Why This Book Should Win – 1914 by BTBA Judge Monica Carter
Monica Carter is a writer and freelance critic.
1914 – Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, (France)
The New Press
Jean Echenoz’s novel, 1914, delivers the punch of a heavyweight yet moves with the speed of a flyweight. In fewer than 120 pages, Echenoz gives us the exhausting thirteen rounder full of power and finesse, each word making an impact, their total making a lasting impression on the reader. Like a well-trained fighter, Echenoz’s prose is spare, lean, not an inch of fat to be found – only the muscle of self-discipline can be seen.
1914 is his version of the requisite war novel for men of a certain age, or plainly, the stories of five young men sent off to be ravaged by the horrors of World War 1. The novel begins quietly enough with a detailed description of the idyllic countryside as the twenty-four year old protagonist, Anthime Sèze, cycles through it to the top of the hill as he surveys his town below. Then, from the distance, “up in those church towers, the bells had in fact begun tolling all together, ringing out in a somber, heavy and threatening disorder in which Anthime, although still too young to have attended many funerals, instinctively recognized the timbre of the tocsin, rung only rarely, the image of which had reached him separately before its sound.” Thus, war begins. Anthime, his older brother Charles, Padioleau, Bossis, and Arcenal – his “café comrades” – don their ill-fitting uniforms as if in a game of dress-up, boot through town amidst parade fanfare, wave and smile as they march off to one of the worst wars in world history.
With that set-up, a reader would expect a 600-page novel. Yet, this is where Echenoz’s mastery of language shows what brevity can do. The Echenoz brand of wit is subdued while his detached, meticulous eye for detail lets us in to every scene as if he and the reader were watching everything unfold through high-powered binoculars. Echenoz’s details are hypnotizing, seemingly innocuous at first, almost wasteful, but when the scenes of war appear, that same eye for detail makes you wince, want to look away from the image in your mind that he has created.
Then you turn the page and encounter one of his devastating conclusions about war:
The sweat from fatigue and fear, take off the greatcoats to work more freely, and might hang them on an arm sticking out of the tumbled soil, using it as a coat tree.
All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares a lot about opera, even if the war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.
It’s true; we know it all to well – the death and destruction of war. With the centennial anniversary of World War 1 and the focus on its literature, Echenoz confidently creates an intense, gripping narrative that is just as heartbreaking as first person accounts from soldiers who actually fought in it. Equally important and no less creative is Linda Coverdale’s translation. When a novel such as this is translated, it requires a translator who can rewrite the novel with the same economy of prose and richness in description. Coverdale’s ability to remain so loyal to Echenoz’s style and tone feels effortless, which makes the translator all the more gifted. Also, Coverdale’s notes at the end of the text are fantastic. She tells you the historical context of a reference as well as the exact phrase to google to see a particle painting Echenoz is referring to or what the soldier’s rations looked like.
1914 should win the Best Translated Book Award because it has all the marks of an epic but is scarcely over one hundred pages. To create that kind of emotional depth of character and expansive narrative is more challenging to do in fewer pages than when a writer is allowed five hundred-plus pages. It should win because it takes World War 1, a much written about topic, and makes the distillation of Anthime represent the horrible damage that any war does to a soldier. It should win because the novel wouldn’t have the significance that it does have without the superb translation of Linda Coverdale. It should win because the message is too important to ignore – even if it’s a beautiful day out, we still carry the possibility of war within ourselves.