JULY 11, 2014
14, 15, 16. THE FIRST FIGURE is the original title of Jean Echenoz’s critically acclaimed novel on World War I. The second is the number of chapters that compose it. The third, “seize” in French, is the homophone of the last name borne by two of its characters, Anthime and Charles Sèze. Echenoz peppers his story with ever-increasing numbers, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference to the unprecedented magnitude of the conflict it brings back to life. But in contrast to the massiveness of its subject and the fresco to which, by the author’s own admission, such a subject could lend itself, we are presented with a cameo-like novel, compact and chiseled.
Five men and one woman from the Vendée region in western France experience this Great War from the front line and the home front, respectively. The male protagonists represent a variety of socioeconomic classes, from an assistant manager in a shoe factory to a butcher’s assistant. (Echenoz cleverly shows the latter profession and other manual trades which involve slashing and yoking to be largely recycled in the war.) At once stock characters and singular individuals, these men experience the harsh reality, absurd minutiae, and propagandist discourses that shaped the conflict. They also confront the backdoor arrangements that enabled some to move away from the trenches and the growing realization that the war is to last much longer than predicted. The canonical novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), written by the notoriously anti-Semitic Louis-Ferdinand Céline about a naive young man whose somber confrontation with 20th-century history begins with the bloody nightmare of the Great War, occasionally seems to hover in the background.
Echenoz excels at compressing the documentary research behind his fiction. Through impressionistic yet resounding touches, he captures this unique war, from its new technology to the movements of the French troops, the shapes and colors of the soldiers’ inadequate equipment. He notes their exact weight (35 kilos!), the smells emanating from the trenches, the grotesque presence of an orchestra on the battlefield.
Most striking, though, is the distance Echenoz’s fluid narration maintains vis-à-vis its subject. A voice that mixes objectivity, irony, muted compassion, and tender mockery shapes 1914. Phlegmatic, suggestive, and shrewd, the narrator sheds light on the candor of its unconfident protagonist Anthime and contrasts it with the arrogance of Charles. The novel’s haunting irony is both tonal and dramatic. A discreet yet profound empathy often emerges in the latter case. Here, a man who has fought for months on end without attempting to escape duty is condemned and executed as a deserter after an unpremeditated walk away from the trenches; there, one’s survival due to a disabling injury is (and can only be) perceived by all as the ultimate luck; elsewhere, the soldier who is able to return home does so only to beget a child bearing the name of a brother lost in the war, reminding us that the survivors of World War I helped supply the manpower for the war’s return engagement 20 years later.
A crisp diction, speckled with rare or technical vocabulary, makes the prose flow impeccably and swiftly. Echenoz slips dialogue into the narrative without any quotation marks, replacing them with distinguishable tonal shifts — often satirical, offbeat, or comical. We are made to understand that the following pronouncement is that of a certain Captain Vayssière, for instance: “If a few men do die while at war, it’s for lack of hygiene.”
The novel’s punch is all the greater thanks to Echenoz’s gift at acutely sketching character, gestures, and emotions. A couple of snapshots suffice to conjure up soldier Padioleau, “slightly built, a touch timid, thin-faced with a waxy complexion”; Dr. Monteil, “rather tall, stooped, with a florid complexion, dressed in gray, looking fiftyish enough”; or Captain Vayssière, “a puny young man with a monocle, a curiously ruddy complexion, and a limp voice.” Psychological depth is given its dues in this condensed prose thanks to a perspective that seems at once exterior to the characters and eerily intimate with their affects:
Magnetic, repeated Charles with a trace of a smile, puffing a trace of a humph out his nose, shaking his head while shrugging one shoulder and looking away — and completing these five actions in a single second, leaving Anthime feeling once again humiliated.
He had neither seen nor tried to see how Charles — with his back to him, in any case — had reacted to her smile but he, Anthime, had responded only with a look, the shortest and longest one possible, forcing himself to invest it with the least amount of expression while at the same time suggesting the maximum: a novel approach, doubly paradoxical this time and which, as he strove to keep in step, was no small undertaking.
There is a peculiar visual and aural beauty, one that verges on the cinematic, to 1914 and the anatomy of a massacre it outlines. The recurring montage of alternating shots from variable angles and of variable widths and the use of ellipses, anticipation, or fast-forwarding frequently give the novel the rhythmic and visual identity of a film. For example, a close-up compares “a tardy piece of shrapnel” to “a postscript” and “an iron fragment shaped like a polished Neolithic ax, smoking hot, the size of a man’s hand, fully as sharp as a large shard of glass.” Echenoz’s soundtrack, so to speak, is also a gem. He pays great attention to the sounds of war, be they unremarkable or deafening: “the pervasive rumbling of the wind,” the “bells […] tolling all together, ringing out in a somber, heavy, and threatening disorder,” the “hubbub of feverish debates, hearty laughter, hymns, fanfares, and patriotic exclamations punctuated by the neighing of horses,” the “bullets that whistle, bang, sigh, or whine depending on their trajectory.” All the while, the graphic if contracted vignettes of the war’s unprecedented brutality do justice to the cornucopia of lethal inventions and casualties generated in these four years — although the narrator acknowledges the difficulty of depicting a “sordid, stinking opera” known to all. The unflappable narrator points to “sizzling skeletons,” “gases, all sorts of them: blinding, asphyxiating, blistering, sneezing and tear gases liberally diffused […] with special shells or gas bottles in successive waves and in the direction of the wind,” or butchered bodies that, while alive, had to feel “ready to stab, impale, transfix the slightest obstacle, the bodies of men, of animals, tree trunks, whatever might present itself.”
Occasionally, Linda Coverdale’s translation struggles to reflect the stream and modulations of the original. The narrator’s sporadic involvement in the narrative — often through the use of inclusive pronouns (“nous,” “on”) — tends to be lost in English. The temporal closeness implied by the passé composé (a past tense that can be opposed to the more eloquent and distance-producing passé simple, which one would have expected here and which Echenoz carefully avoids on purpose) in French is also difficult to render in the translation. More problematically, there are a few errors and approximations. “Singe,” which, in context, is slang for the canned beef eaten by the soldiers, is translated as “monkey meat,” for example. The poetic and mellow “ronflement rauque du couteau à pain sur la croûte” (the “hoarse hum” or “snoring of the bread knife against the crust,” literally) is rendered with the rather derogatory phrasing “harsh grating.” The somewhat colloquial phrase “va savoir” (“go figure”) is rendered by the more neutral “who knows” (which would correspond to “qui sait?” in more elevated French). Nevertheless, the translator’s notes at the end of the edition are helpful and on target. And, all in all, the translation mostly echoes the power of the original. With its forceful concision, the matter-of-fact, scathing, yet also empathic voice that underlies it, and the original story and imagery it deploys — at once dry, rich, and dismal — 1914 is a must-read; one that artfully plunges us into the dual realm of fiction and history.