Is it possible to come out of a war maimed yet consider that a 'good war'? The fact that Anthime comes out of the 1918 War alive surely must mean he has a good war when so many others don't come home at all. Jean Echenoz's 1914: A Novel (originally published in France as 14 and translated into English by Linda Coverdale) is quite an interesting story. Perhaps strangely for a war story, it felt feathery light and quite intimate. I mentioned before that the author has been called a miniaturist and now I see why. The story reminds me of one of my favorite paintings that hangs in a local museum. The subject matter is a rainy day as shown in a street scene and the place is France. It is a very small painting, Impressionistic in style, and to get a true sense of it you have to stand close and take in all the small details. But looking at it, being so close you do get the sense of being just outside the canvas and looking in at the people. That's what reading this story felt like.
As war stories go, it felt quite tame, or else I was simply steeling myself to something really awful. There were awful things that happened actually, but only momentarily intense and then the story moves on to the next scene. This is a story you can read fairly superficially and still get a sense of what the war was like, but Echenoz weights it all down by the meanings behind or in between all the details. Another story written in an economy of style--this one just over 110 pages or so--but I think there is nothing accidental or not carefully chosen, word by word, scene by scene, image by image. And if you are lucky to know just a little more French history (or avail yourself to the helpful notes in the back of the book offered by the translator) you'll get a real sense how history builds one action on the next. And for a character to read a particular book, or play a game or for a battle to take place in a particular place means something just a little bit more if you know the history behind it all.
It's not really obvious from the start that Anthime and Charles are brothers. They neither much like the other and are not in the least like each other. One holds the heart of a local woman, Blanche, in his hands and the other only wishes to. They both go off to war and one wishes for an easy war, away from the fighting and bloodshed, yet it is the other that has an easy war for exactly thanks to the fighting and bloodshed. Echenoz is nothing if not ironic with his characters. And that is a little understated too, until you start pondering it all.
I don't want to give away the story, this love triangle is at the heart of it, but I won't spoil it for anyone. But as a miniaturist whose beauty in writing is in all the little (actually some are quite grand considering) details and meanings, there are some other things to share. Things I know peripherally but when you stop and think of them are so shocking by today's standards (how far we've come in learning how to wage war).
"At that point, there was nothing for it, they had to advance on the double while behind them, a group of about twenty men gathered in a circle as calmly as you please without seeming to take any notice of the shelling. It was the regimental band, whose conductor, white baton in hand, brought it down to conjure up 'La Marseillaise,' aiming to provide valiant commentary on the assault."
And then . . .
"The band had suffered further casualties: one of the clarinetists had been sent tumbling by a bullet through his cheek, and the second flutist had lost half a hand."
When did camouflage com into use? Apparently it was not widely used in WWI.
" . . . when Anthime's company had moved back toward the northeastern province of Champagne, that this skullcap was replaced by a helmet meant to provide more serious protection, yet initially painted a bright blue. Putting them on, the men found it funny not to recognize one another, for the helmets obscured much of their faces. When everyone stopped laughing and realized that sunlight reflecting off this fetching blue made them all attractive targets, they slathered the helmets with mud they way they did with the mess tins the year before."
I'm sure it's not just the French or just WWI, but it's still illuminating how a little Dutch courage is used to send men out to meet their destiny in the battlefield.
"Wine was no longer a problem, since it was now widely distributed by the quartermaster corps along with brandy, for the high command was increasingly convinced that inebriating its soldiers helped bolster their courage and, above all, reduce their awareness of their condition."
Echenoz does not shy away from presenting the uglier side of war and or of showing those most devastating battles with the losses of life so overwhelming that almost an entire generation of young men was wiped out. He paints a broad canvas in many ways, yet this very much does feel like a story in miniature, too. Like seeing a scene through the lens of a camera--you see only the main scene in detail and capture just that one frame. And this story is made up of many frames, snapshots from just before the war to the time just after. Maybe due to its slightness I appreciate the beauty of what Echenoz created, but despite its intimacy I am not sure that I ever got quite as close to the characters as I might have liked. Still, there is much to like and I am glad I have found a new author to explore.
Make sure you click on over to read Caroline's thoughts on the book. This is the second book in her Literature and War Readalong. Next up is James Salter's The Hunters published in 1956 about the Korean War, which I am greatly looking forward to reading. Do consider reading along as there is plenty of time. Discussion is not until the end of May!