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SubStance 35.3 (2006) 51-63

Echenoz's Modern-Day Mystics
Dominique Jullien
University of California, Santa Barbara

Back in 1988, in an article on Echenoz published in a special issue of Yale French Studies devoted to contemporary French novelists, I wrote: "Although the Médicis prize awarded to him for his second novel, Cherokee, has begun to familiarize the public with his work, Jean Echenoz is still a new name in contemporary French fiction. No critical studies are available on him yet, but a number of short articles can be found in different periodicals."1

In 2005, Jean Echenoz is no longer a new name in contemporary French fiction. With a dozen novels published (all by Editions de Minuit), numerous literary prizes (including the Prix Médicis for Cherokee in 1988, the Grand prix du roman de la Société des gens de lettres for Lac in 1989, the prix Novembre for Les Grandes Blondes in 1995, and the prestigious prix Goncourt for Je m'en vais in 1999), and a well-developed and growing critical bibliography, Jean Echenoz is now a familiar figure in the literary landscape. Articles appear regularly in the press, and an entire program of France-Culture devoted to his work aired recently (December 2003). On the scholarly side, the first international colloquium on Echenoz's fiction was organized by the Université de St-Etienne in 2004. His latest novel, Ravel, a fictionalized narrative of Ravel's last ten years of life, came out in January 2006, and the impatient fan could read excerpts and reviews on the official Echenoz website even before its publication. Jean Echenoz is beginning to establish himself on the English-speaking literary scene as well, where five of his novels have already been translated by Mark Polizzotti.

Equally familiar to readers is what has come to define Echenoz's trademark manner: his novels are playful, ironic reworkings of popular genres, particularly detective novels, spy novels, and corresponding thriller movies. Lac, his award-winning 1989 novel, a sophisticated and clever spoof of spy fiction, is an exemplary case of a narrative that plays on generic clichés and readers' expectations. Two stories, however, are somewhat atypical in his oeuvre and seem to me to handle the usual Echenoz themes of disappearance, death and grief in a more melancholy and serious tone. The short story, L'Occupation des sols (1988) and the 2003 [End Page 51] novel Au piano would appear to have a rather peculiar status, to be rather less self-conscious and more straightforward, the importance being more on the tale and less on the telling.2 In what follows, I will argue that these two works exhibit, albeit with Echenoz's characteristic bittersweet playfulness, the profound metaphysical anxiety that inhabits modern artists.

To be sure, these works are also rewritings of other texts. Allusions and references, whether to books or to films, are the stuff they are made of, no less than other novels by Echenoz. They are, in this sense, no less "postmodern." Just as Cherokee, Le Méridien de Greenwich or Lac were ironic rewritings of detective and spy fiction, Au piano appears to be a take on popular comedies of the hereafter, such as the 1990 thriller Ghost, or the 1991 Albert Brooks comedy Defending Your Life, both of which can be seen as variations on the classic Warren Beatty film Heaven Can Wait (1978). In Ghost, the character is murdered during a mugging, like Max Delmarc in Piano. In Defending Your Life, Purgatory is a comfortable yet unattractive hotel—as it is in the novel—where the newly deceased are judged, not on their sins, but rather on their ability to prove in court that they have made the most of their lives, something our mildly depressive pianist hero notoriously failed to do, both during his lifetime and afterwards. In the film, the unloveable yuppie character, played by Albert Brooks himself, is allowed to redeem his selfish and useless life, cut short in a car accident, and return to a more meaningful existence on earth...


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