Lightning by Jean Echenoz (Des éclairs, 2010) translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (2011) The New Press (2011) 144 pp
I’ve had my eyes on Jean Echenoz since his book Ravel was a finalist for the IMPAC a couple of years ago. That books, it turns out, was the beginning of a type of trilogy of fictionalized biographies of, respectively, Maurice Ravel, Emil Zátopek, and Nikola Tesla. Lightning is the third, the one about Tesla. While this will be my first post on Echenoz, this is not the first Echenoz book I’ve read; I recently read and liked I’m Gone (I just haven’t been able to review it yet); however, Lightning, I’d say, is in another league. This is supreme story telling that brought back the charm and grace I felt from Gert Hofmann’s fictionalized biography of a (slightly) famous, eccentric genius in Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (my review here). What? You haven’t read that one yet? Well, add it and Lightning to your TBR-Now list. While we’re on the topic, add Running and Ravel, too.
All three of these fictionalized biographies are very short at only 150 to 200 pages of generously spaced type, and they recount these lives with the charm of a great storyteller who can use understatement, timing, pace, and a variety of emotions to sweep the reader up. Echenoz creates an intimacy between the narrator (just some unnamed, third-person narrator; we’ll call him Echenoz) and the reader; it’s as if we’re sitting together during the evening. Often Echenoz begins a series of paragraphs with “Well [. . .]” as he traces the narrative threads in a conversational style. The casual style is one of the things I loved about Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl, filled with its exclamation marks and the reader’s plea, “And then?” It shows just how interesting, eccentric, sad, and entertaining these lives can be. They are worthy of supreme story-telling gifts, and it seems I’m a sucker for this strange yet effective mode of biography.
Lightning begins with the dramatic birth of Gregor (for whatever reason, Echenoz’s Nikola Tesla is called Gregor (to my knowledge, he didn’t change the name of either characters in Ravel or Running)). No one knows on what day he was born because it was a stormy night, dark, and people were too startled by the events to use a lightning flash at Gregor’s birth to record the time — was it just before midnight or just after, or maybe it was right at midnight, no one knows. It’s a nice, ominous scene with plenty that foreshadows Gregor’s life: time, lightning, the end of one age and the beginning of another. But the book gets even better — we’re dealing with such an interesting man whose life is filled with eccentricities, such as counting:
He must also count the number of forkfuls, just as he continues and even increases, by the way, his efforts to count everything, because in this department things have not calmed down. The number of steps between the hotel and the lab. The number of buildings, vehicles, men, women, pigeons — more than ever, the pigeons — encountered on his walk. The steps of every staircase, even those he uses daily, going up and coming down, just to check or, perhaps, simply to keep from falling on his face. [. . .] Although he doesn’t keep track of his breathing, it’s certainly not an oversight, he was tempted, and he hasn’t decided if he’s upset or relieved at having given up that idea, it depends on his mood. Still, he gained some free time that way, since always counting everything, well, it keeps you pretty busy.
Besides being eccentric, Gregor is a genius (“His memory is as precise as the recently discovered process of photography.”). He can design things in his head so that “he almost never needs sketches, diagrams, models, or preliminary experiments.” He also has a grand imagination. One of his early ideas is a gigantic, stationary ring to be constructed around the earth above the equator; people could board and then watch the earth rotate below while they’re “comfortably seated in armchairs (the ergonomic design of which Gregor has offhandedly but precisely anticipated).” It might seem ridiculous, as do many of Gregor’s ideas, like a flying contraption that has no wings, looks like a refrigerator box, and is supposed to be able to fly so precisely as to go in and out of windows. Silly. But it turns out this is an early idea for the helicopter. Other seemingly ridiculous ideas: radio, x-rays, liquid oxygen, remote control, robots, the electron microscope, the particle accelerator, the internet. This is really just the beginning of a long list of inventions Gregor thought up and for which he filed a patent.
Despite his genius, Gregor can never quite capitalize on his ideas — why, after all, would the army want to waste a lot of money on the development of such a ridiculous concept as remote controlled missiles? But lack of funding isn’t his only problem. People often play “dirty tricks” on him.
This trend begins early when he is hired to be an assistant to Thomas Edison. Edison has been raking in profits for his Direct Current electrical power. Gregor, quite a while before, developed a better system, the Alternating Current. When Edison sees what Gregor can do, Gregor’s employment is terminated. Whatever profits were promised to Gregor were dismissed by Edison as an American joke. This, the first of many “dirty tricks,” is the beginning of a great feud, nicely and succinctly detailed in Lightning, the battle of the currents, during which Edison, to build up negative publicity for his rival, used alternating current to publicly electrocute animals (including an elephant), a publicity stunt that (perhaps) culminated in the invention and utilization of the first electric chair. Despite Edison’s tactics, we know who won: George Westinghouse, the financier who funded Gregor’s research and development of the alternating current. When the time came for Westinghouse to pay out to Gregor the contracted royalties, the amount was around $12 million. Gregor waived his right to payment, “[p]roving that in the dirty tricks department, sometimes he plays them on himself. May I freshen your drink?”
These events take up only the first part of this book. One would think a rivalry with Thomas Edison in which one forever changes the world would be sufficient, but there’s much more to Gregor’s life, ups as well as the ultimate downs. Gregor can do amazing things with electricity; indeed, he seems to think he can do anything with electricity:
One of these days, for example, he really must — it’s an old plan — envelop himself in a cloak of cold fire that, as he conceives it, would warm a naked man at the North Pole and from which he would emerge not only unharmed but improved: mind refreshed, organs rejuvenated, skin renewed. Another medical angle: he should work on the idea of high-voltage anesthesia in hospitals. It would be equally advisable to bury high-tension cables under schools to stimulate the poorest students, while in theaters, electrically charged dressing rooms would put actors in the proper frame of mind and end the problem of stage fright. He’ll have to get busy on that.
Gregor showcases — to the chagrin of “serious” scientists — his fluency with electrical currents in his famous shows. He’s popular and he lives a lavish lifestyle funded by the likes of J.P. Morgan, who emphasizes that the money is a loan. But he doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere because he cannot focus long enough to develop one of his ideas, though he is constantly filing patents: “He’s making a mistake, going much too quickly; he ought to spend five minutes on an idea to carry it through, explore the possibilities, especially since his ideas are all so promising.”
Lightning doesn’t just explore Gregor’s life as a scientist, though. We also get some brilliantly rendered bits on his romances, or lack thereof. He doesn’t seem to have time for love, when could he? But through his life Ethel, the wife of one of his acquaintances sticks close by, and she’s a comfort to him and “warms his heart a little: as she walks him to the door while Norman, his back turned, pours another round of his revolting digestifs, Ethel — perhaps a tad tipsy — knots his new tie playfully around his neck. Despite his aversion, even with her, to physical contact, and despite his sudden irrepressible fear for one second that she will strangle him, he finds to his surprise that he enjoys this moment. A little erection, Gregor? Go on, just this once.”
Another romance: the pigeons, the beautiful, revolting, plotting pigeons. Enough of them for this post. There’s much more on them in Lightning, and Echenoz is anxious to tell you about them.