The Queen’s Caprice: Stories

  • By Jean Echenoz; translated by Linda Coverdale
  • The New Press
  • 128 pp.
  • Reviewed by Philippe Brand
  • June 19, 2015

An interesting, uneven collection of tales from the French master.

What do Admiral Nelson, the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay all have in common? At first glance, not much, but the gaze of Jean Echenoz transforms each one into “little literary objects” (as described in the translator’s note) that resonate in unexpected ways.

The seven short texts collected in The Queen’s Caprice: Stories provide an interesting if not entirely representative introduction to Echenoz, one of France’s preeminent living authors. Incorporating elements of genre fiction such as detective novels and spy thrillers, he rose to fame in the 1980s and 1990s as one of a new wave of authors published by the venerable Éditions de Minuit, home of the nouveau roman.

After winning the Prix Goncourt — France’s most prestigious literary award — for his 1999 novel, I’m Gone, Echenoz switched gears, composing three historical novels: Ravel, recounting the final years of composer Maurice Ravel; Running, portraying the Czech Olympian Emil Zátopek; and Lightning, based on the life of Nikola Tesla.

The Queen’s Caprice comes on the heels of 1914, Echenoz’s tour-de-force novel about the First World War, and if this collection inevitably feels like a minor work compared to his recent novels, the stories contained within nevertheless amply demonstrate the author’s talents.

Linda Coverdale, the gifted translator of this collection and many of Echenoz’s other works, describes how Echenoz managed to “compress” his earlier style, as “he distilled all the data and events and emotions, and crafted his sentences to make them really rich and resonant.”

Those characteristics are abundantly on display in this collection of what Coverdale describes as Echenoz’s “occasional pieces, written on subjects that inspired the author to observe, improvise, invent.”

The first story, “Nelson,” is emblematic, as small details ramify in unexpected ways. At a dinner party at an English manor house, Admiral Nelson is introduced as a hero widely admired for his naval victories, fussed over by the other guests, yet little by little, paragraph by paragraph, the narrator reveals how Nelson is in fact “quite fragile, friable, on the verge of fracturing into pieces.”

Wracked by malaria, missing an arm and an eye from wounds incurred in combat, Nelson remains committed to his vision. Excusing himself from the table for a few moments, he plants a few acorns into his hosts’ garden, for “he takes the very long view of things: he is retimbering and never passes up an opportunity, when away from the open sea on dry land, to sow the latter to ensure on the former, for future generations, adequate naval traffic. He has set his heart on planting trees whose trunks will serve to build the future royal fleet.”

What Nelson cannot yet know, however, is that those same oaks that he is planting will one day serve a rather different function, in an ending which I will not spoil for you.

While a great deal of plot is compressed into six pages in “Nelson,” other stories privilege description over event. Throughout, Echenoz finds a way to invite the reader to participate in the process of creating meaning. “The Queen’s Caprice” draws the reader in, reminding her of the challenge of writing.

Describing a pastoral landscape, the narrator notes: “These structures...are in fact barely visible amid the vegetation, and to the latter we shall return. We’ll have to return to it although we could perhaps have — should perhaps have — begun with the vegetation, we don’t know. We don’t know insofar as it is difficult in a description or a set everything down in due order. It’s just that one cannot say or describe everything all at the same time, can one.”

The question of what to include and what to leave out recurs in “In Babylon,” which describes Herodotus’ description of the ancient city. Here we have one fabulist reading another, with a grain of salt, for “all authors exaggerate; they’re all bent on contradicting one another.”

While the narrator laments the absence of certain details in the original account, he knows something that Herodotus does not: “he is certainly nowhere near imagining that out of all the contemporary accounts of a trip to Babylon, only his will remain in the history of the world. Were he to imagine this, he might perhaps try at times to be a little more precise, unless…appalled by such a heavy responsibility, he might prefer to drop the whole thing.”

The final story, “Three Sandwiches at Le Bourget,” is a fitting counterpoint to “In Babylon.” Like Herodotus, the narrator strolls through the streets of a Parisian suburb, recounting what he sees. What seems like a lark turns into a thoughtful meditation on the French republic, as images of past glory contrast with present day realities for France’s increasingly diverse population.

Very helpfully, along with her excellent translation, Coverdale has composed a thorough and erudite, yet very accessible set of endnotes to help situate the reader and explain certain references that might otherwise go unnoticed.

While these stories are not essential reading, they remain a good introduction to Echenoz’s style. If they seem almost deceptively easy to read, they reveal an unexpected depth through the accretion of detail. Those who have never read Echenoz might start with one of his novels to get the full experience, but this collection is certainly worth exploring.

Philippe Brand is an assistant professor of French studies at Lewis & Clark College. His research focuses on contemporary French literature and culture. His publications include articles in the French Review, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, and the Critical Review of Contemporary French Fixxion.

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