‘Piano’ by Jean Echenoz – In Purgatory with Peggy Lee and Dean Martin

‘Piano’ by Jean Echenoz   (2003)  –  179 pages      Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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‘Piano’ is a wilder ride than usual into Jean Echenoz land.  Here we have the story of Max, a Parisian piano virtuoso.  We follow him as he battles stage fright and longs for some alcoholic drinks before each performance.  That’s why he has a minder named Bernie who must somehow keep him in check.

But there is trouble ahead.  Even on the first page of the novel Echenoz informs us that ‘He (Max) is going to die a violent death in twenty two days’.  ‘Piano’ is divided into three parts.  The first part has Max in Paris performing concerts.  The second part Max has died and is in purgatory under the supervision of dead celebrities Peggy Lee and Dean Martin.  In the third part Max returns to Paris which now we assume must be an urban zone of Hell.

After reading his two most recent novels, I decided Jean Echenoz is a modern master writer whose backlist would be well worth reading.  Both ‘Lightning’ and ‘1914’ are historical novels written in precise clean prose that I found stimulating and appealing.

‘Piano’, written in 2003, is a much different puppy than these two more recent fact-based novels.  Pianist Max is an obvious creature of the imagination, and his antic journey into purgatory and back to Paris is of course an invention.  ‘Piano’ is a lighter-than-air playful story that put a smile on my face from beginning to end.

As far as I can tell there is no real point to Max’s journey, but in this case any objective is beside the point.  We tag along with Max as he prepares for concerts and finds women to whom he is attracted.  He lives with his sister and has never been married, but there is this woman named Rose from his past and a new woman in his apartment building.  Later when he meets Peggy Lee and Dean Martin in purgatory the story becomes far-fetched but so funny we don’t care.  Max’s adventures after returning to Paris are delightfully wacky.

One thing that sets Echenoz apart from other modern writers is the concision of his prose.  His sentences are not short, but they carry so much detail and feeling that the novels themselves are usually on the short side.

Jean Echenoz

Jean Echenoz

Now that I’ve read both sides of Echenoz, the real documentary side in ‘Lightning’ and ‘1914’ and the surreal whimsical side in ‘Piano’, I can’t decide which I like better.  You would think that these two sides could not exist within the same writer, but there must be some force within Echenoz that conjoins them.

I will continue my exploration of the work of Jean Echenoz over the coming years, because I do believe that he is one of the true giants of the literary world today whose works should not be missed.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I am with you in being enthusiastic about Echenoz — I already have six posts on my blog and am now “shepherding” the reading of those that I have not got to.

    And I also agree that Piano shows a different side of him, at least when compared to his “biographical” novels. He plays with the reader’s perception from a number of different angles — and pulls it off very well.

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    • Hi Kevin,
      With 6 read, you are quite a ways in front of me on Jean Echenoz. For my next Echenoz, I probably will go back to the biographical with ‘Ravel’.

      I noticed that they switched translators for him for his last few novels with Linda Coverdale replacing Mark Polizzotti.

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  2. I really need to get into Echenoz. Kevin interested me in him years ago, and I still haven’t read him, but every time I read a review of any of his books I immediately want to read it. Your review is definitely no exception.

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    • Hi Max,
      Yes, I believe it was at KevinFromCanada where I first heard much about Jean Echenoz. After reading three of his novels, I now consider him one of the best.

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