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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Jean Echenoz

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To purchase Piano

Title: Piano
Author: Jean Echenoz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 179 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Piano - US
Piano - UK
Piano - Canada
Au Piano - Canada
Piano - India
Au Piano - France
Am Piano - Deutschland
Al pianoforte - Italia
  • French title: Au piano
  • Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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Our Assessment:

A : bizarre, charming

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 26/4/2004 Joseph Hanimann
L'Humanité . 16/1/2003 Claude Lebrun
The Independent . 9/12/2004 Amanda Hopkinson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/4/2004 Caryn James
The Observer . 19/12/2004 Adam Mars-Jones
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Summer/2003 Warren Motte
San Francisco Chronicle . 18/4/2004 Robin Somers
Scotland on Sunday A 18/4/2004 John Burnside
The Spectator . 1/1/2005 Lee Langley
TLS . 21/3/2003 Lucy Dallas
TLS . 3/12/2004 Lucy Dallas

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Echenoz hat seine einst in den Details breit gestreute Erzählbewegung in diesem Buch weiter gestrafft. Das Beiläufige ist vom Hauptgeschehen gleichsam geschluckt und läuft nun mit wie Obertonreihen. Das erspart dem vom Tasten- zum Getränkemixvirtuosen avancierten Romanhelden die allegorische Kälte, die den Figuren von Echenoz sonst bisweilen drohte." - Joseph Hanimann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Car à l’encontre du roman classique, il ne s’agit pas ici de suivre une destinée, ni de se poser la question de la représentation, mais plutôt de faire advenir un récit, qui ne masque pas son caractère artificiel et cependant affirme sa nécessité." - Claude Lebrun, L'Humanité

  • "This tryptich of a novel, in which a would-be pastoral idyll is flanked by a life visited first as tragedy and then as farce, is arguably his most innovative book to date. (...) Mark Polizzotti's translation captures the pace and personages of the original, but loses a little of the wit and exactitude." - Amanda Hopkinson, The Independent

  • "(T)he surprising last pages are heartbreaking, with an emotional pull Echenoz's previous novels never approached. The ending is like something from "The Twilight Zone," yet it also suggests, as Dante warned, that hell is the loss of all hope. If Piano is not completely successful, it offers the excitement of a master novelist daring to explore new depths." - Caryn James, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It would be exaggerating to say that the book loses the plot when it leaves Paris, but the pleasure of reading Piano certainly goes into eclipse. There's actually more plot rather than less, and Echenoz has to devise a tenuous logic for his version of the afterlife. His command of what he is doing seems to follow Max into a limbo of its own." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "Echenoz has produced a superb and stunning body of fiction. Au piano, his eleventh book, may very well be his best one yet. (...) His sense of pace is flawless. His characters wander into situations of dazzling incongruity as if the incongruous itself were the first principle of the human condition -- and upon finishing Au piano, his readers, both amused and bemused, may be persuaded that such is indeed the case." - Warren Motte, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "In several instances, he becomes an intruding author, injecting playful asides, which are interesting but risky, as they are not at all germane to the plot. Even so, this device contributes garnish to an enjoyable read that stands out for its good writing and inventiveness." - Robin Somers, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Echenoz has paid homage to many literary and cinematic forms in his previous work - adventure novels, whodunits, spy thrillers. Here his model is Dante, with Rose as Beatrice and Paris as a damp and monotonous Inferno. One thinks also of Beckett, of Nabokov, of Flann O’Brien -- but only as a reminder that Echenoz is following a noble tradition." - John Burnside, Scotland on Sunday

  • "This is a French novel, a very French novel. (...) But what lies inside this intellectual bombe surprise is a sharp, airy sorbet that slips down with great ease: an existential thriller of the sort that might once have been turned into a movie by Jean Cocteau. It’s a deadpan, elegant and wittily observed tragicomedy: posh French fun." - Lee Langley, The Spectator

  • "Max is a passive figure who misses opportunities and allows things to happen, which makes it tempting to say that this tale has a moral: carpe diem. That, however, would be too crude a summing-up of the book; questions of religion, free will and morality are barely concealed under the surface of the narrative. After all the play, Jean Echenoz takes the risk of leaving us with a flat ending, and by the time we revisit the rue de Rome, the sparkle of the opening is long gone." - Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

  • "All is delivered with the lightest touch, so the reader is left entranced, but unsure how seriously to take any of it. (...) This stylish edition will give English readers a chance to find themselves delightfully mystified." - Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Piano tells the story of acclaimed concert pianist Max Delmarc. The novel opens with his pre-concert routine, shepherded around and closely watched over by his minder, Bernie. Max has a bad, bad case of stage fright -- and craves soothing alcohol before each performance. Bernie is there to prevent him drinking -- and to literally push him on stage when the time comes.
       But Max has an even bigger problem, as the reader is told on the first page:

He is going to die a violent death in twenty-two days but, as he is yet unaware of this, that is not what he is afraid of.
       That's a pretty good hook on the first page of a book, and what Echenoz does with it is better yet.
       In the first third of the book Max's fairly uneventful life is described. He hasn't had too much luck with ladies, and still pines over his great unrequited love, Rose. And, other than his piano playing, there's not much that happens to him
       Except that the twenty-two days pass quicker than one might have expected, and only a third of the way into the book Max meets his violent end. But that's not the end of Max: the rest of Piano is still his story: in a surreal twist, the second part of the book tells of his time between worlds, where it is decided where he will wind up post mortem, while in the third he leads the new life he has been assigned.
       It's a ridiculous plot twist, but Echenoz's disarming presentation makes for an utterly engaging story. In the between-world Max encounters someone named Christian Béliard, who is assigned to look after him. The name might be familiar: Béliard is the guardian angel (of sorts) from Echenoz's Big Blondes (though he has a more conventional form here). Hence also the little inside joke, when Béliard says he doesn't like that kind of girl:
     "What kind ?"
     ""Oh," Béliard said with a wave of his hand, "big blondes and such. I know them all too well."
       In between worlds, Max's destiny isn't between anything as clear cut as winding up in heaven and hell -- or so it seems. This purgatory (or way-station) suggests different fates. Eventually, it's decided that Max can't remain in the semi-idyll, and he's sent to the so-called urban zone. What that means is that he eventually winds back up in Paris -- but with a new name, a slightly changed look, and the strict admonition not to contact anyone he knew or take up his old lifestyle.
       Things don't work out quite as simply as planned, and are further complicated when Béliard comes around to check up on him.
       There's almost nothing that is predictable in Piano, but Echenoz's inventions and plot-twists -- though more wildly imagined -- are more convincing than in most of his fiction. Concentrating almost exclusively on Max, Echenoz keeps things simple -- and tells a wonderful little story.
       Bizarre and yet remarkably grounded, Piano is very enjoyable. Recommended.

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Piano: 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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© 2004-2017 the complete review

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