The Year of Reading Dangerously – Jean Echenoz
Lightning is the third in Jean Echenoz’s trilogy of biographical novels examining what might be loosely termed ‘genius’. Having covered art (in Ravel) and sport (in Running), Echenoz now turns his gaze to science with a fictionalised account of the life of Nikola Tesla. Each novel is brief and written in a deceptively casual, inclusive style, as established in the opening sentence:
“We all like to know, if possible, exactly when we were born.”
This tone remains unchanged throughout and, despite its informality (“Let’s try to understand it, this continuous current”), its unwavering neutrality and light irony creates a sense of inevitability, as if the story were being narrated by the friendly face of Fate.
I’m afraid to admit that my general knowledge of Tesla is largely limited to his supporting role in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, later brought to life by David Bowie (in one of his few convincing roles) in Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation. This makes it difficult to verify the accuracy of Echenoz’s story – it seems, for example, a little too convenient that Tesla’s birth is signalled by a “gigantic lightning bolt” – but some cursory research suggests that it is factually correct. This makes it a little mystifying that Echenoz refers to his protagonist as Gregor throughout, and that the novel is labelled as having been ‘inspired’ by Tesla’s life.
Whatever the reason for this, the path of Gregor’s life follows that of Tesla’s, from his birth in what is now Croatia to his departure for America; his work for Edison and the discovery of alternating current; through his many other inventions and ideas, his increasing dismissal as a mad scientist, and his eventual death, in debt and all but forgotten, in 1943 in New York. The advantage of Echenoz’s brevity is that it allows him to highlight two particular aspects of Gregor’s life: his seemingly unlimited resource of ideas and theories, and his inability to use these to make himself wealthy, partly as a result of the unscrupulousness of others. Edison, for example, offers him $50,000 to improve the output from his generator, but when he does so the money is not forthcoming:
“Young man, snaps Edison, sitting up and taking his feet off the desk, you mean to tell me you don’t know an American joke when you hear one?”
He leaves Edison, invents an arc lamp and finds some investors. However, when the investors see the profits to be made:
“Gregor finds himself promptly fired from his own business, which his associates take over, happy to celebrate their success, leaving him cleaned out.”
As the narrator comments, “that was another dirty trick”, suggesting a pattern that will continue. Gregor takes his idea of alternating current to Western Union. Despite Edison’s propaganda (the electrocution of various animals, including an elephant, and the invention of an electric chair so that the effect can be seen on humans), it is (as we know) a success. Gregor becomes famous and is much in demand, but it has been so successful that to pay him the royalties he is entitled to would cost twelve million dollars. Gregor rips up his contract:
“Proving that in the dirty tricks department, sometimes he plays the on himself.”
Although all three of Echenoz’s geniuses are solitary (for example, from Ravel: “He is alone in his house at Montfort without any illusions. He has always been alone, but held aloft by music.”), Gregor is perhaps the most alone. The only other person he feels anything for, Ethel, is married, and they are both incapable of pursuing intimacy, their closest moment coming when:
“Ethel – perhaps a tad tipsy – knots his new tie round his neck. Despite his aversion, even with her, to physical contact, and despite his sudden irrepressible fear for one second that she will strangle him, he finds to his surprise that he enjoys the moment.”
By this point Gregor’s only path is downward, his inventions ignored, living in smaller and smaller hotel rooms, with only pigeons for company. In all three of these novels Echenoz not only displays wonder at what these men achieve, but also recounts the aftermath: Ravel’s deteriorating mental abilities; Zatopek’s fading powers as a runner and the political situation that results in him working as a garbage collector. As with any tragedy, the decline somehow makes the man greater in his diminishment.
Danger rating: easily digested, ideal for a sunny afternoon on the garden, there’s more to these short novels than first meets the eye. Disgracefully without a UK publisher (published by New Press in the USA), a single volume would now be ideal.