Born of Basque and Swiss parents and raised in Paris, Maurice Ravel is perhaps one of the best-known musical innovators of the early twentieth century. His professional milieu was the emerging Impressionism in France, which served up a nouvelle cuisine of both visual and musical art. Ravel’s contributions to this gastronomic abundance are well known.
In her novel Ravel, Jean Echenoz has selected several episodes from the composer’s final ten years. The author’s choices flesh out both the triumph and the tragedy of his life. The book is part cartoon, part tragedy, and is thoroughly readable. While the author is impeccably true to historical detail, he avoids the recitation of facts that constipate many nonfictional accounts of famous lives. The book is composed of nine rather brief vignettes, each illustrating a small slice of time in Ravel’s life between 1927 and 1937. In 1927, Ravel has already achieved status as the darling of the international community. The selected ten years are illustrative of his success as well as his relentless but subtle disintegration. The book concludes with his final lingering illness and tragic death following brain surgery for a possible tumor.
In the first vignette, the reader is introduced to the famous composer in the nude, just as he steps from the bathtub. Given that the book begins at the zenith of Ravel’s career, the detailed description of quotidian banality is somewhat quixotic. It is discomforting to be a voyeur at someone’s daily routine. Later the reader appreciates this scene as a foreshadow of what is to come: Ravel’s vulnerability, gradual decline in health, and eventually death.
The bath is part of Ravel’s elaborate preparation for an extended victory tour of the United States. The very ordinariness of the scene provides a vivid contrast to Ravel’s public presentation of himself, taken up later in the book. Echenoz describes in exquisite detail stray hairs in the tepid bubbles, the machinations of leaving the tub. (“Caution is advised, to avoid bumping one’s crotch or risking a nasty fall.”) He prolongs the account of Ravel’s extensive ritual of grooming. Every detail of personal toilet is described. The passage is reminiscent of the equally off-putting yet compelling description of John Updike’s psoriasis in his reluctant memoir, Self-Consciousness (1989). However, there is a camera-like detachment to the account in Ravel. The description is devoid of emotion. Even though Ravel is presented as totally revealed in his nudity and in his personal rituals of daily life, the reader learns little of his inner life and thought. The shading and color must come later.
As the novel progresses, the composer’s insecurity is uncovered bit by bit. Perhaps the novel illustrates that his vulnerability increases bit by bit. Ravel is meticulous about his dress and grooming, unwilling to enter the public eye with improper shoes or his pocket handkerchief not quite right. On his triumphant transoceanic trip to the United Statesfirst class in a luxury linerhe brings a “squadron of suitcases” that include sixty shirts, twenty pairs of shoes, more than seventy ties, and twenty-five pairs of pajamas. Ravel at his prime is pictured as utterly preoccupied with his appearance. There is never a hair out of place nor an outfit less than perfectly congruent to the occasion. As he encounters his adoring public, he does so only in sartorial perfectionno stray hairs or tepid bubbles.
Sadly, there lingers a sense of loneliness and a lack of security about Ravel, even at the apex of his career. To some extent he is an anonymous passenger on the voyage to America. Time aboard ship lags: a swim in the pool, some parlor games, the endless changing of outfits to suit the prescribed events of luxury travel. Although Ravel is asked to give a small concert and to sign the special visitors’ book that the captain brings to his cabin, the truth is that he is very muchforgive the double entendreat sea. He wanders about the boat trying to kill time and to fill the seemingly endless days on the solitary and long Atlantic voyage. Even his first-class stateroom appears small. It “allots his body the precise range allowed by a hospital rooma vital but atrophied space with nothing to cling to but oneself.”
The boat arrives in New York. Ravel is greeted by a gaggle of important people, representatives of various associations, and the press. Echenoz’s take on the scene is that Ravel’s preoccupation is not with the many who have come to greet him but rather with his dazzling wardrobe. Ravel shouts to friends on the dock, “Wait till you see the splendid ties I brought with me!” Neckwear elegance notwithstanding, the grand tour of the United States is an abundant success. With barely a breath Ravel races, in nine exhausting pages, from coast to coast, giving concerts, attending receptions, and always selecting his wardrobe with care. He visits all the major cities of the time, as well as some of America’s tourist attractions such as the Grand Canyon.
Perhaps this story is not so much about Ravel and his career as it is about the fragility of human life, even and maybe especially the life of someone famous and talented. Hints of what is to come are tucked neatly into the parsimonious accounts: a slip of memory here, an omission of a movement as he plays a concert there, the extensive medical treatments, and (always) the insomnia. Details of decline stain the pages with the foreboding of Ravel’s degeneration and death. The triumphant trip to the United States, his first, will be also his last. It is a whirlwind tour from which Ravel draws energy. He is seemingly at the top of his game both in performance and in crowd adulation. Still, he often feels insecure and alone. Still, he cannot sleep.
The author constructs the nine sections in such a way that the length of the vignette indicates the inner perception of time by the composer. Echenoz spends one whole chapter getting Ravel from his bath to his boat. While the actual passage of time is brief in comparison to other parts of the story, the number of pages it occupies in the novel is large. He lavishes two rather long chapters on the sea voyage, mimicking the leisurely pace of luxury liner travel in more formal times as well as Ravel’s boredom. With little to do, Ravel explores the ship, asks questions, swims, and reads. In contrast is the American tour itself, which lasts four months, and which the author dispatches very quickly. Ravel visits a long list of cities, performing and preening. His tour moves across the continent from New York, Boston, Cambridge, New Orleans, to the major West Coast cities of the United States and Canada. These frenetic four months are blown through in barely nine pages. The palpable sense of urgency and exhaustion is felt not only by Ravel but by the reader.
Upon Ravel’s return home he is still “at sea.” Without the structure of the tour and without the predictable flattery from his audiences, Ravel does not know quite how to behave. Plagued by inattention, insomnia, and boredom, he is not quite whole. He forgets to invite a close friend to a large party at his home. Echenoz’s earlier hints at Ravel’s worsening condition give way to stronger and stronger suggestions. There is no denying it. Ravel’s ability to remember and to focus is degenerating. It is during this period that the controversial musical piece Boléro is composed.
A serious automobile accident seems to accelerate the progress of Ravel’s decline. After his taxi is hit by a speeding car, he is incapacitated for three months. During this time, he appears acutely distracted and disinterested in his surroundings. Perhaps it is just a normal response to the accident. Perhaps it is more. None of the then state-of-the-art therapies seem to improve his condition. This event seems to mark the beginning of the end. The composer never returns to the level of function he enjoyed before the accident. The doctors conjecture that perhaps the decline is due to a tumor in the brain. They decide to operate. Ten days after the surgery, Maurice Ravel is dead.
The facts of Ravel’s life have been documented elsewhere. Echenoz selects certain facts as a containing frame in order to paint a detailed canvas of his interpretation of Ravel’s psychology. He pictures a man fastidious to a fault about his dress yet apparently lazy in the discipline it takes to be an accurate and excellent pianist. He is energized by the adulation of his audiences in his whirlwind tour of the United States, yet he quickly succumbs to apathy and insomnia when the crowds are gone. Here is a picture of a highly talented and successful artist as well as a fragile, vulnerable human being. Readers’ detached observation of the man gives way to pity as Ravel unravels in front of them. His techniques for going to sleep, for example, appear merely pathetic.
Echenoz compresses the details of Ravel’s final illness, which in reality lasted a prolonged four years. These years are telescoped into a tumbling-down-a-hill account given in the final two vignettes. Sleep becomes more and more elusive. The ability to remember details or even his very close friends slips through Ravel’s increasingly inept fingers. At the piano, he is not the consummate performer that he was. Is it boredom that causes him to skip a movement or the ominous foreboding of a worsening dementia?
Unlike many books read in translation, Ravel does not leave the reader with the sense that he or she is missing something. The translation feels like a patent and faithful rendering of the original French. The text remains powerful and well crafted. In instances where the English-speaking reader may miss the allusions to persons or contexts, explanatory footnotes are given. The translation renders the French in beautiful English prose. It is no wonder that the translator is the recipient of awards for translation.
Overall, the book exudes a sober intimacy. The tepid water and stray hairs of the first chapter linger at the end, a tribute to the humanity and vulnerability of this larger-than-life composer. There is little wrong with the book except perhaps its inevitably somber tone.
Booklist 103, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2007): 41-42.
Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 6 (March 15, 2007): 243.
Library Journal 132, no. 12 (July 1, 2007): 74.
The New York Times Book Review 156 (August 19, 2007): 10.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 14 (April 2, 2007): 36.
Review of Contemporary Fiction 26, no. 2 (Summer, 2006): 88.