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Running: A Novel Hardcover – Oct 27 2009

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
An excellent short work of historical fiction Nov. 3 2009
By Darryl R. Morris - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"Running" is a fictionalized account of the life of the Emil Zátopek (1922-2000), who reluctantly took up competitive running in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as a young man, and became one of the premier long-distance runners of the mid-20th century, winning gold and silver medals at the 1948 Olympics, three gold medals at the 1952 Olympics, and setting world records in nine different events.

Zátopek's running style was most unorthodox, which Echenoz describes in detail in this brilliant passage:

"Emil, you'd think he was excavating, like a ditch digger, or digging deep into himself, as if he were in a trance. Ignoring every time-honored rule and any thought of elegance, Emil advances laboriously, in a jerky, tortured manner, all in fits and starts. He doesn't hide the violence of his efforts, which shows in his wincing, grimacing, tetanized face, constantly contorted by a rictus quite painful to see. His features are twisted, as if torn by appalling suffering; sometimes his tongue sticks out. It's as if he had a scorpion in each shoe, catapulting him on. He seems far away when he runs, terribly far away, concentrating so hard he's not even there--except that he's more than than anyone else; and hunkered down between his shoulders, on that neck always leaning in the same direction, his head bobs along endlessly, lolling and wobbling from side to side."

Videos of several of Zátopek's races on YouTube are readily available, which would make any running coach cringe in horror.

Zátopek is hailed as a national hero, and joins the Czech army, which uses him as a tool to promote communism. He is restricted from traveling abroad during the Gottwald regime, and his comments to the press are censored and rewritten by the party. However, he has a good life, with a happy marriage to another Olympic champion, and a good career, until public comments in support of Alexander Dub'ek during the Prague Spring of 1968 led to his dismissal from the Communist Party and internal exile.

The descriptions of Zátopek's running style and accounts of his most famous races were excellent, and the highlights of the book for me, as I ran for my high school's cross-country and spring track teams. His life in communist Czechoslovakia is covered in lesser detail, especially his exile after 1968. I would have liked more detail into his personal life outside of running, but I suspect that these details were not available to Echenoz or were sanitized by communist censors. However, "Running" was a fabulous and quick read, and is highly recommended.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Master of surfaces March 29 2010
By Thomas F. Dillingham - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Jean Echenoz has become one of my favorite contemporary writers. His recent novel based on the last months of the life of Maurice Ravel, and now his more recent novel based on the career of Emil Zatopek, are small masterpieces of narrative art. Both, really, are novellas, not novels, and as such should be valued for their skilful evocation of the exact elements of behavior, observable inner character, and revealing involvement in public events, aspects of the lives of these historical characters that can be narrated while maintaining the confidence of the reader that even when private emotions, inner thoughts are described, they are based on valid and trustworthy inferences. The fictional elements, in other words, of these novellas are seamlessly integrated with what can be presented as verifiable public information.

Echenoz takes the reader just deeply enough into the inner lives of these men--very different kinds of artists and personalities, in these two cases--to give us some of the pleasures of the novel (or the definitive biography) without overextending the right of the fiction writer to construct inner lives or hypothetical relationships. In this, his work is more spare and disciplined than, for example, the excellent portrayal by Colm Toibin of Henry James in The Master. That fine novel fully exploits the poetic and literary license to create a full and deep portrait of the aging James. By comparison, Echenoz's novels might seem to be line drawings set beside a rich oil portrait, and we are free to insist that the achievement of the great artist of the line is to capture, by suggestion, a depth and range of character and experience that is superb in its own right, though of a different kind from the elaborated oil.

Another analogy might be to a piano transcription of a great orchestral work--say Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies. Echenoz manages prodigious feats of empathy and characterization with his single instrument--a prose style that occasionally feels like a straightforward summary account in an encyclopedia article, but at others (most of the time) resonates with implied and crystallized significance. I certainly look forward to more of Jean Echenoz's fictions.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The story of a remarkable athlete Sept. 12 2010
By Midwest Book Review - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The Olympics morphed into something more than an icon of national pride and unity. "Running" is a novel surrounding Emil Zatopek, famed Czech runner in the 1952 Olympics. Telling a unique story of not starting til late in life and how he became entombed in the Communist politics surrounding him. "Running " is fascinating novel that draws on the history of the Cold War well, as well as telling the story of a remarkable athlete.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Doesn't really become a story... Jan. 8 2014
By James Klagge - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The best thing about this short novel is the photo of Zatopek on the cover. I've also read 2 other books about Zatopek, the great Czech long-distance runner, and all have been rather disappointing. The other 2, which purport to be something like biographies, focus almost exclusively on his running and have almost nothing about his personal life or, more interesting to me, his handling of politics in his life. This book does try to touch on the politics, though in a novelistic fashion, and rather briefly.
The main problem with the book is that it works from some main known facts about Zatopek's life, and then fills in details--but the result is not really a story. A novel is a story. A life doesn't necessarily amount to a story. Of course, a biographer, or a novelist, by choosing (or inventing) and arranging facts can make a story. But this does not amount to a story, really. Another novel I read recently, based on the life of bluesman Robert Johnson, had a similar problem. It was more of a fictionalized biography than a novel. But in both cases, the "novels" were quite short (212 pages and 123 pages) and were not expansive enough to amount to an interesting account of a life.
Maybe a better example in this genre is Bruce Duffy's novel about Wittgenstein's life, "The World as I Found It." It was long enough (576 pages) to create a story. (Unfortunately it's been probably 20 years since I read that, so I can't make helpful comparisons.) Another example is Sharyn McCrumb's novel, "The Ballad of Tom Dooley." There is a historical basis for a series of events involving Tom Dula, which she uses as the skeleton for a novel about those events and those lives. But she, I think, has much more of a desire to make a story out of it all. I didn't have that feeling about the Robert Johnson novel or the Emil Zatopek novel.
Emil Zatopek is one the greatest runners of all time and one of my running ... June 18 2015
By clinton rhoton - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Emil Zatopek is one the greatest runners of all time and one of my running hero's. This book as a nice read but I felt like the author felled to capture who the man really was.