Translated 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.