by Jean Echenoz (2005)
translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (2007)
The New Press (2007)
192 pp

The first of Echenoz’s eccentric fictional biographies is the last I read (the others are Running and Lightning, reviewed here and here, respectively).  For a couple of years I’ve wanted to read Ravel, since it was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2009. It was the first time I’d heard of Echenoz, and this short biography of Maurice Ravel’s last ten years (though I hadn’t read it) made me start paying attention to Echenoz’s work from the sidelines (that, and KevinfromCanada, since Ravel, has frequently reviewed Echenoz’s work — click here).

Other than the fact that he composed Bolero, I knew next to nothing about Ravel. After reading this book, I still know little about Ravel, but I don’t believe that was necessarily the point. Rather, what we get are some beautifully lit episodes (the first starts us in the bathtub with Ravel, ruminating over the problems of leaving the bathtub), and sometimes it’s not even the facts about Ravel that make the passages come alive. For example, the book’s second chapter begins on board an ocean liner that will take Ravel on his first and last tour of the United States. It begins with some exceptional detail about the boat, France, beginning by telling us that it “still has nine active years ahead of her before her sale to the Japanese for scrap.” The chapter proceeds for a few paragraphs describing France‘s past and future, bringing some great historical texture to the book.

Echenoz’s eye for detail doesn’t change when it shifts to Ravel. One of the first things we get is his eccentric wardrobe:

In addition to a small blue valise crammed full of Gauloises, the other bags contain — among other things — sixty shirts, twenty pairs of shoes, seventy-five ties, and twenty-five sets of pajamas that, given the principle of the part for the whole, offer some idea of the scope of his wardrobe.

I think we can apply the last part of that passage as we look at the book itself in that that passage, given the principle of the part for the whole, offers some idea of Ravel. The language, even while dwelling on details, will be easy to take, even delightful at times (check out this one from a meeting with Joseph Conrad that apparently didn’t go well at all; fortunately they were joined by Jean-Aubry who “[i]n this desert . . . had shuttled between the two mutes like an exhausted fireman, trying to bestow upon each one in turn a little artificial respiration.”). The details will be eccentric, but well chosen; they will be given precedence over any type of expansive shot. This is also representative of the narrative itself: Ravel is a series of nine precisely drawn, detail-oriented vignettes (the introduction calls them “cameos”) and not an attempt to exhaust us with the facts of Ravel’s last years. It’s excellent.

Around half of the book covers the tour of the United States, its ups and downs. This is a bit different from Running and Lightning, which move the subjects rather quickly through much more time. That’s not the only difference. Along the same lines, Ravel‘s tone is generally slower and less whimsical. Now, those other two were chuck-full of whimsy, so that’s not to say it isn’t whimsical at all.

Some of the whimsy comes out when we get back to Europe and Ravel begins to compose Bolero. Here is a sense: “The music, this time, is of no great importance.” I listened to Bolero several times while reading this book, and it’s fascinating to look at Ravel’s reasoning, as interpreted by Echenoz.

Perhaps a reason I feel this one is so much less whimsical than the other two in the trilogy is because the tone throughout is a bit more elegiac. We’re told in the first chapter that Ravel has exactly ten years left to live. The attention to detail seemed to emphasize the passage of time, and not long after Ravel has composed Bolero he has to ask people whose music he’s listening to. It’s his own. Running and Lightning are sad, yes, but by the time we read about Ravel’s tragic wreck and invasive brain surgery we don’t remember much of the book’s whimsy. The last line, which isn’t a spoiler, nicely conveys what I mean:

he leaves no will, no image on film, not a single recording of his voice.

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