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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Jean Echenoz

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To purchase Running

Title: Running
Author: Jean Echenoz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 142 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Running - US
Running - UK
Running - Canada
Courir - Canada
Running - India
Courir - France
Laufen - Deutschland
Correre - Italia
Correr - España
  • French title: Courir
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-written and presented character study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Irish Times . 19/2/2011 Eileen Battersby
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2009 Warren Motte

  From the Reviews:
  • "Echenoz has done his research without allowing it to overpower the narrative. (...) Jean Echenoz, the wise magician, has done it again, looked deep into the soul of a man and men, making us all think that bit more clearly, more humanely." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Throughout Courir, the question of performance is constantly at issue -- and the same is true of the two books that preceded it. In Au piano (2003), Echenoz gave us a fictional concert pianist who is afflicted by stage fright; in Ravel, we met a real musician who grapples with his own renown in the last ten years of his life, realizing that he can no longer play music as he once did. Though his calling is quite different, Echenoz insists that Emile is likewise an artist, one whose performance follows an ineluctable trajectory. It strikes me that the very insistence of this motif in Echenoz's recent work is eloquent." - Warren Motte, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Running is the second in a series of novels by Echenoz closely based on fact: after treating the life of the composer in Ravel, Echenoz now presents a fiction about Czech running-great Emil (or Émile, as the French version has it) Zatopek. While readily identifiable as the great runner, for much of the novel the protagonist is only presented as "Émile", and it's only fairly well into the short book that Echenoz fully acknowledges him as Zatopek -- a name that, as Echenoz points out, takes on a meaning of its own once the runner's greatness has become undeniable.
       The novel begins with the German takeover of Moravia in the build-up to the Second World War. Émile is seventeen. He's been out of school for several years, but hasn't latched onto anything yet. He gets a place at the Bata works, a major shoe producer and exporter, in what amounts to a work-study program. There's no indication of any athletic prowess or promise -- in fact: "Il a horreur du sport, de toute façon" ('He can't stand any kind of sports').
       Of course, eventually he has to participate in a running race, and does quite well -- despite an unorthodox style. As the trainer at a local club puts it: "Tu cours bizarrement mais tu ne cours pas si mal" ('You run bizarrely but you don't run half bad'). He doesn't immediately win his first races, but coming in second gets his name in the paper, making for a sudden "identité publique" ('public identity') that fascinates him even as, as Echenoz warns, the twenty-year-old doesn't yet fully comprehend what having an identité publique means.
       Soon enough Émile is winning races and smashing records. At one race in Finland -- land of the last great long distance runner, the Flying Finn Paavo Nurmi -- Émile pulverizes the 10,000 meter record, and the crowd doesn't react when the ridiculous winning time is announced; when the record is confirmed they cheer for twenty-five minutes.
       For Echenoz Émile's path is one of destiny. As he simply puts it: "Il est inévitable", his greatness unavoidable, despite the fact that there were no indications of it until he was almost full-grown. Part of what fascinates Echenoz is Zatopek's strange style: he does things his own way, running in a way that is anything but textbook and yet that yields superlative results. He says of Émile:

     Jamais, jamais rien comme les autres, même si c'est un type comme tout le monde.

[Like no one, no one else, even if he seemed like everyman.]
       There are some hurdles to some of the greatest triumphs, including the amazing three golds at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, and eventually his career slows down, but for a while there, Émile was "inégalable" ('unequalable'), his last name the incarnation of power and speed for all the world.
       The shadow of politics is unavoidable, beginning with the Nazi occupation and then carrying through to the post-war government and then the tightening chokehold of Stalinism. The athlete can stay above it to some extent, but not entirely, especially as he often travels abroad; eventually he too gets caught up in the events of 1968 and their aftermath. Yet Émile is inward-looking -- unimpressed, for example, by the big city Paris -- and prefers to occupy himself with his own things, puttering about his house and doing odd jobs there. He goes so far as to regret his facility for languages: it would be simpler just to be uncomprehending and unable to readily communicate.
       Echenoz is fascinated by the public figure who exhibits a certain kind of genius, in Zatopek's case that of being a superlative athlete. The fact that Émile is such an unlikely genius, with a laughable, contorted running style, makes it particularly fascinating, as is the fact that his genius almost went unrecognized (if the sports-hating Zatopek hadn't been forced to race no one would have ever realized he was a natural talent). Fame and recognition are also shown as almost beside the point for Émile: he enjoys it, but it doesn't drive him, it's the thing itself that drives him, and he doesn't so much bask in the adulation, from the public, press, or (self-serving) politicians -- as shrug it off, preferring to happily putter off back home to his wife and their relatively simple lifestyle.
       Running is an agreeable character-study, a portrait of a running-artist, an everyman who is anything but yet is happy to resign himself to whatever life offers. While the short novel itself can seem somewhat unambitious, it is perhaps best seen as part of a larger project by Echenoz, variations on a theme of how men handle their own brilliance. Written with supreme confidence and ease, Running offers yet another fascinating and unusual portrait.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 May 2009

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Running: Reviews: Jean Echenoz: Other books by Jean Echenoz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jean Echenoz has won numerous literary prizes.

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© 2009-2017 the complete review

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