Parade’s End

1914: A Novel BY Jean Echenoz. New Press, The. Paperback, 128 pages. $14.

The cover of 1914: A Novel

In several recent novels the succinct, startling prose of Jean Echenoz has achieved the condition of a highly durable, transparent membrane, something like the trompe l’oeil mesh often used now to mask scaffolding on building facades under repair. Imposing a Beckettian principle that drastically less is immensely more, Echenoz summons a fulsome picture of his characters and their worlds with a scattering of surgically exact, granular details both irreproachably veracious and wildly defamiliarizing, such as the swarm of mosquitoes that attacks the protagonist of I’m Gone (1999) as his dogsled approaches the Arctic Circle: Yes, there is a mosquito problem in the frozen North. But who’d have thunk it?

Since his fairly-short-of-midlength masterpiece, Piano (2003), Echenoz has minted three novels that qualify, in a hilariously original sense, as biographies—of the composer Ravel, the inventor Tesla, and the champion runner Zátopek, three famous, real eccentrics whose rendered interiority is every bit as quirky, as enslaved by secret foibles, superstitions, antagonisms, and incongruous tastes, as any of the author’s made-up creatures. These “nonfiction novels” are thrillingly compressed, without feeling truncated or egregiously contrived; their subjects “come alive” in a manner suggesting that extraordinary talents are like Christmas presents, not quite what one would have wanted for oneself, as lowering in their way as the rest of life’s implacable pathology, however exalting they may be from time to time. That an amazingly gifted person is also just another asshole is conveyed without a smudge of condescension. In fact, what these eminent individuals manage to accomplish in spite of the existential haplessness Echenoz suffuses them with makes them more worth respecting than their conventional biographies do. Life is mainly inconvenient, rebarbative, and, after all, really, really short—the brevity of Ravel, Lightning, and Running underscores the latter point with terrific poignance that belies Echenoz’s reputed “detachment.”

His novels are not without sentiment, however frosty they may seem to an American reading public accustomed to gorging on sentimentality. In 1914, the emotions of Echenoz’s characters are not especially foregrounded, and the strongest expression of feeling is made by the phantom limb of an amputee, invisible to all. As a response to the brutal ugliness of the world’s indifferent violence, however, the book is perfect: Compared with the gooey, narcissistic literary responses to 9/11, Echenoz’s nod to the powerlessness of ordinary people caught in the first great modern cataclysm is a veritable monument to human dignity.

In broad outline, 1914 etches the fates of five friends called up in the mobilization after Germany’s declaration of war on France and Russia—young men from the hills of Vendée in the Loire region outside Nîmes. It opens on a blowy August Saturday afternoon when Anthime, the accountant of the footwear company Borne-Sèze, is spending his half day bicycling up a local hill from which several villages can be seen spread out across the countryside. This scene is an homage to Victor Hugo’s last novel, Ninety-Three, wherein the Royalist Marquis de Lantenac “examined all the belfries on the horizon. . . . The cages of all these belfries were alternately black and white. . . . It meant that all the bells were swinging. In order to appear and disappear in this way they must be violently rung . . . and yet he could hear nothing. . . . This was owing to the distance and the wind from the sea. . . . All these mad bells calling on every side, and at the same time this silence; nothing could be more sinister.”

In the town, where Anthime encounters Charles, the factory’s deputy manager, “a smiling crowd milled around waving bottles and flags, gesticulating, dashing about, leaving barely enough space for the horse-drawn vehicles already arriving laden with passengers. Everyone appeared well pleased with the mobilization in a hubbub of feverish debates, hearty laughter, hymns, fanfares, and patriotic exclamations punctuated by the neighing of horses.”

Charles is an intimidating figure in Anthime’s life, a few years older, imperious, snobbish, his sense of his own importance seconded by the proprietors of Borne-Sèze; the company doctor, Monteil; and Blanche, the daughter of the company owners (whom Charles has recently impregnated). So much so that after he’s assigned, along with Anthime and their friends Bossis, Padioleau, and Arcenel, to the Eleventh Squadron of the Tenth Company of the Ninety-Third Infantry Regiment, Monteil pulls strings to get him safely transferred out of harm’s way, to the newly formed Air Service. It has not yet occurred to the French military that airplanes might be used for combat as well as reconnaissance. “The men had heard about them, looked at photos in the newspaper, but no one had yet actually seen any of them, these seemingly fragile airplanes.”

While Charles abruptly disappears from the Ninety-Third (and ironically becomes its first casualty), Anthime and the others are left to experience the ground war, from its almost giddy inception as a political canard that everyone expects to finish up in two weeks, to somewhat after the Battle of the Somme—by which time they’ve experienced the innovations of chemical attack, high-yield explosives, and trench warfare, and the spectacle of their fellow soldiers (including the military band sent into battle with them, presumably to provide theme music) blown to smithereens in unimaginably grotesque ways.

There are muted echoes of Barbusse, Céline, Jünger, and Remarque, and of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (namely the scenes featuring the indomitable Timothy Carey), fantastically amplified by Echenoz’s deadpan inventories of the design and contents of knapsacks, varying weather conditions, the declining quality of food rations, nuances of war profiteering not only by local peasants between the Loire and the Belgian border but also by Borne-Sèze and other provisioning companies, and various fatal injuries occurring among Anthime’s regiment, e.g.,

a fourth and more carefully aimed 105- millimeter percussion-fuse shell . . . produced better results in the trench: after blowing the captain’s orderly into six pieces, it spun off a mess of shrapnel that decapitated a liaison officer, pinned Bossis through his solar plexus to a tunnel prop, hacked up various soldiers from various angles, and bisected the body of an infantry scout lengthwise. . . . Anthime was for an instant able to see all the scout’s organs—sliced in two from his brain to his pelvis, as in an anatomical drawing.

Regardless of other echoes, Echenoz’s true compadres here are Jean-Patrick Manchette and Raymond Queneau, as he has happily acknowledged elsewhere. This year is the centenary of our first experiment in worldwide carnage, the effects of which our lamentable species is still coming to grips with, albeit on a learning curve slightly slower than that of plankton. For those about to be bombarded by a year of patriotic drivel, lachrymose valediction, and militaristic brainlessness, Echenoz’s little novel should provide a refreshing mental douche.

Gary Indiana is the author of seven novels and six books of nonfiction.