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des éclairs

5 october 2012

For reasons I've been unable to determine after an exhaustive 25-second Google search, Jean Echenoz's biographical novel Des éclairs, about the life of inventor Nikola Tesla, doesn't use Tesla's name, instead calling him simply "Gregor" without any surname. The back of the book simply says, in effect, "so there":

Fiction sans scrupules biographiques, ce roman utilise cependant la destinée de l'ingénieur Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) et les récits qui en ont été faits.

[A work of fiction without biographical punctilio, this novel nonetheless makes use of the fate of the engineer Nikola Tesla and the stories that have been told about it.]
I guess the answer is "whatever," and not to worry. Echenoz felt no similar need to fictionalize his novels about Ravel and Zatopek (and Zatopek is a much more contemporary character), but here it suited him to transform Tesla into Gregor, and not much is lost in the transformation, I guess. As always, Echenoz is more interested in the offbeat aspects of his subject than in a list of his great achievements. We see more of Gregor in the park feeding pigeons than we see of him developing the alternating-current power grid that is the basis of modern economies.

And as in Echenoz's previous two biographical novels, we see more of the denouement of his subject's life than we see of his glory. Gregor (like Tesla) becomes a world-renowned electrical engineer, practically inventing the field in the process. He is a showman, a mystic, a savant. And he is obsessive-compulsive, constantly washing his hands and reaching for a new napkin. He can't touch other people – he is not autistic, and hardly immune to emotion; he just can't bear the thought of their germs. But oddly enough, he will pick up the filthiest pigeon on the street and install it in his hotel room, if the pigeon needs nursing.

Echenoz's focus on Gregor's dealings with animals is a deeply thought-provoking, and highly moving, element of Des éclairs. Though Gregor can't connect with people, he connects to pigeons, sharing none of the usual prejudices we bring to our thoughts about them. And who's to say the pigeons don't form just as deep an attachment with him, in their columbine way, as he could have with another human being?

Tesla has become iconic in America in the past few years, thanks in part to Christopher Nolan's film The Prestige. Parts of Des éclairs are drawn from familiar staples of popular history, like Thomas Edison's electrocution of an elephant. But other elements of the Tesla story, like the pigeon clinic, are (at least to me) lesser-known, and more affecting.

Echenoz, throughout the three biographical novels I've read, maintains an oblique, scarcely-visible presence as a quasi-authorial first-person narrator. His "I" enters the story briefly to make some trivial comment, then retreats again into the omniscience he's momentarily disavowed.

And he can be suddenly, strikingly lyrical. Late in life, Gregor realizes that

La vie n'est plus qu'une longue salle d'attente, pas même pourvue de magazines froissés sur une table basse ni des regards furtifs que l'on échange entre patients.

[Life was now nothing more than a long waiting room, not even furnished with dogeared magazines on a coffee table, or furtive glances between patients.] (135)
It's a Proustian metaphor, and one worthy of the master.

UPDATE 12.11.21: In 2021, Echenoz adapted his novel into the libretto for Philippe Hersant's opera Les éclairs, which premiered in November at the Opéra Comique. Hersant and Echenoz use operatic conventions to shape the story for the stage. Gregor is a tenor (Jean-Christophe Lanièce); Edison, the major blocking character, a baritone (André Heyboer). The pigeons do appear, in a beautiful origami set-piece; but the love interests in Gregor's life are now women: mezzo Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur as the wife of one of Gregor's patrons, and soprano Elsa Benoit as a pioneering journalist. This intensification of the drama in familiar directions changes Des éclairs and adds further fictionalization.

But the drama serves as a strong vehicle for Hersant's approachable music. The result is one of the quirkier but more appealing operas of the 21st century so far. Most new operas promptly vanish. The initial production of Les éclairs appears to be headed for Greece and Croatia and then to take its chances in the Darwinian world of the opera repertory, where I hope it finds more success than Echenoz's hapless central character.

Echenoz, Jean. Des éclairs. Paris: Minuit, 2010.