February 18, 2004

Jean Echenoz
Piano: A Novel

This book represents the new kind of French comic novel. The old kind was never really comic, but at least we knew when and when not to laugh. The new kind presents more of a challenge. We certainly recognize that it’s funny, we tell our friends that it’s funny, but we also aren’t laughing, at least not at the right spots. But we’re not laughing in the wrong spots, either. Where does that leave us?

The blame here rests with the French, for not being funny. A widely known secret, that one. They can do farce, slapstick, overblown satire, punning and wit. Add to that buffoonery, drollery and lunacy, and you can pretty much sum things up from Moliere to Plantu. But where is funny?

When The Economist asked this rather pressing question last December, they blamed France’s hyper-logical Cartesian mindset, which sits flabbergasted at even middling jokes like these: "The governor of the Bank of England began an address to an assembly of bankers with these words: 'There are three kinds of economists, those who can count and those who can’t.'"

Even more distressingly, French novelists are never flippant. Jean Echenoz tries to be flippant, but you also know he is trying from the very start:

Rose could have been living on the other side of the world… Or perhaps she was dead, having had, on that score, no less predisposition than the rest of us.
The phrase 'on that score,' signaling the punch line, should tip us off to the real scandal: the French need their comic cues, their laugh tracks, to keep things moving. At this point we flip our way to the back cover, and see Mr. Echenoz himself peering out at us, expectantly, all-too expectantly, with—how’s that?—a wry smirk on his face. Doing his best wry smirk impression. What more can we give him? Pat him on the head: There, there. He tried. Perhaps the French are so over-gorged on cynicism that they cannot bear to be cynical in their humor, at least not without due warning. Other pet theories would do just as well.

Thankfully, Echenoz has other aims besides saving French comedy. Namely, a plot: Max Delmarc, concert pianist, lives life rather shakily, comes to a bad end, mulls around in purgatory, and finds out that hell resembles Paris on a cloudy day, exactly. Ostensibly, Paris is the ‘real subject’ of this novel, but through his descriptions of the city, I cannot tell whether Echenoz is fond of Paris, leery of Paris, or simply working desperately to perfect his comic tone. Judge for yourself:

Skimpily clad beneath their umbrellas, [the prostitutes] were more or less constantly observed by four categories of men: first the Bulgarian or Turkish procurers scattered about the vicinity, snug and warm in their high-octane sedans, having made the standard recommendations (At least thirty tricks a day; less than twenty-five and we break your leg); secondly the customers for whose benefit, day and night, they declaimed in every tone the same perfect alexandrine, classically balanced with a caesura at the hemistich (It’s fifteen for a blow and thirty for the works); thirdly the forces of law and order that, for their part, emerged especially at night, though not too aggressively (Hello hello, it’s the police, do you have ID papers? Nothing? You sure? Not even a photocopy?); not to mention, fourthly, the television crews making sure that, when the nth report on the subject was broadcast after prime time, in accordance with the law on the protection of privacy, the faces of these working girls appeared duly pixilated on the screen.
The alexandrine bit is a nice touch, but the rest feels second-hand, or worse, sincere. I don’t know whether a mass of minute details (‘why, their faces are pixilated…’) adds up to humor. Something seems lost.

Better is Max’ death scene, which puts these long list of details to good use:

The stiletto first pierces Max’s skin, before its momentum carries it through his tracheal artery and esophagus, damaging large vessels of the carotid and jugular type, after which, gliding between two vertebrae—seventh cervical and first dorsal—it severs Max’s spinal cord, and there is no one left on the scene.
Perhaps I’ve been lulled by that final, gentle clause, but this passage is wonderfully, beautifully serious. Sturges would be proud.

Where Echenoz takes most from some of the best French writers—this probably means Stendhal—is in the quick movement of his sentences. Action happens, heaps of action, in the breezy yawn of a single clause:

Given their work conditions, Félicienne and Max hardly saw each other anymore, except on Sundays when they took the kid out for some air—which kid, initially standoffish with Max, ended up letting himself be won over to the point of becoming very familiar, then more and more familiar, and soon much too familiar for Max’s taste.
It takes a lot of polish and callous self-editing to staccato forth a whole scene like that, which calls to mind a similar crescendoing act by Gibbon in Decline and Fall:

The Imperial captive was suddenly relieved by the fame, the approach, and at length the presence of the hero whom he had so long expected.

At what point in Piano does comedy cease and prettiness take over? The new comic novel has baffled us again. We are glad of it. When towards the end of the book the protagonist, Max, chases after a half-glimpsed dream girl in a slow-moving subway train, some measure of bliss occurs. Naivété—as most French filmmakers have learned—flows, and succeeds, in only one direction. Hence The Dreamlife of Angels and not The Dinner Game. Bunuel and not Cocteau. You get the picture...

The novel is short. Why is the novel short? Or better, why is The Novel so short these days? Does it come down to a lagging attention span among readers, or are we looking for something more urgent, more truncated in our means of expression? Saul Bellow, in 1991, cited approvingly an old Chekhov musing: “Odd, I have now a mania for shortness. Whenever I read my own or other people’s works it all seems to me not short enough.” Chekhov was talking about utterances themselves, sparse parsings of thought. And so was Bellow, as witness certain threadbare sentences in his petite novel, The Actual: “Your inwardness should be, deserves to be a secret about which nobody needs to get excited.” Lucid to the quick. But Echenoz is rarely this lucid, barrelling out instead whole carnivals of phrases and details:

In the lounge at Iquitos airport, locals departing for Lima crossed paths with clusters of vacationers come to tread the limbo of the Amazonian forest, study the natives, consult their shamans, and have their minds exploded by the ingestion of ayahuasca.
So how does passage upon beefy passage of this shrink into a measly 179 pages of novel? The ironic ‘twist’ at book’s end seems a little too abrupt, although gracious, I won’t spoil the surprise. Perhaps it all makes sense, and Echenoz had motives other than writing a novel: namely, embracing, then abandoning the new comic novel, and harkening back to something more tender in the Parisian spirit:

They went out. The street. The cars passing by. The various kinds of music escaping through the lowered windows of the cars. Sometimes it was just rhythmic blips, sometimes heavy bass lines that sent a shiver up the spine. At first they walked without saying anything; then Béliard resumed speaking.

-- Brad Plumer 5:32 PM || ||