Jean Echenoz • Ravel

Aren’t public libraries the best?

The other day I was looking up books on Maurice Ravel, who is one of my favourite composers. The title Ravel: A Novel caught my eye. Yes, it was about the composer. I’d never heard of the author, Jean Echenoz, but a quick search told me he was a popular contemporary French author.

What a happy accident it was! If a light novella that manages to be both funny and touching sounds pleasant to you, then I highly recommend it. No need to read the review below. But if you want to see some aspects of the book that I enjoyed, read on. As always, there are plenty of spoilers below.

Jean Echenoz, Ravel, trans. Linda Coverdale. 2005 novella about Maurice Ravel’s last decade. Warmly recommended.

 Achille Ouvré, Maurice Ravel

Achille Ouvré, Maurice Ravel

Ravel is a delightful novella of things. A series of nine tableaux from Ravel’s later years, it manages to be funny and sad in equal measure, while at times reading almost as a biography.

Ravel loved things, from fancy clothing to little knick-knacks. His trip the US and Canada is accompanied impressively: “In addition to a small blue valise crammed full of Gauloises, the other bags contain—among other things—sixty shirts, twenty pairs of shoes, seventy-five ties, and twenty-five sets of pajamas that, given the principle of the part for the whole, offer some idea of the scope of his wardrobe.” The whole book is suffused with such passages: lists of items, brands of objects, names of artists, explanations of provenance, dissections of how people interact with things.

Echenoz’s tone is playful and wandering, which stems from his use of perspective. Most frequently he adopts a perspective that’s simultaneously inside Ravel’s head and outside it in a detached, almost journalistic style. Ravel was a notoriously private person, though this doesn’t mean he wasn’t social. Some fifty guests are at a party he holds when receiving “a bust of himself sculpted by Léon Leyritz. At first they spread out through the house, which is rather untidy, but as always, nothing is lying around in Ravel’s study: it’s a point of honour with him to leave no sign of work there. Neither pencil nor eraser nor ruled paper on his worktable nor, beneath the portrait of his mother, on his Érard piano, always closed when he has company: nothing in my hands, nothing up my sleeves.”

While the novella trips along lightly (it only takes a few hours to read), you also feel that it’s a generous book, filled with warmth. Echenoz manages to make all this detail, all these things, not feel like, say, Umberto Eco, who attempts to impress you with his learning. Echenoz revels in detail, yes, but he also uses it to reveal who Ravel was.

There is, for example, a passage dedicated to the composition and premier of the Concerto pour la main gauche (Concerto for the Left Hand), which was written for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother, Paul, who had lost his right hand in the First World War. Paul Wittgenstein showed off his technique at the premier, going far beyond Ravel’s text, which annoyed the composer greatly. The scene is played out through little details: “Instead of addressing the work and serving it as best he can, there he is piling stuff on, adding arpeggios here, extra measures there, embroidering trills, rhythmic shimmies, and other performance embellishments that no one had asked him for, appoggiaturas and gruppetti, racing up the keyboard into the high notes at every opportunity to show how skilful he is, how clever he is, how supple he still is, and how he’s telling you all to go to hell. Ravel’s face is white.” Sniping between artists is eternal.

The book may be light, but it is meticulously researched, full of fascinating tidbits: “Now what? Well, these days, two projects. One is some music for a film about Don Quixote that Pabst was supposed to film with Feodor Chaliapin in the title role and Paul Morand doing the dialogue. About the other one, which for the moment bears the code name Dédale 39, we know only what Ravel is willing to say about it one day to Manuel De Falla: it was supposed to be an airplane in the key of C.”

The first project mentioned above is Ravel’s final completed work, a marvellous collection of three songs from 1933, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.

I can’t find any information about the second one, Dédale 39, but I don’t doubt that Echenoz discovered that delightful fact in his research. “An airplane in the key of C”? What was he thinking?

It doesn’t seem to be his ballet-oratorio, Morgiane, which he was working on at the time. Almost none of that was committed to paper. Morgiane was commissioned by Ida Rubinstein, a famous and fabulously wealthy ballerina, who also commissioned Boléro, the story of the composition of which is given in a delightful passage. It’s likely not Jeanne d’Arc, the opera Ravel was also working on in his final years, similarly without record. You might be wondering, why didn’t he finish these works?

Ravel died at 62 on 28 December 1937, four years after completing his final composition. At his final concert in June 1937, according to his biographer Arbie Orenstein, he sobbed to his friend Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, “I have so much music in my head. I have said nothing. I have so much more to say.” Or in the novel, “I haven’t written anything, I’m leaving nothing behind me, I haven’t said anything of what I wanted to say.” Ravel’s mind deteriorated badly in his later years. He couldn’t write music, could communicate only with difficulty, would forget everything, wander off.

What’s impressive about the novella is that Echenoz manages to turn all his detail, his research, his lists into an affecting story about premature senescence, precisely because Ravel was a man of things.

Foreshadowing of Ravel’s decline is given in little lines about him forgetting things. The man who would hold up the Chicago Symphony Orchestra because he couldn’t find his patent-leather shoes becomes the man who doesn’t recognize his own compositions. Ravel’s relationship to things is off. “Although he no longer recognizes many people, he notices everything. He can see that his movements miss their targets, that he grasps a knife by its blade, that he raises the lighted end of his cigarette to his lips only to correct himself immediately every time: No, he then murmurs to himself, not like that.”

By the end, the meticulous world of things that this most meticulous of composers has built around himself has fallen apart. The book ends quietly.

I’d quote the last line, which is beautiful, but that seems a step too far.