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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

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...

(The entire section is 1,761 words.)