Where new writing finds its voice


Victoria J L Best

By Jean Echenoz, translated by Mark Polizzotti
Vintage 2005

Jean Echenoz is widely considered to be one of the most talented and influential French writers of our age. In 1999 he won the Prix Goncourt, his country’s most prestigious literary award, for the novel I’m Off. It’s surprising, then, that he’s not better known abroad, despite the fact that many of his novels are available in translation. The publication of Piano has been met with the kind of publicity that indicates his publishers think so too. 

Echenoz is that unusual, but welcome, hybrid: an accessible experimentalist. Adam Mars-Jones called him ‘suave, droll and dry’, and he is most often described as ‘playful’. In Piano, the opening hook – that the protagonist Max Delmarc, a concert pianist crippled by stage-fright is ‘going to die a violent death in twenty-two days time but, as he is yet unaware of this, that is not what he is afraid of’ – might lead us to expect yet another riff on the thriller theme. However, Echenoz is a far more bold and inventive writer than that. Max’s curiously muffled life, living with his sister, ambivalent about his métier, longing hopelessly for Rose, his unrequited love, is indeed interrupted by violent death on page sixty-three. The rest of the novel details his initiation into the afterlife, as Echenoz indulges in the wonderful audacity of imagining what purgatory, heaven and hell might look like from the perspective of the twenty-first century. 

Purgatory’s not so bad; it takes place in a kind of triage centre reminiscent of all the soulless conference hotels of the modern Western world, but the room service is good. Max’s chambermaid turns out to be none other than American jazz singer Peggy Lee, and her customer service extends well beyond what one would expect from the average Holiday Inn. But Judgement must be passed (in the tatty administrative offices of the second floor) and whilst Max is fairly confident that, beyond a little justifiable alcohol abuse, his conscience is clean, the reader might be more suspicious. Looking after him is none other than the guardian demon of Echenoz’s previous novels, Christian Béliard. Béliard shows Max his two alternatives; the urban zone and the park zone. The former turns out to be Paris on a bad day: 


this Paris, or its twin, seemed to be smothered under a black, synthetic rain expelled by clouds of pollution, brownish and swollen like udders. The light arriving from that side was opaque, depressing, almost extinguished; whereas it flowed in gently, affectionately and brightly from the other side. This other side overlooked an immense park, a vegetal mass with soft contours forming a vast array in every shade of green, from the darkest to the most tender. Undulating at various points beneath a more clement sky, the expanse seemed to spread into infinity, as far as the eye could see, with no perceptible boundaries.


In the park zone, by contrast, ‘Rabbits bolted in the bushes like furtive little machines; flights of iridescent hummingbirds striated the sky between the branches; and at mid-level buzzed deluxe insects, hand-picked – varnished dragonflies, lacquered ladybirds, metallic beetles’. 

Unfortunately, the park zone isn’t to be Max’s final destination. Instead he is sent home, or at least back to Paris, to a dull job, wearing nasty cheap clothes and with strict instructions not to practise his former profession or socialise with former acquaintances. 

Critics have given a mixed reception to the surprises Echenoz reserves for this final third of the novel. Every review I’ve come across has loved one section and felt disappointed by another, but no two critics have agreed on where the praise or the censure should fall. For my own part, the novel takes off after Max’s death, when his prose enters a different stratosphere.

Echenoz isn’t an easy writer to pin down. Like Flaubert, a recognised influence on his work, his characters are a curious mix of the provincial and the romantic, rendered sympathetic by the humorously ironic tone of the narrator. We may detect a hint of legendary thriller writer Dashiell Hammett in the ‘what-will-happen-next’ narrative structure, and the afterlife section is positively teeming with intertextual nods to Dante, Sartre and the tale of Orpheus, amongst others. To my mind, however, Echenoz is the equivalent of a postmodern Balzac. In the latter’s novels a simple vase can tell you everything you needed to know about its owner’s status, ideology, and personality. In Echenoz too, description is never innocent, but buzzing with a dozen implicit cultural references, slyly poking fun at the modern world’s pretensions and performances. What makes this book so inventive and so provocative is its ability to create a fantasy of the afterlife that is redolent with significance for the daily reality in which we live. For all its little flaws, Piano is one of the most enjoyably unusual novels you might read this year.