Archive for the ‘Jean Echenoz’ Category

1914

February 13, 2014

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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.

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Lightning

July 5, 2011

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.

Running

January 29, 2010

Jean Echenoz’s latest novel (or perhaps novella would be more accurate) is a fictionalised account of the life of the Czech runner Emil Zatopek. Interestingly, whereas in his previous fiction Echenoz plays with narrative – from the double narrative of Double Jeopardy to the statement on the first page of Piano that the main character will “die a violent death in twenty-two days’ time” – Running is strictly chronological, almost as if the pre-existence of the story in fact makes redundant any reordering of events.

The novel begins when Emil (as he is referred to throughout) is a young man and has not yet taken up running. Only accidentally does he discover his talent, coming second in his first race. As a local trainer remarks:

“You run funny but you don’t run so badly.”

Emil’s unconventional running style is mentioned throughout the narrative. In the words of one opponent:

“It’s unnatural…it’s completely unnatural. The guy does everything you’re not supposed to do and he’s winning.”

Echenoz clearly admires Emil for succeeding on his own terms and in his own way. Not only does this apply to his running style, but also to his training and tactics. As Echenoz points out, Emil ‘invents’ the sprint finish by working on his speed instead of just his stamina. While the long distance runner has always been synonymous with loneliness, the modern sportsman often relies on a team of experts to support them. Emile is entirely responsible for his own success, something that Echenoz emphasises to comic effect when he is the lone Czechoslovakian parading behind his flag in Berlin.

For all that this is a narrative of struggle, it frequently has a light-hearted tone. Sometimes the humour is direct:

“Since the war is over, everyone rearms.”

More often it is a result of Echenoz’s relaxed style, which underplays Emil’s success and makes him a more likeable character. Paragraphs often begin with conjunctions and informal phrases abound (“In tiptop shape, he finds the daily drill a breeze.”) Even finding himself lost in the ruins of Dresden at night is lightened through the use of the vernacular:

“He’s hungry, worn out, tired and, apart form that, it’s raining buckets.”

The narrative voice not only enhances Emil’s likeability by downplaying his successes but by avoiding an artificial feel of tragedy when he inevitably declines:

“It begins in Budapest, with those 10000 metres that are his distance, that belong only to him, but where he’s beaten by a certain Kovacs.”

This defeat is described as a “tough break”, but further victories still follow: this not the Hollywood version where highs and lows are spot-lighted through hyperbole and symbol.

Running, however, is not just Emil’s story; as fast as he is on the track, he can never outpace history. The novel begins with the German invasion of Czechoslovakia:

“The Germans have entered Moravia. They have arrived on horseback, on motorcycles, in automobiles, in trucks…”

And at the other end of the narrative, it all but ends with Soviet invasion which follows the Prague Spring, repetition making Echenoz’s point clear:

“The Soviets have entered Czechoslovakia. They have arrived by plane and in tanks.”

Emil’s own life is not unaffected. He is, of course, a national hero, and used for propaganda purposes. At one point, however, the authorities begin to worry that he may defect and so limit his appearances abroad. His running days over, he reappears in support of the Prague Spring, and earns himself exile to a series of humiliating jobs in the years after. Echenoz’s interest in the historical background is indicated in the fact that nine of the twenty chapters begin with reference to the political situation.

Running is a thoroughly enjoyable read, if at first glance little unambitious. However, it follows Echenoz’s fictionalised life of Ravel, suggesting that they may both be part of some larger project. If so, it certainly one worth following.