Jean Echenoz
1914
A Novel
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

1

SINCE THE WEATHER WAS SO inviting and it was Saturday, a half day, which allowed him to leave work early, Anthime set out on his bicycle after lunch. His plans: to take advantage of the radiant August sun, enjoy some exercise in the fresh country air, and doubtless stretch out on the grass to read, for he’d strapped to his bicycle a book too bulky to fit in the wire basket. After coasting gently out of the city, he lazed easily along for about six flat miles until forced to stand up on his pedals while tackling a hill, sweating as he swayed from side to side. The hills of the Vendée in the Loire region of west-central France aren’t much, of course, and it was only a slight rise, but lofty enough to provide a rewarding view.

As Anthime reached the crest of that eminence, a rowdy gust of wind came up abruptly, almost carrying off his cap, and then buffeted his bicycle, a solid Euntes[1] he’d bought off a vicar now stricken with gout. Air currents that sudden, loud, and forceful in their onrush are rather unusual in that area in midsummer, especially on such a sunny day, and Anthime had to steady himself with one foot on the ground and the other on its pedal, with the bicycle slightly inclined beneath him, as he settled his cap firmly on his head in the whistling wind. Then he looked around at the countryside: a sprinkling of villages, an abundance of fields and pasturelands. Invisible yet also there, twelve or so miles to the west, breathed the ocean, on which Anthime happened to have ventured out some four or five times, occasions on which he had not been much help to his comrades, having no idea how to fish, although as an accountant, he had felt equipped to take on the always welcome responsibility of tallying up the mackerel, whiting, plaice, brill, and other flatfish back at the dock.

On that first day of August, standing alone on the hill, Anthime let his gaze linger over the panorama, taking in the five or six small market towns scattered below: clusters of low houses congregated around a belfry, linked by a slender network of roads on which the few automobiles were far outnumbered by oxcarts and draft horses hauling harvested grain. It was certainly a pleasant landscape, albeit one temporarily disrupted by that noisy, truly unseasonable eruption of wind rampaging everywhere within earshot, which forced Anthime to keep clutching his cap. The rushing air was all one could hear. It was four in the afternoon.

As Anthime glanced idly from one town to another, he noticed a phenomenon he’d never seen before. Atop every one of the belfries at the same moment, something had been set in motion, and this movement was tiny but steady: a black square and a white one, each following the other every two or three seconds, had begun regularly switching places like an alternating light, a binary blinking reminiscent of the automatic valves on certain machines back at the factory. Anthime watched but did not understand these mechanical pulses that seemed like trip levers, or winks launched from afar by a series of strangers.

Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the pervasive rumbling of the wind suddenly gave way to the noise it had masked until that moment: up in those church towers, the bells had in fact begun tolling all together, ringing out in a somber, heavy, and threatening disorder in which Anthime, although still too young to have attended many funerals, instinctively recognized the timbre of the tocsin, rung only rarely, the image of which had reached him separately before its sound.

The tocsin, given the world situation at the time, could mean only one thing: mobilization. Like everyone else but not taking the idea very seriously, Anthime had been rather expecting this, although he would never have imagined it happening on a Saturday. He listened quietly for less than a minute to the bells solemnly jostling one another, then straightened his bike and pushed off again, coasting all the way down the hill before turning toward home. Unnoticed by Anthime, his big book went sailing off the bicycle after a stiff bump, opening as it fell to lie forever alone at the roadside, facedown on the chapter entitled “Aures Habet et non Audiet.”[2]

Entering the town, Anthime began to see people leaving their houses to gather in groups before converging on the Place Royale. The men seemed excited, on edge in the heat, turning to call to one another, gesturing broadly but with seeming confidence. Anthime dropped off his bicycle at home before joining the general movement now flowing in from every direction toward the main square, where a smiling crowd milled around waving bottles and flags, gesticulating, dashing about, leaving barely enough space for the horse-drawn vehicles already arriving laden with passengers. Everyone appeared well pleased with the mobilization in a hubbub of feverish debates, hearty laughter, hymns, fanfares, and patriotic exclamations punctuated by the neighing of horses.

Across the square and beyond that animated throng red-faced with sweat and fervor, Anthime spotted Charles on the corner of the Rue Crébillon, by a silk merchant’s shop, and tried at a distance to catch his eye. Unsuccessful in this, he began making his way toward him through the crowd. Apparently remaining aloof from events, dressed as in his office at the factory in a close-fitting suit and a narrow, light-colored tie, Charles considered the crush of people without any visible emotion, wearing his Rêve Idéal camera from Girard & Boitte slung around his neck, as usual. Advancing toward him, Anthime had to steel and calm himself at the same time, a paradoxical yet necessary procedure he followed to master the intimidating uneasiness he felt in the presence of Charles, no matter what the occasion. The other man faced him for barely a second before looking down at the signet ring Anthime wore on his pinkie.

Hmm, said Charles, that’s new. And you’re wearing it on your right hand, well, well. They’re usually worn on the left. I know, agreed Anthime, but it isn’t a question of style, it’s because my wrist hurts. Indeed, said Charles condescendingly, and it doesn’t bother you when you shake someone’s hand. I shake so few hands, observed Anthime, and as I told you, it’s for those pains I get in my right wrist, it relieves them. The ring’s a bit heavy but it seems to work. It’s a magnetic thing, if you like. Magnetic, repeated Charles with a trace of a smile, puffing a trace of a humph out his nose, shaking his head while shrugging one shoulder and looking away—and completing these five actions in a single second, leaving Anthime feeling once again humiliated.

So, began Anthime, trying to carry on by jerking his thumb toward a group waving signs, what do you think of this. It was inevitable, replied Charles, closing one of his cold eyes to clap the other one to his view-finder, but it won’t last longer than two weeks at the most. Of that, Anthime ventured to remark, I’m not so sure. Well, said Charles, tomorrow we’ll see.

2

AND THE NEXT MORNING, they all found themselves at the barracks. Anthime had arrived there quite early, having joined his fishing and café comrades along the way: Padioleau, Bossis, and Arcenel, that last mumbling complaints about celebrating the occasion too long into the wee hours the night before, stirring up hemorrhoids and a hangover. Padioleau, slightly built, a touch timid, thin-faced with a waxy complexion, had nothing of the sturdy presence of a butcher’s boy even though that was, in fact, his profession, whereas Bossis, not content with possessing the physique of a knacker, actually was one. As for Arcenel, he was a saddler, a craft that presupposes no particular habitus. In any case, each in his own way, these three took a great interest in animals, had seen lots of them, and were going to encounter a great many more.

Like all the first men to show up, they were rewarded with a uniform in their size, whereas Charles, eternally haughty and indifferent, arrived late enough that morning to earn himself an ill-fitting one at first, but when he protested disdainfully, fussing arrogantly over his position as a deputy plant manager, others— Bossis and Padioleau, as it turned out—were forced to give up some red trousers and a greatcoat that were apparently acceptable to such a leading citizen, despite his stoically disgusted expression. So Padioleau found himself utterly swamped by his reassigned greatcoat while Bossis never did manage, for as long as he had left to live, to get used to those pants.

Of medium height with an ordinary face, rarely smiling, sporting a mustache like just about all the men of his generation, twenty-three years old, wearing his new uniform with no more panache than he had in his everyday clothes, Anthime had intended to go speak to Charles: twenty-seven, no less poker-faced and mustached but more dashing, taller, more slender, turning his composed and icy gaze upon the world, apparently more bent than ever on remaining cool and distant, refusing to acknowledge anyone at all of lesser status, and doubtless Anthime in particular. 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.

In the days that followed, everything moved fairly swiftly at the barracks. After the arrival of the last reservists, the territorials came in, nonprofessional soldiers organized on a local basis for home defense, old fellows between thirty-four and forty-nine years of age who were immediately called upon to stand drinks all around, and indeed, from Monday to Thursday those rounds came one after the other at a fast clip: by the end of the evening, everyone was somewhat the worse for wear. Then matters took a more serious turn when the squadrons were made up: Anthime found himself assigned to the 11th Squadron of the 10th Company, going up the chain to the 93rd Infantry Regiment, the 42nd Infantry Brigade, the 21st Infantry Division, and the 11th Army Corps of the 5th Army. Serial number 4221. The ammunition was distributed with the iron rations[3]—the emergency food supplies—and that evening, everyone again hit the bottle pretty hard. The next day was when they began to feel like soldiers: in the morning, the regiment drilled in formation for the first time, then passed in review before the colonel on the barracks square and paraded through the town that afternoon, since it was not yet time for them to leave on the troop train.

It was rather fun, that parade, with each man trying to walk tall in his uniform and look straight ahead. The 93rd marched along the avenue and then the main streets, lined by townspeople who weren’t stingy with their tossed flowers, cheers, and shouts of encouragement. Charles had of course wangled himself a spot in the front line of the procession; Anthime was in the middle of the regiment, grouped with Bossis, still ill at ease in his trousers, along with Arcenel, complaining constantly about his rear end, and Padioleau, whose mother had had time to take in the greatcoat at the shoulders and shorten the sleeves. As Anthime marched along trading muttered jokes with his pals, trying all the while to keep stepping out smartly, he thought he noticed Blanche on the left sidewalk of the avenue. At first he took her for a lookalike but then, no, it was she, Blanche, all dressed up in a lightweight pink skirt and summery mauve blouse. To protect herself from the sun she was sheltering under a big black umbrella while the troop was sweating along in cadence in their new kepis, quite tight at the temples, plus the knapsack strapped on according to regulations and which, that first day, did not weigh too heavily yet on the collarbones.

As he’d expected, Anthime had first seen Blanche smile proudly at Charles’s martial bearing and then, as he drew abreast of her in turn, he was not a little surprised when she gave him a different kind of smile, more serious and even, he felt, a trifle more emotional, pronounced, sustained, well who knows, exactly. He had neither seen nor tried to see how Charles—with his back to him, in any case—had reacted to her smile but he, Anthime, had responded only with a look, the shortest and longest one possible, forcing himself to invest it with the least amount of expression while at the same time suggesting the maximum: a novel approach, doubly paradoxical this time and which, as he strove to keep in step, was no small undertaking. After they’d filed past Blanche, Anthime preferred not to look at any more people.

At the station early the next morning, Blanche was there again, on the platform among the crowd waving little flags, as some boys chalked ON TO BERLIN on the flanks of the locomotive and a four- or five-man brass band did its best with the national anthem. Hats, scarves, bouquets, hankies, waved every which way as baskets of provisions passed through the train’s windows, hugs enveloped children and old folks, couples embraced, and tears fell on the railcar steps—as one can see today in Paris in Albert Herter’s vast mural in the Hall Alsace of the Gare de l’Est.[4] On the whole, however, people smiled confidently because it would all be over quickly, apparently, so everyone would be back soon—and from a distance, as Charles held Blanche in his arms, Anthime saw her gaze over his shoulder and once again direct that same look at him. Then it was time to get on the train and barely a week after his little bicycle excursion, after heading northeast from Nantes at six o’clock on Saturday morning, Anthime arrived up in the Ardennes on Monday in the late afternoon.

3

ON SUNDAY MORNING, Blanche awoke in her bedroom on the second floor of an imposing residence of the kind belonging to notaries, deputies, public officials, or plant managers: the Borne family runs the Borne-Sèze factory, and Blanche is their only daughter.

A strangely discordant atmosphere reigns in this albeit peaceful and orderly room. Framed local scenes— barges on the Loire, fishermen’s lives on the island of Noirmoutier—adorn the slightly off-center flowered wallpaper, and the furniture bespeaks an effort toward woodlands diversity worthy of an arboretum: a mirrored walnut bonnetière,[5] a writing desk of oak, a mahogany chest of drawers with fruitwood veneer, while the bed is of wild cherry, the armoire of yellow pine. So, an unusual ambience, and one ponders whether it arises from the mismatched edges—unexpected in what should be a meticulously appointed bourgeois house— of this faded wallpaper in which the bouquets are wilting as well, or from the astonishing variety of furniture woods: one wonders at first how so many different materials can get along together. And then one quickly senses that they do not get along at all, they cannot even stand one another, which probably explains the strange ambience: that must be it.