By Jean Echenoz
With the delicacy of a miniaturist and with a sarcasm that's either witty and clear-eyed, Echenoz bargains us an intimate epic: within the landscape of a transparent blue sky, a bi-plane spirals by surprise into the floor; a bit of shrapnel shears the pinnacle off a man’s head as though it have been a soft-boiled egg; we dawdle dreamily in a spring-scented clearing with a lonely shell-shocked soldier jogging innocently towards a firing squad able to shoot him for desertion.
Ultimately, the grace notes of humanity in 1914 upward thrust above the terrors of warfare during this superbly crafted story that Echenoz tells with discretion, precision, and love.
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Extra info for 1914: A Novel
In the twenty or so stations where the convoy had stopped, they hadn’t been allowed off the train to take a look at the towns but—through windows open to air that was too hot, speckled with sparks, almost solid with a heat coming from who knew where anymore, August or the locomotive and probably both, piling up—at least they’d seen a few airplanes. Some of these, in flight, were crossing a perfectly smooth sky at various altitudes, following or encountering and passing by one another bound on some unimaginable mission; others were sitting around higgledy-piggledy, surrounded by men in leather helmets, on requisitioned fields lying next to the tracks.
Palpation, two questions, diagnosis: definitely, declared Monteil, you are. And when will it be, asked Blanche. The beginning of next year, he figured, and I’d say toward the end of January. Blanche said nothing, looked at the window—where nothing was going on or past, not the slightest bird or anything—and then at her hands as she placed them on her belly. And you plan to keep it, of course, remarked Monteil to break the silence. I don’t know yet, said Blanche. Otherwise, he said more softly, there would always be a way.
Arcenel, however, would simply carve his name with his knife, and Anthime just his initials along with the day’s date, on a tree or a wooden roadside cross. 8 The men buckled them on with a pair of shoulder straps, each made of two pieces of leather joined by a brass rivet. Empty, the pack weighed only one and a third pounds. It quickly grew heavier, however, with a first lot of regulation equipment carefully arranged inside and consisting of alimentary matériel (bottles of strong mint extract, coffee substitute, tins and sachets of sugar and chocolate, water bottles and cutlery of tin-plated iron, pressed iron mug, can opener, penknife), clothing (long and short underpants, cotton handkerchiefs, flannel shirts, suspenders, puttees), cleaning and maintenance products (clothes and shoe brushes, and for the weapons, tins of grease, polish, plus extra laces and buttons, sewing kit with round-tipped scissors), first-aid and toiletry articles (individual bandages, absorbent cotton wool, towel, mirror, soap, razor and strop, shaving brush, toothbrush, comb), as well as personal items (tobacco and rolling papers, matches and tinderbox, flashlight, nickel silver and aluminum bracelet with identification disk, individual service record booklet, and a small Prayer Book for Soldiers).