17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To supplement the advance preview of Jean Echenoz’s Lightning — this week’s Read This Next — book, I talked with translator Linda Coverdale about Echenoz, and the three “Eccentric Genius” books of his that she’s translated.

You can read the entire interview here, but for now, here’s an excerpt:

Chad W. Post: Were you excited when you first started translating Echenoz? These books are pretty different from his earlier works.

Linda Coverdale: When I picked up Ravel, I thought, oh goody, here we go, we’re going to have this sort of rambunctious circus-like atmosphere, it will be rollicking and lots of fun, let’s see what happens. Well, it was Ravel. My first reaction was, what? Now I’m translating Echenoz and he’s gone into a monastery? It was delightful but it certainly was a surprise. It was as if he were playing around, doing his homework, taking his exercise in all sorts of ways. But it was always Echenoz, and he was working on his style and how he would manipulate the language. It seemed that he had taken along the two things that I had most enjoyed about his writing before: that it was very antic, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and yet, it was very elegant—even when it sprawled, he was in control. He took those two aspects and he, in a way, compressed them, and raised them to a higher level, and started tackling what one might call more serious things. Which isn’t to be nasty to previous novels at all, no, he likes change, he’d been playing with different genres before and he said he was ready for a change, so, as I understand it, he was actually trying to do something different in the way of time, because previous books had always been set in the period in which they were written, so he thought he might try his hand at something else. But he didn’t want to do a historical novel, some sort of bodice-ripping thing. He wanted to set it—and this was the particular allure of this idea—in the period between the two wars, which was very rich, and he was going to have all sorts of real characters in there, real people, Ravel among them, and Ravel ended up walking off with the book that Echenoz eventually wrote. So that’s how he got into that. He was making a change, and he was experimenting with it, the experiment fizzled, but there was a by-product that proved to be, from my point of view, solid gold. That’s how he started with the Three Lives.

CWP: Do you know how historically accurate these books are? I mean, Ravel seems very much based on historical records, whereas in Lightning, Tesla’s name is changed to Gregor, which raised some questions for me.

LC: With this new style, he stuck very close to biography in the first novel—and they’re all novels, he says very specifically that they’re all novels, but in Ravel, I did the research and I checked up on lots of things, and I kept coming across information that Echenoz must himself have found. He did extensive research—he was looking at letters, he was looking at memos, he was looking at scribbles on manuscripts, looking at books about Ravel, you name it. The idea was, he would have so much . . . So when I say his style became compressed, it seems to me that, after eating all this information, he was very very choosy, he distilled all the data and events and emotions, and crafted his sentences to make them really rich and resonant. Most of the dialogue in Ravel was in fact rooted in reality, but he didn’t create a lot of it in the three novels, because what he was writing was a novel that stayed very close to the actual life that he wanted to explore. Then when he finished Ravel, he thought he’d like to do the same thing again, but he decided to pick an area about which he knew very little, and he decided, sport, sport would be good, and he found his character, Zátopek, and he also started looking into the history and politics of the period, which he didn’t touch on really at all in Ravel. So he was taking the same idea but playing changes on it, and then seeing what would happen, which turned into Running. [. . .]

CWP: And this led to Lightning . . .

LC: It was a logical progression, he thought he’d like to do it once more, and this time he was looking for a scientist, and Tesla was the one he latched on to. He relied on Margaret Cheney’s Tesla: Man out of Time, which he credited. But he had given himself more freedom with the second book when he was dealing with Emil—Echenoz was a little more roman-esque, and allowed himself some curlicues—and he decided that this time, he was going to do more of that. Frankly, he was going to take liberties that he hadn’t taken before, and structure his book more like a novel. Well, listen, Tesla’s life is like a novel. The man was insane.

So when people say it’s a trilogy, Echenoz makes a real point of saying no, it is a suite. He didn’t conceive of it as a trilogy. Each thing led to the next one, and in a way, he was moving blindly, but confidently. After he’d done his research and made his choice, then he knew where he was.

And be sure to check out all the RTN info about Lightning by clicking here.

15 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is my review of this week’s Read This Next book, Lightning by Jean Echneoz, which is translated from the French by Linda Coverdale and coming out from The New Press.

Lightning is the third of Echenoz’s “Eccentric Genius Suite,” which also includes the novels Ravel and Running. Each of these books takes a historical figure as it’s base—one who was a bit quirky, and as a result, also very fascinating. These are still novels in the sense that Echenoz creates situations around historical facts, providing unverifiable insights, and bringing these characters to life—while avoiding the typical traps of “historical fiction.”

I have yet to read Running, but I’d highly recommend Ravel in addition to Lightning. But as I say in the review, Lightning plays to my obsession with Tesla, which is one reason we chose to include this as a Read This Next title. Speaking of, click here to read a sample from Lightning.

And here’s the opening of the review:

There’s something fundamentally compelling about Nikola Tesla’s life. The fact that he was born either right before midnight on July 9th, or right after on July 10th. His ability to visual things in 3-D and then create them exactly how he saw them. His photographic memory. The “War of Currents.” How he invented basically everything, including alternating current electrical power systems, radio, radar, neon lights, VTOL aircraft, Tesla coils. His idea to provide free energy to everyone. His death ray. The fact that he may have invented all these things, but died penniless. His obsession with pigeons. Lots of compelling aspects to his life.

And clearly, I’m not the only one who finds Tesla’s life so interesting. In 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, which features Tesla near the end of his life, living in The New Yorker hotel and tending his pigeons. Studio 360 did an episode on him. So did PBS. These people are trying to preserve Wardenclyffe, Tesla’s last and only existing laboratory. Google his name and you end up with over 8,100,000 hits. There’s something fundamentally compelling about Tesla’s life.

I’ve been intrigued by Tesla for quite some time, but in reading Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, it became clear that Tesla was one of (if not the) last inventors who existed outside of big business. Case in point: The War of Currents.

Click here to read the entire piece.

15 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There’s something fundamentally compelling about Nikola Tesla’s life. The fact that he was born either right before midnight on July 9th, or right after on July 10th. His ability to visual things in 3-D and then create them exactly how he saw them. His photographic memory. The “War of Currents.” How he invented basically everything, including alternating current electrical power systems, radio, radar, neon lights, VTOL aircraft, Tesla coils. His idea to provide free energy to everyone. His death ray. The fact that he may have invented all these things, but died penniless. His obsession with pigeons. Lots of compelling aspects to his life.

And clearly, I’m not the only one who finds Tesla’s life so interesting. In 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, which features Tesla near the end of his life, living in The New Yorker hotel and tending his pigeons. Studio 360 did an episode on him. So did PBS. These people are trying to preserve Wardenclyffe, Tesla’s last and only existing laboratory. Google his name and you end up with over 8,100,000 hits. There’s something fundamentally compelling about Tesla’s life.

I’ve been intrigued by Tesla for quite some time, but in reading Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, it became clear that Tesla was one of (if not the) last inventors who existed outside of big business.

Case in point: The War of Currents. Back at the turn of the twentieth century Thomas Edison (whose reputation has not been well-served by the passage of time) was promoting the direct current model of electricity distribution. Not to get into all the technicalities of this, but basically, because this system required all electricity to move in one direction only (generator to outlet), it caused for a lot of start/stop problems for things like trams, was very limited in how far it could be distributed, and was overall not that efficient. Tesla had an idea for an alternating current system that would solve a lot of these problems, by using transformers and whatnot.

While working at Edison Electric, Tesla brought up his idea, but Edison “explodes each time as if his assistant were extolling the Antichrist.” But over time, Edison might be developing some doubts as to his system and lets Tesla (named Gregor in the book—more on that in a minute) take a shot at solving the problem:

Fine, go to it: there’s $50,000 in it for you if you succeed. Gregor goes to it, for six months, at the end of which the generator winds up in fine fettle indeed. Gregor hurries to report to his employer.

Great, exclaims Edison, lounging in his armchair with his feet propped up on his desk. Good, very good. Really? asks Gregor uneasily. You’re pleased? Ecstatic, declares Edison, delighted. So, then, ventures Gregor, unable to finish his sentence because—So then what? breaks in Edison, whose face has turned to stone. Actually, says Gregor, screwing up his courage, I seem to remember something about $50,000. Young man, snaps Edison, sitting up and taking his feet off his desk, you mean to tell me you don’t know an American joke when you hear one?

Prick. And it’s not like this is the only d-bag move Edison makes. When Gregor ends up working with Western Union (after losing all his money to the backers of his successful arc light), the so-called “War of Currents” kicks off, with Edison protecting his DC distribution model at all costs. Such as by demonstrating the dangers of AC by electrocuting cats and dogs on the streets. And then an elephant. He even creates a really brutal electric chair and kills a convict.

In some ways, Edison is the anti-Tesla—at least when it comes to business. He claimed the patents for inventions his workers came up with. The lengths he went to to preserve his monopoly more resemble today’s corporations than the image I have of Edison from my grade school textbooks.

To bring this home, when Tesla signed a contract with Westinghouse, he was promised a modest sum for the sale of electricity via his AC system. When they “won” the current war, Western Union owed him $12 million. Since this would dismantled Western Union, Tesla tore up the contract, content to go off to Colorado to play with electricity. (And supposedly discover a way to deliver free electricity to everyone, everywhere. Something that’s as anti-corporate as it gets.)

That’s how it will go with Gregor: others will discreetly make off with his ideas while he spends his life bubbling away with new ones. But it’s not enough to keep things boiling, one must then decant, filter, dry, crush, mill, and analyze. Count, weigh, sort out. Gregor never has the time to cope with all that. The others, off in their corners, will take the time they need to carry out his ideas while he, dashing on, will have already pounced on something else. And his patent applications won’t help, won’t any more keep Roentgen from claiming the X-ray than they’ll prevent Marconi later on from saying he invented radio.

Echenoz, who changed Tesla’s name from Nikolai to Gregor to emphasize that this was a novel and not a biography, does an amazing job capturing the fascinating eccentricities of this genius. Because not only was Tesla a great inventor, he was quite a showman as well, such as in this description of his “demonstration” at the 1893 World’s Fair:

As mystified by these scientific matters as I am, the audience at this point is already goggle-eyed and openmouthed at such a spectacle. When Gregor begins, however, in a crashing din, to pass between his hands currents in excess of 200,000 volts, which vibrate a million times a second and appear as shimmering phosphorescent waves—and then turns himself into a long cascade of fire, the crowd screams for the rest of the act. After which, in the gradually falling silence, Gregor’s motionless figure continues briefly to emit vibrations and haloes of light that fade slowly into the returning darkness, until the audience holds its breath in a theater as black and silent as the crypt.

For such a short book (142 pages), Echenoz (and superstar translator Linda Coverdale) sure cover a lot of ground. There’s the Edison bit, the time in Colorado when he “communicates with martians,” his time at the Waldorf Astoria, his time at the much less chic New Yorker hotel, the time when he falls in love with a pigeon.

This book works though, not just because of the wealth of awesome material that was Tesla’s life, but because of the compression (Linda Coverdale’s term) of his writing. It’s concise, but not minimalist. Serious and very precise on one hand, but with that typical Echenoz flair, such as the occasional references to “I” and “we” and the general “lightness” that makes all of his fictions so incredibly enjoyable. And makes Lightning one of my favorite books (so far) of 2011.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Lightning by Jean Echenoz, a book that I truly love. Simply put, Echenoz’s charm + Tesla’s crazy genius = Incredibly Engaging Novel.

Over the rest of the week, we’ll be posting a few things about Echenoz’s general career (his noir books, his transitional period, the Eccentric Genius suite), along with an piece about an interview I did with translator Linda Coverdale, and a full length review of the book.

For now, check out the preview here, and here’s the short intro to the book:

Echenoz has had an interesting and diverse career as a writer. His first few books—_Cherokee_, Big Blondes, Double Jeopardy, Chopin’s Move_—are fun, noirish sort of novels. A few years back though, after _I’m Gone and Piano, Echenoz embarked on a “suite” of three books about historical figures: Ravel (about Maurice Ravel), Running (about Emil Zátopek), and Lightning (about Nikola Tesla).

These three novels may signal a sort of new direction in terms of what Echenoz is writing about, but all three are infused with the typical Echenoz voice. And it’s that signature voice that transforms the “Eccentric Genius Suite” from a series of biographies or historical works into charming novels that lucidly depict the quirky lives these people led.

Over the past few years, Tesla has sort of come back into the public eye, especially thanks to Samatha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else. The reasons for this resurgence of interest are varied, ranging from the general strangeness of his person and the movie-like quality of his life, to the way that Tesla was one of the last pure inventors—one who was destroyed by big business and his own inability to function in that world.

Lightning is a stunning novel that is captivating right from the start. In our advance preview, you can read about Gregor/Tesla’s birth, his early successes, his fall out with Edison (who always comes off as a bastard when you read about Tesla), and the start of the “War of Currents.”

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