I am at a good moment in my reading. While I may not be finishing things (and that goes for other things in my life right now--books, needlework, letter writing, emails . . .) as quickly as I like, I am very much happy at 'being in the moment' when it comes to the stories that I am spending time with. I knew I wanted to do a teaser today, but the problem is--which book do I pick when there are several close at hand that I am enjoying so much and would sharing something of the story from them with you.
So I've decided on one that I am finding surprisingly enjoyable, 1914: A Novel by Jean Echenoz. Echenoz is an award winning French author who has a list of books to his name, a half dozen of which have been translated into English. Until I started reading 1914 I wasn't at all familiar with Echenoz except knowing that I had wanted to read this novel when it first came out. I never did manage it as I think with the anniversary of the start of WWI a couple of years ago I became a little 'war weary'. I am very much drawn to reading about this era and normally I do not shy away from war books, but I do think it's possible to overdo a particular type of story. I've barely started reading so maybe there will still be harrowing battlefield scenes, but so far I feel as though the author is easing me into it. I think I won't even mind so much as am I finding the writing style and characterization so well done. And at just over 100 pages surely I can manage anything Echenoz sends my way. I was a little trepidatious when I started reading, thinking I might have to force myself to pick it up and read a bit each day in order to finish by the end of the month (this is the second book for Caroline's Literature and War readalong), but I started and found I didn't want to put it down--always a good sign.
My first impression just a few chapters in is the attention to detail. There really is a precision to the way the story is being told, there is an economy of style. Even as there is a lushness to the writing, it feels like not a word is being wasted. And there is a weight to the choices, too. The book has a half dozen or so pages of notes made by the translator, Linda Coverdale. While I think it is entirely possible to read the story without flipping to the back and filling in the details, I do go back every so often and read the notes, which are very helpful in fleshing out the meaning.
The story begins on a radiant August day. The weather is so inviting that Anthime, one of the young men who this story is about, is taking a big book out on his bicycle to find a "rewarding" view in which to settle down and read his book. He does not get that far, however, as the village's bells ring out announcing that war is on the horizon and the men must mobilize. It's almost just a precaution as this is a war that will be over quickly. Anthime returns to the village and in the square he crosses paths with another young man named Charles. Two very different men who both will go to war and they leave behind one young woman, Blanche.
The next day, Sunday, Blanche is getting dressed and preparing to go out, and it is the description of her desk that I want to share as a teaser. Not exactly anything really having to do with a war, but then again, maybe having quite a lot to do with the war, or rather the men fighting in it.
"As she left her bedroom she passed the writing desk, which had played no part in this morning's activity, the desk is used to this, serving simply as a repository for the letters Charles and Anthime each regularly sends separately to Blanche and which lie bound by ribbons of contrasting colors in two different drawers."
I'm not sure why, but so many things in this story are striking me and I make a little pencil mark next to the details. In the description of the story on the jacket Echenoz is called a "miniaturist" and I like that. He seems such an interesting author and from what little I have read about him I think he must be highly regarded in France and have a very particular style, so I shall see how this goes and then perhaps move on to some of his other books.
I've read a really paltry number of books translated from other languages so far this year. Only three and two of them were originally published in French. Now I have two books on the go also translated from French, so maybe this will be my year of French/French-Canadian literature. I'm also reading Patrick Modiano and on the merits of the first fifty or so pages I have ordered another of his books (another must read all his works authors, I think) and plan on picking up more. (And an aside, April's NYRB subscription book is by another French author!). I'd call that a sign, wouldn't you?!