Reading Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Context N°12

by Warren Motte

What are we to make of a man who wishes nothing more than to spend the rest of his life in his bathtub; a man who organizes imaginary international dart tournaments in his hotel room, playing out every contest in that solitary but nonetheless gripping struggle until valiant Belgium finally wins; a man who, recognizing that Venice is gradually sinking into the sea at the rate of thirty centimeters per century, complaisantly jumps up and down on the sidewalks of the city in order to accelerate that process; a man who tries to structure his life such that it resembles a Mondrian painting; a man who willingly confesses to any number of neuroses, obsessions, and personal quirks, but steadfastly refuses to tell us his name; a man who, though a native speaker of French, reads Pascal in English translation and attends a public reading of Proust in German, for heaven’s sake? Such a man, most will agree, is an excellent candidate for confinement. And indeed, happily enough, he is confined—between the covers of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s first novel, La Salle de bain (The Bathroom). There, he plays the role of hero to the best of his dubious abilities.Perhaps (to paraphrase Camus) he’s the only kind of hero we deserve. Very few heroes can be descried on the horizon of our “high” culture after all—as opposed to our “popular” culture, where one can’t turn around and spit without hitting one. That cultural schizophrenia is deeply intriguing in itself, but since it is one of the few maladies that does not afflict the hero of La Salle de bain, I won’t insist upon it here. A plethora of other problems transpierce him in every part of his being, however, like St. Sebastian’s arrows; and the countenance that he raises to the unseeing skies is likewise that of a martyr. He’s a schlemiel, for one, someone who is constitutionally unequipped for the rigors of contemporary life, and whose benighted gropings would seem tragic, if only they were not so comic. As such, he takes his place in that abashed company whose spiritual progenitor is the eponymous hero of Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemiel (1814), and in whose ranks figure some of the most beautiful losers of our time: Zeno, The Good Soldier Schweik, Walter Mitty, Vladimir and Estragon, Herzog, Portnoy, and Hans Schneir, to name just a few. He is utterly amorphous, shapeless in a world that demands form and disdains content. He is inert and recumbent, a ludicrous parody of homo erectus, the man of action, the doer, the conqueror. Refusing almost everything (though without any particular conviction), he can trace his noble lineage back to those great naysayers, Bartleby and Oblomov. He is a quietist by inclination, and what he seeks above all is ataraxia. But then, don’t we all—at least in our moments of weakness? Alas, he has no other sorts of moments.

But that’s him. Absolutely idiosyncratic, irrepressibly sui generis, he is as awash in his own quiddity as he is in his bath water. He knows that living in his bathtub is not really living, as most people conceive it. And he suspects that he really ought to venture outside the bathroom and throw himself into the quick of things. Yet he cannot bring himself to take such a step. More symptomatically still, he cannot even find the words for it:

Perhaps it was not very healthy, at age twenty-seven going on twenty-nine, to live more or less shut up in a bathtub. I ought to take some risk, I said, looking down and stroking the enamel of the bathtub, the risk of compromising the quietude of my life for . . . I did not finish my sentence.

We have seen paralyzed protagonists before this—the heroes of Kafka’s “The Burrow” and Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge both come to mind, as do more contemporary exemplars of the breed like the principle characters of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Alf Mac Lochlainn’s Out of Focus. Yet nowhere, I think, can we find such a static existence coupled with such a lucid perception of that state.

One might be tempted to dismiss this man as merely anecdotal if he did not return, in slightly different but utterly transparent disguise, in each of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s books. Those latter, from La Salle de bain to Faire l’amour (Making Love) most recently, adumbrate what begins to look like an epic of the trivial. Their author—whom Jean-Louis Ezine, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, calls “the most imaginative writer of his generation”—is a refreshingly diffident figure in a literary mundillo largely driven by advertisements for oneself. We know that he is Belgian by birth (bull’s-eye!), that said birth occurred in 1957 in Brussels, and that he spends much of his time now in Corsica and Paris. We know too, tantalizingly enough, that he won the Junior World Championship of Scrabble in 1973. But beyond that, we don’t know much. When Autoportrait (à l’étranger) [Autoportrait (in a foreign land)] appeared in 2000, the more credulous among Toussaint’s readers hoped to find therein a text where the author, speaking for once in his own voice, would finally give himself up for inspection. He does indeed seem to speak in his own voice in that book—insofar as one can imagine what that voice sounds like—and the stories he tells are those of a writer’s trips abroad. Yet that writer never names himself, apart from the autobiographical contract which the title and the authorial signature suggest. Moreover, Toussaint clearly plays on his reader’s horizon of expectation, toying with the notion of confession. At the end of the first section of the book, he mentions that for some reason he was always getting small shocks of static electricity during a visit to Tokyo, concluding ironically with “But, no more confidences.” No, there is very little joy here for people who insist on reading the art through the life. Indeed quite the opposite approach might be more productive, for the most one can say about the narrator of Autoportrait (à l’étranger) is that he resembles, in close and uncanny ways, every other protagonist in each of Toussaint’s other books.

Those characters slouch through their lives as best they can, awkwardly grappling with small dilemmas largely of their own creation. They are men without qualities, confounding any efforts to identify them precisely by virtue of their very banality. The hero of Monsieur, for example (the only figure in this reluctant confrérie to have anything approaching a name), is a businessman, but it would be difficult to say exactly what his business is. At the office, he has perfected the art of doing nothing—and he has become such a virtuoso that his colleagues recognize in his inanition the sign of a truly great worker. At home, he is no less undistinguished. His neighbor persuades Monsieur to spend such free time as he has typing a treatise of mineralogy under his dictation, and the only way Monsieur finds to escape that servitude is to move in with his fiancée’s parents. He will stay in their home long after his fiancée has found a man more to her liking. Against all odds, another young woman finds a soulmate in Monsieur, leading Toussaint to conclude that life, for Monsieur, is mere “child’s play.” As indeed it was, in a strikingly different perspective, for Heraclitus.

In the first sentence of L’Appareil-photo (The Camera), the narrator tells us that his life is a very calm one, “where ordinarily nothing happened.” It’s a curious way to begin a novel certainly, and the rest of his story serves only to confirm that assertion. On the level of event, one of the highlights is a pedicure the narrator has in Milan—and he dwells as luxuriously on that exotic experience as other narrators might dwell on, say, a narrow escape from headhunters in the Upper Amazon. He does fall in love with his driving instructor, but that young woman is continually falling asleep, even in the most crucial moments of their relationship. One suspects that her narcolepsy is not clinical, but rather situational. More than anything else, this man likes to think, a hobby he shares with many of Toussaint’s other characters. He is careful not to focus his thought too sharply, however, and to follow its meanders wherever they may lead, faithfully and dispassionately. “Because what is thinking,” he asks, “if not thinking about something else?” What indeed? Yet that “something else” may be taken as the foundational principle of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s writing, which seeks among other things to postulate new horizons for the novel, endotic horizons where ordinary experience, closely interrogated, can assume startling and very amusing new shapes.

If narratorial taciturnity is the mark of all Toussaint’s heroes, the protagonist of La Réticence (Reticence) makes the rest of them seem positively loquacious. He is on vacation in a seaside town called “Sasuelo” for reasons known only to him. He is accompanied only by his two-year-old son, whose mother is never mentioned. He knows a family in that town, the Biaggis, we’re told, but we don’t know how he knows them, and indeed he never gets around to seeing them. By his own admission, he is an extremely reticent man&mash;and for once, we can take him entirely at his word. Toussaint plays lustily on that notion of reticence, deploying it as the very motor of his novel. Nothing happens here. Or rather very little. Consequently, that very little assumes enormous proportions in this deliberately impoverished narrative economy. The narrator draws wild inferences from the lack of events in Sasuelo, imagining that the Biaggis are conspiring against him. Structuring his text like a detective novel, Toussaint leads us through an intrigue constructed upon axioms that prove in the end to be false. Like other recent examples of phony conspiracies, such as Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Marcel Bénabou’s Dump This Book While You Still Can!, La Réticence is fundamentally about narrative imagination. More specifically, it is about the way writers and readers unfailingly elaborate stories, even—and perhaps especially&mash;when faced with insufficient means.

Refreshingly enough, the protagonist of La Télévision makes one of the most daring gestures available to a citizen of our contemporary world: he decides to stop watching television. Television has taken over his life in insidious ways. It has made him a spectator, rather than a doer; he has become indifferent under its influence; he has no time left for reflection. Yet even as he flees from it, television and its simulacra pursue him everywhere he goes. Video surveillance screens in a museum mock him, as do microfiche machines in a library. Gazing out of the window of an apartment building in Berlin, he realizes that every other person in that neighborhood is watching television—and they are all tuned, with nauseating inevitability, to Baywatch. Paging through the newspaper in front of his own (now-darkened) TV screen, he finds himself reading the television guide. Supposedly at least, he is a man of the written word, an academic who has taken a sabbatical year in Berlin in order to write a study of Titian. Yet even the initial letters of his subject’s name, Tiziano Vecellio, inscribe the name of his nemesis, writ large. Staring into his own computer screen (yet another simulacrum of TV), he realizes that after several months of work on his project, he has only written two words, “When Musset.” He tells himself that not writing is at least as important as writing, and that all good things will finally come to those who wait. He is a first-class rationalizer, a casuist of rare accomplishment, and a truly gifted procrastinator. Anyone who has indulged those guilty pleasures (however infrequently) will recognize in him a master practitioner. As richly comic as this novel may be, it is not without seriousness of purpose. For as he chronicles his hero’s addiction to TV, Toussaint also points toward that of the society in which he lives. Television’s dominion in that society’s aesthetics is nigh to absolute, Toussaint argues. And that leaves very little room for the written word—whether it be a question of a treatise on Titian or a novel.

In Autoportrait (à l’étranger), Toussaint reports from a variety of foreign places, such as Tokyo, Berlin, Prague, Corsica, Vietnam, and Tunisia. The scenery changes to be sure, but the psychic landscape remains familiar, and it is a largely undifferentiated one. Sitting in the Hong Kong airport, he muses, “I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t really know where I was going.” He finds it difficult to communicate with the people he meets, his natural reticence exacerbated by the fact that those people speak languages that are, well, foreign. Berliners are scornful of his appalling German. In Kyoto, he remarks, he didn’t have many opportunities to improve his German. That comes back to haunt him when he visits Hanoi: he concludes to his chagrin that the practice of the French language has declined precipitously in Vietnam when his taxi driver addresses him in German. Those problems are minor ones however when compared to the metaphysical problems that assail him. Because like his fictional counterparts in the other books, Toussaint is troubled here by questions of time and space. Moreover, it is constantly the “here” that poses the problem. Just as the narrator of La Salle de bain watches an ice cream sundae melt, trying without success to locate himself within the time defined by that phenomenon even as it is played out before his eyes; just as that same character spends a night in a train speeding from Paris to Venice, wondering how he can move in space while remaining utterly motionless himself; so too does the Toussaint of Autoportrait labor to account for the fact that he remains very largely unchanged while moving so frenetically through different temporal and spatial orders. Perhaps he has attained the sort of blissful ataraxic state that his characters so long for. But if so, it has brought him precious little solace.

Toussaint’s most recent novel, Faire l’amour, is by a long chalk the darkest of his fictions to date. We are made aware of that in the opening sentence, where the narrator remarks that he has taken to carrying a vial of hydrochloric acid around with him, thinking that he might one day throw it in somebody’s face. He is on a visit to Tokyo with his companion, Marie, who weeps continuously, just as she used to when they first met, seven years before. Yet then she shed tears of joy, whereas now they are tears of grief. Their affair is coming to an end, the pace of that denouement accelerated by jetlag, cultural disorientation, and insomnia. This man, too, is troubled by his inability to connect his subjective experience of time and space with more objective criteria. Looking at himself in the mirror, he is amazed to see a quadragenarian; and the more he looks, the faster he sees that man age. He finds tenuous connection with the world late at night, in the rooftop swimming pool of a luxury hotel in Tokyo, gazing out at the city lights. “I felt like I was swimming in the very heart of the universe,” he remarks, but his epiphany in that womb with a view proves to be fleeting at best. Earthquakes occur frequently during their visit to Japan, reminding the narrator and Marie that the ground beneath their feet is extremely shaky, both literally and figuratively. They have very little room to maneuver on that ground, as both wonder, in ways that are mostly unproductive and mutually conflictive, where they will go from here. Though it is perhaps not really a question of “going,” since their affective inertia, as invincible to one as it is to the other, paralyzes them, both as individuals and as a couple. Granted the fact that Faire l’amour seems to open an array of new novelistic possibilities for him, one wonders too where Jean-Philippe Toussaint himself will go from here—if “go” is quite the right word.

 

SELECTED WORKS BY JEAN-PHILIPPE TOUSSAINT IN TRANSLATION

Self-Portrait Abroad. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
Running Away. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
The Bathroom. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
Camera. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
Monsieur. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
Television. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.

 

SELECTED UNTRANSLATED WORKS

La Réticence [Reticence]. Minuit, €8.84.
Autoportrait (à l’étranger) [Autoportrait (in a foreign land)]. Minuit, €9.91.
Faire l’amour [Making Love]. Minuit, €13.00.

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