Jean Echenoz’s Ravel

There is to me a distinct hierarchy in what falls under the category of life-writing. (I don’t particularly like the term life-writing.) After all, there is life-writing to various degrees in every instance of fiction. Can we still agree with Proust’s biographer George Painter who wrote: “The artist has creative imagination, the biographer recreative”? For me, the most exhilarating trend in modern fiction is the blurring of the boundaries. Fictionality is an inevitable part of autobiography. There is no less artistry in de Beauvoir’s memoirs than her novels, though I’d argue the latter are considerably more successful than the former.

I like novels that exist in the interstices between fiction and autobiography, writers like Tomas Espedal, W.G. Sebald, Peter Handke, Kate Zambreno and John Berger who bring the techniques of fiction to explore autobiography in rewarding ways. Techniques of narratology, such as perspective, temporal structure, and motifs are being used creatively to alleviate the tedium of conventional linear (auto)biography.

In truth, it isn’t a new trend, but something writers to some extent have always done. The threshold between fiction and autobiography in the books of Anna Kavan, Dorothy Richardson, Proust and Virginia Woolf is reasonably thin.

Fiction aside, I prefer memoir to autobiography, autobiography to biography; have a great fascination with writer’s and scholar’s letters and diaries, and like least of all fictional biographies. These designations are simplified without getting into all the other terms used to describe experimental life-writing: autotopography, autofiction, heterobiography etc.

This week I read Jean Echenoz’s Ravel. It’s a short book. I read it twice on a long return train journey, and have spent more time thinking about it since. Why I think many fictional biographies make me queasy is that they use fictional techniques to explore interiority or the subjective essence of a real historical individual. They maintain the freedom of a third-person narrator and yet privilege that narrator with absolute knowledge. To be honest, I struggle with fiction that does the same thing.

Echenoz avoids this trap, and in doing so, can be trusted that the broad story of the last ten years of Maurice Ravel’s life is accurate at a factual level. Ravel then becomes a fascinating exploration into how fame distances its subject from those closest to them. The dramatic reconstruction of Ravel’s unraveling (excuse the pun) and death is disturbing, but Echenoz preserves the emotional distancing to defer a reader’s sympathy. It’s cleverly done and very rewarding.

11 thoughts on “Jean Echenoz’s Ravel

  1. Fascinating post. Memoir poses some interesting questions. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently as in: ‘What’s the most important decision to be made here, revelation of identity and place, or the real subject of the memoir, i.e. the transformation of an interior examination caused by external events into a piece of literary work?’ Or cinematically, Jennifer Fox’s film The Tale, with Laura Dern, handles this very deftly. A fictional biography of Ravel? Sounds interesting. It’s true that at the moment there appears to be experimentation with a form or forms that have been around for a long time but which at the moment are now blurring more lines between fiction and ‘nonfiction’.

    • It does and there are writers doing such interesting things with memoir at the moment, much of it far from successful, but all intriguing. For me, definitely the second part of your question is what interests me. The literary treatment of a significant period in a person’s life told in the first person. I’ll look that film up.

  2. I’ve noticed that this blurring of the boundaries between fiction and fact is more common in French biographies (or rather, biographies written by French authors). I recall a particularly dire example of the life of Isadora Duncan (author mercifully forgotten), but in some cases they were successful. Not French (bur a francophile, so that may have some bearing), yet I thought that Julian Barnes’ portrayal of Shostakovich in The Noise of Time was quite impressive.

    • It seems to be quite the fashion in North American literature at the moment, not that it is anything new: Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, now over 100 years old, blurs these boundaries to the point of disappearance.

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