Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ravel, a novel by Jean Echenoz

There is undoubtable pleasure in beginning to read the story of another's life. Whether it is in a novel or in the more formal context of a biography, we enjoy both the tremor of an imminent adventure and a profound sense of security. No matter what befalls the characters or the subject, however unfortunate they are, however cruel, brave, silly or dull, we are enveloped in the silence of a book, luxuriating in its unique serenity. After all, we know what is happening because we know what will happen in the end. Yet, while this peace is pleasurable in the simplest sense, it is also haunted. This is what makes it unique. In reading stories we reconcile contradictory forces.

As Sartre pointed out in Nausea, when we read a novel, we identify with the protagonist because we too face an imminent adventure, only, in the case of the novel, it has already occurred. It wouldn't be a novel otherwise. In reading of another's life then, our own becomes a narrative and afforded the same comfort of meaning given to a book by its necessary enclosure. Meaning is given by the end of possibility just as a mirror is afforded meaning by its dark backing. So, in one place, we have both the sense of infinity and its signifying limit. A novel is therefore pleasurable for only as long as it can maintain this reconciliation, hence the lingering disappointment at reaching the final page and the relief of beginning again.

However, the haunting extends beyond the book. Away from the page, never convinced by stories for long enough, we still wonder what meaning our lives may have. While many turn with relief to the invisible books of religion, science or politics in which meaning illuminates every distant corner, writers of fiction and their publishers pursue the reconciliation with a confidence guaranteed only by unease; a commercial foreboding of tenebrous insignificance. Some writers exhibit the unease more openly by examining the space between art and its creators.
The really important things in any biography are what someone thinks and feels and not what he has done.
          Glenn Gould

In recent years, biographical fiction has become almost a distinct publishing trend. Since the 1990s, there have been several novels in which the lives of real writers and artists - that is, historical figures – are the main subject. Colm Toibin's and David Lodge's novels about Henry James are two prominent examples. There is also JM Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg and Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin, both of which feature Dostoevsky as a protagonist. Notable others include Gert Hofmann's enigmatically cheerful novel about the aphorist GC Lichtenberg, Penelope Fitzgerald's story of Novalis and Joanna Scott's Arrogance about the painter Egon Schiele. And the latest edition of The Reader contains an extract from ∞ (a.k.a. Infinity), Gabriel Josipovici's novel-in-progress about Giacinto Scelsi, the eccentric Sicilian composer. There are surely many others (which you can tell me about in the comments).

If this is a sign of anything, it is that the mystery of the intimacy and distance between life and art has been noticed and is being addressed, even if its expression is misunderstood and misrepresented by the gatekeepers of reconciliation. They assert that writing about writers, art about art is at best an entertaining sideshow, at worst a form of navel-gazing – albeit someone else's navel – an absorption that is also a desertion of the socialising role of art. Each argument is valid if one has a particular understanding of the place of creation. However, if one has another, that art is, for example, a fundamental dream, an enabling illusion, then such demands only reaffirm the distress of harmony and the comforting rupture in the experience of fiction. So do these novels about artists merely seek to erase the distance between author and work, to describe the life from which it emerged and thereby explain both? Is the disenchantment of art all we have left to enjoy?

Another recent novel about a composer – Jean Echenoz's Ravel, an exquisite, lighthearted summary of the final ten years in the life of the composer of Boléro – offers a negative answer to both questions.

The time constraint in the novel is significant, particularly as it begins separated from time. Whereas In Search of Lost Time begins with Marcel in the timeless space of bed, Ravel opens with the regret of leaving another warm embrace.
Leaving the bathtub is sometimes quite annoying. First of all, it's a shame to abandon the soapy lukewarm water, where stray hairs wind around bubbles among the scrubbed-off skin cells, for the chill atmosphere of a poorly heated house. Then, if one is the least bit short, and the side of that claw-footed tub the least bit high, it's always a challenge to swing a leg over the edge to feel around, with a hesitant toe, for the slippery tile floor. Caution is advised, to avoid bumping one's crotch or risking a nasty fall. The solution to this predicament would be of course to order a custom-made bathtub, but that entails expenses, perhaps even exceeding the cost of the recently installed but still inadequate central heating. Better to remain submerged up to the neck in the bath for hours, if not forever, using one's right foot to periodically manipulate the hot-water faucet, thus adjusting the thermostat to maintain a comfortable amniotic ambience. (Translation by Linda Coverdale)
Yes, better to remain. Leaving the bath is not unlike returning to the world after reading a novel; if we are not uncertain on our feet, we still shudder in the cooler air. But we know that time will not relent and we have to make a journey. It's also significant that this opening does not quite specify who is in the bath. This immediately involves the reader rather than separating him or her from the subject of the novel. We are, as it were, in this bath together.

Echenoz follows Ravel as he dries himself and then delays his departure with preparatory rituals. He cleans his teeth, shaves, plucks his eyebrows, pares his fingernails, combs his hair, chooses which clothes to wear – he has an enormous wardrobe – and then goes around the house switching off appliances. The precision and swiftness of description is itself a bath-like pleasure. Time intervenes only when he leaves the house and "icy air suddenly buffets his backswept and still-damp white hair". One word and suddenly we realise Ravel is not young. This is a fine example of Echenoz's gift for inconspicuous concision: "white" here makes the presence of another life felt with an intensity that also passes by as a simple description.

No doubt Ravel feels the presence too though we are never told. Not being granted access to Ravel's inner life is also one of the novel's great pleasures. Glenn Gould may be correct except not knowing what someone thinks or feels can also be experienced by the subject of the biography. Assuming what they think and feel through their actions is the important mistake. It then becomes a matter of allowing for what we or the subject himself cannot know to resonate. Echenoz does this by sketching a translucent surface. While Ravel remains "Elegantly aloof, icily polite, not particularly talkative", we realise he may also be aloof from himself, not quite there except in what he can display to the world, particularly in his music. It may be why he is so keen to dress well, to reveal himself as only covering up can do. Before a concert, he mislays some patent-leather shoes and refuses to perform until they are found. Does he know why?

By the time the novel opens, Ravel is already world famous for his music. He has left his bath to journey to the harbour to board a transatlantic ship for a tour of the US. He is fêted and fussed over by everyone, though all he seems to be want to do is to lounge in solitude watching the landscape from an observation deck, perhaps to contemplate his next composition. When he is forced to socialise, such as at the Captain's table, Ravel entertains everyone with his tales of driving a military truck near Verdun in 1916.
One day, his vehicle broke down and he found himself on his own out in open country, where he spent a week à la Crusoe. Taking advantage of the situation, he transcribed a few songs from the local birds, which, weary of the war, had finally decided to ignore it, to no longer interrupt their trills at the slightest blast or take offense at the constant rumbling of nearby explosions.
Ravel is of course much like the birds. Weary of the worldly turmoil, he steps aside to write music. In the midst of a copyright dispute over music for a ballet, Ravel decides on a whim to write something entirely new: "it's only a ballet, no need for form strictly speaking or development, practically no need to modulate either, just some rhythm and the orchestra. The music, this time, is of no great importance. All that's left is to get on with it."
Back in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, early in the morning, here he is about to leave for the beach with Samazeuilh. Wearing a golden-yellow bathrobe over a black bathing costume with shoulder straps and coiffed in a scarlet bathing cap, Ravel lingers a moment at the piano, playing a phrase over and over on the keyboard with one finger. Don't you think this theme has something insistent about it? he asks Samazeuilh.
And this is how Boléro, his most famous composition, came into existence, at least here. No dramatic revelation as to what personal secret inspired this work – it was only a commission.
To those bold enough to ask him what he considers his masterpiece, he shoots back: It's Boléro, what else; unfortunately, there's no music in it.
Amusing anecdotes like this - and the novel is delightfully full of them - may give the impression that this novel is a mere confection. We may assume it can now be left to monographs and official biographies to lay the heavy meat on the scales and to win serious acclaim for helping us to understand Ravel in his musical and historical context. But this would be to deny what makes reading Ravel, and indeed listening to Ravel's music, an uncanny experience.

After Boléro, Ravel is seriously injured in a traffic accident and retires from public life. A brain injury means he forgets how to perform simple actions such as signing his own name and, more dangerously, how to swim. He is found floating far out to sea. At a concert of his own music, Ravel turns to his neighbour: "That was nice, he says, really nice, remind me again who the composer is. One is not obliged to believe this story." Echenoz's insouciance may be offhand yet here it reverberates with the essential mystery floating this novel. It began in the bath with the absence of time and now ends with the absence of Ravel from himself and his music.

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