Saturday, June 15, 2013

Echoes of war

Coincidence or fate put an advance copy of Jean Echenoz's fine, slender novel about French soldiers in the Great War into my hands just as I was reading the last few pages of Les Thibault, Roger Martin du Gard's anything but slender roman fleuve, the latter sections of which span the war years. (Spoilers ahead, so be advised.)

As it turns out, the books have some curious similarities. Some of these, like the scenes narrating the mobilization of the French army at the outset of the war and the loss of one limb by a major character in the course of it, might be plausibly dismissed as inevitable given the nature of the subject. On the other hand, the fact that both novels are primarily concerned with two men, and that in the course of each narrative one of those two men will die in the crash of the two-seater aircraft in which he is a passenger (and leave behind a pregnant girlfriend) may be a coincidence or may be a sly hommage on Echenoz's part, a hommage that would not be out of character given that the opening pages of 1914 feature a pointed allusion to Victor Hugo's novel of the 1793 Vendée uprising, entitled Ninety-Three. (The French title of Echenoz's novel, by the way, is not 1914 but a simple 14, and it also begins in the Vendée.)

Be that as it may, the novels have little in common in tone, with Martin du Gard's being (for the most part) earnest and analytical, and the newer book more graphic in its depiction of warfare but also leavened with a bit of playful postmodernism. As a case in point, we only find out about halfway through 1914 that its two chief characters, two men named Anthime and Charles who have been strangely circling around each other for several chapters, seemingly both attracted and repelled by some connection whose nature is unclear, are in fact brothers, as are, of course, Jacques and Antoine Thibault in Martin du Gard's novel.

Jean Echenoz's 1914 will be published by the New Press early next year, and will doubtless be one of many new books released in conjunction with the centenary of the beginning of the war.

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