By Jean Echenoz
With the delicacy of a miniaturist and with a real understatement that's either witty and clear-eyed, Echenoz bargains us an intimate epic: within the landscape of a transparent blue sky, a bi-plane spirals all at once 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 jogging 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 warfare during this superbly crafted story that Echenoz tells with discretion, precision, and love.
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Extra info for 1914: A Novel
The Air Service, I believe they call it now. Let me think about this, I might have someone in mind at the ministry, I’ll keep you informed. To the general practitioner she explained her situation, showing him her figure under her clothing, and the exam did not take long. Palpation, two questions, diagnosis: definitely, declared Monteil, you are. And when will it be, asked Blanche. 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.
As for changes in the uniforms, it was in the spring that new greatcoats were issued in a light blue that proved quite becoming in the newly returned sunshine. The overly garish red pants had almost disappeared, either covered by blue overalls or replaced by velvet trousers. In the defensive accessories department, the men first received cervelières, close-fitting steel skullcaps, to be worn under the kepi, while a few weeks later, in May, appeared the first sign of a not-so-jolly technological innovation: gags and goggles with mica lenses were distributed to every soldier for protection against combat gases.
As for Arcenel, he was a saddler, a craft that presupposes no particular habitus. In any case, each in his own way, these three took a great interest in animals, had seen lots of them, and were going to encounter a great many more. Like all the first men to show up, they were rewarded with a uniform in their size, whereas Charles, eternally haughty and indifferent, arrived late enough that morning to earn himself an ill-fitting one at first, but when he protested disdainfully, fussing arrogantly over his position as a deputy plant manager, others— Bossis and Padioleau, as it turned out—were forced to give up some red trousers and a greatcoat that were apparently acceptable to such a leading citizen, despite his stoically disgusted expression.