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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Invitation

Claude Simon

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To purchase The Invitation

Title: The Invitation
Author: Claude Simon
Genre: Novel
Written: 1987 (Eng. 1991)
Length: 77 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Invitation - US
The Invitation - UK
The Invitation - Canada
L'invitation - Canada
L'invitation - France
Die Einladung - Deutschland
La invitación - España
  • French title L'invitation
  • Translated by Jim Cross
  • With an Afterword by Louis Oppenheim

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Our Assessment:

B : small but not minor; an interesting glimpse of the Soviet Union at that time

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 16/5/2014 John Fletcher

  From the Reviews:
  • "L'Invitation (1987) is the wry evocation of a writers' and artists' conference held in 1986 in the Soviet Union. Simon attended the gathering with a number of celebrities from different countries. As is his wont, he does not name them, but most are easily recognizable" - John Fletcher, Times Literary Supplement
  • "After his Nobel prize, Simon went, very much out of character, on a celebrity trip to the Soviet Union in the company of other literary grandees. When he got back, he wrote a sour account of it and of what he saw as the grotesque self-promotion of his -- unnamed, though in some cases easily identifiable -- fellow travellers. That little book of 1987, L'Invitation, raised the question of why the austere and censorious Simon had not done a Sartre and refused something as corrupt as the Nobel prize in the first place." - John Sturrock, The Guardian (11/7/2005)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In 1986 Chingiz Aitmatov invited some fifteen intellectuals and artists for the first Issyk-Kul Forum, in then-still-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. The participants included Peter Ustinov, James Baldwin, Alvin Toffler, Yaşar Kemal, Arthur Miller -- and newly minted Nobel laureate Claude Simon; the group was famously also invited for an audience with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. [See also The New York Times' report from back then, Peter Ustinov talks of Gorbachev chat, as well as Arthur Miller's report from Issyk-Kul: A Conversation With Gorbachev.]
       Claude Simon's slimmest of novels -- 58 pages of text, in this Dalkey Archive Press edition --, The Invitation, is clearly very closely based on his experiences on this trip, in a country he had visited almost exactly fifty years earlier. The meeting with Gorbachev -- described here as "one of the two most powerful men in the world" and by title (secretary-general) but not by name -- figures prominently, including in the opening scene, even as the narrative also repeatedly shifts back and forth to other experiences from the visit. The meeting makes an added impression, because Gorbachev had only: "four days before displayed his formidable arsenal at the poker table on the other side of which the cowboy with the flashy smile sat also with a formidable arsenal", as the Soviet leader had just met American president Ronald Reagan at the summit in Reykjavík.
       The fifteen taking part in the forum form: "an incongruous group". They, too, are not identified by name, beyond what is clearly Peter Ustinov, called 'Nero' here (after his role in Quo Vadis) -- though he, apparently sharply dressed, is also repeatedly described as some variation of 'the Savile Row client'. Nevertheless, some others, too, are recognizable even without knowing who had actually taken part. There's a touch of the exotic to the group -- "three personages who differed from the others not only in the color of their skin but also in their dress" -- but the group is, notably, also entirely male. (Arthur Miller's wife, photographer Inge Morath, was on the actual trip, but is distinctly sidelined here.)
       Simon hones in on small scenes of the group's actions and interactions -- with, for example, Miller:

searching, then pulling a small notebook from his pocket, tearing out a page, scribbling quickly with a pencil, then, impassive, his dry, gaunt, inexpressive expression, sliding the sheet across the tablecloth brushing his neighbor's elbow (the neighbor drawn out of his somnolescence, shifting stiffly in his chair, looking down, able to read, on the small rectangle of paper, the words: "They find us contemptible") ...
       The locales color much of the narrative, from the Central Asian city they meet in, with its main-square statue of "the fiery bronze rider [...] who had given his own name to the city like the rustling and snapping of a flag" (Frunze, as the city of Bishkek was then still known as), to the grand theater: "where emperors and empresses had certainly been seated", as had: "the man with the bandit mustache, with the paternal smile of a bandit, with the philosophy and the morals of a murderer" (i.e. Stalin) to banquet halls. Appropriately, the closing scene is at the mausoleum: "where under the rows of marble plaques reposed, lying parallel, the embalmed mummies of the former rabble-rousers with professors' foreheads" lie. The story closes the book on them -- the final words are: "their lips now and from now on closed" --, as Simon can already write off the failed nation which he witnesses in its final decline. (Already by the time this English translation came out, in 1991, the system and nation had completely collapsed -- making for an interesting contrast with how it must have read when it first came out in French, just a few years earlier.)
       The Invitation isn't simply an outsider's glancing view of the disintegration of a totalitarian system, as Simon's limited but sharp impressions clearly lay bare a nation that, even with a leader who is the second most powerful man on earth, is crumbling.
       The group of foreigners -- almost somnambulic, much of the time, except for the bombastic Ustinov-figure -- can never be but out of place, The Invitation much like many novels -- only more extreme, and to the point in its sharp portrait -- featuring such a group of intellectuals thrown into and led about such a different world. As well-meaning as the reasons for their being brought here and the gathering are, there is hardly place for these to be in any way adequately addressed; various levels of pomp and circumstance dominate instead.
       Simon's often long sentences magnify the sense of pent-up compression; The Invitation is a short novel, but also bursting in its impressions (and, also, its acridity). It's far from the usual travelogue or fictionalized writers-/intellectuals-gathering account; a smaller work, it isn't slight; indeed, it feels like Simon has compressed all his exasperation and fury, at system and also (this travel and group) experience, into this short work.
       The Invitation is a curious little work, but certainly of some interest -- not least in the context of Simon's own life and work -- and a neat little picture of the Soviet Union at a point where its terminal decline has become self-evident.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 January 2022

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The Invitation: Reviews: Claude Simon: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Claude Simon (1913-2005) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1985.

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© 2022 the complete review

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