Jean Echenoz’s latest work Ravel, translated from French, is a novelistic rendering of the final ten years in the life of Maurice Ravel, a wildly famous French concert pianist and composer. Adhering to the musician’s real life in extraordinary detail, Echenoz pens a seamless entry and exit into the previously unexplored soundscape of Ravel’s mind. In a novel consisting of only 117 pages, there isn’t one unnecessary syllable, let alone a dissonant note.
Ravel begins the story by shutting up his house in Montfort-l'Amaury, France, and scrambling to make a train to the harbor station at Le Havre. Once aboard, he will embark on a four-month concert tour of North America. At the conclusion of the first chapter the narrator matter-of-factly states that from this moment on Ravel “now has ten years, on the nose, left to live.” Thus he begins the riot of luxury, loneliness, chronic insomnia, and exultations had during the wonderfully tragic final span of his life.
Ravel impresses the reader as an eccentric and a first-rate dresser, who at the beginning of the work packs up, “among other things—sixty shirts, twenty pairs of shoes, seventy-five ties, and twenty-five sets of pajamas” to schlep to North America. A chain smoker of Gauloise cigarettes, he plays his concertos to sold-out venues enraptured by his music, the crowd unbothered by his imperfect piano skills caused by his utter loathe of practice.
Ravel’s greatest triumph in the world of music is Boléro. A piece devised for the ballet, it is a largely repetitive movement rumored to have been the product of his escalating dementia:
There’s no form, strictly speaking, no development or modulation, just some rhythm and arrangement. In short, it’s a thing that self-destructs, a score without music, an orchestral factory without a purpose, a suicide whose weapon is the simple swelling of sound.
Not long after the great success of Boléro, Ravel is involved in a debilitating car accident which accelerates the pace of his deteriorating cognitive abilities. In a surreal climax to the novel, the reader watches as surgeons tinker inside the skull of the artist, an experimental craniotomy the means to his end. Though the doctors are possessed with the task to “repair” the damage done to his brain in order to provide Ravel with a few more years of artistic productivity, Echenoz proves the creative soul is by no means a tangible element. A wonderfully poignant conclusion to a slow-beginning work, it is as if Echenoz has managed to translate the immutable qualities of Ravel’s music into his insistent prose.
Prix Goncourt-prize-winning writer Jean Echenoz has seen five of his novels translated into English. Writing in a vernacular, starkly descriptive manner, including almost no overt dialogue, the author is an expert at wending the reader through the life of a complete stranger, while recreating the familiarity of one’s own thoughts. This novel is an amazing tribute to a widely appreciated composer, but also a fascinating look into the creation and destruction of a major artist. Ravel compelled me to consider the creative process long after I had closed its chapters.