Lights by the Ton

John Sturrock

  • Lake by Jean Echenoz, translated by Guido Waldman
    Harvill, 122 pp, £8.99, June 1998, ISBN 1 86046 449 1
  • Un An by Jean Echenoz
    Minuit, 111 pp, frs 65.00, September 1997, ISBN 2 7073 1587 7

The weightless characters who track about in Jean Echenoz’s novels are granted a sense now and again that that’s where they are, in someone else’s story, fulfilling burlesque routines not of their own devising. They’re not great thinkers, merely see-through functionaries of the plot. There’s a droll exchange marking one of these twinges of self-awareness in an early novel called Cherokee – named for the Forties song, not for the Native Americans as such – between the driver of a Deux-Chevaux and his captive passenger: ‘ “We could take you somewhere.” “That’s it,” said Georges, “take me somewhere.” ’ Which is what they do, and what Jean Echenoz with obvious pleasure does to us, taking us on what feels like a random tour, as guests of a narrative itself showing enough wear to count as the equivalent in print of a dented Citroën. For such are the cheerfully vagrant and pastiche plots of this by now experienced farceur, who keeps Georges – a man whose congenital blindness in respect of his future extends to falling asleep while having his fortune told – and his obliging backseat kind hurrying in this direction and that, while denying them the inner life any intrusion on the mechanics of which would not only hold things up but undermine the novels’ serene superficiality.

This is all good behaviourist fun, then, and Post-Modern with it. Echenoz’s high-mileage plots and amenably villainous and other characters having come in the first instance from the recycling plant: from the pulp fiction that he’s read and the pulp movies that he’s sat through. In a French context, he represents the sly revenge of the linear over the more avant-garde forms of narrative that once aspired to kill the linear off. The premise of Alain Robbe-Grillet and other New Novelists these many years ago was that stories which advance so sure-footedly from launch-pad to dénouement have had their day, belonging from now on only in the consciousness-lowering darkness of the movie-house, where the contemporary versions of E.M. Forster’s entranced Neanderthals can hang on their every consequential move. Robbe-Grillet himself wrote some very clever and entertaining novels – sardonically intended, often solemnly received – to dramatise the idea that what is most damagingly fictive in fiction as we mostly know it is not the curious things that happen there, or the curious people they happen to, but the logic of the narration itself, which, once thoughtlessly reapplied to the world we live in, encourages the consoling but wrong belief that that, too, is story-shaped. The novel was to be phased out by being made to admit to its own fictiveness, and revealing itself as the deceitful handiwork of fabulists like the mad King Boris, who is heard stamping about overhead in one of Robbe-Grillet’s own earliest fictions.

As the author of novels that wouldn’t dream of pretending to be other than fictional, Echenoz is heir to that progressive line of thought, even if, diffident person that I can vouch for him being, he’d shrink from making an issue of it. More to the point, he is heir also to the broader, and older, ludic tradition in French fiction, whose virtuoso among the moderns was the wonderful Raymond Queneau. This tradition, alas, has a habit of going mysteriously lame when it is asked to travel, as if the intellectual comedy at which France can be so good were written exclusively for the natives and disqualified by its triviality elsewhere, for having originated in the homeland of serious new ideas. So it could be that Echenoz, too, even though there’s more of the comic than the intellectual about him, will be unjustly written off as a trifler now that he’s appearing in English translation. His coming among us has taken longer than I would have expected. He began publishing – with a novel whose title was already a nod in the direction of London, Le Méridien de Greenwich – at the end of the Seventies, and Lake, his fifth book, itself appeared in the original nearly ten years ago. It is, and just as well, delightful, and echt-Echenoz in its imposition of a spoof intrigue, of the keeping-tabs-on-the-Reds kind, on a local setting that pulls, interestingly, in the opposite direction, towards the real, or even the sociological.

For plot isn’t the whole of the story with Echenoz, there’s also the décor, which he annotates wittily and with affection, in all the variety entailed by the picaresque itineraries of his characters. He has written novels in which these have been carried clean out of France, to suspiciously steamy bits of abroad – Malaysia in one instance, India in another – the descriptions of which are done by a parodist, a reader of Conrad or Marguerite Duras perhaps, not by a concerned traveller. But for as long as Echenoz remains at home, in Paris or the provinces, place stands out in his novels by its ordinariness, as a rather mucky environment, whether indoors or out, that badly needs the transcendent glamour to be supplied by fiction, once it is serving as a background for such cod villainies as operate a cure for urban ennui and listless routine in Lake.

This is in part an out-of-town novel, for the Parc Palace du Lac is a ritzy lakeside hotel outside Paris, all lawns, cocktails and discretion, with, as its one eccentricity, a large alfresco chessboard whose lifesize pieces run on ball-bearings: sports equipment it’s not hard to read as a jolly mise en abyme of the novel in which it appears. The Parc Palace is purest celluloid, in short, like the filmic imbroglio involving a bureaucratic boss from the East, Secretary-General Vital Veber, and the French Intelligence operatives who are shadowing him, which culminates in its escapist grounds. It is of a piece with the television pap that the principal shadower, Franck Chopin, catches back home in his dingy room, eating a chicken sandwich and vacuously channel-hopping between ‘a songstress (brunette), a singer (fair-haired), Rwandan fauna, pole-vaulting, two fiction serials’, or, in the bath, ‘the different kinds of songstresses on the radio, the opaque and the vehement, the survivors and the new arrivers’. These quick, exact specifications of desultory lives and the popular culture in which they are steeped enrich Echenoz’s novels no end, and the satire is always mild enough to let their pathos show through.

He can also, when he wants to, go beyond satire, however, to evoke scenes that have a troubling edge of naturalism to them. In Lake, the cast of bungling undercover men are called to a conference in a meat-market a location where the claims of the suffering flesh, effortlessly sublimated elsewhere as these cartoon figures go about their business, make a morbid return:

Once past the waterproof plastic curtain, he was abruptly assaulted by the infernal din of the tripe-processing; dozens of men with red and white faces, dressed in black and white, called to each other as they chopped up sinews and severed tendons, sculpted entrails while proffering numbers over their counters as they displayed bowls of livers, sacks of hearts for the taking, seminaries of brains and a shuffle of feet, rows of tongues stuck out from the void, shovelfuls of lungs and kidneys galore, sweetbreads by the stone, lights by the ton, masses of spleens.

A right shambles, as a literalist might want to say. The shock of this harsh documentary invasion of a polite entertainment is one we might get but seldom do at the movies, watching events that don’t begin to be real occur in sites that all too patently are so. In Echenoz’s case, the will to amuse is made the more sympathetic by the stylish way he integrates his gags with rundowns on the clothes, the furnishings, the drinks, the food, the entertainments and the foibles of some perfectly plausible French citizens. The unlikely hoops through which he also makes them jump are by way of his own gift to them, for distraction from banality is what they most obviously require.

The generic theme of all his fiction to date has been, if not the pursuit of one or more people by one or more other people, then the need to be on the move. An Echenoz character can’t hang around: Vito Piranese, first on the scene in Lake, is obliged to get out of bed and strap on his artificial leg in the novel’s second sentence. Agent Piranese needs to find ex-agent Franck Chopin, who would like to find Suzy Clair, yearned for ever since glimpsed in the street, who in turn would like to find her missing agent-husband, Oswald, who vanished six years ago and turns out to have been planted as a mole on Secretary-General Veber. The result is that the previously mothballed Chopin is pressed back into the espionage game, and can only prove his attachment to Suzy by tracking down the man who will eventually reclaim her. He must bear his frustration with the good grace endemic among Echenoz’s accident-prone hirelings.

And while we’re on the subject of accidents, a word about Echenoz and transport, as transport and the roadscapes that underpin it crop up a lot in the work of this writer. Like Queneau, he knows the Metro and which Paris buses go where, but, unlike that noted country-hater, for whom to leave the built-up area was an unsought test of nerve, he knows the autoroutes also and where you need to turn off them. There are, as you’d by now expect, good cars and bad in the novels, good ones like the automatic Peugeot Secretary-General Veber hires after landing at Orly in his private Fairchild turboprop, and bad ones for those lower down the pecking order who are forced to endure the realities of life – the Georges of Cherokee for one, who is getting a ride in a Citroën because his own Opel is a bummer, joined as it is to the tarmac beneath by ‘an unmoving column of black oil’. In an engaging novel of 1992 called Nous trois, which makes excellent fun of the French space programme, you soon learn where Echenoz’s motoring sympathies lie when he introduces a luxury model, a Mercedes, driven by a cool young beauty of the same name, only once it has burst into flames on the road south, forcing its owner – like Suzy Clair in Lake, she is described as ‘explosive’ – to slum her way home in a hire car. Nous trois, indeed, is Echenoz’s go at a disaster movie, the external combustion of the car being followed not many pages later by the casual flattening of Marseille in an earthquake, an event that kills thousands but fails to silence the muzak, and expires on the page as a shortlived media sensation – the novelist’s revenge, I take it, on a city he doesn’t like.

What you’re led a little anxiously to ask, amid the fun and games of a novel such as Lake, is whether the plot is as arbitrary as it seems to be, or whether Echenoz is having some extra, private fun by writing to some hidden plan. A story in which the closest thing to a hero is someone by the name(s) of Franck (with a giveaway c) Chopin, could give you to think that it was following a musical score known only to the author. There are allusions to high culture as well as to low in Echenoz: the music that blares from a car radio may be pop or it may be Buxtehude. And it’s the same with literature. In Cherokee, low-life Fred is encouraged to find that his name is a phonetic anagram of Phèdre, the Racine play he happens to be reading; and in the same novel, more recherché yet, when two heavies fail in an attempted break-in at a second-hand book dealer’s but manage to come away with one cheap paperback, it turns out to be Caleb Williams, William Godwin’s archetypal story of a pursuit, which the bandit embraces as his chance finally to learn English. Echenoz’s educated in-jokes are a nice way of destabilising his characters and disarming their pretensions as hard men.

Whether, on the other hand, he means to go on making them is another matter, for Un An, the most recent, very short novel that he has published in France, suggests he may now be turning, after twenty years of frolicking, to something darker. This is not a funny book, even if it starts at such a pace that you feel sure it’s going to be: ‘Victoire, waking up one February morning remembering nothing of the evening then discovering Félix dead beside her in their bed, packed her suitcase before going round to the bank and taking a taxi for the Gare Montparnasse.’ Victoire’s seemingly panicky self-rustication launches her, however, not on some larky Echenoz take-off, but on a growingly pinched calendar year in the South-West that ends in destitution, a glissade down the social scale made dreamlike by her easy compliance with whatever circumstances she finds herself in, and her sense that her boyfriend’s sudden death in the night may have nothing to do with her. Given that, her year of severance up, she is then brought back to Paris, to her old life, and even to Félix, and you can take Victoire only as the subject of an experiment on Echenoz’s part, as an excuse to imagine and to realise less jokily the ascetic condition that has long held attractions for him, as you can tell from the Beckettian figure of the tramp, Pontiac, in his earlier book, L’Equipée malaise, who combines sleeping under bridges with long night-time visits to libraries and museums, to study their contents by the small flame of his Zippo lighter.

Un An is a story where the mobility on which Echenoz has long traded as a comic device is newly dignified as an authentic way of life, for those who don’t want to live in any one place. It takes the part of the truants against the town authorities who would like to legislate them out of sight or even existence, to ‘incite the beggars to run away and hang themselves or simply hang themselves somewhere else’. Echenoz could go on from here to write a different, more mordant kind of road fiction altogether; meanwhile, it’s good that he should now be given his chance in English.