Archive for the ‘Echenoz, Jean (6)’ Category

Lightning, by Jean Echenoz

January 4, 2012

Purchased at

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.


Big Blondes, by Jean Echenoz

June 13, 2011

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.

Chopin’s Move, by Jean Echenoz

November 29, 2010

Purchased at

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

One of my pleasant reading discoveries of the last two years has been the translated work of French author Jean Echenoz — it started in spring 2009 when his Ravel was shortlisted for the IMPAC Award. I loved that short novel and followed up with readings of Piano and Running; he never let me down. (Reviews of all three can be found here). I am most happy to report that I can now add Chopin’s Move to my list of Echenoz successes, even if it seems I have inadvertently fallen into reading his work in reverse chronological order.

For me, these novels are like a very good crossword puzzle. They are short — at 135 well-spaced pages, Chopin’s Move was just over a two-hour read. Yet, they demand concentration and involvement. The plot twists frequently, although always with some rationale, and for concise works there tend to be a lot of characters. The interior structure is complete and consistent, but it usually takes a second reading without the headscratching and backtracking to confirm that. Indeed, that is one of Echenoz’s strengths — the book can be read at one sitting today, and re-read again tomorrow or a few days down the road, to even greater effect. The prospect of a two or three day “adventure” of a read and reread is one that sometimes appeals to me and Echenoz has always delivered.

First published in French in 1989 and in English translation in 2004, Chopin’s Move was also the first winner of the European Literature Prize (I am not even going to try to describe that strange award). In plot terms, it is a “spy” story (not unlike John le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor, recently reviewed here). It is a much quicker read, but an equally enticing one, perhaps even more so.

Franck Chopin is a “bug man” — he raises and studies flies, works at a scientific museum and writes monographs about his work. That is not a particularly lucrative trade — indeed, it hardly provides enough for survival — so he has also accepted being recruited as an agent in a shadowy undercover intelligence agency. Rather than describing him and his work, let me offer instead Echenoz’s description of his contact, who introduces Chopin to the specific enterprise of this book. He is Vito Piranese, a one-legged veteran who has also backed into espionage as a path to economic survival, described here seated on a Paris park bench:

Before the one he was now practicing on the bench, Vito Piranese had held other professions: basketball coach up until his accident, then broker in nonferrous metals, travelling salesman before Martine’s departure, and finally photograph retoucher. None of these had ever worked out except for one, the retoucher, when he’d done a favor for some discreet important persons: they had taken an interest in him. He’d had two interviews. Now, thanks to these persons whom he hadn’t seen since, Vito regularly watched the people he was asked to watch, following the same protocol established once and for all: the interminable phone rings and the three numbers, the bus, the swapping of bags, never the same bus, always the same bags since the time of Mata Hari. Deriving from this employment just enough to live on, with an occasional movie, newspaper, or weekly television series into the bargain, Vito spent the rest of his life trying to forget Martine.

No James Bonds in this spy novel, eh? I quote that at length because it illustrates why I find Echenoz’s work so interesting (and why, I suspect, others might not). While the four books that I have read all have a strong plot stream, that is not what is so good about them — rather, it is the tangential observations that the author makes, supported by his story. Vito (who pretty much disappears from the book after that excerpt) has fallen into this world of subterfuge through circumstance — the world might be the over-arching story, the circumstance is the substance.

In Chopin’s Move, Vito is the agent who recruits the title character into a surveillance scheme that is the driver of the plot. Chopin’s skill is that he can implant mini-transmitters on flies so that those under observation can be recorded. Okay, a willingness to accept implausibilities is a necessary condition for appreciating Echenoz. Rest assured, as a reader, you do get rewarded. Those weird developments are merely support devices for what the author is best at.

The author also likes to have a femme fatale (often more than one, but only one is this work) who adds some erogenous spice to the work. In Chopin’s Move that femme is Suzy Clair, first sighted by Chopin in a Paris park but met only later at a reception (and this is representative of a typical Echenoz character introduction):

As she smiled, he told her about some of the flies he studied for a living: the brown ones, reddish brown ones, red ones, orange ones, and violet ones; about the vitreous ones and the ferruginous ones with yellow knees and green or bright blue eyes; and about the more comical aspects of their behavior. And as she deigned to smile some more at his tie, which bore a minuscule embroidered elephant, nothing was simpler for Chopin than to evoke the habits of elephants, those who crossed the Alps or tromped on foot down Rue Saint-Denis; those whose tusks they used to carve in Dieppe when he was a teenager.

Suzy Clair’s childhood, back when she was still Suzy Moreno, was spent in Blois. At present, Blois was no more than a small, overexposed, black-and-white memory, even thought at a very young age Suzy had become the princess of the high-rises: nothing was decided without her say-so in the parking garages and sub-basements of housing developments, standing near the river or leaning over the pinball.

Suzy becomes a major character in the story — and there are some others. One of my objectives when I started writing this review was to give away as little of the plot as possible and (patting myself on the back) I think I have succeeded in that aim. In fact, I have told you nothing, but you can assume there is a complete, concrete, spyish story. Echenoz uses plot as the trunk of his Christmas tree; the beauty of his writing lies in the baubles that he hangs from the branches and the light strings that he hangs around that structure.

He has done that in each of the four books that I have read so far: Ravel is the interrupted biography of the final days of the composer, Running considers the conflicts faced by an Olympic athlete, Piano is about the demise of a concert performer. All of the story lines are interesting — but the worth of the short novels lies always in the digressions that the author explores for Echnenoz’s interest is primarily in what lies behind the obvious. The novels are a divertissement, yes, but an entirely worthwhile one; the author’s point being that, even in the absurd, there is more at stake than what appears on the surface.

Echenoz’s ability to draw the reader into “big” circumstances and then explore the minutiae that is essential to that larger pricture is a rare talent. After reading four of his books (and with a couple more on the shelf), he has become for me a very reliable author — when I want to get away from heavy work, but still want my mind to be engrossed in a challenging volume (but only for a few hours), Echenoz can be counted on to succeed. He certainly does that in Chopin Moves.

Running, by Jean Echenoz

January 2, 2010

Purchased at

Translated by Linda Coverdale
KevinfromCanada’s blog is coming up to its first birthday (Jan. 9) so I thought I would approach the end of year one and start of year two with reviews of books from some authors who have links to the initial 12 months of this blog. Edith Wharton ( The House of Mirth ) and Patrick McCabe (The Holy City ) were the first two authors reviewed here; two shorts novels by Jean Echenoz ( Ravel and Piano ) were among the pleasant discoveries of the year.

Running is Echenoz’s most recent work, just released in translation here in North America. Its central character — indeed, almost only character — is Emil Zatopek, the incredible Czech distance runner who for more than a decade was unbeatable at his chosen distances (he owned nine world records at one point). Awkward in his running form (“absent of form” would perhaps be more accurate), he was almost painful to watch, until he crossed the finish line first, took his victory lap and celebrated yet another triumph.

A digression: The 1988 Winter Olympics took place in Calgary. As the newly-appointed city editor of the Calgary Herald in 1976, one of my first tasks was to select the reporter who would cover Calgary’s attempt to get the rights to bid for the Games to come to Canada. For the next 12 years, much of my day job was involved with Olympic coverage. There is a lot to criticize about the Games (the IOC may be the most pompous organization in the world) but they are a truly special experience to witness firsthand. The 2010 Winter Games are back in Canada, this time in British Columbia, so the chance to read some athletic fiction, from an author whom I admire, sent me into this volume with high hopes.

Zatopek may have been born to be a world champion but it took him a while to discover it. In post-WWII Czechoslovakia, a job was what he needed and he found it in the Bata shoe factory (another Canadian connection there, since the Batas lived in Canada). The new nation is searching for an identity, competitions are important to companies like Bata and Emil, the non-athlete, finds himself almost forced to take part:

Against all odds, he soon starts to enjoy himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.

Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1500 and 3000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.

It is at this point that Echenoz begins to develop a parallel story. When Zatopek has his original successes, the Germans are still in control — they will soon be replaced and the Czechs will be under the thumb of new Soviet masters. Emil cares nothing for politics, only running, but the political masters need heroes and he, as a runner, needs support. From here on in, this novella (126 pages in my edition from The New Press) will address both those concerns.

The global concerns echo the Cold War, and while there are destructive weapons on both sides, the “action” of the Cold War often tends to be played out through athletic contests. At the Olympics in London, Emil is to face Heino, a Finn from the “other side”:

Emil is the favorite, of course, but there’s still Heino, who is there saying nothing yet thinking nonetheless. The man of the deep forests has a thirst for vengeance and no desire to let Emil have the last word. So Emil and Dr. Knienicky, whom he has for once allowed to advise him, come up with a race strategy. It’s really rather simple. When the doctor, sitting in the stands, feels it’s time for Emil to accelerate, he will just wave a red jersey, Emil’s spare: he runs only in red, representing his country at athletic meets exclusively in the color of the proletarian revolution, although whether by choice or by fiat is anyone’s guess.

Things get more complicated for Emil, but he, a runner, remains removed. He, and his reputation, are important to the state — he is just a runner and, while promotions in the military have their own rewards, he doesn’t care that much about the state. Until the arrival of the Prague Spring.

And I will stop this review right there. If you have read Echenoz and like him, this is an entirely worthwhile book. In his spare, concise style he takes global and personal conflicts, elevates and compresses them, and does a superb job of it. If you have not read Echenoz, I would not start here — both Ravel and Piano are better entry points to this author’s work. Having said that, I want to put in a final recommendation for Echenoz. He is an author who understands and communicates the pressures of the time, but he does it through the exploration of individual characters. Don’t start your Echenoz reading here, but don’t pass it by either.

Piano, by Jean Echenoz

June 6, 2009

echenoz piano Translated by Mark Polizzotti

One of my shortcomings as a reader gets exposed almost every time I first encounter — and like — an established writer whose work I don’t know. On the “patient-excited” continuum, you can place me firmly at the “excited” end. Even when the logical, thinking part of me says waiting a month or two before reading another book would be advisable, I can’t wait to order the backlist and dive right in.

So it was with Jean Echenoz. As regular visitors to this blog will know, I was very impressed with Ravel, his IMPAC short-listed fictional biography of the French composer. Hence, two of his previous works — Piano and I’m Gone were on the way almost as soon as the Ravel cover was closed.

While I’m Gone was a Prix Goncourt winner, the entrancing cover of Piano moved it immediately to the top of the pile. (Judging books by their cover is another short-coming but we’ll save that for a later post). I do have to say that The New Press which published both Ravel and Piano deserves high praise for the covers of both books — these slim, well-produced hardcovers are as physically attractive books as any I have read in a long time.

I knew from some internet scanning that Ravel was not typical of Echenoz’s work. Grounded in the composer’s life, it did not have the surreal — often bizarre — twists of plot that characterize his previous novels. Piano has that in spades.

The book’s central character is Max Delmarc, a 50-year-old concert pianist whom we meet as part of a strolling pair on the streets of Paris:

One, slightly taller than average says nothing. Under a large, light-colored raincoat buttoned to the neck, he is wearing a black suit with a black bow tie. Small cufflinks with onyx-quartz mounts punctuate his immaculate wrists. He is, in short, very well dressed, though his pallid face and gaping eyes suggest a worried frame of mind. His white hair is brushed back. He is afraid. He is going to die a violent death in twenty-two days but, as he is yet unaware of this, that is not what he is afraid of.

Announcing that your central character will die in precisely twenty-two days in paragraph two of a book is not really conventional — Echenoz is definitely not conventional. And since that is not the reason for his fear, what is? We soon find that the second figure explains that. Accomplished a pianist as he is, Max is terrified of performing — and responds to that terror with alcohol. The other half of the walking pair is Bernie, a young man retained by Max’s imressario to keep him off the pre-concert sauce and, literally, push him onto stage and at the piano at the appropriate time.

A few bars into the piece (Chopin’s Piano Concerto #2, which Max knows so well that he is bored with it at this point) and all is well. Plus the deal with the impressario is that he gets to imbibe after the concert. While we soon discover that, along with drink, Max likes to look at and build scenarios around beautiful women, it is the music that dominates his life. Here’s the description of the taping of a concert that will be televised:

After disembodied voices had given the countdown, the concert could begin. The conductor was fairly exasperating, full of mannered grimances, unctuous and enveloping motions, coded little signs addressed to different categories of performers, fingers on his lips and inopportune thrusts of his hips. Following his lead, the instrumentalists themselves began to act like wise guys: taking advantage of a frill in the score that allowed him to shine a little, to stand out from the masses for the space of a few measures, an oboist demonstrated extreme concentration, even overplaying it to win the right to a close-up. Thanks to several highlighted phrases allocated to them, two English horns also did their little number a moment later. And Max, who had quickly lost the scrap of stage fright that had held him that day and was even starting to feel bored, himself began to make pianist faces in turn, looking preoccupied, pulling his head deep into his shoulders or excessively arching his back, depending on the tempo; smiling at the instrument, the work, the very essence of music, himself — you have to keep interested somehow.

I apologize for the length of that excerpt but it represents all that is Echenoz and his ability to create word pictures of the highest order (and equally high marks to the translator for bringing them into English). On the one hand, the eye for detail and the Proust-like cascade of it that precedes the subject and/or object of the sentence. But also, the metaphor of the performance itself. For just as the musicians use the formal structure of the piece to create their riffs and make their statement, the author uses the structure of the novel mainly as a platform for his own improvisations. The book’s strength is in those “improvisations”, not the plot.

Max does get stabbed and die about one-third of the way through the book and wakes up in the Orientation Center, Echenoz’s version of Purgatory, from which he will be assigned to either the park or the urban zone for the rest of time. Allow me one more Echenoz riff:

White in color and emerging from who knows where, this second figure seemed gently but firmly to admonish Yellow Bathrobe, who immediately vanished. Apparently White Silhouette then noticed Max, who watched it walk toward him, become transformed in its approach into a young woman who was the spitting image of Peggy Lee — tall, nurse’s blouse, very light hair pulled back and held with a hair tie. With the same implacable softness, she enjoined Max to go back into his room.

“You have to stay in here,” she said — moreover in Peggy Lee’s voice. “Someone will be here to see you soon.

“But,” started Max, getting no further, as the young woman immediately negated this incipient objection with a light rustllng of her fingers, deployed like a flight of birds in the air between them. When you get down to it, she did look phenomenally like Peggy Lee, the same kind of big, milk-fed blonde, with a fleshy, wide mouth, and excessive lower lip forming the permanent smile of a zealous camp counselor. More reassuring than arousing, she exuded complete wholesomeness and strict morals.

No marks for guessing that it is, in fact, Peggy Lee. As well, no marks for figuring out whether Max gets assigned to the park or the urban zone — in analysing his meagre volume of sins, he humanely manages to completely overlook the most obvious one.

While I liked Ravel somewhat more than Piano, that says more about me as a reader than it does about either book. I enjoyed and appreciated both books — the grounding in reality of Ravel is probably more to my taste. And I did not do Echenoz any favour by reading Piano so quickly after the first book. The concise and precise digressions, with their incredible detail, are a feature of both books and can be grating, even though they are the best parts of the book. I doubt that I would have noticed that if I had waited a couple of months before reading Piano. Echenoz is for sipping, not gulping.

Which is precisely what I propose to do with the rest of his work. Even I should be able to put a lid on excitement, or at least cork it for a bit.

Ravel, by Jean Echenoz

May 14, 2009

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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