Lightning, by Jean Echenoz

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Translated by Linda Coverdale

Lightning is the third (and apparently final) instalment in French author Jean Echenoz’s trilogy of short, tightly-written fictional biographies. The exceptional Ravel, a look at the last 10 years of the composer’s life, kicked off the project a few years ago. That was followed by Running which featured the legendary Czech distance runner, Emil Zatopeck.

While Echenoz used real names in those two, Lightning‘s central charactor is a precocious engineer, Gregor — but the flyleaf informs us that he is “inspired by the life of Nikolai Tesla, often called ‘the man who invented the twentieth century.'”

Before getting to the book under review, however, let’s contemplate some common aspects of the “trilogy”. A composer, an athlete and a scientist — three fields of endeavor with virtually no overlap. Yet each of the three didn’t just push the envelope or break the mold in their chosen area, they added a whole new dimension. Ravel’s Bolero remains unique to this day. Zatopek’s “style” of running was so awkward and removed from the conventional norm that the experts marvelled that he could actually complete a race, let alone set world-record times. And Tesla lived so far in the scientific future, visualizing inventions ranging from radar to cellular technology decades before their “discovery”, that no one understood what he was really about.

In all three books (Lightning is the longest at 142 pages), the author succinctly documents those achievements. But from the start, he is also careful to portray another common side of his exceptional characters. They all shared aspects of social ineptness, despite wanting to fit into the world around them. And they all had what might best be generously described as “attention flaws” which made many aspects of daily living a challenge.

What is best about the three books, however, is Echenoz’s interest in another aspect shared by the three: all brilliant careers, whatever the field, must eventually ebb and come to an end. And all humans, however exceptional, die just like the guy next door. It is that decline which seems to interest the author the most, with the final third of each book devoted to the theme — and what makes each of these three characters so fully-formed. Here’s his introduction to that part of this book; it follows a list of the aging Gregor’s later ideas (an elastic-fluid turbine, a locomotive headlight, a hydraulic turbo-alternator):

Well, these ventures, like so many others, will never come to anything. And not only because of the indifference of his contemporaries, as Gregor mournfully maintains. Because in a man’s life, it sometimes happens as well that nothing works anymore, that the inventory of fixtures falls into disrepair. Here and there, bit by little bit, one sees how the mind deteriorates: just like matter does. It happens via addition and subtraction: sly elements join in — dirt, dust, mold — while precious ones degenerate through wear, fatigue, erosion. And then there’s the corrosion that attacks, chews up, and devours nerve cells the way it does atoms, producing all sorts of slowdown, cracking joints, aches, negligence, and hit-and-miss messiness. It’s a long, tortuous process, imperceptible at first, but which can sometimes, abruptly, become as plain as day.

I don’t think that I have ever read a better summary of a brilliant individual’s inevitable decline — and, yes, there are similar ones for both Ravel and Zatopek as they hit the closing period of their creative lives.

Back to the beginning. Gregor arrives in New York from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century, already bursting with ideas: a tube at the bottom of the Atlantic to carry mail between Europe and America, a gigantic ring immobilized above the equator “so that we could go inside it and circle the earth at about one thousand miles an hour…going “around the world” in a day.”

Obviously, these are not small-minded undertakings, for Gregor is bent upon confronting challenges of vast dimensions. Early on, along these lines, he becomes convinced he’d like to do a little something with tidal power, tectonic movements, or solar energy, phenomena like that, or — why not? — just to get his hand in, the falls at Niagara. He’s seen engravings of them in books and they’ll fit the bill. Yes, Niagara Falls. The Niagara River would be good.

Thomas Edison has already developed a system for delivering electricity but, alas, it is based on direct current and transmission losses are so great that users literally have to live within sight of the power plant. Gregor/Tesla introduces alternating current, an advance which immediately sweeps the market — his royalties should make him the richest person in the world, but he agrees to amend his contract with George Westinghouse and accepts a one-time payment of $198,000 for his invention. (There’s that daily life problem, showing up already.)

Still that success puts him in contact with America’s richest capitalists who are eager to back new ventures. He has some successes, even more good ideas that don’t get developed, but still has the legendary J.P. Morgan’s backing to construct a massive electrical tower on Long Island which not only means the development of radio transmission as a by-product, but also (only Gregor knows this) would supply the world with free electrical power. Alas, Marconi beats him to the post with a radio transmission across the Atlantic and Gregor has to come clean to Morgan about the larger aim of his project:

But, well, the great John Pierpoint Morgan might be touched by the vastness of the enterprise, you never know.

But really, of course you know: Morgan won’t be the least bit touched. Having never embraced the profession of philanthropist, the financier shows no enthusiasm at the idea of delivering current as free as the air to countries peopled by penniless Moldavians, Ainus, or Sengalese. Assuring Gregor that he continues to enjoy his deep personal sympathy and moral support, Morgan cuts off all credit with a stroke of the pen. Work on the tower comes to a halt at the snap of his fingers. Screwed again.

Please understand me, Morgan points out. It doesn’t work at all, your system. If everyone can draw on the power all they like, what happens to me? Where do I put the meter?

While I am giving it short shrift in this review, the author does every bit as good a job at portraying Gregor’s social ineptness. He is famous and successful enough with Westinghouse that he acquires champagne tastes — bespoke suits, hand-made shirts and a massive collection of shoes and ties. He lives, on credit, in a suite high in the Waldorf Astoria (his notion is that they should be honored enough by his residence not to tender a bill and, for a long time, they don’t).

The mental decline may be inevitable, but it is those human failings that hasten the lifestyle decline. Gregor still has a wealth of big ideas but increasingly no one is willing to listen. His ego was always bigger than even his grand ideas, so the scientific community has never welcomed him. The financiers abandon him in frustration. Society no long wants to be his patron. Everything that is contemplated in that paragraph that I quoted above starts to come to pass.

My knowledge of the history of science is sketchy enough that I can’t even hazard an opinion on how much Echenoz has exaggerated Tesla’s ideas and accomplishments — for this reader, Gregor came so fully to life that it doesn’t matter. My experience with the first two biographies had me aware early on, without the author’s forebodings, about what would be happening in the latter third of the novel. I wasn’t disappointed at all.

This is the sixth Echenoz novel reviewed on this blog (see all the reviews here) so he is obviously a KfC favorite. If you haven’t tried him, you should. And if Echenoz should happen to decide not to halt his fictional biographies with this one, I will be first in line to buy number four.

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14 Responses to “Lightning, by Jean Echenoz”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    As you know, I’ve read a couple of Echenoz novels, and liked them well enough to intend to return. Haven’t done so yet. I think these 3 make a good sort of series. Especially as you mention–the trajectory of the three careers.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: From the other three that I have read, Echenoz plays a bit of a different game with these three. The other novels have elements of magic realism or fantasy or aspects of noir — these are very human. Except, of course, the central characters are truly exceptional. I’m not sure how many translated ones I have yet to go, but I figure I’ll read two Echenoz’s a year. Even the conventional ones tends to be short, so it is not a major time commitment and I am very impressed with the result.

  3. 1streading Says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m a big fan of Echenoz. Like you, I think he seems as fascinated by the decline of these great figures as he is by their genius. I can’t wait to see what he does next

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    1streading: Certainly a version of that “decline” theme is present in the non-biographical works that I have read, although I would have to say the fantasy/supernatural themes are stronger. I too am interested in his future works, whatever direction he chooses to head.

  5. Buried In Print Says:

    The contrast in style that you mention (in regards to these three and to his other works) is exceptionally intriguing; I would definitely like to give the works of this author a try!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: I think most readers who go through 70-100 books a year like the thought of a “one-night-read” author — shortish books (perhaps longish novellas) that can be picked up just after dinner and finished just in time for bed. That’s where Echenoz fits for me — the problem with both the biographies and his other works is that they demand (and reward) a second-read. So I now regard them as “two-night” projects. :-)

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The bit with JP Morgan suggests Tesla as a man greater than the society which holds him. His vision, free energy for all, would transform the world. Vested interests prevent it.

    I started Echenoz’s Blondes recently, but was tired through work and had to quickly bail. A shame as it read well from the first page.

    That paragraph on decline is painful to read, because it’s so recognisably true. A fascinating writer.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I am sure that reading Echenoz would be a challenge when other matters are pre-occupying you. In all of his books (including the biographies) there is a “twist” to reality the demands attention or the rest doesn’t make sense.

    The paragraph about decline brought tears to my eyes, partly because I recalled similar ones in Ravel and Running marking a point where closure was becoming the central issue. It’s a testimony to the translation that it works so well — Coverdale did all three of the biographies and I never was aware of a slip.

  9. leroyhunter Says:

    Tesla is a fascinating figure, of the 3 “bios” this would be the one I’d pick to start with, everything else being equal.

    All the qualities that made me want to read Echenoz before seem to be here as well Kevin – no surprise. It’s a question of when, not if.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I probably would have had this third of three on my list before reading, based simply on my ranking of interest in music, athletics and science. Having read all three, I would be reluctant to have to rank them — all three are developed as full characters. And Echenoz adds another dimension, as I tried to indicate in my review. By looking at three such different achievers through a common lens he provides some common grounds for their very different stories.

  11. Chad Says:

    The search for a reliable method of producing energy from renewable resources is more urgent today than ever before. Did Nikola Tesla truly invent a “free energy device”?

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Chad: Alas, I don’t think so. We can’t even hold the evil capitalists like J.P. Morgan responsible for this one — although Echenoz probably has fairly summarized what there response to the idea would be.

    (Note: I normally trash comments that have obvious commercial links, but I have let this one through. Clicking on Chad’s name will take you to a site that has a non-commercial explanation of Tesla’s “free energy” idea, ending with another link to a book that supposedly has plans on how to build it. That would normally qualify the comment for the trash bin, but I have to admit it is in the spirit of Echenoz’s story, so I have let it stand. Forewarned is forearmed for any who go there.)

  13. Crake Says:

    Thanks for the review, Kevin. “Lightning” (well, actually, “Rel├ímpagos”, since I read the Spanish translation) was my first Echenoz, and I liked it much more than I’d been expecting to. Especially the style, a perfect combination between irony and melancholy. I look forward to reading much more from Echenoz.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Crake: It is obvious that Echenoz is one of my favorites — you just have to check how many that I have reviewed. He has a distinct tone and style that I very much appreciate, both entertaining and challenging. I’ve got a couple more to go and will be rationing them out — although I already know that he rewards a second reading.

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