The Queen's Caprice

Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As a result, his characters, as well as his readers, are faced with the unexpected. Sometimes the results are quite humorous, but sometimes they are so fascinating that the reader is not sure what to think. Whatever events take place in a piece, though, the French writer, who won the Prix Goncourt for I’m Gone (also available in English from The New Press), always proves himself to be a master of the craft that seems to be enhanced by the sharp clarity brought by translator Linda Coverdale.

The pieces in The Queen’s Caprice are connected by history. That’s not to say that they’re works of historical fiction (although a couple of them come close). For the most part, Echenoz is more interested in showing how we respond to history rather than just recounting it. For example, in “Civil Engineering,” the longest piece in this book, we follow a former civil engineer named Gluck as he travels the world to write about famous bridges. The problem is that he’s only focused on the bridges themselves and not the locations they’re found in.

He would arrive at a site without ever paying attention to any possible tourist attractions and head straight for his objective. He card-indexed it, photographed it from every angle, examining in detail its setting, the places it joined, the space it spanned; he would cross it in both directions and then leave, and this had been going on for almost three years. His trips to bridges had taken him anywhere there were any and God knows they’re everywhere. . . . Gluck saw them all, having the time and money to do so, now as a collector of bridges the way others collect aquatints or bad luck.

The “bad luck” at the end of that paragraph is no accident, by the way, as Gluck finds himself a witness to a historical event. It’s just one example of how Echenoz uses subtlety to show tension between the past and present.

“Civil Engineering” is not the only piece that does this. The narrator of “In Babylon” summarizes Herodotus’s account of his trip to Babylon but also points out problems with it, as if this modern-day person is more knowledgeable about ancient times than the Greek historian who lived during the fifth century. “Three Sandwiches at Le Bourget” presents a nameless narrator who is oblivious to the history surrounding him until he can’t ignore it any longer. In “Nitrox,” an underwater submarine that may have been captured by the Nazis during the 1940s becomes the setting for an unusual romantic adventure.

Some of the pieces also find Echenoz playing with form. For example, the main character in “Nelson” is a real-life admiral, Horatio Nelson, who helped defend Britain from its enemies in Europe in the early nineteenth century. Nelson’s goal in this really short piece, though, is to simply enjoy a dinner party without letting his war injuries get in the way. “Twenty Women in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Clockwise” is a list of twenty important women in history and descriptions of how they appear in their portraits. The descriptions don’t really tell us much, as in this example: “Saint Bathilde, Queen of France, holds in her left hand a manuscript entitled Abolitio servitutis and grasps the left edge of her mantle with her right hand. Coiffure: two braids pinned up the back. Jewelry: a cross pendant. Expression: determined.” Then there’s the title piece, which is a long, improvised description of a French countryside: “So the bluff leads into a trough one might qualify as a trench, a canyon, or, more simply, a ravine. Let’s go with ravine.” While reading this piece, one cannot help but wonder, “Who exactly is the queen in the story’s title?”, which is answered in an unexpected way.

The Queen’s Caprice is a book that could be easily finished in a day or two, but one will find greater rewards by reading each of these pieces at least twice. The first time, readers should make sure they familiarize themselves with Coverdale’s notes and perhaps do some additional Internet research. Once they understand the context behind the pieces, they should use the second reading to savor every carefully placed word. That way, readers will have fun trying to find the clues that they may have missed the first time, clues that will bring even greater surprises.

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