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25 july 2012
Jean Echenoz's novel Ravel is deceptively simple. It is about the composer, and starts with Ravel in 1927, near the height of his fame, leaving France for his only North American tour. Most of the first half of the novel is given over to describing the details of the voyage. The protagonist is a fussy old bachelor with chronic insomnia and dozens of suits. A motif in the book is an enumeration of his various methods for falling asleep; others include the penmanship of signatures, and the composer's penchant for losing his favorite pair of shoes.
I hear you ready to scream from literary inanition, but precisely because it is about the minutiae of living, Ravel turns out to be not just about a famous person (because who cares, really) but about any life as it turns the post and heads for the oblivion that awaits us all. Ravel, however he got there, reaches fifty with an elaborate set of predilections that composes an individual personality. Not much awaits him except (no pun intended) the unraveling of it all.
So much of Ravel concerns falling asleep that one almost suspects a governing parable. Life bores Ravel; he wants to sleep but he can't; does his longing for sleep correspond to a death-wish? fvbggg, says my cat; must remember to leave the laptop closed. Whisper Wilson may have a point, though. It's corny to think of a novel having a simple parabolic direction. But I can't help returning to the idea that the things that Ravel does to fall asleep are the things that we all do to pass the time of a painful existence: tell stories, relax into inactivity, count and classify things – and when nothing else works, do drugs.
At the end of his life, when reminded that he has created so much, Echenoz's Ravel protests:
Mais comment pouvez-vous dire ça? Je n'ai rien écrit, je ne laisse rien, ja n'ai rien dit de ce que je voulais dire.In the pages of Ravel, we tend to see the composer doing everything but write music. He parties in desultory fashion with half-attached friends (or rather, friends who are devoted to him, but that he never quite opens up to). We see him performing and conducting old chestnuts, wandering the continents of North America and Europe, fussing with his wardrobe, worrying about interior design, making money, saving money, reading Joseph Conrad.
[But how can you say that? I haven't written anything, I'm not leaving anything behind, I haven't said anything that I wanted to say.] (117)
We do see Ravel compose the Bolero, and his two piano concertos (one for both hands; the other, commissioned by disabled pianist Paul Wittgenstein, for the left hand only). "Il est vide de musique" (80), Ravel said of the Bolero: it is devoid of music. Most people with even the smallest degree of musicophilia can play the Bolero to themselves over and over in their heads – and may regret starting, because it is one of the most potent earworms in modern music. The simplicity and catchiness of the Bolero is what made Ravel disavow its musicality, but it's worth listening to again for its obstinacy, its exposure of what music somehow wants, at bottom, to do: to take us over, to make us repeat itself, mechanically, automatically, autonomically. "Vous ne trouvez pas que ce théme a quelque chose d'insistant?" Echenoz's Ravel asks a listener when he first plays (and plays again and again) the initial theme of the piece on the piano (76).
From that austere apex to his career, Ravel descends into disability. He can play the Wittgenstein concerto only with two hands; he finds that he can't play his own concerto at all. (Not an uncommon position for a composer to be in, of course, but Ravel has always prided himself on being a piano virtuoso.) Before long, he can't remember words for common things, or names of people he's known for years. We see him
sujet à des trous de mémoire singulièrement pour les noms propres, recourant souvent à des images pour désigner un lieu ou une personne aussi bien connus de lui que Mme Révelot: la dame qui s'occupe de ma maison, vous savez, qui a un sale caractère.It's sad, of course, to read about the loss of the traits that make us human. But just as in the work of Oliver Sacks, to read about the piecemeal loss of our human characteristics makes us understand the panoply of things that makes us human in the first place.
[liable to gaps in memory, especially for names, availing himself often of images to indicate a place or a person as well known to him as Mme Révelot: "the woman who takes care of my house, you know, that immoral type."] (100)
Echenoz, Jean. Ravel. Paris: Minuit, 2006.