Ravel: A Novel

Ravel: A Novel

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“A tiny miracle of a biographical novel” inspired by the life of the brilliant French composer (Booklist).
Shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
This beguiling and original evocation of the last ten years in the life of a musical genius opens in 1927 as Maurice Ravel—dandy, eccentric, curmudgeon—crosses the Atlantic aboard the luxury liner the SS France to begin his triumphant grand tour of the United States. With flashes of sly, quirky humor, this novel captures the folly of the era as well as its genius, and the personal and professional life of the sartorially and socially splendid ravel over the course of a decade. From a winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, Ravel is a touching literary portrait of a dignified and lonely man going reluctantly into the night.
“A beautifully musical little novel.” —The New York Times Book Review
“The most distinctive voice of his generation.” —The Washington Post

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620970003
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 05/10/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 273
File size: 239 KB

About the Author

Jean Echenoz won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt for I’m Gone (The New Press). He is the author of five previous novels in English translation and the winner of numerous literary prizes. Linda Coverdale is a past winner of the Scott Moncrieff Prize, a French-American Foundation Translation Prize, and the International IMPAC Dublin Award. She has translated almost fifty books, many of them for the New Press.

Read an Excerpt


Leaving the bathtub is sometimes quite annoying. First of all, it's a shame to abandon the soapy lukewarm water, where stray hairs wind around bubbles among the scrubbed-off skin cells, for the chill atmosphere of a poorly heated house. Then, if one is the least bit short, and the side of that claw-footed tub the least bit high, it's always a challenge to swing a leg over the edge to feel around, with a hesitant toe, for the slippery tile floor. Caution is advised, to avoid bumping one's crotch or risking a nasty fall. The solution to this predicament would be of course to order a custom-made bathtub, but that entails expenses, perhaps even exceeding the cost of the recently installed but still inadequate central heating. Better to remain submerged up to the neck in the bath for hours, if not forever, using one's right foot to periodically manipulate the hot-water faucet, thus adjusting the thermostat to maintain a comfortable amniotic ambience.

But that cannot last: time presses, as always, and Hélène Jourdan-Morhange will arrive within the hour. So Ravel climbs out of his bathtub and, when dry, slips into a dressing gown of a refined pearl-gray to clean his teeth with his angle-headed toothbrush; shave without missing one whisker; comb every hair straight back; pluck a stubborn eyebrow bristle that has grown overnight into an antenna. Next, selecting an elegant satin-lined manicure case of finest "lizard-grained" kid from among the hairbrushes, ivory combs, and scent bottles on the dressing table, he takes advantage of the hot water's softening effect on his fingernails to cut them painlessly to the correct length. He glances out the window of the tastefully arranged bathroom: beneath the bare trees, the garden is black and white, the short grass dead, the fountain paralyzed by frost. It is early on one of the last days of 1927. Having slept little and poorly, as he does every night, Ravel is in a bad mood, as he is every morning, without even an inkling of what to wear, which increases his ill humor.

He climbs the stairs of his small, complicated house: three stories, viewed from the garden, but only one is visible from the front. On the third floor, which is level with the street, he examines the latter from a hall window to estimate the number of layers enveloping passers-by, hoping to get some idea of what to put on. But it is much too early for the town of Montfort-l'Amaury. There is nobody and nothing but a little Peugeot 201, all gray and showing its age, already parked in front of his house with Hélène at the wheel. There is nothing else at all to see. A pale sun sits in the overcast sky.

There is nothing to be heard anywhere, either. Silence reigns in the kitchen, Ravel having told Mme. Révelot not to come in while he is away. He is running late as usual, grumbling as he lights a cigarette, forced to dress too quickly at the same time, snatching up whatever clothing comes to hand. Then it's his packing that exasperates him, even though he has only an overnight bag to fill; his squadron of suitcases was transferred to Paris two days ago. Once he is ready, Ravel checks his house, verifying that all the windows are closed, the back door locked, the gas in the kitchen and the electric meter in the front hall turned off. It really is a small place and the inspection doesn't last long, but one can never be too careful. Ravel confirms for the last time that he has indeed turned off the boiler before he leaves, muttering furiously again when he opens the door and icy air suddenly buffets his backswept and still-damp white hair.

So: at the bottom of the flight of eight narrow steps, the 201 sits parked, its brakes gripping the sloping street, with Hélène shivering at the wheel, which she drums on with fingers left bare by her buttercup-yellow knit driving gloves. Hélène is a rather attractive woman who might look somewhat like Orane Demazis, to those who remember that actress, but at that time quite a few women had something of Orane Demazis about them. Hélène has turned up the collar of her skunk-fur coat, beneath which she wears a crêpe dress of a delicate peach color with a vegetal motif and a waistline dropped so low that the bodice seems more like a jacket, while the skirt sports a decorative belt with a horn buckle. Very pretty. She has been waiting patiently. For what is beginning to feel like a long time.

For more than half an hour, on this frigid morning between two holidays, Hélène has been waiting for Ravel, who appears at last, carrying his overnight case. As for his ensemble, he is wearing a slate-gray suit beneath his short, chocolate-brown overcoat: not bad either, although old-fashioned and perhaps a touch lightweight for the season. Cane hooked over his forearm, gloves folded back at the wrist, he looks like a stylish punter or even an owner in the stands for the running of the Prix de Diane or the weighing-in at Enghien, but a breeder less interested in his yearling than in dissociating himself from the classic gray cutaways or linen blazers. He climbs briskly into the Peugeot, sits back with a sigh and, pinching the pleats of his trousers at the knees, tugs gently to keep them from bagging. Well, he says, undoing the top button of his overcoat, I believe we can get going. Turned toward him, Hélène swiftly inspects Ravel from head to toe: his lisle socks and silk pocket handkerchief, as always, nicely match his tie.

You might perhaps have had me wait in your house rather than in the car, she ventures, starting the engine. You could see how cold it is. With quite a dry smile, Ravel points out that he had to do a little straightening up before his departure, it was quite a chore, he was dashing all over. On top of not getting a wink of sleep, as usual, he also had to rise at dawn and he hates that, she knows how he hates that. And besides she knows perfectly well how tiny his place is, they would have been in each other's way. All the same, observes Hélène, you've made me catch my death. Nonsense, Hélène, he says, lighting a Gauloise. Really ... And when does it leave, exactly, this train?

Twelve past eleven, replies Hélène, letting in the clutch, and in next to no time they drive across a Montfort-l'Amaury as frozen and deserted as an ice floe in the steely light. Near the church, before they leave Montfort, they pass in front of a large bourgeois mansion where the yellow rectangle of one upstairs window leads Ravel to remark that his friend Zogheb seems to be already awake, after which they press on to Versailles, where they take the Avenue de Paris. When Hélène hesitates at an intersection, letting the car drift for a moment, Ravel frets briefly. But you're such a bad driver! he exclaims. My brother Édouard is much better at this. I don't think you'll ever get there. As they approach Sèvres, Hélène again brakes suddenly when she spots a man on the sidewalk wearing a felt hat and carrying under one arm what looks like a large painting tied up in newspaper. Since the man seems to be waiting, she stops to let him cross but above all to study Ravel, whose face is more lean, pale, and drawn than ever: when he closes his eyes for a second, he resembles his own death mask. Aren't you feeling well?

He says that he's all right, that he should be fine but that he still feels quite run-down. After ordering a battery of tests for him, his doctor, upset by Ravel's refusal of the prescribed year of complete rest, wanted to put him on stimulants to prepare him for this trip. Which meant that he had to undergo massive injections of cytoserum, natrum cacodylate, and extracts of pituitary and adrenal glands — it was one shot after another, not much fun. And in spite of everything he's still not really feeling like his old self. When Hélène suggests that he change treatments, he replies that a colleague has just written him with the same advice, urging him to try homeopathy: some people simply swear by it, homeopathy. Well, fine, he'll look into it when he returns. Then he falls silent to watch Sèvres slip past for a moment but in fact there's nothing much to see this morning in Sèvres either, except gray locked-up buildings, black shut-up cars, dark buttoned-up clothing, somber hunched-up shoulders. He's not all that sure anymore that he feels like leaving, now. It's always the same story, isn't it: he accepts these offers without thinking about them and at the last moment they drive him to despair. And what about the cigarettes — is Hélène quite certain that his cigarettes will be delivered to him throughout the trip? Hélène replies that it has all been arranged. And the tickets? She does have the tickets? Everything is here, says Hélène, pointing to her purse.

They enter Paris by the Porte de Saint-Cloud, find the Seine, and follow its embankments to Concorde, where they turn north to speed through the city toward the Gare Saint-Lazare. Things are livelier than in the western suburbs, obviously, but not really by much. They see men on bicycles, women without hats, posters on walls, quite a few automobiles, including the occasional luxury model from Panhard-Levasseur or Rosengart. Coming to the end of the Rue de la Pépinière, for example, they notice, heading down the Rue de Rome, a long, two-toned Salmson VAL3, as sleek as a pimp's pumps.

Shortly before ten o'clock, Hélène parks her humble Peugeot in front of the Hôtel Terminus, whence they proceed to the Criterion, a bar on the Cour du Havre where Ravel is a regular and two singers of the kind known in those days as chanteuses intelligentes, Marcelle Gérar and Madeleine Grey, are waiting patiently with their hot drinks. Ravel takes his sweet time ordering a coffee, then another that he drinks even more slowly while the three young women, exchanging questioning looks, consult the clock on the wall with increasing frequency. Growing worried, they finally move things along, escorting Ravel resolutely across the street to the station, which they enter a good half-hour before the departure of the train. The special isn't even at the platform when they arrive, Ravel leading the way, trailed by his friends who are helping, more or less, two porters from the Terminus drag along his four bulky suitcases plus a trunk. This luggage is quite heavy, but these young women are so very fond of music.

Leaning out over the tracks, Ravel lights a Gauloise before pulling from his overcoat pocket a copy of L'Intransigeant, which he has just bought at a kiosk after failing to find his customary Le Populaire. Since the year is almost over, the newspaper sums it up in time-honored fashion, recalling the reestablishment of constituency polls, the launching of the ocean liner Cap Arcona, the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the production of the first talking picture, and the invention of television. Although unable to include everything that has happened worldwide this year in the field of music (the birth of Gerry Mulligan, for example), L'Intransigeant does mention the recent inauguration of the concert hall Salle Pleyel, over which Ravel lingers, seeking and finding his name, then shrugs his shoulders. When the breathless young women rejoin him, leaving the factotums of the Terminus to pile the baggage into a pyramidion on the edge of the platform, Hélène inquires timidly about the latest news, gesturing toward the paper. Nothing much, he replies, nothing much. In any case, it's a right-wing paper, isn't it.

The special arrives at last, hauled by a type 120 locomotive, a hybrid version of the high-speed 111 Buddicom. The porters begin stowing the luggage in the baggage compartments while Ravel takes his leave of the ladies, deploying his very best manners: compliments and hand-kisses, thanks and professions of friendship. Then he gets on the train and easily finds his reserved seat in the first-class car, by the window, which he lowers. They engage in more smiling and ever-smaller small talk until departure time, when the ladies pluck from their purses handkerchiefs they then begin to wave. Ravel waves nothing, contenting himself with one last wry smile and an uplifted hand before closing the window and returning to his paper.

He is leaving for the harbor station at Le Havre to sail to North America. It is his first trip there; it will be his last. He now has ten years, on the nose, left to live.


As for the ocean liner France, second of that name, aboard which Ravel will head off to America, she still has nine active years ahead of her before her sale to the Japanese for scrap. Flagship of the transatlantic fleet, a mass of riveted steel capped with four smokestacks (one a dummy), she is a block 723 feet long and 75 feet wide, sent into service twenty-five years ago from the Ateliers de Saint-Nazaire-Penhoët. From first to fourth class, the vessel can carry some two thousand passengers besides her five hundred crewmen and officers. This ship of 22,500 tons burden — propelled at a cruising speed of twenty-three knots by four groups of Parsons turbines fed by thirty-two Prudhon-Capus boilers generating forty thousand units of horsepower — needs only six days for a smooth transatlantic voyage, while the fleet's other steamers, less powerfully driven, take nine to huff and puff across.

A Ritz or Plaza under steam, the France triumphs not only in speed but in comfort as well: Ravel has barely stepped on board when a band of impeccable cabin boys in brand-new red livery leads him along stairs and passageways to his reserved suite. It's a luxurious apartment with chintz curtains, inlaid woodwork of sycamore, Hungarian oak, kingwood, and bird's-eye maple, furniture of citron wood and palisander, and a spacious bathroom of vermeil and clouded marble. After rapidly inspecting the premises, Ravel glances out one of the portholes that still, for the time being, overlook the quay: he observes the throng of well-wishers jostling one another while waving handkerchiefs — as at Saint-Lazare — but hats and flowers as well and other things besides. He doesn't try to recognize anyone in that crowd; although he welcomed an escort to the train station, he prefers to set sail on his own. After he has taken off his coat, unpacked three items, and arranged his toilet articles around the sinks, Ravel goes off to reserve a seat in the dining room from the maître d', then a steamer chair from the deck steward. Waiting for the ship to get under way, Ravel spends a few moments in the nearest smoking lounge, where the mahogany walls are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There he has one or two more Gauloises and — judging from certain lingering or averted looks, certain discreet or knowing smiles — the impression that people have recognized him.

That's not unusual, and with good reason: fifty-two years old, he is at the height of his fame, Stravinsky his only rival as the world's most revered musician, and Ravel's picture is often in the papers. That isn't unusual, either, given his appearance: his lean, close-shaven face and long narrow nose form two triangles set perpendicularly to each other. Dark eyes, a restless and piercing gaze, bushy eyebrows, hair slicked back to reveal a high forehead, thin lips, prominent ears without lobes, a matte complexion. Elegantly aloof, icily polite, not particularly talkative, he is a man of courteous simplicity, gaunt but jaunty, dressed to the nines at all times.

He was not always so clean-shaven, however. In his youth he tried everything: sideburns at twenty-five, with a monocle and chatelaine, then a pointed beard at thirty followed by a squared beard and, later, a trial run with a mustache. At thirty-five he shaved all that off, at the same time taming his mane, which went from bouffant to permanently severe and sleek and quickly white. But his chief characteristic is his shortness, which pains him and makes his head seem a little too large for his body. Five feet three inches; ninety-nine pounds; thirty inches around the chest. Ravel has the build of a jockey and thus of William Faulkner who, at the time, is dividing his life between two cities (Oxford, Mississippi, and New Orleans), two books (Mosquitoes and Sartoris), and two whiskeys (Jack Daniel's and Jack Daniel's).


Excerpted from "Ravel"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Les Éditions de Minuit.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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