by Jean Echenoz
When he reviewed this book as part of his overview of the Impac Award shortlist earlier this year Kevin From Canada mentioned that it was a book that demanded to be read more than once and also how further readings had thrown up entirely new ways of approaching the work. Its small size and a hiatus in my new book acquisitions gave me an opportunity to read it again, something I'm not in the habit of doing, and Kevin is absolutely right - Ravel's nine short chapters over a little more than a hundred pages are more than satisfying on a first read and capable of providing new nuances and even further themes on a second and beyond. I'll focus on a couple of aspects here; the first suggested by Kevin himself - the act of creation by the artist and I'll also look at how the distinctive style of Echenoz' writing is used to create empathy and character without really attempting to enlist or describe either.
Echenoz employs a purely descriptive prose style, obsessing over details, often making lists, focusing our attention on the surface of things. After the first couple of chapters we may feel that we know more about the wardrobe, bathing habits and modes of transport employed by our central character than the man himself. But the cumulative effect of this style is to stealthily communicate everything you need for a fully realised portrait (of a 'real' character of course) so that by the final chapter those lists and details are far less detatched and clinical than they seemed at first. Those final chapters allow you to see and to feel the deteriorating health of Ravel's mind and body, something that has been flagged up as early as the first chapter where Echenoz announces that the man has 'ten years, on the nose, left to live'. Just taking one of the constants in Ravel's life, his ever present Gauloise cigarettes will allow me to demonstrate.
On his way towards an exhausting tour of America (whose route is 'as disconcerting as a fly's through the air') we see him on the deck of the ocean-liner France (which has already been described in luxurious detail)
The wind has come up suddenly, clamping his clothes against his skin, denying their existence and function, attacking the surface of his body head-on, so that the man feels naked and must try repeatedly to light a cigarette, since the matches haven't time to catch fire. He finally succeeds but then it's the Gauloise, which, as in the mountains (brief memory of the sanatorium), no longer tastes right: the wind is taking advantage of the smoke to slip alongside it into Ravel's lungs, now chilling his body from the inside, assailing him from all directions, taking his breath away, mussing his hair, sending cigarette ash into his eyes and onto his clothes -- he's over-matched, best beat a retreat.
Simple descriptive writing that manages to create a character whose mortality couldn't be more evident. Those cigarettes are a crutch for Ravel in some of his more stressed moments, including his encounter with the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein who has commissioned a piece from him. When Wittgenstein makes no attempt to hide his disappointment with the finished piece Ravel attempts to conceal his own by 'fiddling with a Gauloise, rolling it between his fingers quite a while before placing it between his lips, smoking it silently for as long as that takes. Wittgenstein then coldly slips the score into his left pocket before taking his leave'. Agonising. Nearer the end of the book those cigarettes again are used as one illustration of his decline and Echenoz once again uses a list, but this time it is charged with the emotional involvement of the reader.
Although he no longer recognizes many people, he notices everything. He can see that his movements miss their targets, that he grasps the knife by its blade, that he raises the lighted end of his cigarette to his lips only to correct himself immediately every time. No, he then murmurs to himself, not like that. He's well aware that one doesn't cut one's nails that way, or put on glasses like that, and although he gets them on anyway to try to read Le Populaire, the muscles of his eyes won't even let him follow the print anymore. He observes all that clearly, the subject of his collapse as well as its attentive spectator, buried alive in a body that no longer responds to his intelligence, watching a stranger live inside him.
That breakdown of mind has a huge bearing on creativity of course. Where does the music come from? That's far too big and general a question to even begin to answer here but for Ravel the process actually requires a long period of thought before beginning on a piece. 'Inspiration does not exist...composition takes place only at the keys' and the work featured in the book has often been commissioned keeping the idea of untrammelled creative expression a further step away. Bolero, which is one piece that is focused on, is one such commission, from the dancer Ida Rubinstein. It begins casually enough, 'Ravel lingers a moment at the piano, playing a phrase over and over on the keyboard with one finger. Don't you think this theme has something insistent about it? he asks Samazeuilh. Then off he goes to swim.' Pressure grows from the publisher to provide rehearsal dates for the as yet unfinished work, 'All right, they want to rehearse, they're really anxious to rehearse, well then fine, they'll rehearse. Rehearse: Middle French rehercier, to repeat. They'll get their fill and more, de la répétition.' As he thinks of automatons and machinery, a factory he likes to look at nearby, his own false teeth clacking like castanets, the piece comes together 'something based on the assembly line.' Anyone who has heard it will know that insistent theme that is repeated without change throughout the piece, the different instruments of the orchestra managing to make the same tune sound somehow different each time, the volume and intensity increasing as it builds to a climax which is almost like exhaustive collapse. A piece of music born first from a request, hustled into a structure by impatience and made by machinery; a piece Ravel thinks contains no music and will have no success becomes his masterpiece, something that troubles him from then on. Where does he go from there? His creativity seems to stall in the face of such popular acclaim and it is shortly after this that Ravel begins to lose contact with his own gift, his own music.
It is the most touching aspect of the book, this slow process of negation, which his long suffering companion Hélène notices first, Ravel 'revealing, from time to time a kind of absence before his own music.' That process of thought which would precede any of his writing becomes frozen and when pressed to describe the sensation he can only suggest that 'it's as if his ideas, whatever they are, always remain trapped in his brain.' It is some kind of magic trick to write a book which is so short but that reveals something new each time you read it and which employs a prose style devoid of authorial emotion that somehow manages to create emotion on the page and in the heart of the reader.Thank you to Kevin for pointing it out and as a mark of respect I shall follow his advice and not go diving straight into Echenoz' previous novel Piano until I have had the time to fully appreciate what I so enjoyed about Ravel. A little like listening to a piece of favourite music there is something about the silence which follows the final note which isn't like silence at all.