17 June 11 | Chad W. Post

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.

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