Although Jean Echenoz is both widely read and a winner of multiple literary prizes in France you’d have to ask a lot of friends in the US before you got to one who knows his name.

Books 19141914 is the latest of 15 novels, all of them mere morsels compared to some of the half-year reading projects weighing down night-stands.  In the English translation by Linda Coverdale,  (The New Press) it is 109 pages.  But what a century of pages!

With an even, meticulous description of small events, almost as if from the pen of the protagonist, Anthime, an accountant, the story begins.  It is an inviting Saturday afternoon for a bicycle ride, in August, in France. More oxcarts and horses are on the country roads than automobiles.  As he rides along, a whirling gust of wind interrupts the calm ride, and then a strange winking of light from the tops of church towers, visible from the slight rise Anthime has stopped on.  The sound of deep bells follows the light and we know: mobilization for WW I has begun.  As he pedals home, the book Anthime had brought to read drops from the back of the bicycle: “They have ears but they do not hear ,” is the title of the book, from the 115th Psalm, and a chapter title of Victor Hugo’s last book, Ninety-Three, about the vicious Royalist massacres of 1798, midway through the French Revolution.  And an authorial observation, of course.

As almost every accounting of the war has told us, French, German, and British, “Everyone appeared well pleased with the mobilization in a hubbub of feverish debates, hearty laughter, hymns, fanfares, and patriotic exclamations….”  And everyone is convinced the fighting will not last two weeks.  An officer lectures the young recruits. They will be back very soon. There is small danger of dying.

 “…it isn’t bullets that kill, it is uncleanliness that is fatal and which you must combat first of all.  So wash, shave and comb your hair, and you will have nothing to fear.”

Joining, along with Anthime, is Charles, who will turn out to be the second of the five men who go off to war, who is Anthime’s older brother, and rival in love. He will also be one of the three who die; the other two are grievously wounded.

Echenoz’ style may strike a few as somewhat strange in a novel about war.  His narrator, nameless, makes himself known with sly and sharp commentary, shared with, but not put in the mouths of, the soldiers.  As they go into their first battle they note,

 “the regimental band, whose conductor, white baton in hand, brought it down to conjure up “La Marseillaise,” aiming to provide valiant commentary on the assault.”

The tune begins to fall apart as, one after another, the band members are crippled or die from shell fire.

Irony, instead of outrage,  seeps out on every page.

“The situation would soon change, when headquarters grasped the advantage presented by men properly supplied with drink, since inebriation damped down fear, but things had not come to that yet.”

Instead of Rabelesian grandiosity, to go along with the war itself, he trades in matter-of-fact understatement, often ironic by being the opposite of what we know to be the case, sometimes amusing in its slightly askew verbs, humorous in their inappropriateness.

“Like all the first men to show up, they were rewarded with a uniform in their size.”

or,

“[there were] ceremonies such as awarding the Croix de Guerre, invented six months earlier.”

Less humorously, he offers plain description yet still, sometimes, with an out of register adjective.

“Anthime and Bossis could see the incineration of two airmen killed on impact and still strapped in, transformed into sizzling skeletons hanging by their seat straps.

Other times he is as direct and visceral as anything to be found in All Quiet On the Western Front, Fear, or Under Fire.

“Those who’d been spared stood up fairly spattered with bits of military flesh, dirt crusted scraps rats were already snatching off them and fighting over among the bodily remains here and there: a head without its lower jaw, a hand wearing its wedding ring, a single foot in a boot, an eye.”

Along with this, however, are exquisite descriptions of small human gestures we recognize, but have seldom seen described.

Anthime had responded to [Blanche] only with a look, the shortest and longest one possible, forcing himself to invest it with the least amount of expression while at the same time suggesting the maximum…”

As short as the book is, Echenoz manages to include the familiar components of WW I novels: the ebullience at the beginning, the marching away to cheers and flowers, the first days in camp, the first days under fire, airplane dog fights, gas attacks, grotesque deaths in the trenches – and how men adapt to seeing them, the joy of getting a “good wound,” the woman back home, the rivalry in love…  In addition, he has found the particulars of that war, sometimes presented in lists of what the men carried, sometimes in a passing phrase that, for instance, the machine guns on the airplanes were not yet synchronized with the propeller, and so could not be used.

Of course everything I read, and have cited here, is not Echenoz himself, but the words of Linda Coverdale, a translator with an impressive list of translations to her credit.  Without having seen the original French, my impression is of a book that follows an original, if at times quirky, style.  When she begins the book with an easy conversational opening, “Since the weather was so inviting and it was Saturday…” I assume that is Echenoz opening, as though we’d come into his story telling a few moments late and missed the preliminaries. It is of a piece with the later, relaxed story-telling tone,

“This mosquito,  at one o’clock, appears in the air of a normal end-of-summer blue…  Let’s propel ourselves upwards towards this insect: as we draw closer it gradually grows into a small plane…”

It’s hard to know about some of the grammatical choices, as when, after a period, a clause stands in for a sentence: “Who therefore decided to forget it.” My guess is she’s replicating something found in the original, part of the casual voice he has adapted.  Vocabulary sometimes flags itself as a trifle odd. ‘Par for the course’ and ‘carping’ sound a bit out of place.  I’ve never seen “instanter” in print before, nor ‘homothetic’ (and after searching, still don’t know what it means.)  On the other hand, ‘a rowdy gust of wind,’ and ‘a limp voice’ strike me as good solutions for what must be unusual words in French.

None of this slows us down and the overall effect is fine. We are at times bemused, curious and shocked.  We will perhaps remember the plot longer than the effect of the war on any of the representative characters, but perhaps not. As a short fiction by a modern prose virtuoso, 1914 invites re-reading, a rare possibility in today’s storms of written/spoken/shouted words. As a book about the beginnings of our present centuries it’s a welcome recent addition to a library of journals, fiction and history about the war, either as an entry point for some or new eyes for others.

Ω

For 4 more reviews see The New Press, here, also here and here.

For more of Linda Coverdale’s translation see here.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email