cover image The Queen's Caprice

The Queen's Caprice

Jean Echenoz, trans. from the French by Linda Coverdale. New Press (Perseus, dist.), $19.95 (128p) ISBN 978-1-62097-065-2

Echenoz (Big Blondes) offers seven %E2%80%9Clittle literary objects": elegant, succinct narratives that question, mock, and undermine narrative convention. The first piece portrays English hero Admiral Nelson, prone to seasickness (%E2%80%9Cso awkward for a sailor"), eating with one hand and reading sideways with his one good eye. As Nelson plants acorns for oaks to build future ships, the narrator mentions that oak is also used in barrels like the one that will carry Nelson's body home from Trafalgar. The title story consists entirely of a description of a French country landscape, the travelogue of a casual expert editing his not-quite-final draft, simultaneously quoting and ignoring Joseph Conrad's plea for orderly exposition. The travel-writer protagonist of %E2%80%9CIn Babylon" is the Greek historian Herodotus, whose remarks on the ancient city, filled with exaggerations, misinterpretations, and straight-out fiction, will be read for centuries. Other pieces depict statues in the Luxembourg gardens and a writer's attempt to write about a Paris suburb. The story with the most clearly articulated plot, about a French engineer visiting Florida, features an abridged history of bridge building. Cinematic underwater sci-fi fantasy rounds out the collection. Coverdale's ingenious translation, with endnotes on linguistic idiosyncrasies and cultural references, brings to life Echenoz's minimalist precision, ironic humor, and savvy choice of detail. (Apr.)