By Jean Echenoz
With the delicacy of a miniaturist and with an understatement that's either witty and clear-eyed, Echenoz deals us an intimate epic: within the landscape of a transparent blue sky, a bi-plane spirals all of sudden into the floor; a section of shrapnel shears the head 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 thrust above the terrors of struggle during this fantastically crafted story that Echenoz tells with discretion, precision, and love.
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Additional info for 1914: A Novel
Though that already seemed quite a load for one knapsack, the men then strapped various accessories to the outside. At the very top, on the rolled-up blanket placed over the tent canvas enclosing poles, stakes, and cords, would sit an individual mess tin, at a slight tilt to the rear so as not to bump the soldier’s head, while at the back of the pack a small bundle of dry wood for cooking supper at the bivouac would be wedged over a stewpot anchored by a strap running up across the mess tin, and from the sides of the pack would hang a few field tools inside their leather covers: ax or shears, billhook, saw, shovel, pick, spade pick, take your pick—along with a collapsible canvas bucket known as the water cow and a lantern in its canvas carrying case.
Escaping hundreds of bullets whizzing by barely a few feet from him and dozens of shells within a fifty-yard radius, jumping this way and that in the hail of debris, he thought at one point he was done for when a percussion-fuse shell fell quite close to him, landing in a breach of his trench they’d plugged with bags of earth, one of which, sliced open and hurled through the air by the shell’s impact, almost knocked him senseless but—luckily—shielded him from the shrapnel.
Who therefore decided to forget it and rejoined his companions, if only to calm down Bossis, who was grumbling about his pants. Turning anyway to look back at Charles, Anthime saw him extract a cigar from a case he seemed about to slip back into his pocket but instead, pausing, he selected another cigar and offered it discreetly to the closest officer. Then Anthime watched him photograph that officer the way he had been photographing, for months now, everything he could get his hands on, perfecting his skills in that department to the point of having recently seen some of his pictures published in magazines like Le Miroir and L’Illustration, which accepted material from amateurs.