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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Jean Echenoz

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To purchase 1914

Title: 1914
Author: Jean Echenoz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2014)1
Length: 109 pages
Original in: French
Availability: 1914 - US
1914 - UK
1914 - Canada
14 - Canada
1914 - India
14 - France
14 - Deutschland
14 - España
  • French title: 14
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale

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Our Assessment:

A- : beautiful, deceptively simple novella of the First World War

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Humanité . 4/10/2012 Jean-Claude Lebrun
Le Monde . 12/10/2012 Florence Bouchy
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/1/2014 Max Byrd
TLS . 17/10/2014 Lucian Robinson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Echenoz s’affronte ainsi à son tour à la Première Guerre mondiale. Mais à sa façon. En faisant le choix d’un récit allusif et distancié, porté par une ironie discrète (.....) Jamais Echenoz ne hausse le ton ni ne flirte avec le pathos. Mais son économie d’écriture, avec ses images millimétrées et sa langue pesée au trébuchet, fait ici merveille. Son 14 s’inscrit comme 
une œuvre de toute première force sur le thème de 
la Grande Guerre." - Jean-Claude Lebrun, L'Humanité

  • "Ni récit de poilu ni fresque historique, 14 est de ces romans qui éclairent le réel en portant sur lui un regard oblique. (...) Ce nouveau roman concentre et synthétise le meilleur de l'écriture échenozienne." - Florence Bouchy, Le Monde

  • "(I)n the hands of France’s literary magician Jean Echenoz, this exceedingly short, bare narrative -- 118 pages, counting eight pages of translator’s notes -- feels like an epic. Here is history compressed to the density of a poem. Max Byrd, (...) Witty, passionate, by turns intimate and coolly distant, it is a voice fond of long, lovingly assembled Rabelaisian lists that provide a perfect foil to the chaos of combat." - Max Byrd, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Throughout this superbly distilled narrative Echenoz stresses the sameness of all wars by providing echoes of their literary portrayals in the work of Hugo, Céline and Barbusse. (...) Critics of Echenoz’s early novels argued that his prose was stuck in a tone of melancholic glibness; here it resonates with a controlled moral anger. Linda Coverdale’s exquisitely sensitive translation is nothing less than this finely crafted novel deserves." - Lucian Robinson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jean Echenoz's 1914 is a novel about the First World War, and it covers the years 1914 through 1918; as French reviewers have noted, the French title -- 14 -- slyly alludes not only to the opening year of the war, but also to the fact that the book is Echenoz's fourteenth work of fiction. This subtle wink is lost to the reader in (English) translation, but not that much else is in Linda Coverdale's fine rendering of Echenoz careful, elegant prose -- helped also by a few (but detailed) translator's notes explaining some of Echenoz's other allusions.
       If English-speaking readers miss the fact, at the title-stage, that Echenoz is playing some games too it becomes clear enough very quickly: a few pages in, the book one of the characters was reading has fallen from his bicycle:

opening as it fell to lie forever alone at the roadside, facedown on the chapter entitled 'Aures Habet et non Audiet'.
       Echenoz's story isn't quite such an open book, but parts are served up like this beautiful image -- though Coverdale's explanatory note certainly helps here, too, as most readers won't have recognized the book (Victor Hugo's last novel, Ninety Three), much less the chapter (with its lovely opening, a lone old man, lost in a reverie -- "Il ne pensait pas; à peine songeait-il. Autour de lui tout était sérénité, assoupissement, confiance, solitude", etc.), much less their possible connection to Echenoz's story (though at least the chapter-title -- 'they have ears, but they hear not' (Psalms 115:6) -- is suggestive ...). So it's clear: Echenoz offers what looks just like surface -- in simple, straightforward prose, too -- but a lot lies underneath.
       1914 centers on five young men from the same town, including the brothers Anthime and Charles. Sent to the front together, they do what they have to. At the request of his beloved, Blanche, favors are called in so that avid photographer Charles can serve in another capacity -- but the arbitrariness of war hits home for each of the five; they do not fare particularly well (and some fare very badly indeed).
       There's a remarkable calm to the book, even as Echenoz puts the readers in the middle of the most terrible fighting. Perhaps the single dominant feature of the novel is Echenoz's focus on showing the characters' ultimately resigned fatalism in adjusting to circumstances, regardless of how extreme (or mundane) these are. From dealing with Blanche's out-of-wedlock pregnancy to one of the characters being taken for a deserter, Echenoz presents a world numbed and overwhelmed by circumstances, but in which everything still slowly and inexorably advances, somehow.
       Repeatedly: "events did not turn out as expected". The war was expected to be done with in a matter of months; instead, normality and any sense of it continue to be suspended. Echenoz doesn't concern himself with any notions of heroism on the battlefield or elsewhere -- noting instead repeatedly how people (including Blanche's family's shoe-making company) take advantage of the situation for their own financial gain. For him it always amounts to the fact that people will do what they have to and what they can to survive and make the best of a situation -- with little concern for how these actions affect others. With fate always there to deal cruel and arbitrary blows it seems as good a philosophy as any in these circumstances.
       Barely a hundred pages, 1914 is nevertheless unhurried -- and surprisingly evocative, a rich novel of war and wartime that provides a surprising amount of insight. Echenoz's writing is as simple and seductive as ever, and he's fashioned a beautiful, strange story of that time.
       1914 isn't your usual wartime-novel -- but it's a great take, and highly recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 January 2014

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1914: Reviews: Jean Echenoz: Other books by Jean Echenoz under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Jean Echenoz has won numerous literary prizes.

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© 2014-2017 the complete review

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