Reading Jean Echenoz

Context N°16

by Warren Motte

Since the publication of his first novel, Le Méridien de Greenwich (The Greenwich Meridian, 1979), Jean Echenoz’s reputation as a writer has described an ascendant trajectory, much like that of the space shuttle he puts on stage in Nous trois (We Three, 1992). With eleven books at the Editions de Minuit, he can now lay claim to a body of work that is as distinguished and as varied as that of any living novelist in France. It should be recalled that Minuit offered a home to the New Novel in the 1950s, launching figures such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras, Robert Pinget, and Claude Simon into the literary ether. Though their theories and practices of the novel are more diverse than those of their precursors, it now seems clear that the ?new? Minuit writers, most of whom inaugurated their careers in the 1980s (I’m thinking of people like Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, Christian Oster, Marie NDiaye, and Christian Gailly, to name just a few), have done just as much as the New Novelists in terms of rethinking the fundamental terms of the novel as a cultural form and suggesting intriguing new paths for that form. Without a doubt moreover, Jean Echenoz has played a crucial, indeed determinative role in that dynamic.

The principal hallmarks of Echenoz’s style are his laconism, his dry wit, and the precision with which he chooses words and images. Each of his novels puts pungent and multilayered ironies into play, complementing and destabilizing one another simultaneously, and consequently demanding that the reader remain very much on the alert. These are not books to be read in a hammock on balmy summer afternoons. Despite that, Echenoz has also become recognized as one of the best storytellers among the “serious” novelists of his generation. Beginning to write when the very idea of plot in the novel was a bitterly embattled one, Echenoz has shown that an attention to novelistic intrigue is by no means incompatible with an experimentalist impulse. Quite to the contrary in fact, plot drives these texts in the first instance, and thus enables other kinds of innovations on the level of technique and theme.

In his early novels, Echenoz often borrowed basic plot structure from a variety of tried-and-tested genres, recasting it dramatically to his own purposes, and exploiting its potential for parody along the way. Le Méridien de Greenwich (1983) and Cherokee (1987) play on the conventions of the detective novel, and their fictional worlds are replete with the stock characters of that genre: con artists, hard-bitten-but-softhearted molls, and dead-eyed gunsels of various stripes. In Double Jeopardy (1986) and Nous trois, Echenoz takes on the adventure novel, placing extraordinary people in extraordinary situations, and ironizing those structures in playfully dubious manners. Chopin’s Move (2004) tropes delightfully on the espionage novel, as Franck Chopin, entomologist and part-time spy malgré lui, bumbles his way through a hilariously reconfigured secret world in which the basic principle of such a world—that nothing is quite what it seems—remains nonetheless firmly intact.

In other texts, Echenoz’s borrowings are perhaps less obvious; yet his implicit questioning of certain tropes and effects commonly associated with popular literature proceeds apace. Big Blondes (1997) takes as its pretext a talent search for tall, blonde women. Like in his other fiction, however, the real object of the search is elsewhere, residing in one particular tall, blonde woman named Gloria Stella, who has somehow disappeared. Furthermore (and once again just like in Echenoz’s other books), that topos of the search is clearly offered as a metaphor for another kind of quest, likewise played out before our eyes upon the page: the quest for original and effective novelistic shape. Echenoz was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, for I’m Gone (1999). The Goncourt also introduced him to a far broader readership than he had enjoyed until that point, for there is a species of reader in France who, while he or she may not read much other fiction at all in the course of the year, will be sure to read the Goncourt—or at least to buy it. I’m Gone follows the fortunes of Félix Ferrer, the owner of an art gallery that has fallen on hard times. In an effort to inject new life into his business, Félix will go to extremes: in this case, above the Arctic Circle, where he will acquire a sumptuous collection of Inuit art. Alas, his heart is not as strong as it once was, a condition that becomes more worrisome both physiologically and affectively when he awakes in a hospital to find a remarkably pulchritudinous young woman at his bedside. This is a peripatetic novel, to say the least, but the itineraries it sketches are circular ones. Like those of Borges and Calvino, they lead back to where they began. Yet neither character nor reader can claim to be quite the same, once having walked them.

Among all of Jean Echenoz’s books, Plan of Occupancy (1995) is undoubtedly the most anomalous. It is an exceedingly small book: only fifteen pages of text, and sparsely furnished ones at that, averaging around 125 words to the page. At something just shy of two thousand words, one hesitates to call Plan of Occupancy a book. Yet everyone else does, and in the first place its publishers. Minuit added its standard front matter and back matter, printed Plan of Occupancy on what appears to be a single twelve-page signature, and published it in their “white” collection, just like Echenoz’s other books. They priced it at nineteen francs: that’s cheap for a Minuit book, but when one reckons the price per page, Plan of Occupancy must surely be the most expensive volume in their catalogue. My bookseller in France was only too happy to call it a book; my students read it as a book; and I myself declared it as a book—among many other books, and, like those others, a professional expense—on my tax return.

As a conspicuously small book, Plan of Occupancy dramatizes and puts into question the very idea of the book, just like experiments in the roman-fleuve such as Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe, Jules Romains’s Les Hommes de bonne volonté, and Georges Duhamel’s La Chronique des Pasquier question the notion of the book from the maximalist end of its range. Clearly, that process of dramatization and that interrogation are central to the intent of Echenoz’s experiment here. Moreover, unlike Echenoz’s other novels—with the exception of Un An (One Year, 1997)—Plan of Occupancy is scored in a minor key: it is a sad tale dealing with personal loss and its consequences, narrated in an uncompromisingly laconic tone where less always means more.

The story Echenoz tells is a simple one. A woman dies in an apartment fire in Paris. Her husband and her son become obsessed with the only material trace that is left of her, a six-story mural image of her painted on the side of a building on the Quai de Valmy, an advertisement for perfume for which she had posed some years previously. Another building is planned for the vacant lot next to the mural, and as it rises up the portrait of Sylvie is gradually eclipsed. In an effort to recapture some part of that image, the husband and the son move into an apartment in that new building, right at the level of the portrait’s face, and undertake to break down the wall that separates them from it. The thematics of Plan of Occupancy are familiar enough: death, loss, absence, emptiness, grief, in short, all the consequences of a very local, very personal holocaust. On the level of the plot, the question that Echenoz poses is the following: how are this man and his son supposed to occupy themselves now that the woman they have loved is dead?

Yet it seems to me that Echenoz is telling a rather different tale on the level of metaphor. Postulating a landscape of devastation and ruin, he proposes to occupy the ground of the novel, precisely at the zero degree of that construct. Plan of Occupancy is elaborated in an aesthetic of radical eschewal. As Echenoz scripts his story, he also—and in the same gesture—scripts the manner in which he will tell that story. He has renounced (or dramatically reduced, in any case) conventional novelistic techniques of description, characterization, dialogue, and intrigue, deliberately pitching them at their bare functional threshold. In their place, Echenoz proposes a rhetoric of platitude, insisting upon the commonplace, the dull, the ordinary. That effect is most immediately apparent in the flatness of narrative tone: the telling of this story is unrelievedly declarative, with little or no prominencing, and the space accorded to readerly inference is exiguous at best. Privileging surface phenomena as he does, Echenoz challenges us to examine the surface of writing in unusual ways. In other terms, Plan of Occupancy is a performance; and what it dramatizes is the minimalist experiment itself. Coming at a time when the traditionalist novel appeared to many to be in a state of irremediable ruin, leaving makers and consumers of novels with very little room to maneuver, Plan of Occupancy suggests that writers and readers alike must make the most of what little remains, and occupy themselves as best they can.

In Un An, Echenoz tosses his readers another surprise, displaying a level of social engagement and reflection largely absent from his previous work. The heroine of Un An is “Victoire,” a young woman who, fearing that she may be accused of the murder of her lover, flees Paris for the southwest of France. She’ll spend a year there, wandering from place to place, and her material circumstances will gradually and ineluctably worsen, until she is reduced to living on the brutal edge of French society as a homeless person. When finally she returns to Paris, she’ll discover that things were not quite what they seemed when she left. As Victoire stumbles progressively downward in the social hierarchy, Echenoz indicts the society that allows its members to become so utterly disenfranchised; and if a crime is at the focal point of this novel, it is clearly a political and social one.

Un An is very broadly governed by the principle of incertitude, both on the level of the told and on the level of the telling. Victoire’s efforts to learn the material facts of her situation mediate and echo ironically the reader’s efforts to find narrative truth—and the struggle of the one mocks and relativizes the struggle of the other. In that perspective, Victoire’s wanderings in the provinces may be read as a wry commentary upon the many kinds of interpretive contingencies, dubious hypotheses, and uncertain inferences that the reader of Un An necessarily entertains as the novel develops. In other words, the reader’s itinerary in Un An is similar to that of Victoire, because the reader, too, follows difficult, forking narrative paths. There is nonetheless a carefully considered logic here. For, beyond the tale of Victoire’s vicissitudes, Un An also tells those of writing itself, enabling Echenoz to speculate closely upon the fate of the novel as literary genre, and upon its horizon of possibility on a cultural stage which is becoming, in his view, ever more impoverished by the day.

As Victoire herself becomes more and more impoverished, so too does her story, which Echenoz progressively strips of description, interpretation, and commentary, in order to focus ever more closely on bare event. This is a text marked by narrative diffidence, indeterminacy, and, in certain key moments, a refusal to elaborate. Evocation of time and space is approximate here, and the question of causality is, for the moment at least, suspended in the domain of the unnarrated. The indeterminacy of Victoire’s peregrinations stands in a symmetrical relation to the narrative indeterminacy of Un An; simply put, the reader finds it difficult to find direction in this story, or any sense of where ultimately it will lead.

Gradually, it becomes clear that if Victoire’s intention is to lose herself in the geography of southwestern France, it is clearly Echenoz’s intention to make his reader feel lost, too.

Novels are meant to deceive, of course; and most of the time we readers are willing collaborators in our own deception. Yet we feel, perhaps, that the kind of deception that writers of fiction practice must adhere to certain basic rules of fair play; and we may feel too that Echenoz has not followed those rules here. For my part, I believe that he deliberately steps outside the common boundaries of novelistic convention in order better to suggest what ground the novel as literary form may claim in our culture. Disabling the commonplace of “fictional truth” as he does at the end of Un An, he forces his reader to reflect upon the basic contradiction which subtends that notion, and upon the kinds of demands we place upon novels as we read them. In other words, the eccentric conclusion of Un An may lead us to reconsider a cultural practice that, in Echenoz’s view at least, is itself eccentric and ever more marginal by the day. If one is willing to accept the notion that the story Victoire’s homeless wanderings mediates a reflection upon literature itself, Un An quickly opens onto rich interpretive fields wherein the second dimension of Echenoz’s argument may become apparent. Just as constructive individual identity is very much at the mercy of capricious social forces, so too is that social construct which we call the novel—and the fate of both, in the current order of things, is extraordinarily precarious.

I have argued that Jean Echenoz’s career is in the ascendant, and indeed I believe that Piano (2003) is his best book yet. Its hero is Max Delmarc, an eminent concert pianist beset by stage fright and a drinking habit that is clearly getting out of hand. Obligingly enough, Echenoz tells us on the first page of Piano that Max will die a violent death in twenty-two days. Such authorial complaisance characterizes much of what follows, moreover, as Echenoz takes his reader aside from time to time in order to reassure, to cajole, to browbeat, to deny certain readerly suppositions, and to place still others on the horizon of possibility. His prose is limpid, each sentence finely crafted, each word chosen with care. Yet his style is never foregrounded as such. Crafted with a great deal of nuance and tact, it is placed in the service of a larger narrative purpose. The pace of the novel is finely calculated, with event and elaboration finding felicitous mutual complementarity in a narrative that is apparently seamless.

That quality is all the more impressive in view of the vertiginous narrative leaps that Echenoz calls upon us to make in Piano. For, despite our conjecture that the novel would end with Max’s death, Echenoz will follow Max far beyond that moment, into an afterlife that proves as astonishing to him as it does to us—and one that provides the setting for the final two-thirds of the novel. Max spends a moment in a limbo that cannily ironizes the kinds of uncertainties that readers face as they try to imagine what Echenoz’s next move will be. Yet that liminal state is not without its interest, as Max encounters a variety of midlevel afterlife functionaries, one of whom may have been Dean Martin back in the world of the quick. Neither is it without reward, in Max’s case at least, for he does enjoy a night of love with Doris Day. Alas, Echenoz chooses to narrate that event with more than his usual narrative taciturnity, in what is surely the briefest love scene in the history of French literature.

It is upon that event that Max’s fate hinges, because thereafter only two alternatives remain: heaven or hell. The heaven on offer here is perhaps not as attractive as we might have anticipated. It is a pleasingly pastoral place where the elected while away their days utterly free from concern. When Max wonders if such an idyll might not become tiresome over the long run—and it comes to mind that this is a question of a very long run indeed—an administrator is forced to admit that certain of his clients do in fact find that to be the case. Hell, upon inspection, resembles nothing quite as much as the world that Max has left behind, with all of its small pleasures and its petty vexations seemingly intact. In short, it’s a toss-up. Until one factors eternity into the equation, that is. At that point, we readers, suspended deliciously between heaven and hell, may well decide that, all things considered, dying is something which we ought best to avoid.

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Selected Works by Jean Echenoz in Translation:

Big Blondes. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. New Press, $12.95.
Cherokee. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. University of Nebraska Press, $10.00.
Chopin’s Move. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
Double Jeopardy. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. University of Nebraska Press, $10.00.
I’m Gone. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. New Press, $12.95.
Piano. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. New Press, $21.95.
Plan of Occupancy. Alyscamps Press, $6.

Selected Untranslated Works:

Un An [One Year]. Minuit, €10.
Jérôme Lindon. Minuit, €6.86.
Le Méridien de Greenwich [The Greenwich Meridian]. Minuit, €14.48.
Nous trois [We Three]. Minuit, €12.65.

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