Eric Chevillard

Eric Chevillard has described himself as a writer attuned first of all to the effects of his sentences: "Everything comes together in my sentences, in the moment of their writing, driven by a hopscotch logic, by syntactical deductions. My stories are born out of sheer energy" ("A Conversation with Eric Chevillard.")  A first sentence is especially important in opening up "a wholly unexplored space" that the following sentences proceed to occupy.

This focus on the dynamics of the sentence in determining the shape and direction of the story seems somewhat reminiscent of the notion of "consecution" as promulgated by the American writer/teacher Gordon Lish and put into practice by many of his students. Chevillard does not appear to emphasize the purely sonic qualities of the procession of sentences in quite the same way, but unfortunately, the reader of Chevillard's fiction in translation can't really appreciate the full range of possible effects put into play by the writer's method of composition, no matter how diligently the translator tries to reproduce or recreate them. This is the inherent limitation in approaching a writer's work through translation--one that most of us can only accept--but it becomes especially apparent when the writer is as solicitous of literature as a "language act" as Chevillard avows himself to be.

Luckily, Chevillard is also a writer whose manner of filling that "wholly unexplored space" invoked by language still registers distinctly and distinctively, the "sheer energy" scarcely diminished. In particular, the "hopscotch logic" of Chevillard's novels seems their most essential characteristic, making them both manifestly peculiar and frequently hilarious. This logic is especially evident in a work such as The Crab Nebula, which might be said to "hop" randomly from vignette to vignette in the story of "Crab," except that there is no story (or rather there are many stories), Crab is never quite the same person, and sometimes not exactly a person. The tonal effect is really neither surreal nor absurdist, but rather a near-total disregard of "sense" as a goal the novelist should strive to achieve. Yet one does come to have some feeling for poor Crab in his effort to cope with the senselessness we all come to suspect is our inescapable reality. Demolishing Nisard has more continuity and coherence, centered around its narrator protagonist's obsession with obscure 19th century pedagogue Désiré Nisard, although it too threatens to teeter over into nonsense. In this case, the "hopscotch logic" is embodied in the narrator, who allows his neurotic belief that the opinions of  the man he reviles epitomize the vacuity of the modern age to in effect turn himself into just another version of Nisard.

Each of these novels at first might seem both aimless and formally chaotic, but ultimately their collage-like structures bring about a congruity of sorts in the evocation of character (even if Crab is only a provisional sort of character in the first place). On the other hand, in The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster, the latest Chevillard novel to now be translated (by Chris Clarke), form is conspicuously present: the novel purports to be a collection of unpublished writings by the recently deceased writer Pilaster, with an editorial apparatus by Pilaster's fellow writer (and supposed friend), "Marc-Antoine Marson." The pieces included do indeed seem like odds and ends--diary entries, a very brief detective story, a collection of haiku, an unperformed one-act play, among others), but Marson does his level best in his introductory and editorial notes to make them seem even more marginal--while also damning Pilaster's published oeuvre with the faintest of praise.

If the editor's impatience with the author's works begs the question of why the book has been assembled in the first place, eventually it becomes clear enough that Marston has come to bury Pilaster, not to praise him, that his enmity against the writer goes back a long way indeed (to their student days together) and has only deepened through jealousy, both professional, due to Pilaster's more exalted reputation, and the more traditional kind: Marson reveals himself to have been in love with Pilaster's wife, Lise, whose own death preceded Pilaster's 15 years earlier. The novel bears an undeniable resemblance to Nabokov's Pale Fire, although the "backstory" the reader must piece together is rather less exotic than Nabokov's. Still, the reader does come to suspect that the undercurrent of jealousy that seems to propel the editor's compilation of Thomas Pilaster's posthumous works might also have risen to murder; the murky circumstances of the deaths of both Lise and Pilaster himself point to Marson as the likely perpetrator.

The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster, like the Chevillard novel translated most immediately before it, the metafictional The Author and Me, is a more recognizably "postmodern" novel than The Crab Nebula and Demolishing Nisard, which to an extent seem like more singular creations. On the whole, however, Chevillard is an audacious and insidiously entertaining writer, and the reader new to his work (as I was) might just as well read these books all together (as I did).


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