Big Blondes, by Jean Echenoz

Purchased from Chapters. ca

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

This the fifth Jean Echenoz book reviewed on this blog (check the right sidebar to link to the other four), which nudges him ahead of John McGahern in the “most-reviewed” category, but McGahern will catch up soon (so will Edith Wharton for that matter). Obviously, I like Echenoz, so before addressing Big Blondes, I perhaps should explain why.

Echenoz does not write big books; he writes big small ones — at 201 pages, Big Blondes is the longest that I have read, with Ravel checking in at 117. And for serious readers, who want a two to four hour read, with even more hours of contemplation, he fills a niche that few other authors even attempt (fans of the shorter fiction of Henry James and Wharton should pay attention). When I want to be challenged — but not for too long — he is on a very short list of my “go to” authors. If you have not read him, you should.

Big Blondes fits that description exactly. First published in translation in 1997, about midway in his translated career work to date, it has everything that you can want from this exceptional writer. He has written better books (I will admit upfront that Ravel, my first Echenoz, is still my favorite to date) but this one is not only great fun, it is excellent reading — and very, very contemporary, despite the fact that it is approaching two decades since Echenoz wrote the original French version.

Paul Salvador is a television producer on what we would now know as the cutting edge of “reality tv”. He works for Stochastic Films in Paris (“six floors of offices and studios, sixty million francs in yearly revenues”) and he has ideas about a new project about “blondes” — natural or chemical, he hasn’t sorted out which or both — who had their moment in the media sun. There are the obvious ones — Monroe and Bardot on one end of the spectrum, Jean Harlow and Doris Day on the other — but he is even more interested in those of the Warhol 15-minute variety.

In the short term, mainly he is obsessed with finding Gloria Stella:

Career brief: Born Gloire Abgrall, precocious teenage fashion model. Entered the world of variety shows under the pseudonym dreamed up by Gilbert Flon, her lover-cum-agent.

Bottom line: Those two 45s ["Excessive", "We're Not Taking Off"], a shot at the Olympia, a few tours as special guest star, number three on the hit parade for “Excessive”; photographs, autographs, fan club, movies on the horizon. It all looked very promising until Gilbert Flon took a suspicious dive down a fourth-floor elevator shaft.

Since then: suspicion, investigation, prosecution witnesses, indictment, trial, verdict (five years; extenuating circumstances), prison, release for good conduct, disappearance.

Okay, that reads a lot like a summary of the life of Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan. Except… when Echenoz wrote this book, Paris Hilton was only 14 years old and Lohan 9 and both had yet to find their rather weird niche. And the first edition of the reality prototype for “Survivor” was still two years away — on Swedish TV, some years before the American version. What did Echenoz know that the rest of the world didn’t?

In addition to warning us of what the television world is going to look like a few decades down the road, Echenoz likes to pay homage to the mystery and spy novelists and movie makers of the past (you can spend endless hours with this book spotting references from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Ian Flemming to Alfred Hitchcock). The references show up early in this novel in the opening chapter as Salvador is meeting with Jouve (his private investigator/subject tracker) in the film company offices, coincidentally not far from the headquarters of the French counterintelligence service. Here’s a look at his instructions:

“Take a look anyway,” said Salvador, handing him a ream of press clippings and photos depicting the same young woman, always on the point of departure, with captions mentioning the name of Gloria Stella.

Two kinds of photos. On the four-color ones, cut from the glossy pages of weekly magazines, one could see her leaving the stage, or bursting from a Jaguar or a jacuzzi. On the other, slightly more recent ones, in poorly screened black-and-white garnered from the Society pages of the daily press, you could see her exiting a police station, leaving a lawyer’s office, or walking down the steps of a courthouse. If the first batch of photos, perfectly lit, abounded in dazzling smiles and triumphant looks, the second was filled with averted eyes behind dark glasses and closed lips, flattened out by the flashbulbs and hastily centred.

And so as a reader you have your three points of view, each of which Echenoz uses as a brilliantly-lit stage to launch a set of very different observations about the modern world.

Gloria: Her efforts to escape her 15 minutes of fame range from Paris to Brittany to Australia to India — and she is tracked down each time. The author uses those venues to turn a critical eye not just on those who are chasing her but the international travellers who are a feature of the luxury hotels in those locations (and those who exploit the rich visitors). What is life like when you have had a brief moment of fame and now merely want to escape its consequences? Just as a teaser, she has a homunuclus, the one-foot tall Beliard, to help her in times of difficulty — Echenoz likes the surreal as much as he like foretelling the real.

Salvador: The obvious candidate for contemporary satire, with his television series plans, he emerges — at least for this reader — as an ominous omen of what has come to pass in the degeneration of the medium in the two decades since this book was written. Marlene Dietrich, Kim Novak and others join the list I have already detailed as he contemplates his project. One has to feel sorry for Gloria and her future if he ever finds her. If you are even mildly curious about that historical, blonde movie world, you will find much to contemplate in this novel.

Jouve (and his associates): Echenoz uses this operator for a whole different set of observations on the notion of intelligence, tracking and all the shadowy aspects of that (it is one of his specialities in some of his other novels). This storyline does not just relate to its predecessors like Doyle and Flemming, it moves on to the equally troubling world of modern intelligence, both state and private-operated.

And while the author delivers on specific aspects of all three of those stages, he never lets them wander off independently of each other. They may be separate platforms, but there are consistent links between all three and the central story never loses focus. All of this in 201 pages of tightly-written narrative, thanks to an excellent translation from Mark Polizzotti.

So do you think this will be the last Echenoz reviewed on this blog? Not a chance — I have two more in hand already (Double Jeopardy and I’m Gone) and there are more available to order. I would predict with confidence that regular visitors can expect to read about another volume from this wonderful author every six months or so in the near future. If you haven’t read Jean Echenoz, now is a good time to start the project — you have a healthy list of excellent books still awaiting you.

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20 Responses to “Big Blondes, by Jean Echenoz”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    He sounds fab!

    I kept thinking of Diana, Princess of Wales, as I read your post: she was a hunted blonde, wasn’t she?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: She was. But she was much too far up the ladder of fame for Salvador to want to include (he wants “scoops” as well as history).

  3. kimbofo Says:

    As an aside, do you know why Jean’s books only seem to be available in hardcover? I’ve checked Amazon and the only paperbacks are those written in French. Normally it’s the other way around…

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I can’t answer that question — certainly some versions in NA are available from New Press in paperback, although I usually opt for hardback when I have a choice.

  5. Trevor Says:

    Because of you, I have all of his books on hand except for the newest, Lightning, which sounds excellent. I’ve read one, and I’m looking forward to getting further into the project.

    By the way, I think all of my books, except for Piano, are paperback. I’m actually sad I waited to buy Ravel in paperback since it just isn’t as sharp as the hardback, even though it is the same cover.

  6. Trevor Says:

    Let me amend. I looked and don’t have Cherokee or Running, both of which appear to be available only in hardback. I really though my shopping sprees had taken care of Echenoz for me, but I’m very wrong. So, yes, it does seem that many of his books are available only in hardback (but they are the good size hardbacks :) ).

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Thanks for the reminder about Lightning, which was just issued last week (and which I just ordered). I have a few others to order as well but with three on hand will wait. Echenoz is joining McGahern in another way beside quality — I am not looking forward to when I have finished either of them.

    He also seems to be, in both the UK and NA, one of those authors who has publisher “issues”, in the sense that it looks like his books move from one publisher to another.

  8. Guy Savage Says:

    I really liked this one too. I think it was my first by this author. I was intrigued by the whole private vs public image plus the film connection. My fav of all the ones read so far.

  9. leroyhunter Says:

    I’m sold on Echenoz thanks to your previous reviews Kevin, so this just adds some urgency. I nearly bought Running last week but wasn’t sure if I should start there.

    The predictive thing is striking. I like the touch of “Stochastic Films” as well.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy, Leroy: While I always appreciate the somewhat twisted plots that Echenoz creates (and then drops his version of social satire into), I was struck by how accurate his “distorted” predictions turned out to be in this one.

    I also have to admit that it is that “current value” aspect that affects my ranking of his works. Hence Ravel moves ahead of Running because I am more interested in how Bolero came to be than Echenoz’s thoughts on the Communist state. Although I hasten to add, that those rankings are matters of degree — every one of the five I have read is worthwhile. Unless that angle (or sport) attracts you, Leroy, I’d start somewhere else — Big Blondes would be fine if you were looking at something approaching chronological order.

    And I am quite intrigued by Lightning which i just ordered yesterday — Echenoz venturing into science with Tesla as a central character? His previous works have featured a lot of “fantasy” science — now we get the real thing.

  11. leroyhunter Says:

    Thanks for the additional thoughts Kevin. I have the impression that, like Aira, it doesn’t matter too much where you drop into Echenoz. Sport is a hook but I’m tempted by Running simply by dint of it being directly to hand.

  12. anokatony Says:

    I must read Echenoz soon. Please remind me when I’m wondering which novel to read next.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: I’d be happy to remind you.

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin, I already have a full TBR list.

    I also have an Echenoz at home. Cherokee. It wasn’t near the front of my pile. If I promote it what gets demoted?

    Still, lovely review and it sounds like a hugely fun book, and fun is no bad thing for an author as intelligent as Echenoz plainly is. Ravel still tempts me hugely. Ironically I think I bought Cherokee in part because it wasn’t hardback and I tend to prefer paperbacks, but I’m still not sure I made the right first choice. This or Ravel would probably have been better.

    The references to crime fiction alone in this would I think make it something I’d love.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Cherokee is one that I have not read (and don’t yet have a copy of), so I am afraid I have no advice. I do think you would find the sleuthing references in this one interesting, but they tend to be present in many of his books.

    One of the things that I do like about Echenoz is that his books are “quick” diversions — they don’t take up a lot of reading time, but they have enough weight to them that they are more than merely amusing.

  16. Kerry Says:

    Thanks for keeping Echenoz on the radar. I tend to like authors who can say their piece in less than 250 pages and your endorsement is always valued. Along with Aira (thanks whoever reminded me upstream), Echenoz will be near the top of my purchase list once I clear out some of those I already have on hand…..you cemented his spot on the TBR. I am not sure where to start, however. As your favorite, Ravel gets some cred, alternatively, I could try chronological order. I think I’ll review your reviews for the best jumping in point for me, unless you care to direct me to the best entrance.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I think looking at my reviews (and others) is probably the best approach. While his works have a lot in common, they also have some widely varied themes or starting points — finding one that fits your interests (as Ravel did with me) is probably the best approach.

  18. 1streading Says:

    Your review made me want to read Big Blondes again immediately! I love Echnoz and I’m looking forward to reading Lightning. I was interested that Ravel remains your favourite – I have a soft spot for Piano which I read first. I wonder if there is something about his style that makes an immediate impact and leaves a warm glow in the memory…
    His publisher issues are definitely a problem in the UK – his last three novels haven’t been published here!

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    1streading: You make an interesting point about the first read. Perhaps his approach is so unique that that first exposure creates a response that can’t be duplicated in further efforts. Having said that, I would have all five that I have read grouped quite closely — different works do have different points of attraction and my overall impression is probably affected by how close those are to my interests.

  20. savidgereads Says:

    This sounds like a great novel plus any review that mentions Doris Day, Hitchcock and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle really is like a review filled with all my favourite things then maybe this is a book for me to check out and a new author to follow especially with the tag line of an author for times “when I want to be challenged — but not for too long”. Sounds great.

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