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)

 

 

*******

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.

32 thoughts on “Jean Echenoz: 1914 – 14 (2012) Literature and War Readalong March 2016

  1. That name rings a bell, although I haven’t read his WW1 novel (I get a little weary of war novels at times). His ‘Envoyee Speciale’ is a sort of parody on a spy thriller, and quite well done, but I’m not sure if it’s been translated yet. One which has been translated is ‘Je m’en vais’ – depending on whether it was published in US or UK it’s known as either ‘I’m Gone’ or ‘I’m Off’. It’s a sort of genre mash-up and adventure story and quite funny too!

  2. Wonderful review of a very, very good book. I read it last year and I thought I’d reviewed it for Amazon, but upon checking, I find I didn’t. But your review said – much better than I could have done – why the book is worth reading.

    • In the spirit of keeping this a tiny bit spoiler-free – I omitted the men’s names. Sorry, if that’s awkward. It does play a role what happens to whom.
      Yes, it is excellent. I’m pretty sure you’d appreciate the writing.

  3. It’s funny, All Quiet on the Western Front came to mind as I was reading your review, especially when you mentioned the gas attacks – it reminded me of some of the scenes in the Remarque. It sounds interesting in terms of style and technique. I have read any of Echenoz’s books, but his name has been on my radar for a little while. He wrote an excellent intro to a Manchette noir I read a couple of years ago – Fatale. (That’s assuming it’s the same Echenoz.)

    • He says he’s used some techniques of noir, so it must be the same. Its very different from the Remarque in terms if style, mood, tone but covers similar terrain. I hope you’ll pick up one if his books.

    • Thanks, Ali. It’s not as emotional a book as All Quiet but, as he says, it’s hard to say something new about WWI but stay true to it. I’d say he managed very well.

  4. This sounds really interesting and different.

    Many things in your commentary make it sound like it is worth the read. The innovative and experimental writing style seems like it is something that I would like. I tend to like it when writers push the envelope in terms of creativity. The intertextuality also sounds intriguing. It sound like I would need help with it however.

    The lack of character development might mar the book a little for me.

    • I think you’d like it. It’s a bit cold but given the topic I didn’t mind. Well, without the texts in the book, I wouldn’t have gotten all of the allusions.
      Maybe you’d like another of his books.

  5. Great review, Caroline, as always!🙂 I had not realized that before, but now I agree that each character stands for a different point of the WWI. I had first thought of them as stereotypes, and not paid much attention to the “show not tell” aspect of it. Now I am curious to read the books that have influenced the author! I may begin by All Quiet on the Western Front, which is in my TBR for ages… Have you read it?🙂

    • Thanks, Juliana
      Yes, I’ve read All Quite, and it’s the novel that kindled my interest in literature and war. To this day, I think it’s one of the best, possibly the best. I really hope you’ll like it as much as I did. But it’s harrowing. Chevallier’s books is very good too. I’ve not read the Barbusse yet but I will.
      In some ways, it felt sometimes as if Echenoz had a catalogue with all the topics and went through them all. It just struck me that he chose to give each of his characters such a typical death/wound.

  6. This is a great review, Caroline. Thank you. I haven’t read a lot of books on war. I should create some time to read books like this one. They sound important, and enlightening.

  7. I’ve wanted to read Echenoz for ages, but I rarely see his books when I’m browsing and I guess I’ve never been motivated enough to just order a couple. They all seem to be short, his range of topics and situations is vastly diverse, and it sounds like he has something fascinating to say in every case. I really should get round to it.

    I hadn’t heard of this one before – I know he’s written about music, running, espionage….

    • I think he’s really much more interested in style and the act of writing than in aynthing else and it shows because each word is chose deliberatley.
      I’d say you’d like his writing. And, as you sy, they are all short, so you’ll know quickly whether he is for you or not.
      I wonder whether this translation is a US translation and that’s why the book isn’t as well known in the UK – or Ireland in your case.

  8. Brilliant review, Caroline! I loved that scene you have described in which the main character hears the bells, rides his bicycle and drops his book which turns out to be Hugo’s in which this exact scene also takes place differently. There is so much to be gained from reading closely and reading again from this book, I think. I loved that quote by Echenoz – what he said about opera made me smile🙂 I am sorry for being able to join you for the readalong, but I will be definitely reading this book sometime soon. Thanks for this wonderful review.

  9. ….”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.”

    On the strength of your above comment, I ordered the paperback in French, but alas, it’s apparently the wrong one. Could you please furnish me with name of the edition you had? I’d like to read that material.

    Your review did an outstanding job with a book that because of its perfection in structure and vocabulary choice (The French version) makes for a difficult evaluation,

    I thoroughly enjoyed his Ravel.

  10. Thank you for your prompt response. The book is on order from Amazon.fr. I’ve always appreciated lycee editions and look forward to this one. I have a treasured lycee version from Magnard casterman of the Daenincks/Tardi Band Desinee Le Der des ders., Even thought this might not be suitable for your war read along (which I follow regularly with enthusiasm) you might enjoy it.

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