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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Jean Echenoz

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To purchase Lightning

Title: Lightning
Author: Jean Echenoz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 142 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Lightning - US
Lightning - UK
Lightning - Canada
Des éclairs - Canada
Lightning - India
Des éclairs - France
  • French title: Des éclairs
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale

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Our Assessment:

A- : playful variation on biography

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 3/7/2011 Susan Salter Reynolds
Wall Street Journal . 23/7/2011 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Echenoz captures the spare beauty of Tesla, this often-drawn and much-translated figure, till his death at 86. He is a lean ghost in the history of power, electricity and invention. Echenoz fixes him even more firmly in our imaginations." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The only thing that first seemed atypical about this fond, funny novel is that lightning strikes the instant that Gregor is born. It's a melodramatic touch that seems out of keeping with the Echenoz aesthetic, until you realize that it too is a joke, the hammy overture to the extraordinary yet somehow underwhelming life to follow." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

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:

       Lightning is the third in Echenoz's series of slight, fictionalized biographies of accomplished men. Here Echenoz's subject is clearly the famed inventor Nikola Tesla, but -- unlike, say, in Ravel -- he changes the character's name, making a Gregor of him (with it unavoidable Kafkaesque echo).
       Gregor's birth begins with a flash that foreshadows much of the rest of his life

a gigantic lightning bolt -- thick, branching, a grim pillar of burnt air shaped like a tree, like its roots or the claws of a raptor -- spotlights his arrival and sets the surrounding forest on fire, while thunder drowns out his first cries.
       Obsessed with the possibilities electricity offers, and with a mind attuned to this mysterious newly discovered and barely harnessed force, Gregor pursues his passion single-mindedly. A brilliant student, he escapes the backlands of south-eastern Europe and eventually makes his way to America, where he goes to work for Thomas Edison. Tesla is convinced alternating current is a much more effective means of distributing electricity than direct current, but Edison is not, and this eventually leads to Tesla working for Edison rival Westinghouse. Echenoz has good fun describing how Edison -- who does not come off at all well in this book -- tried (and often managed) to sabotage his rivals' efforts by appealing to public opinion with (gruesome) public displays -- though as it turns out, Gregor turns out to be a master showman in his own right.
       Gregor's biggest problem is the grandeur of his visions and the how readily his amazing imagination runs wild: the projects he'd like to undertake are of enormous scale -- right down to the literally world-encompassing. And some of these aren't just pipe dreams -- but the public isn't too thrilled by his successes, which included a powerful (if localized) earthquake in New York city and a rather impressive display in Colorado Springs (that does not, however, endear him to the locals).
       A number-obsessed germaphobe, Gregor is constantly bubbling over with ideas -- often brilliant and valuable ideas. But:
Too many opportunities tumble around in his mind for him to go too deeply into them in succession, developing their practical applications and profiting from their commercial value. It's not that he's unaware of their worth, on the contrary, but he's too busy to follow through on them. He just files the patent applications, alerts the press with great fanfare, as he loves to do, then turns his attention elsewhere.
       Eventually, his inability to take control of his business interests impacts on his lifestyle, as he goes from living in grand style to less and less comfortable surroundings, in a rather sad decline.
       There's quite a bit of the showman in Gregor, but what he really is is a man who lives almost completely in his (brilliant) mind, and all his life:
Since he immediately considers anything he imagines as true, the only risk he runs, and will perhaps always run, is that of confusing what he's conceptualizing with reality.
       Gregor isn't an unappreciated genius, but his genius is too great even for the leading lights of the time -- Edison, Westinghouse, J.P.Morgan -- and their agendas; mind-man Gregor can only think outside every box, on ever-larger scales.
       Echenoz's wry tone, in a third-person narrative that occasionally gets more personal and intimate, referring to we and I, works particularly well with this often sensational material. Tesla's life was completely over the top, and Echenoz grasps and conveys that in the right way; it's a beautifully written (and translated) little book, slyly having and poking fun while also tellling an absurdly entertaining (life-)story.
       Certainly recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 September 2011

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Lightning: Reviews: Nikola Tesla: 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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© 2011-2017 the complete review

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