Jean Echenoz: 1914 – 14 (2012) Literature and War Readalong March 2016

1914

Jean Echenoz tells a very simple story in this short, compressed novel. Five men go to war; two of them return, three don’t. Two of them are brothers and in love with the same woman. The characters as such are not that interesting. What is interesting is what happens to them. Each stands for something that is particular to WWI. Charles is shot down when he joins a pilot to take pictures. The industrialization of war and the use of planes is new. Both elements were important for Echenoz and whole chapters are dedicated to them. One of the men is blinded by gas. That, too is a new and especially beastly feature of WWI. One man returns after having lost an arm. I don’t think any war saw as many mutilated men return. One of the men is executed because they mistake him for a deserter. The absurdity and farce of these decisions is made clear. One man dies during an attack. His body’s lost somewhere in the mud of no-man’s-land. All these are exemplary fates and could have turned the men into pure types, but thanks to Echenoz’s sense for detail, they are more than just types. Echenoz, as he said many times, isn’t interested in psychology. To convey a characters personality and emotions he sticks to pure “show don’t tell”. He describes the actions and the objects surrounding the characters. Both contribute to the description, one in a very realistic, the other in a more symbolic way. I think this was what fascinated me the most. Echenoz’s writing is so rigorous. There’s not one superfluous word. The vocabulary is refined, rich, and exact. He uses lists and enumerations, abstraction, numbers, irony. His writing is visual, even audiovisual because he tries to convey emotions through sounds.

1914  – 14 is one of those books that gets more interesting the more you read about it. My French paperback had about 40 pages of additional material, for which I was grateful, as an important element of Echenoz’s writing is intertexuality. I’ll give you one example. The story begins with Anthime on a hill. There’s a strong wind and suddenly he hears church bells ringing the tocsin that signals mobilisation. At the end of the scene, Anthime drives back to the village on his bicycle. He loses his book which has fallen from his bicycle and opened at the chapter “Aures habet, et non audiet”. What is interesting here is the fact that this whole scene is inspired, or rather taken from a scene in Victor Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize – 93. It’s almost the same scene, only in Hugo’s novel, the character cannot hear the church bells, he only sees them moving. Echenoz who is interested in sound – the incredible noise is another new feature of this war – rewrote this scene, describing the sound of the bells. The book that Anthime carried with him is Hugo’s book. Allusions like these, which blend history and literature and the writing about history and literature are frequent and the closer you read, the more allusions you find.

When the book came out it was praised for its originality although Echenoz himself doesn’t seem to think it’s all that original. Here’s a quote from the book.

All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid, stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares about opera, even if war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.

I can see why critics found this original. His writing style is unique and he includes some chapters, like the one on animals, which is very different from what I’ve read in other WWI novels. The most original however is that he uses the techniques of the Nouveau Roman. One of these techniques is to explore nontraditional ways of telling a story. That’s why we find shifts in POV, intrusions of the author. Comments about the future etc. To some extent it is as much a book about writing as about war.

In an interview at the beginning of my edition, Echenoz names the three books that have influenced him the most when he wrote 14. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – Im Westen nichts Neues, Henry Barbusse’s Feu Under Fire (Prix Goncourt 1916) and Gabriel Chevallier’s Peur – Fear, which we have read during an earlier Literature and War Readalong.

As short as this novel is, it’s very complex. Luckily, others have reviewed it too and much better than I.

I really liked Echenoz’s writing and would like to read more of him. Do you have suggestions?

Other reviews

Juliana (The Blank Garden)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 

 

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1914 was the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the a novel on the war in Korea, The Hunters by James Salter. Discussion starts on Tuesday 31 May, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong March 31 2016: 1914 by Jean Echenoz

1914

This month’s readalong title is the slim novel 1914  – 14 by prize-winning French author Jean Echenoz. He has won the Prix Médicis for Cherokee and the Prix Goncourt for I’m off – Je m’en vais, both prestigious prizes, and a number of smaller prizes as well. He’s been on my radar for a long while and when I saw he wrote a novel set during WWI, I was immediately tempted. To be honest, the book has received mixed reviews. I’m very curious to find out on which side I’ll be.

Interestingly, the French title is 14 not 1914. One could probably discuss endlessly why they chose 1914 for the English translation and whether it’s right to change it like that. When I compared the beginning of the two books in French and English I noticed considerable differences. Those who read it in English, will have to tell me what they think of the translation.

Here are the first sentences:

Since the weather was so inviting and it was Saturday, a half day, which allowed him to leave work early, Anthime set out on his bicycle after lunch. His plan: to take advantage of the radiant August sun, enjoy some exercise in the fresh country air, and doubtless stretch out on the grass to read, for he strapped to his bicycle a book too bulky to fit in the wire basket. After coasting gently out of the city, he lazed easily along for about six flat miles until forced to stand up on his pedals while tackling a hill, sweating as  he swayed from side to side. The hills of the Vendée in the Loire region of west-central France aren’t much, of course, and it was only a slight rise, but lofty enough to provide a rewarding view.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

1914  – 14 by Jean Echenoz, 120 pages France 2012, WWI

Here’s the blurb:

Jean Echenoz turns his attention to the deathtrap of World War I in 1914. Five Frenchmen go off to war, two of them leaving behind young women who long for their return. But the main character in this brilliant novel is the Great War itself. Echenoz, whose work has been compared to that of writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad and Laurence Sterne, leads us gently from a balmy summer day deep into the relentless – and, one hundred years later, still unthinkable – carnage of trench warfare.

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The discussion starts on Thursday, 31 March 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2016

Storm Warning1914The HuntersBilly Lynn's Halftime WalkAll For Nothing

A few of you have already been wondering whether or not there will be another Literature and War Readalong. As you can see, there will be another one, but, like last year, it will be a mini-edition, although I included one book more.

Storm Warning

February, Monday 29

Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict by Vanessa Gebbie, 120 pages, UK, 2010, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Storm Warning explores the echoes and aftershocks of human conflict in a series of powerful stories in which the characters are tested, sometimes to breaking point. Gebbie pulls no punches, exploring the after-effects of atrocity and sometimes, the seeds of atrocity itself.

1914

March, Thursday 31

1914  – 14 by Jean Echenoz, 120 pages France 2012, WWI

Here’s the blurb:

Jean Echenoz turns his attention to the deathtrap of World War I in 1914. Five Frenchmen go off to war, two of them leaving behind young women who long for their return. But the main character in this brilliant novel is the Great War itself. Echenoz, whose work has been compared to that of writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad and Laurence Sterne, leads us gently from a balmy summer day deep into the relentless – and, one hundred years later, still unthinkable – carnage of trench warfare.

The Hunters

May, Tuesday 31

The Hunters by James Salter, 233 pages, US 1957, War in Korea

Here’s the blurb:

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill – sometimes under dubious circumstances – Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war.

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

September, Friday 30

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain,  307 pages, US 2012, War in Iraq

Here’s the blurb:

His whole nation is celebrating what is the worst day of his life

Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is home from Iraq. And he’s a hero. Billy and the rest of Bravo Company were filmed defeating Iraqi insurgents in a ferocious firefight. Now Bravo’s three minutes of extreme bravery is a YouTube sensation and the Bush Administration has sent them on a nationwide Victory Tour.

During the final hours of the tour Billy will mix with the rich and powerful, endure the politics and praise of his fellow Americans – and fall in love. He’ll face hard truths about life and death, family and friendship, honour and duty.

Tomorrow he must go back to war.

All For Nothing

November, Friday 25

All For NothingAlles umsonst by Walter Kempowski, 352 pages, Germany 2006, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Winter, January 1945. It is cold and dark, and the German army is retreating from the Russian advance. Germans are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot. But in a rural East Prussian manor house, the wealthy von Globig family tries to seal itself off from the world. Peter von Globig is twelve, and feigns a cough to get out of his Hitler Youth duties, preferring to sledge behind the house and look at snowflakes through his microscope. His father Eberhard is stationed in Italy – a desk job safe from the front – and his bookish and musical mother Katharina has withdrawn into herself. Instead the house is run by a conservative, frugal aunt, helped by two Ukrainian maids and an energetic Pole. Protected by their privileged lifestyle from the deprivation and chaos around them, and caught in the grip of indecision, they make no preparations to leave, until Katharina’s decision to harbour a stranger for the night begins their undoing. Superbly expressive and strikingly vivid, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the self-delusions, complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end.

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Five books from four countries, covering four different wars. The books are all rather short and quite diverse. For the first time, I have included a collection of short stories. And I included the first novel on the war in Korea.

As always, I hope that many of you will feel tempted to join me.