Ravel, by Jean Echenoz

ravelimpaclgotemplateTranslated from the French by Linda Coverdale

With the IMPAC winner due to be announced June 11, it is time to get back to looking at some of the shortlist — I still intend to take a look at as many as possible. (Click here for the finalists and links to reviews of four of the eight).

Jean Echenoz’s Ravel is an exquisite gem of a short novel that certainly deserves its place on the shortlist. Composed of nine cameos, it captures different images from the last 10 years of the French composer’s life. At only 117 pages (including introduction and blank pages before each cameo), the book makes no pretense of being a fictional biography. Rather, to quote from Adam Gopnik’s excellent introduction, it is a series of “diamond-pen-on-glass etchings of a lost time and a now-distant high period of French cultural achievement.”

The nine cameos are all wonderful pieces of work, but for a serious reader they are only an introduction to the story. The beauty of Echenoz’s style is that he uses his words to supply you with information and tools — some essential, some not — that allow you to contemplate what lies behind each cameo and what fills in the spaces between each vignette. For readers who like to continue thinking after they have reached the last page of a book, this is a compelling example.

So here’s one set of observations and tools from one reader. I would emphasize that it is a highly personal selection (I’ve now read the book three times and I do have two other sets); use it as an illustration of how to approach the book, not a set of conclusions, if you do decide to try it.

Echenoz has an incredible eye for supplying a wealth of detail, all to be parked away for later contemplation. The first few vignettes introducing Ravel on a trip for a concert tour of the United States on the ocean liner France also tell us a little bit about the physical man:

He was not always so clean-shaven, however. In his youth, he tried everything: sideburns at twenty-five, with a monocle and chatelaine, then a pointed beard at thirty followed by a squared beard and, later, a trial run with a mustache. At thirty-five, he shaved all that off, at the same time taming his mane, which went from bouffant to permanently severe and sleek and quickly white. But his chief characteristic is his shortness, which pains him and makes his head seem a little too large for his body. Five feet three inches; ninety-nine pounds; thirty inches around the chest. Ravel has the build of a jockey and thus of William Faulkner who, at the time, is dividing his life between two cities (Oxford, Mississippi, and New Orleans), two books (Mosquitoes and Sartoris) and two whiskeys (Jack Daniel’s and Jack Daniel’s).

In one tight paragraph, not only do we get a description of Ravel, but also how that has changed (and some hints about his vanity). And just as an extra, for some broader contextual help, an update on the physical location, current work and ongoing sins of Faulkner.

The second of the three threads to which I am limiting myself here consists of sketches about how Ravel composes his music. His practice is to do a lot of thinking before starting and then charge ahead. Echenoz sketches the outline of the creation of a number of Ravel’s pieces. Here’s a description of the well-known Bolero, inspired (according to the author) by Ravel’s love of automatons, machines and factories:

Assembly and repetition: the composition is completed in October after a month of work hampered only by a splended cold picked up on a trip through Spain, beneath the coconut palms of Malaga. He knows perfectly well what he has made: there’s no form, strictly speaking, no development of modulation, just some rhythm and arrangement. In short it’s a thing that self-destructs, a score without music, an orchestral factory without a purpose, a suicide whose weapon is the simple swelling of sound. Phrase run into the ground, thing without hope or promise: there, he says, is at least one piece Sunday orchestras won’t have the cheek to put on their programs.

Turns out he was wrong about that. Echenoz also uses the music to show us part of the ego of the composer — in two different sections, Ravel starts feuds with Arturo Toscanini and the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein (who had commissioned the one-handed Piano Concerto in D major) for not playing his work in the way that Ravel intended.

Finally, Echenoz is careful to supply the reader with descriptions of Ravel’s character without trying to impose an idea of what the author thinks the overall character is. We know he has trouble sleeping and has numerous tactics (that don’t work) to deal with his insomnia. Relationships with close friends are developed through careful accounts of incident, not judgmental description. He is both fearful and needy when it comes to recognition — dreading the prospect of an approaching party and so delighted one hour into it that he hopes it won’t end.

Most touching, however, is Echenoz’s portrayal of Ravel’s decline, his eroding physical and mental state as the end (at the relatively young age of 62) comes into sight. He is invited to sit in on and supervise a recording of his String Quartet:

He specifies a few details, amending a slight liberty taken with a measure, correcting a tempo. After each movement, when they have played back the wax masters, they offer to do it over if he wishes, but since he doesn’t wish to that much, the whole affair is wrapped up that afternoon. When they have finished, while the musicians are putting their instruments into their cases before putting themselves into their coats, Ravel turns to Canetti: That was nice, he says, really nice, remind me again who the composer is. One is not obliged to believe this story.

Ravel is a book that demands to be read more than once. If you can clear your mind of first (and second or third) impressions, you may find a whole new set of details to pay attention to on the next time through.

While I like classical music (and did have a few Ravel CDs before reading this book), I don’t think that’s essential for appreciating it. On the other hand, if you are a classical music fan and, like me, like to listen to it when you read, do create a Ravel iPod playlist before you start the book — Bolero and the two Piano Concertos (you can get all three works for a total of less than $5 from the iTunes store if you don’t have them at hand) are all relevant to the book. I only needed to press the repeat button once for each time through this delightful book.

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30 Responses to “Ravel, by Jean Echenoz”

  1. Trevor Says:

    This is the book on the shortlist I’ve been most interested in. My tastes have driven me out of English lately, and this one touches on themes I’m finding compelling right now. Thanks for the review.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I am not a keen reader of novella length books but this one really did impress me — every phrase seems carefully chosen. And Echenoz gives you enough information and insights that with a little mental work you can bring Ravel to life. I forgot to mention in my review how impressed I was with the translation — I can’t say that I found any awkwardness anywhere. As for the prize, who knows. On the one hand, the volume is pretty slim. On the other hand, IMPAC juries do seem to like to choose a translated work fairly often — and they certainly bend over to make sure they are considered. I hope you try it and find it as rewarding as I did (and I love the cover too).

  3. John Self Says:

    I was very keen to read your review of this, Kevin, and you haven’t disappointed (and nor did the book, it seems). In fact I was about to begin reading Ravel last night but thought I would hold off. Part of my problem with it is that I know if I read it in a day or so, then that’ll be another book to add to the pile of titles I have to review on my blog. Somehow I want to take longer over it, so I can catch up on my reviews in the meantime. Still, I suppose, not the worst dilemma to have.

  4. Trevor Says:

    I’m in the middle of an opposite dilemma, John. I read a lot of bigger (though not giant) books in April and the first part of May and am only one review ahead. I’m looking for some speed now so I can feel comfortable settling into another large book. Got the Marias Your Face Tomorrow series and would really like to build me in some time to fully appreciate them. Luckily, I have quite a few shorter titles that look fascinating, and I’m anxious to get them going.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I certainly enjoyed the book and the memories of it are getting fonder a couple of weeks later (I put the Ravel tracks on yesterday and it brought the whole book back — a feature I hadn’t originally contemplated). Since your timing issue seems to be writing time rather than reading time, I’d suggest a Ravel reading schedule that allows for two or three readings a few days apart — I’m guessing that it is about a 90-minute book for you, unless you consciously work to slow it down. Reading cameo by cameo is harder even than spreading out short stories because they are only about 10 minutes long and are, in there own way, linked. I was impressed enough with Echenoz that his Prix Goncourt winner, I’m Gone, is already on hand and The Piano is on its way. I’m ashamed I didn’t know him before, but there is nothing quite like finding a new author with a backlist.
    Trevor: I was also glad to have this one show up in the schedule (I wanted the time for what turned out to be the unsatisfying Byatt). Then I succeeded in turning a 117-page book into a 350-page one by wanting to read it three times — great for value, not so good for creating reading time. And I would comment that you probably need time for the Marias series. The books are pretty dense and I found both the first two volumes needed to be set aside after 75 or 100 pages to let stuff sink in. I can’t wait to get to volume three.

  6. John Self Says:

    Good advice I think, Kevin. I thought I hadn’t heard of Echenoz too, until I looked up his other work available in the UK and realized I had picked Piano off the shelves of my local bookstore some months ago and then put it back. When I returned recently, it was no longer there. Another heroic victory for my desire not to add to my TBR pile.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I saw a comment from Stewart somewhere saying that he had bought The Piano because he liked the cover but had yet to read it.

    Do you think perhaps you could convince your local bookstores to do what the casinos do with problem gamblers? You know, post a picture of you with a warning “Do NOT let this person buy a book!” Just a thought. You’d probably go sneaking off to the library — although they could perform a similar service there

  8. Trevor Says:

    This is not about this post, but did you see this Kevin?! Blasphemy. Maybe you can use your power to get this knocked off the shelves.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I didn’t know about this Trevor, so thanks for the link. Since I have this problem about discouraging the publishing of any book, however bad (and this sure looks to be appalling), I think my approach will be to encourage local sellers, if they feel compelled to carry the book, to make sure it is kept deep back in the store somewhere. I am one of those people who hope that Salinger has a pile of finished manuscripts on his shelves (as I understand it he hates publishing, not writing) that some of us may live long enough to read. Imitators should be denounced.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Tremendous review Kevin, and of what sounds like a fascinating book.

    I think you’ve seen me fulminate again recently against infodumps, dollops of background detail wedged into a book, disrupting the flow. It’s one of my pet bugbears, probably because reading sf as I sometimes do I come across it I suspect more than many of your readers.

    The sections you quote, that’s how it should be done. Tightly written, concise, actually a great deal of information present but flowing naturally and with prose which communicates far more than is perhaps initially obvious. In a paragraph I learnt something about a topic of which I know nothing, and it made me want to read more.

    Along with the quality of the writing, it’s tremendous stuff.

    I wouldn’t have dreamt of buying a novella about Ravel, this is now however is definitely going on my TBR pile. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I share your distaste for infodumps — all they produce is a nagging “when will we get on with this” attitude that moves into genuine annoyance with some authors. And I do think Echenoz introduces things in the right way — I found on the second and third reads that I was discovering meanings in details that I had missed the first time. I do think you will find this to be a very worthwhile read.

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It caught my attention because twice recently I’ve been thinking about particular technical problems in certain novels, and then shortly afterwards come cross examples of how to elegantly avoid those problems. The other example was the reintroduction in a novel-sequence of long running characters, Rob had run into that done clumsily in a crime novel he read where it resulted in seemingly irrelevant tangents, shortly after I read one of the Anthony Powell’s (my next read actually, after I finish my current Pelecanos) and he reminded me how it can be done well.

    That and the sheer quality of the writing in your excerpts came at a good time for me. I unwisely read a novel published online while stuck waiting at work the other night, it wasn’t well written and now I have to blog it of course (I blog what I read, to skip one wouldn’t feel right to me). I’m not particularly looking forward to it, and the prospect of a skilfully written work like this becomes particularly appealling when right now I’m looking at spending time writing up something I didn’t rate.

  13. John Self Says:

    My favourite (by which I mean least favourite) ‘infodump’ is in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon – the book which persuaded me that I really needn’t bother trying a book just because it’s been in the bestseller lists (and all the more so when I read that it was a better example of the genre).

    The Brooklyn Museum is closed to the general public on Tuesdays, but art classes and refreshers are admitted. The museum is an excellent facility for serious scholarship. The staff members are knowledgeable and accommodating; they often allow researchers to come by appointment on Tuesdays to see items not on public display. … Entrance to the Brooklyn Museum on Tuesdays is through a single door on the extreme right.

    Wow. You can almost see the tape edges where he pasted it in from the museum brochure.

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    John,

    Brilliant, that does trump the infamous Neuromancer example I usually mention in these conversations.

    I’d always heard Harris was a good author, I guess though good is relative. As you say, you can almost see the tape edges.

  15. John Self Says:

    The Neuromancer example: I saw the reference to that in your Guy Vanderhaeghe review. It sounds like the literary equivalent of a Troy McClure educational film.

    You mention you’re reading Pelecanos. Which one? I picked up The Night Gardener recently. I’ve never read him, but through the loose connection with Richard Price, whose Lush Life I loved and who, like Pelecanos, has written for The Wire, I thought I’d give him a shot.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Are we sure that excerpt on the Brooklyn Museum isn’t product placement? Sure reads like it.

    One of the problems I had with the Byatt (and even more with The Indian Clerk which is my next-up review) is that virtually the whole book becomes an info-dump. I’d say go all the way and write a non-fiction version of your research.

  17. Max Cairnduff Says:

    John,

    A Firing Offense, his first. Very good in places, though the central character – Nick Stefanos – is a little too obviously cool for my tastes on occasion.

    According to wikipedia, the Stefanos series isn’t that representative of his later work, he apparently didn’t feel he could be ambitious when he was writing them, it’s good crime but not beyond that. My impression is that in other works he does go beyond just writing good crime.

  18. Guy Savage Says:

    I tend to steer clear of prize lists, but I did enjoy this author’s book: BIG BLONDES. Not so keen on I’M GONE, though.

    I chuckled over the infodump comment. I’ve come across this lately. So much filler, you can chew the fibre.

  19. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I bought Cherokee today, Ravel is still in hardback and I prefer paperback, though with that cover (which I rather like) and its brevity I may make an exception still.

  20. Guy Savage Says:

    I have Cherokee and Double Jeopardy sitting on my shelf unread. I like the sounds of Ravel, but I’m going to restrain myself.

  21. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The horror novel I just finished writing up was plot rather than prose driven, and the plot didn’t work for me. A novel with crystalline prose is therefore powerfully tempting right now.

    I’ve started Arthur Schnitzler’s Fraulein Else for the time being, it’s a Pushkin and so far very good.

    If I already had two Echenoz’s at home, I’d be restraining myself too though Guy.

  22. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ll put Ravel on one of those ‘get-to’ lists. The first quote in the review hooked me in, and Kevin’s observations about the cleverness of that quote reminded me of Balzac. He was the master of writing a line or two about a character and conveying that person’s essence in just a few sentences. The first quote gave me that same sensation about Ravel.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’ve only read Ravel, Guy, but from comments I have seen elsewhere Echenoz apparently tends to write in a consistent style — the difference with this book being that it is set in history, not the present. For me, short novels like that need to be read at the right time and in the right mood — so I’d agree that taking the volumes you have and putting them on stand-by is probably the best course.

  24. Guy Savage Says:

    BIG BLONDES was the best of the two I’ve read. It has a noir flavour to it, and while it’s a good tale, it also deals with some bigger questions such as celebrity privacy, for example. The book made me an Echenoz fan, but then the next one, I’m Gone, wasn’t that great. There were parts in which the author lassoed the reader into the tale with these annoying authorial asides.

    But 1 out of 2…I’ll still give it a go (on my TBR list–not TBR pile).

    I tend to read antidotes. Not all the time, but if I read a crime novel, then I’m likely to want to read something light next–or at least something completely different. I used to want to plan my reading, but I’ve given on up that. Futile.

  25. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m the same Guy, I don’t plan my reading, but often I react to what I read before by then reading something very different. Literary fiction followed by crime, unsuccessful horror by the increasingly excellent Fraulein Else, and so on.

    If nothing else, it keeps things fresh.

  26. William Rycroft Says:

    An enticing review Kevin. Like Max, I can’t imagine the circumstances under which I would normally reach for a novella about Ravel so well done for making such an impact with this review. On a slight tangent: in my past as a dancer (a long story for another time) I once performed flamenco in front of a live orchestra playing Bolero at an open air concert in Marble Hill Park. It’s the largest audience I’ve ever played to and still remains one of the most electrifying experiences of my life, mainly because of that extraordinary piece of music.

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will: Since you used to be a dancer and so much of Ravel’s music was written for the dance (one of the things I learned from this book was that Bolero was written as a commission), I think your professional experience would bring something to this beyond what I was able to bring. One of the themes that my review does not address and the book does is a strain of how and why Ravel creates — as a dancer (even if one now on a hiatus), I think you might find that quite interesting.

  28. JRSM Says:

    A great review of a fascinating-sounding book. If anyone’s looking for Ravel music and the $5 from iTunes sounds too much, there’s plenty of Ravel available free from the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=ravel%20AND%20mediatype%3Aaudio

  29. john h Says:

    I just finished “Ravel” yesterday. I know nothing about Ravel himself or about classical music but that didn’t stand in the way of my appreciation of the book. Very adroitly written. A couple of the “chapters” were a little weaker–in particular, the one where he tours America–but overall it was just very enjoyable. And also quite moving as Ravel’s health begins to deteriorate. I hadn’t heard of Echenoz before but he’s certainly on my radar now.

  30. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the comment, John — I agree that the American parts were not up to the rest of the book. I can say, a couple of months later, that this book has got even better as time passes. And I certainly enjoyed it the first time through.

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