I few years ago, over a period of just a few weeks, I read and reviewed a kind of trilogy of short biographical (albeit stylized and embellished by fiction) novellas by Jean Echenoz: Lightning (here), Running (here), and Ravel (here). These short, quirky books turn things just so, making something unique where we might expect to find something conventional. I have been anxious to see Echenoz’s next book, 1914 (14, 2012; tr. from the French by Linda Coverdale, 2014).
Echenoz has the ability to “play” with serious subjects, somehow making them even more grave. 1914 is another short book (just over 100 pages), and there are quite a few moments of levity in the form of wordplay, sarcasm, understatement, and general wit. While most readers in English will miss it (I certainly did until I saw it at The Complete Review), Echenoz suggests his playfulness before we even open the book. In French, this book is simply entitled 14, and it happens to be Echenoz’s fourteenth book.
No, there’s never any doubt Echenoz is going to treat the subject — the Great War and a few people whose lives are destroyed — with deep respect. It’s the arbitrary nature of the universe and the people who take advantage of that that are going to be mocked, be it ever so slightly, by Echenoz’s style.
The book begins on a lovely Saturday in 1914. A young man named Anthime is riding his bicycle.
His plans: to take advantage of the radiant August sun, enjoy some exercise in the fresh country air, and doubtless stretch out on the grass to read, for he’d strapped to his bicycle a book too bulky to fit in the wire basket.
It’s the beginning of an idyll, a period of time that escapes time, only it’s not an idyll as we normally think of it. Rather than have his pleasant afternoon on the warm grass, Anthime is drawn from this pleasant scene by the town’s bells. He must go back to town to find out what it is; war, of course, is at the door, and Anthime is about to be torn out of time.
Besides Anthime, the book follows four other young men, including Anthime’s brother Charles. A young, unmarried, pregnant Blanche stays at home, which has also warped into something unfamiliar:
The dimensions of this town drained almost empty of its men thus seem to have expanded: other than women, Blanche sees only old fellows and kids, whose footsteps sound hollow on a stage too large for them.
Blanche’s family owns a shoe factory, and Echenoz spends quite a bit of time exploring the various ways this factory (and many others) took advantage of the war.
I said above that Echenoz focuses his mockery on such people, but that’s a bit misleading. The tone throughout is that all of these people, both those taken advantage of and those taking advantage, have been thrown into this situation of nearly manic survival. Consequently, though these people are not off the hook, it’s the war — the absolute ridiculousness of war — that Echenoz plays with.
He does this even as he’s describing a horrific aviation fight. World War I was the first time such fights in the air took place, and the first people sent up were completely unprepared, thinking they had scored the best position — fighting takes place on the ground, after all. It’s, again, almost peaceful when we meet one of these planes carrying one of the young men we’ve been following. The action seems to far away, comical almost, on the ground, when another plane appears. The chapter ends like this:
[He] sees the ground on which he will crash approaching at tip-top speed, offering not a hint of hope for any alternative save his imminent and permanent death — ground currently occupied by Jonchery-sur-Vesle, a pretty village in the Champagne-Ardenne region, and whose inhabitants are called Joncaviduliens.
Why that extra trivia at the end? We’ve just watched a poor young man die because of, because of ridiculousness. Why does Echenoz end the scene like that. For me, it works wonderfully, pulling away the individual death, making it arbitrary, forgettable, just one little thing in a big world that won’t remember.
Peace is always deceptive in this book. There’s another wonderful moment — Echenoz writes these so well we feel we ourselves escape from the carnage — in nature. Another of the soldiers simply wants to go on a walk, to get away from the war for just a moment, and he unconsciously but deliberately keeps going:
Relaxing instead into his appreciation of the burgeoning spring — it’s always moving to admire the spring, even when one has begun to recognize the pattern, it’s a good way to brighten a dark mood — Arcenal paid just as much attention to the silence, a silence almost untainted by the rumblings at the front, never very far away, rumblings that this morning even seemed a trifle fainter. An incomplete silence, naturally, not entirely restored but almost, and almost better than if it were perfect because it’s clawed by the cries of birds, cries that somehow amplify it and, giving depth to a background, exalt it, in the way a minor amendment gives strength to a law, a dot of contrasting color intensifies a monochrome, the tiniest splinter confirms the smoothest polish, a furtive dissonance consecrates a perfect major chord — but let’s not get carried away: let’s get back to business.
Carried away . . . if only.
At one moment Echenoz seems frustrated at his own subject, and our response to it, and it’s as good a place as any to end this review:
All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid, stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares about opera, even if war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.