Jean Echenoz may not have been published in the UK since Piano ten years ago, but luckily The New Press across the Atlantic has provided us with a steady stream of his short novels since then: a loose trilogy centred on famous figures in music, sport and science (Ravel, Running and Lightning). Echenoz’s latest could not be more timely (though it appears in Linda Coverdale’s translation two years after its French publication) dealing, as it does, with the First World War.
The novel begins with the outbreak of war. Its main character, Anthime, is cycling through a scene of bucolic bliss when he hears church bells:
“The tocsin could only mean one thing: mobilisation.”
If you’ve read Echenoz before you will know he writes in a deceptively straightforward, detached style, unfolding the story through a series of scenes, seemingly allowing us access to characters’ thoughts but only at moments, and often only in response to what they are seeing. In revealing the novel’s initial relationships it is a while before he makes clear that Charles, a character Anthime meets within a few pages, is his brother, and their relationship with Blanche is alluded to rather than described:
“As he’d expected, Anthime had first seen Blanche smile proudly at Charles Martial bearing and then, as he drew abreast of her in turn, he was not a little surprised when he gave her a different kind of smile, more serious and even, he felt, a trifle more emotional, pronounced, sustained, well who knows, exactly.”
The purpose of chapter 3 is to describe the atmosphere in the town after the young men have left; Echenoz does this by following Blanche through a number of settings from her room to the street outside, ending with the wonderful line: “Blanche sees only old fellows and kids, whose footsteps sound hollow on a stage too large for them.” The image works because it simply elaborates on the visual information which permeates the chapter.
Blanche is kept in view as Echenoz uses the novel’s unassuming love triangle to explore the war’s effect on personal relationships. She is pregnant when the soldiers leave; it is presumed Charles is the father. Attempts to keep him safe by ensuring he gets a post in the newly formed Air Service (where Echenoz provides some detail of this less well known aspect of the war) don’t work out as planned. There are hints, however, that Anthime is the father, something that is never completely resolved. Anthime meanwhile fights in the trenches, Echenoz using a shorthand of detailed moments to recreate the experience. At one point he says:
“All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid stinking opera.”
This raises an important question of whether further novels on the First World War can add anything new. Instead of retelling the war, Echenoz focuses on the powerful effect the war has on redirecting people’s lives. The novel’s conclusion strongly suggests that it is his characters’ relationships that are uppermost in his mind, and that such relationships persist in spite of the war. Anthime loses his right arm but Echenoz emphasises that he can still feel it, something he finally comes to accept:
“Anthime stood perfectly still and his face showed no expression as he raised his right fist in solidarity, but no one saw him do it.”
Like many other scenes in the novel, this continues to resonate with the reader long after the book is put down. If you intend to read one new novel about World War One this year, this should probably be it.