The latest, very short novel from the French Echenoz profiles the eccentric genius of electrical engineering, Nikola Tesla.
It follows two other fictional treatments of real people: Ravel (2007) and Running (2009), about the Czech runner Zátopek. Tesla (1856-1943) is called Gregor here. His early days as a Serb in southeastern Europe are dealt with briskly. He’s “precociously unpleasant," and from the start his projects are large-scale, even grandiose. He’s 28 when he leaves for America and is hired by Edison as a troubleshooter; he invents a generator for alternating current which Edison embraces though refuses to pay him for. Soon after, the majority shareholders of his own company stiff him after his invention of an arc lamp. Clearly, Gregor is no businessman. He goes to work for Westinghouse, Edison’s rival, at Western Union; his lectures on alternating current draw huge audiences and make him a celebrity. Yet he remains intensely private and has extraordinary quirks. He is obsessed by the number three. He is beset by phobias: germs, hair, jewelry. Women adore him, but he stays celibate, reserving his affection for pigeons. Yes, dirty old pigeons—only with them is there real communication. This is a wholly unsentimental portrait of a freaky inventor. Our sympathy is not required; all Echenoz requires is our attention, which he secures through his lapidary prose, buffed to a high gloss in this excellent translation. The omniscient narrator shows Olympian detachment coupled with wry humor. Gregor’s ups and downs continue. He lives large at the Waldorf, but his latest patron J.P. Morgan turns him loose after Marconi appropriates his patent for radio, the result of a dirty trick perpetrated by Gregor’s nemesis, a nobody called Napier. This key development is merely outlined, a disappointment for readers hungry for dramatic flourishes. At the end of his long life, all Gregor has are his pigeons, and even they will turn on him.By design, a novel of surfaces. They glitter, but don’t expect more.