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caprice de la reine

17 june 2014

Caprice de la reine ("The Queen's Whim") is a collection of seven short recits by Jean Echenoz. I don't know if there's an English equivalent for recit. The dictionary definition from CNRTL is "Œuvre littéraire narrant des faits vrais ou imaginaires [a literary work narrating real or imagined things]," which takes in a lot of territory. "Account" is OK, but lacks literary connotations. "Tale" is also OK, but in English connotes fiction, even fantasy. "Piece," I suppose. Echenoz's book consists of seven pieces. They were written over the years 2002-2014, for a variety of venues and purposes, and they offer interesting sidelights on Echenoz's novels.

Some of these recits are five-finger exercises in description. The title piece is a postmodernly, over-exact description of a backyard: unless I'm missing some allegorical level, and I might be. There's a piece that reads like a tourist guide to statues of women in the Jardin de Luxembourg, though it's done with Echenoz's characteristic affectlessness. "Génie civil" is more of a traditional short story about a widowed engineer seeking love, but it includes, and is even dominated by, a brief history of bridge-building. And "Trois sandwiches au Bourget" describes a neighborhood in the Paris suburbs, as well as the aforementioned sandwiches.

I liked four of these seven recits, which means that if Caprice de la reine were a championship series in American sports, it would be a clear, if narrow, winner. I didn't much care for the statues-in-the-Luxembourg-Garden piece, nor the backyard description, nor an odd little underwater vignette called "Nitrox."

But the other four intrigued me. "Nelson" zooms in on a peculiarity of the hero of Trafalgar, much as Echenoz's novel Des éclairs focuses on the inventor Tesla's fascination with pigeons. "À Babylone" looks at the inevitable exaggeration that comes with good travel writing – even when the travel writing graduates to the status of historical classic. "Génie civil" ("Civil Engineering") fuses an O.Henry-like plot with a serious essay on the desire to build bridges. The urge to connect drives people to span rivers and straits, and to go to extraordinary lengths to meet a mate. Sometimes, "Génie civil" suggests, the two impulses coincide: but that doesn't mean that things always work out.

"Trois sandwiches au Bourget," the final and tie-breaking piece in the book, has the real Echenoz quirk going on. The narrator decides to go eat a sandwich in Le Bourget. Despite riding past it on the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy last week, I had very little idea of what was in Le Bourget: but come to find that the Parisian narrator of the piece has even less. It's a neighborhood like any other in the banlieue of Paris, with its ethnic diversity, its shops, bars, and places of worship. There is nothing initially to recommend it, which is why the narrator goes there. By his third trip, he's getting to be a regular denizen of the suburb. From a spot on the map that looks generic, it's become a place with features, and more important, a history. The history of Le Bourget is bound up with its oft-rebuilt church, and that church's role in many a war, especially the Franco-Prussian "debacle" of 1870. I'm sure I'm missing some of the connotations, but the general theme is clear. In the most banal of places, you can find some lived history if you look long enough, the kind of embedded material experience that the initial traveller's once-over elides.

Echenoz, Jean. Caprice de la reine. Paris: Minuit, 2014.