Monday 23 November 2009

'No, no ascension, no ether, no big to-do.'

by Jean Echenoz

After completing Echenoz' short novel Ravel I said I would leave it a bit before reading anything else by him, following the advice of Kevin From Canada who suffers from impatience as much as I do. What has followed in musical terms is more of a tacit than a true break but I had a plan to link the reading of his previous novel Piano, which seemed to be about a concert pianist suffering from anxiety, and Philip Roth's latest The Humbling which has an actor suffering stage-fright as its central character. Finding new authors and delving into their back catalogue can also be a risky business in terms of finding the same satisfaction as that initial experience, and knowing that Ravel was quite different from his previous work meant that I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Piano.

My plan didn't really work out for starters, the recent postal strike has kept me separated from Roth for the moment and having read Piano I'm not sure the two books will share much at all. The concert pianist Maz Delemarc may be suffering from a kind of performance anxiety but that isn't really what the novel is about. When we first meet him however his life is dominated by that fright, alcoholism and the spectre of a never consummated relationship. His companion is Bernie, a man whose basic function is to try and keep Max away from the booze and push him on stage if necessary when the time comes to perform. In the same way that Echenoz announced at the end of the first chapter that Ravel has only 10 years left to live he lets us know as early as the second paragraph here that Max will suffer a violent death in just 22 days. But he is blissfully unaware of this as the days count down and we follow his weaving progress through the streets of Paris, one moment of excitement coming when he thinks he has spotted his lost love Rose on the subway after which a chase ensues.

After the event which has been flagged up from the beginning Max finds himself in a kind of hotel, which feels more like a hospital, but a surreal one which seems to count Dean Martin and Peggy Lee amongst its staff. In this version of limbo Max must wait whilst it is decided whether he will go to 'the urban zone' or 'the park'. I think we all know which one of those is more desirable and I bet you can guess which one Max ends up in although he has great optimism in 'the balance sheet of his life'.

For it seemed to him that he had always behaved rather well. Taking a survey of his existence, he came to the conclusion that he hadn't seriously lapsed in any domain whatsoever. naturally, he had suffered from doubt, alcoholism, and acedia; naturally, ha had occasionally succumbed to laziness, allowed himself a few minor tantrums, or indulged in bouts of pride, but what else could he have done?

One of the conditions for his life after the centre is a total rejection of his previous existence. No more music, no more piano. it isn't until he comes across a locked piano at the Centre that he realises how little he has thought of music, a feeling utterly changed by the appearance of the object itself.

Max had to be content with circling for a moment, not more than two or three times, around the closed piano. Without much conviction, he also tried to lift the instrument's lid, if only to examine its sounding board and wrest plank, caress the strings and run his fingernail over them like a harp, but in vain: locked shut like the rest. During these two or three turns around the piano, the little idea grew in the back of Max's mind.
Despite the very different style of Ravel both books share a similar authorial charm in the way that the writer breaks in every now and then to speed things along to their essence, or sometimes the opposite, to take a moment to digress. These interruptions are often funny and charming, adding to the quirkier feel of this book. There is a distinct oddness certainly once Max reaches the Centre, but looking back I realised that the whole book is infused with that slightly off-kilter feeling. This makes for an enjoyable read, although I'll admit to being more satisfied by the far more accomplished Ravel. I hope that his recently published Running, based on the real life of Czech athlete Emil Zátopek, follows more in that vein.


Anonymous,  23 November 2009 at 23:00  

We both read Ravel first and we both had the same reaction to this book, Will. It is a fine book (and this is an excellent review); it just is not as good as Ravel. I'll be trying Chopin's Move next, before moving on to Running.

William Rycroft 24 November 2009 at 12:13  

I look forward to reading your thoughts on both Kevin.

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