It’s also evident, by the way, that Gregor prefers to be alone and live alone in general, and to look at himself in mirrors rather than at other people, and to do without women even though they find him very attractive: he’s quite handsome, quite tall, brilliant, has a way with words, he’s not yet forty, and he’s available. Even though he’s certainly not indifferent, given that he’s not any fonder of men, the the fact that women cluster discreetly around him, so far Gregor apparently prefers that they keep a certain distance. But this is in part due to various specific parts of his personality.
Lightning is the third in a trio of Jean Echenoz’s fictionalized biographies – the two previous being Ravel and Running – and for the third, he chose to base it on the life of Nikola Tesla. In this book, Tesla is simply named Gregor and his life is told to us by an unnamed narrator, which feels akin to a literary voice over. Given the exciting life of the subject, Tesla, the discovery of the wonders of electricity, and the pacing and ease of Echenoz’s wry style, it’s a small wonder that this is a quick and fun read.
From the time he is born, Gregor is different. Brilliant, but not entirely likable. Even as a child, he is “stormy, contemptuous, touchy, abrupt.” What saves him from life of loneliness and misery is his prodigious mind for here is a boy who learns to dismantle clocks and rebuild them blindfolded and masters at least half-dozen languages before he learns how to drive. After quickly obtaining his degree from a local university, he is soon on his way to America with a letter of introduction to Thomas Edison. This is where his real trouble begins.
His life in America brings him fame, wealth and betrayal. He works for Edison, but all the while he is dreaming of his large concept projects. He slaves away for Edison and creates a new and improved generator based on the idea of alternating currents. Edison shorts him the money he promised if Gregor succeeded in creating this generator. Gregor quits.
What follows is a life in which opportunities arise, Gregor takes advantage and Gregor triumphs. Then, Gregor is betrayed. After Edison, he is able to gather a group of investors to help support his inventions like an arc light, but things go awry:
In the time it takes to invent an arc lamp immediately patented, offered to consumers, and quickly lucrative, time enough for his partners to see a nice little return on their investment and handsome profit, Gregor finds himself promptly fired from his own business, which his associates take over, happy to celebrate their success, leaving him cleaned out. That’s how he winds up back in the street–a porter, an excavation laborer, an unskilled construction worker riddled with debts–for four years.
This pattern continues throughout his career with the stakes getting higher and the rewards getting larger. He winds up living at the Waldorf and mixing with the finest of society. He becomes a famous scientist who puts on shows for the general public. But he has no concept of money or the nefarious motivations of others. Finding no time or desire to be involved with a woman, the only woman he pines for is Mrs. Ethel Axelrod. The feeling is reciprocal but their love remains silent over the years. His passion for her doesn’t not go unnoticed by the Axelrod’s servant, Angus Napier, who also is in love with Ethel. Gregor is completely unaware of his nemesis who brings on Gregor’s demise.
The is an odd twist in this story–Gregor loves pigeons. Despite his phobia of germs, he feeds them everyday. Near the end, when he is running out of money and considered a crackpot by everyone, he starts to take injured pigeons back to his room so he can nurse them. He actually falls in love with a pigeon. Upon studying one particular pigeon, he ponders her beauty and it’s affect on him:
It’s an attentive ravishment, a marveling; it’s pleasing and rejuvenating, a steady, pure current that he has never experienced until now with anyone, and at the end of the day he finds himself wondering if it might not be an emotion he has only heard about and never paid attention to before, a feeling difficult to define, hard to put into words. A state–let’s take the plunge: let’s call it love.
Linda Coverdale’s translation reads fluidly and honestly. Her translation combined with Echenoz’s conversational prose and pacing, you will want more. But that in itself is a slight problem. At times it feels so lighthearted, so fast-paced that there is a lack of depth. Not that depth is his goal, but perhaps some missed opportunities to divulge a bit more about what Gregor feels. He seems to dismiss the “dirty tricks” or betrayals without much of a thought. Having read Chopin’s Move, I can’t help but feel more sated because it did have more depth to it’s characters. In a fictionalized bio, that should definitely be the case.
Lightning is a fantastic fictionalized bio that entertains with seeming ease. And any book that makes you want to read more is a book worth reading.
Other works by Jean Echenoz: