By Jean Echenoz
With the delicacy of a miniaturist and with a real understatement that's either witty and clear-eyed, Echenoz deals us an intimate epic: within the landscape of a transparent blue sky, a bi-plane spirals without notice 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 walking innocently towards a firing squad able to shoot him for desertion.
Ultimately, the grace notes of humanity in 1914 upward push above the terrors of struggle during this fantastically crafted story that Echenoz tells with discretion, precision, and love.
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Additional info for 1914: A Novel
Maybe he would have been better off in the infantry, after all. We had no way of knowing. Blanche replied briefly that regrets were useless, no point in going on and on about it, and it mightn’t be such a bad idea if he would instead take a look at Juliette. Who was three months old, it was the beginning of spring, and Blanche could see things budding in the trees—trees still bereft, however, of even the tiniest bird—through the window next to which she had parked the baby carriage. Forgive me, said Monteil, heaving himself heavily out of his armchair to remove the child from her carriage and examine her— respiration, temperature, alertness—and then declare that my word, she seems to be doing very nicely.
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. I know, said Blanche, there’s Ruffier. Yes, said Monteil, although, not since the other day, he went off like everyone else but we’re talking about two weeks, it will all be over quickly.
He continued to advance with all the others, laboriously, without lingering over the details, but the ground thus gained did not remain that way for long: the company had to withdraw almost immediately, since their position was not tenable without reinforcements that did not arrive. All this Anthime put together only later, when it was explained to him, for at the time he hadn’t understood a thing, which is par for the course. So this was the first taste of combat for him and the others, at the end of which Captain Vayssière, an adjutant, and two quartermaster sergeants were found among the few dozen dead, not to mention the wounded, hastily removed by stretcher bearers just after nightfall.