I am writing to you in haste, just to share my impressions on 1914: a novel (tr. Linda Coverdale), which I read for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong 2016. During the Easter holidays, we are leaving for a bike trip to Austria, and I don’t know if I would have the time (or the internet connection) to write to you any time soon. So I prefer to write you a note today, and a quick note this will be.
1914 opens with the young accountant Anthime, who is out for a bike ride on a sunny but windy Summer afternoon. As he stands at the top of a hill, all the church bells start to peal in his village: the First World War has begun. As military preparations immediately start to take place, we are informed that Anthime and four of his peers are sent to the front, to fight as foot soldiers.
All of the characters come from the Vendée region in western France. Charles is Anthime’s brother; the remaining three men are his fishing companions. Finally, we have Blanche, the heiress of the shoe factory where Charles and Anthime work, a woman who is loved by both of the brothers – and who is pregnant of one of them. I enjoyed how you played with the character’s names: Padioleau (a slaughterhouse knacker), Arcenel (a saddler), Bossis (a butcher’s apprentice). You also play with the original title: 14 not only alludes to the opening year of the war, but also to the fact that this was your fourteenth book.
Interestingly enough, you pick stereotypes and treat them – albeit briefly – as singular individuals, which reads as a generalization, but one devoid of dehumanization. For me, this constant play with opposites (stereotype/person; distance/proximity; interior/exterior…) is the highlight of your novel. Although the story is told through third person narration, the narrator sets himself on the heat of the conflict, participant in the narrative, and brings us closer to it, through the sporadic use of inclusive pronouns such as you and we (I); the story is narrated from the perspective of one who is, at once, on the heat of the conflict, as well as glancing from the future (II); despite the fact that the narrator seems to participate in the narrative, the narrations distances itself from its subject (III); the story is told both from the front line and the home front, through a perspective that seems at the same time exterior to the characters and intimate with them (IV); the narrative voice uses sarcasm and open mockery to induce compassion (V). You make the subjects more grave by playing with them: irony and wit emphasize the grotesque aspect of warfare.
I appreciate your choice to evoke the war from the perspective of everyday life, as it was interrupted and reconfigured by the conflict. In a condensed prose, you capture the movements of the troops, the new technology, the war smells and sounds, the backdoor arrangements and propagandist discourses shaping the conflict.
For what I read, your spare prose is the most praised aspect of your novel. You avoided minute descriptions of conflict, and preferred to convey trauma and violence in a dispassionate manner, rendering horrifying scenes in a tone drained of all emotion. This emotionally subdued narrative voice is rendered not only through brevity and reserve, as well as through a combination of various writing techniques: the use of technical vocabulary, compressing documentary research behind the fictional account; the use of inventories, lists and enumeration, which helps to build momentum; the use of numbers and mathematics to defuse drama (“a bullet travels 40 feet through the air at 3,280 feet per second at an altitude of 2,300 feet to enter the left eye of Noblès”); symmetry, ellipse and repetition, creating a cumulative effect.
I agree that all those techniques create distancing effects that end up bringing the reader closer to the conflict. Everything you have left unsaid resonates through your book: the blank spaces are ideal to convey the relentless carnage of war. Nonetheless, this choice is not original, and most of the techniques you apply here were used in a more powerful way in previous war books – for instance, in The Thing They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, which is also, like 1914, but in a more radical way, a war novel about writing a war novel. Having read O’Brien’s book, I must confess that 1914, in comparison, kept me cold.
Yours is a sidelong glance that forces the reader to face the horrors of war, forces him to look those characters in the face, casting an unflinching long gaze at the brutality they were exposed to. And that is no small achievement. It might not be original, it might not even be all that successful at times – but it is authentic.
All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid, stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares a lot about opera, even if war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.
– Jean Echenoz, 1914: a novel
About the book
- The New Press
- 119 p.
- Translator Linda Coverdale
- First published 2012
- Original title: 14
- My rating: 3 stars
- This book was read for the Literature and War Readalong 2016.