6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Lightning by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: The New Press

Why This Book Should Win: Tesla, duh. And Linda Coverdale. But mostly Tesla.

This was one of the first books we included in the currently-on-hiatus “Read This Next” project. As part of that, we ran a preview of the book, and interviewed Linda Coverdale, and ran a review of the book. And then, on the the Three Percent podcast on the Best Fiction of 2011, I plugged this again. As I did in last week’s podcast. In other words, I am fond of this book. (Worth noting that on last week’s podcast, Tom chose this as the book he thinks will win the award.)

Unlike similarly constructed sentences, such as “everyone likes a reenactment,” or “haven’t you always wondered what it would be like to live in Ireland in the 1800s?,” it’s FACT that everybody is interested in Tesla.



Just look at that shit! That is totally wicked insane. And named after TESLA. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg—this guy invented EVERYTHING.1

In addition to all the awesomeness of his experiments (dude almost destroyed most of New York when he was just fucking around) and his strange obsessions with electricity and pigeons, one of the reasons Tesla keeps resurfacing every few years (most recently in Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else) and seizing the public imagination is his captivating life story and how it can be interpreted into so many different archetypal myths.

For instance, there’s the idea of the solitary, eccentric inventor. Someone who is maybe a bit socially awkward (recluse), has some odd quirks (pigeons obsession), but can see the world in ways that no one else ever has (death ray).

Also, the thing that struck me in reading this book, and in reading about Tesla in general, is how he was one of the last pure inventors outside of the corporate world. Part of that was because he was THE WORST at business matters, some of that is because Edison was a total bastard (electrocuted an elephant), and because capitalist assholes have seemingly always taken advantage of the brain-muddled and trustworthy.

Getting to the book itself, this is part of Echenoz’s “Eccentric Genius” trilogy that includes Ravel and Running. These are very different from his earlier works, which are a bit more noirish and funny. Here’s what Linda Coverdale had to say in the aforementioned interview that we did:

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.

Partially because it’s Tesla, partially because his style really fits the content, but of the three “Eccentric Genius” books, Lightning is the most successful and captivating. It recounts the life of Tesla (referred to as “Gregor” in the book) from birth to death in a chatty, informed narratorial voice.

To give you a taste, here’s a bit from the beginning when Gregor is born right around midnight:

We all like to know, if possible, exactly when we were born. We prefer to be aware of the numerical moment when it all takes off, when the business begins with air, light, perspective, the nights and the heartbreaks, the pleasures and the days. [. . .]

Well, that precise moment is something Gregor will never find out, born as he was between eleven at night and one in the morning. Midnight on the dot or a bit earlier, a bit later—no one will be able to tell him. So throughout his life he will never be sure on which day, the one before or the one after, he has the right to celebrate his birthday. [. . .]

Gregor’s birth proceeds like this in the clamorous darkness until a gigantic lightning bolt—thick, branching, a grim pillar of burnt air shaped like a tree, like its roots or the claws of a raptor—spotlights his arrival and sets the surrounding forest on fire, while thunder drowns out his first cry. Such is the bedlam that in the general panic, no one takes advantage of the frozen glare of the flash, its instant broad daylight, to check the precise time according to clocks that, cherishing long-standing differences, have disagreed among themselves for quite a while anyway.

A birth outside of time, therefore, and out of the light, because in those days the only illumination comes from candle wax and oil, since electric current is as yet unknown. Electricity—as we employ it today—has yet to impose itself on custom, and it’s about time for someone to deal with that. It’s Gregor who’ll take charge, as if sorting out another item of personal business: it will be his job to clear the matter up.

This one is a MUST READ for any and everyone. It’s short, charming, and utterly enjoyable. And, I think, a definite finalist.

1 Because this is absurd, yet makes the point, here’s a list from Wikipedia of “Electromechanical devices and principles developed by Nikola Tesla”:

Various devices that use rotating magnetic fields

The Induction motor, rotary transformers, and “high” frequency alternators

The Tesla coil, his magnifying transmitter, and other means for increasing the intensity of electrical oscillations (including condenser discharge transformations and the Tesla oscillators)

Alternating current long-distance electrical transmission system (1888) and other methods and devices for power transmission

Systems for wireless communication (prior art for the invention of radio) and radio frequency oscillators

Robotics and the electronic logic gate

Electrotherapy Tesla currents

Wireless transfer of electricity and the Tesla effect

Tesla impedance phenonomena

Tesla electro-static field

Tesla principle

Bifilar coil

Telegeodynamics

Tesla insulation

Tesla impulses

Tesla frequencies

Tesla discharge

Forms of commutators and methods of regulating third brushes

Tesla turbines (e.g., bladeless turbines) for water, steam and gas and the Tesla pumps

Tesla igniter

Corona discharge ozone generator

Tesla compressor

X-rays Tubes using the Bremsstrahlung process

Devices for ionized gases and “Hot Saint Elmo’s Fire”.55

Devices for high field emission

Devices for charged particle beams

Phantom streaming devices56

Arc light systems

Methods for providing extremely low level of resistance to the passage of

electric current (predecessor to superconductivity)

Voltage multiplication circuitry

Devices for high voltage discharges

Devices for lightning protection

VTOL aircraft

Dynamic theory of gravity

Concepts for electric vehicles

Polyphase systems

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.”

22 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by our own E.J. Van Lanen on Jean Echenoz’s Running, which was recently released by The New Press in Linda Coverdale’s translation.

Personally, I’m a big Echenoz fan—especially of his earlier noir-detective books like Cherokee—and this is one of the many books I’m looking forward to reading for the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards. (Since it released in December, this isn’t eligible for this year’s award.) In fact, there are a slew of Dec-Feb books that I can’t wait to read . . . but more on that tomorrow.

Here’s the opening of E.J.‘s review:

Jean Echenoz’s Running is a fictional investigation of the life and athletic genius of Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner who is widely regarded as one of the great runners of the 20th Century.

The novel opens in World War II, with the German invasion of Moravia. Emil, a teenager at the time, is working at the Bata shoe factory, his hoped-for future as a schoolteacher having fallen by the wayside. To promote themselves, the factory organizes sports teams and athletic events, and despite his loathing of all athletic activity, Emil is compelled to represent the factory in a cross-country race against several members of the Wehrmacht. To his surprise, Emil finishes second in the race and is invited to join a running club, which he resists at first:

“Against all odds, he soon starts enjoying himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him, and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.

“Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1,500 and 3,000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.”

Click here for the full review.

22 December 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Jean Echenoz’s Running is a fictional investigation of the life and athletic genius of Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner who is widely regarded as one of the great runners of the 20th Century.

The novel opens in World War II, with the German invasion of Moravia. Emil, a teenager at the time, is working at the Bata shoe factory, his hoped-for future as a schoolteacher having fallen by the wayside. To promote themselves, the factory organizes sports teams and athletic events, and despite his loathing of all athletic activity, Emil is compelled to represent the factory in a cross-country race against several members of the Wehrmacht. To his surprise, Emil finishes second in the race and is invited to join a running club, which he resists at first:

Against all odds, he soon starts enjoying himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him, and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.

Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1,500 and 3,000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.

Emil’s running style and training methods are self-taught and unorthodox—Echenoz makes a few attempts to describe Zátopek’s strained and painful-looking style—but these methods prove effective for Emil. He begins winning races around occupied Czechoslovakia and comes in fifth at the European Championships in Oslo, breaking the Czech record. After the end of World War II, Emil is drafted into the army, whom he represents at the Allied Forces Championships in Berlin. During the race he laps several of the competitors and the crowd goes wild—Emil suddenly finds himself world famous.

His fame makes him the perfect propaganda tool for the fledgling communist country, so Emil is made an “Athlete of the State”. He marries a fellow athlete, and he wins gold in the 10,000 meters in the 1948 Olympics in London—the first such medal for Czechoslovakia. This is the beginning of Emil’s dominance of distance running. He wins everywhere he goes and sets a world records almost every time out. He is the fastest man on earth. His career reaches a peak at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where he wins gold in the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters, and, incredibly, in the marathon—a race he had never run before in his life.

Inevitably, age catches up with Emil, and he begins losing races, until he finally retires following the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

In Running, Echenoz has chosen a compelling figure to focus on. Zátopek’s story—a reluctant athlete who, through serendipity and will, becomes a legend and a hero to his country—is truly fascinating. Echenoz’s style here is perfectly suited to the action, the races in particular are well described, and Linda Coverdale’s translation is transparent.

The novel, however, can at times feel like a simple recapitulation of Emil’s victories. There isn’t really any psychological depth to the ‘character’ of Emil nor much tension in the telling of his story. This seems intentional for the most part; Echenoz appears to be more interested in the accomplishments, which are astounding, than in the man, and much of the political background of the novel serves more as context, or simple fact, than as motivation for anything that takes place. I’d categorize it as creative non-fiction rather than as a novel. At a really brief 128 pages, Running is a fascinating story that rescues, for me at least, an important and highly influential athlete from obscurity.

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