throughout Europe. In 1934-35 he served in the French army before going to Barcelona in 1936 to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war. Later, however, he became disenchanted with the Republican cause.
On the outbreak of war Simon was recalled to his cavalry regiment, the 31st Dragoons. He was deeply affected by his wartime experiences. "They sent an entire division of horsemen against German armour," he said in 1985. "A total butchery." He described the spectacle of horses pitted against tanks as "more absurd than anything a novelist could invent".
After the war Simon moved to Salses, near Perpignan, where he had inherited a vineyard. There he completed his first novel, Le Tricheur (1945, The Cheat), which was followed by La Corde raide (1947, The Tightrope), Gulliver (1952) and Le Sacre du printemps (1954, The Rite of Spring). These early books were more traditional in form and character description, but with Le Vent (1957, The Wind) he began to explore a style in which the structure of a book revolves around a main event seen from different angles.
In L'Herbe (1958, The Grass), Simon made further use of flashbacks and deliberately confused narrative in his depiction of the death of an old woman. Later books also incorporated family tales, memories, 20th-century history and autobiography, all relayed non-chronologically, often in a stream of consciousness.
Simon, the first Frenchman to be awarded the Nobel prize for Literature since 1964, when Jean-Paul Sartre turned it down, reacted to the announcement of the award by saying that he would use the money to repair the roof of his house. He died on July 6.
Simon's marriage to Yvonne Ducing, in 1951, ended in divorce. In 1978 he married Rhea Karavas.