I know little enough about the history of scientific innovation that it was an embarrassingly long time before I realized that Gregor, the protagonist of Des éclairs by Jean Echenoz, is based on the life story of Nikola Tesla. The book is part of a trio of novels inspired by biographical stories; I haven’t read the other two, which are based on the lives of composer Maurice Ravel (Ravel) and long-distance runner Émil Zátopek (Courir).
Like Tesla, Gregor moves from southeastern Europe to New York City to work for Thomas Edison. The lightning of the title comes into play within the first few pages: born into an otherwise unilluminated night, a flash of lightning accompanies the moment of his birth. The shock of the lightning, thunderclap, and resulting forest fire stun those attending the birth, with the result that nobody can remember quite when he was born. Echenoz dubs it a “naissance hors du temps, donc, et hors de la lumière” (9). For Gregor, his birth outside of time and light is the start of a lifelong obsession with electricity.
Gregor’s brilliance is undeniable and undisputed–he learns languages in minutes, his memory is photographic, and most of all he conceives of astonishing new ideas in flashes of ingenuity. Before we learn a thing about his intellect and capacity for innovation, though, we learn that he is profoundly unpleasant. His character is described as “ombrageux, méprisant, susceptible, cassant” and above all, “précocement antipathique” (11). In fact, his personality is as unpredictable and stormy as the lightning storms that obsess him.
After the first series of reversals in fortune as Gregor tries to persuade first Edison, then Westinghouse of the utility and viability of alternating current, his subsequent ideas and conceptual inventions are no longer foregrounded as major innovations, but rather referred to in passing in a way that makes Gregor seem increasingly absurd and pitiful. Serious and essential inventions like radio, hydroelectricity, and robotics are mentioned alongside his efforts to communicate with Mars and establish world peace. He excels in the initial idea phase, but has no interest whatsoever in the nuts-and-bolts implementation of a project. Completely unable to navigate the system of intellectual property, patent development, and business negotiation, Gregor is duped again and again into releasing just enough of a kernel of each idea to allow someone else to develop it to fruition and profit. He appears foolish and impatient:
“Ce n’est donc peut-être pas que Gregor invente des choses à proprement parler mais, dans la découverte et l’intuition de ces choses, il se borne à jeter l’idée qui les produira. Il a tort, allant beacoup trop vite, il debrait s’arrêter cinq minutes sur l’une d’elles pour la mener à son terme et la développer, l’explorer d’autant plus qu’il s’agit chaque fois de phénomènes promis à un certain avenir, jugez-en. La radio. Les rayons X. L’air liquide. La télécommande. Les robots. Le microscope électronique. L’accélérateur de particules. L’Internet. J’en passe.” (80)
His mismanagement of astonishing new ideas eventually leaves him destitute. Having willingly torn up what would have been a highly lucrative contract with Western Union, Gregor slips deeper into poverty. No longer simply antisocial or volatile, he becomes an image of absurdity as his brilliance slips into the background, leaving his compulsions and oddities to come into sharper and sharper relief.
(Not that you can blame Gregor; even now the patent system in the U.S. looks more like a Rubik’s cube of litigation, buyouts, and stock value than a genuine protection of intellectual property. The tragedy that befalls Gregor because of his inability to protect his ideas and turn them into profit is a timely image of the ways the patent system favors corporations rather than individuals.)
Patent reform issues aside, I haven’t yet mentioned the pigeons that accompany Gregor’s demise. While Gregor bristles at even the thought of intimacy or companionship, and despite his crippling phobia of germs and dirt, he has no trouble at all communing with, yes, pigeons. What innocently begins as a certain pleasure and relaxation found in feeding the pigeons in Bryan Park escalates to an obsession. The tipping point between quirkiness and insanity becomes starkly (and humorously) apparent in his attempt to give Christmas gifts to the creatures. The birds swarm him, covering him from head to toe, and he revels in their company:
“Enveloppé de la tête aux pieds par ce manteau de bestioles, ne respirant qu’à peine pour ne pas les troubler, Gregor reste immobile près de la grille du square à travers laquelle des passants arrêtés dans l’ombre, porteurs de gros paquets enrubannés, le considèrent en hochant.” (130)
From there, the pigeons become key players in scenes of violence, determination, and romance in perplexing ways that I’ll leave other readers to discover. More than for his inventions, I’ll remember Gregor for his connection to the foul birds that cover New York’s public parks.
All in all, Des éclairs a highly creative look at brilliance, madness, and society. As always, Echenoz’s prose is super-smart and elegant; his works are consistently among my favorite contemporary French novels (Au piano and Cherokee are longstanding favorites; L’occupation des sols was fascinating, dense, and will stick with me for a long time). In this case, the historical backdrop opens up into a narrative that is an unusual (and a really enjoyable) read. Gregor’s descent into irrelevance and absurdity is both bleak and comic–and I’ll never look at NYC pigeons in quite the same way again.