Friday, July 1st, is the centenary of the opening offensive of the Battle of the Somme, one of the most harrowing events in human history. The German artist Otto Dix who enlisted willingly to fight, arrived at the front buoyed up by a young man's bravado, and with ideas, shaped by no less than Friedrich Nietzsche. Dix's attitude was to change and within a decade, the extent of his trauma became obvious in his stark sequence, Der Krieg, 51 images surpassing the graphic candour of, Goya, who also realised the terrifying violence of which man is capable.
The Great War that had initially been expected to last little more than two weeks had begun two years earlier, 100 years ago today, on a bright June morning. Tension in the Balkans had long been sounding the death knell of the multiethnic Austro- Hungarian Empire and all it took were the shots fired by a teenage assassin, Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to throne, as the royal couple prepared to endure pleasantries and official speeches during a duty visit, undertaken half heartedly by the archduke. The ironies are many and their complex legacy persists to this day.
Enter the inventive, ever original French writer Jean Echenoz with a characteristically brilliant, if thematically unexpected work. He is a master ironist firmly belonging to the Nabokov school, and in this his 14th novel, makes inspired use of a year that without doubt not only changed history, it also transformed the way wars were fought.
In our age of computerised drone warfare, it is might be easy to forget that, savagery, after all, has moved on. The most recent wars in the Balkans were televised. Unless one is directly involved, war has been elevated to a spectator sport – as long as the cameras are in place, footage is forthcoming. It is a grotesque reality.
Equally real though is the outstanding literature war has given rise to – especially in the case of the Great War. Much of it is contemporaneous and written by soldiers who experienced action. The death of idealism and the growing awareness of the futility of war are brilliantly articulated by Erich Maria Remarque's profound lament, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). There are other classics from the period: books which influence a reader forever.
Joining this distinguished company is Echenoz, a mercurial artist celebrated for his cerebral ingenuity, wit and playful lightness of touch. The Great War seems a surprising subject for him to exercise his gifts, although he is capable of immense empathy, as is evident in his novels, particularly Ravel (2005; 2007) about the composer Maurice Ravel, and even more so with the utter, if unlikely, perfection of Running (2008; 2009), based on the rise and fall of the legendary Czech long-distance runner and Olympic hero, Emil Zatopek. Both works, translated by Linda Coverdale, were nominated for the then IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award.
Barely a novella in length, 1914, nevertheless achieves an epic quality through a detached understatement, which is curiously detailed and always neutral. Or is it? It begins with the initial calling to arms of all able men in France following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo earlier that summer.
One Saturday in August, the central character, Anthime, is enjoying the freedom of a half day from work. The young accountant sets off on his bike, a robust model, made by a curate. Strapped to the bicycle is a hefty novel by Victor Hugo.
Nothing is random in this intense, sombre narrative which is meticulous and precise, if warmly human. It is as if Echenoz is angered despite the passage of time, by the suffering, the pointless folly. This tone shaped by a communal awareness will resonate; after all, as he reminds the reader, we know the story.
As Anthime admires the beauty of the view, a hint of menace disturbs his thoughts and what is in fact, a false sense of peace. The ringing of church bells alerts him: “given the world situation at the time, could mean only one thing: mobilisation”.
An excited crowd is gathered in the town square prepared to celebrate a great adventure. “Everyone appeared well pleased with the mobilisation in a hubbub of feverish debates, hearty laughter, hymns, fanfares, and patriotic exclamations punctuated by the neighing of horses.”
For Anthime there is an additional distraction; the presence of Charles, aloof, and brandishing his camera “as usual”. The tension between the two is barely suggested yet it is sufficient. Echenoz seldom wastes a word. Charles is adamant that the coming disruption “won’t last longer than two weeks”. Anthime is not so sure.
In one of several set pieces the action moves to the barracks where Anthime and three of his friends are getting kitted out. They may as well be going on a camping trip. Charles wants to look well in his uniform and as expected, there is a girl to be impressed. Blanche is the daughter of the man who owns the factory, where both men, rivals and, as it transpires, brothers, work.
The men go off to war. Yet “it” continues to be little more than an extended outing, a shadow lurking somewhere off stage. “The captain, named Vayssiére, was a puny young man with a monocle, a curiously ruddy complexion, and a limp voice . . You will all return home” he assures them.
The captain does seem to harbour odd notions. “If a few men do die while at war, it’s for lack of hygiene. Because it isn’t bullets that kill, it is uncleanliness that is fatal and which you must combat first of all . . .” Meanwhile Blanche deals with her very specific problems.
Not for the duration of a sentence does Echenoz, ably abetted by his translator, Coverdale, allow his laconic narrative to falter.
Mild mannered Anthime remains intrigued by the experience of being at war as long as it continues to be largely abstract and more involved with the additional weight the rain adds to his knapsack.
Suddenly this changes; blood and exploding bodies become a reality. “Clutching his rifle, he himself now felt ready to stab, impale, transfix the slightest obstacle, the bodies of men, of animals, tree trunks, whatever might present itself: a fleeting state of mind . . . so this was the first taste of combat for him and the others.”
It had been different for Charles. Influential contacts and his showy interest in photography had secured him a place in a biplane intended for reconnaissance. But an enemy aircraft appears near them and “in the minutes that follow” the fate of Charles is decided. Elsewhere the war gathers an ugly momentum. Death comes quickly at the end of a bayonet or when a shell explodes at your feet.
Concise, often cryptic in its economy, Echenoz’s feel for detail creates an atmospheric, convincing sense of battle devoid of histrionics or sentimentality. Anthime’s friends scatter; one is shot for treason, another is “buried anonymously in mud without anyone caring or noticing in the confusion”.
As an admirer of Echenoz I must admit this novel, which was deservedly nominated for this year’s International Dublin Literary Award, approaches the strange beauty of his novel, Running. The Somme emerges as a vile theatre: “You cling to your rifle, to your knife with its blade rusted, tarnished, darkened by poisoned gases, barely shining at all in the chilly brightness of the flares, in the air reeking of rotting horses, the putrefaction of fallen men . . . ”
He evokes the hell as well as a vivid sense of the rage and bewilderment shared by the soldiers. For Anthime salvation comes in the loss of an arm, a limb which gradually seems to haunt him.
Summoning the authority of an historian and the humanity of a storyteller, Jean Echenoz, who shares the vision of the great Georges Perec, also explores the complexity of ordinary existence with a grace which beguiles.
An earlier novel by Jean Echenoz, We Three, in a translation by Jesse Anderson, will be published by Dalkey Archive Press, in February 2017.