When the novelist is suspected of autobiography, what is left for memoir?
Marcel Proust said so much in his book that by the time accounts of the man himself were published, most delightfully by his maid, Céleste Albaret, they were concerned largely with what he had already written, and how. In his nine short novels and three miscellaneous prose texts, the Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s unnamed, first-person narrator sits in a bathroom, escapes to Venice, visits Japan and China, and fails to write a book in Berlin, but time is short, and little is confessed outside the bounds of the odd, spare narratives. English-speaking admirers of Toussaint’s jaunty, limpid prose might thus warm to the news of Edward Gauvin’s translation of 11 short essays by Toussaint on style, influence, and where he wrote his books.
Recently released as Urgency and Patience: Essays by Dalkey Archive Press, one of the most cosmopolitan publishers of fiction in America, the essays were first collected in 2012 by the venerable Éditions de Minuit. As in his elliptical fictions, Toussaint’s recollections of the writer’s life tend to insinuate rather than disclose. We learn of his offices, of his first day of writing, and of how he met his publisher, Jérôme Lindon, and his hero, Samuel Beckett. It is a memoir only in the sense that the Essais are. Indeed, particularly in L’Urgence et la Patience, the prose is pure anti-Ciceronian. The signature long sentences — irregular, disjoint, apparently spontaneous — capture thought in action; quick, steely aphorisms underline the point. If Toussaint is often held up against Alain Robbe-Grillet, then Michel de Montaigne, Pierre Charron, and François La Mothe Le Vayer are not far behind.
While the French of Toussaint’s L’Urgence et la Patience fairly glitters and flies, the English of Gauvin’s translation tends to normalize, even clot. To some extent the disappointment flows from Toussaint’s fastidious attention to sound. Toussaint relates in the eponymous “Urgency and Patience” (essay three) that he once went so far as to excise a description of a commode from The Truth About Marie because it added nothing to the “charming sonorities” of the word (“le bahut”) itself. Toussaint insists that readers “hear the word, not see the object”; translation has chiefly objects to give.
On the other hand, it would not have been difficult to reproduce Toussaint’s striking syntax in English, but like those meddlesome editors of the great Senecan stylists of the 16th century, Gauvin cannot leave Toussaint’s brilliant execution of the loose style alone. In the “Urgency” half of “Urgency and Patience,” the fast, fleeting, almost Damascene flood of sudden illumination–
Ici—au cœur même de l’urgence—, tout vient aisément, tout se libère et se lâche, la vision réelle ne nous est plus d’aucune utilité, mais l’œil interne se dilate et un monde fictif et merveilleux nous apparaît mentalement, nos perceptions sont à l’affût, les sens sont aiguisés, la sensibilité exacerbée, et le basculement s’opère, c’est un jaillissement, tout vient, les phrases naissent, coulent, se bousculent, et tout est juste, tout s’emboîte, se combine et s’assemble dans ces ténèbres intimes, qui sont l’intérieur même de notre esprit.
—is straitened into the neat, clipped clauses and even sentences of Gauvin:
Here, at the very heart of urgency, everything comes easily, floats free and lets go; actual sight is of no more use to us, but the inner eye widens, and a fictive, fabulous world appears in our minds. Our senses are alert, our perceptions heightened, our sensitivity intensified; a tipping takes place, a gushing, and out it all comes, sentences are born, flow, fall over each other, and everything is right, everything works out, everything gathers and fits together in this intimate darkness that is the inside of our very minds.
Apparently there was too much falling over of sentences for this translator. The deadening is hardly unique. Ironically, in “Patience,” when Toussaint sets the stage slowly, “At the table, a bit embarrassed,” his translator now wants it all at once, “A bit embarrassed at the table.” A perfect example of the période coupée, “Tout importe, la condition physique, l’alimentation, les lectures” (essay three), becomes more conventionally, “Everything matters: physical fitness, diet, reading.” Toussaint tells us in “The Ravanastron” that it is the form of a sentence, not its meaning, that concerns him, but the translator seems not to notice.
Gauvin’s ear for English idiom is likewise imperfect. What should plainly be “how the devil” (“comment diable,” essay six) is given, bizarrely, as “sweet Christ.” Subjects and objects come and go, as when “that I can attest” (“que je peux certifier,” essay 10) becomes “can attest,” and “which allowed one to picture the furniture” (“qui permettait de se représentait le meuble,” essay three) becomes “which allowed readers to picture it,” though not the “it” that concludes the sentence — one antecedent the word, the other its referent. In general, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the translator’s English isn’t quite up to Toussaint’s French.
Toussaint is an author from whom to pick and choose, and it is the third part of Running Away, with its inimitable evocation of unspoiled Elba, that forms an ideal companion to the essays in Urgency and Patience. Unlike his oddly unmentioned master Thomas Bernhard, whose typical scenarios recur repeatedly in Toussaint’s novels — the academic who cannot finish his book, middle-aged men taking refuge in houses and routines, or again escaping family in restorative Mediterranean locales — Toussaint’s essays suggest a markedly more sensuous tone than his often austere fictions. Whereas Bernhard’s forays into autobiography get no sunnier than recollections of bureaucratic prize-giving ceremonies and a five-volume memoir of incontinence, Nazism, and chronic intractable tuberculosis, Toussaint plants radishes, enjoys hotels, reads Proust, and extols the virtues of armchairs and private libraries. Toussaint has fun. He rarely seems far from the Tuscan archipelago, reading Proust in Barcaggio, Corsica, making up a hotel in Venice, thinking of one in Portoferraio, writing on his MacBook Pro in a large room, in Erbalunga, Prunete, Cervione, Corte. Wandering in Italy near the end of his life, Friedrich Nietzsche once urged, lapsing into French, “Il faut méditerraniser la musique,” and while there are warm northern interiors and dark comfortable apartments in Toussaint’s reminiscence, it is the suggestion of the Mediterranean that lingers here, fertile in dry soil yet, the orchards of Médéa, deep blue Corsican rosemary, hills of fragrant maquis, far from Brussels and Berlin.
At the Edinburgh Festival in 2001, Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff grew so frustrated by the interruptions of cellphones and coughing that he left the stage, suggesting the audience use the break to finish making noise. A reviewer for called it, “Fantasia in C Minor with mobile phone, beeping watches and coughing and sneezing accompaniment,” which sounds like an enjoyable evening of John Cage but not, apparently, what Schiff intended.
A decade later in Presov, Slovakia, a solo viola performance by Lukas Kmit was interrupted by the ubiquitous Nokia ringtone. Kmit paused, casting a frustrated eye on the audience — toward the guilty party, presumably, who isn’t visible in this viral video of the event. But rather than stop his performance or abandon the stage, he played the ringtone back on his instrument, adding an improvisational touch and incorporating the moment into his concert in a spontaneous acknowledgement — despite the frustration and rudeness — of the human nature of live performance. The disruption of art became art.
Which isn’t to suggest Schiff was wrong to get angry. Neither were the players and listeners at a 2012 New York Philharmonic concert brought to a halt by an iPhone’s marimba ringtone, or any number of similar interruptions of music, theater, public speaking, and (I can attest) teaching in recent years. Such interruptions are by now a fact of public life, regrettable as that may be, just as the industrial and mechanized sounds of George Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique” — so shocking in 1926 that they sparked a riot among concertgoers — have faded into the background of our aural lives.
Because when wild birds, usually part of that background sound themselves, take to singing our ringtones back to us, what chance do even the most austere of classical musicians have to resist? We become like the lyrebird faithfully mimicking not only phones and car alarms but the sound of chainsaws felling the very trees where it lives. It’s hard not to hear cultural ruin, melodramatic as that may be, in every interrupting chirp and chime of a phone receiving a text or a call or blasting a video through its speakers on a packed subway train. The citizen in me, greedy for chances at quiet reflection and, frankly, to be left in peace from unwelcome noises, shudders and laments.
But the artist in me, the writer, asks a more probing question, if not necessarily more optimistic: what might I do with all this? Because whether we lament the disruption or not, Kmit’s incorporation of the ringtone into his concert acknowledges that art is made in the world as we find it, not the world as we wish it was.
Authors of literary fiction often seem to take pride in their avoidance of networked tools from cell phones to Wikipedia. In 2009, under the headline “If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone,” The New York Times shared examples of what author Matt Richtel called, “a brewing antagonism toward today’s communication gadgets,” i.e., writers lamenting the inconvenience of cell phones and other tools rendering moot (and mute) any number of familiar, time-worn storytelling devices from getting lost to missing a romantic connection. Two years later, Ann Patchett told The Washington Post,
And I just don’t know how to write a novel in which the characters can get in touch with all the other characters at any moment. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.
As Patchett acknowledges, it takes work — contrivances and contortions — to write fiction that presents itself as contemporary but avoids the inclusion of contemporary devices. Consider how long you might be able to walk down a street without spotting a smartphone, versus how many pages of characters existing in public you might be able read without seeing one mentioned. The avoidance of cell phones, in particular, gives rise to its own set of clichés, already as familiar and, perhaps, already as frayed as the ill-fated timing and last minute arrivals of older stories. And, the more we expect to always have a signal, the harder it is to conceive a convincing situation in which a character does not, as a popular supercut of horror film moments makes clear.
In literary fiction, the more popular solution seems to be relying on settings close to the present, but far enough back to avoid such inconvenience. Granted, the popularity of the 1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s as settings also owes plenty to generational shifts in literary production as people write about formative periods and the years they remember. But it also avoids any number of narrative problems and allows writers to go on telling stories in the way they are used to, rather than incorporating the present in ways that are difficult and disruptive. When I recently wondered on Twitter — one of those very disruptions — if we’ve reached the point of needing a term for this kind of setting, author Jared Yates Sexton suggested “the nostalgic present.” And while it’s easy enough to incorporate mention of that into this essay, where might a tweet fit into a novel? As dialogue, formatted like any other character’s utterance? Or embedded with timestamp and retweet count and all? What happens when our characters spend half their novel on Twitter, as so many of us spend our workdays? It’s a hard question, but not one that gets answered when writers aspire to be more like Andras Schiff than Lukas Kmit.
I don’t mean to praise disruption or dismiss the challenges of networked life, and I wouldn’t take a proscriptive stand on “what fiction should do.” I am not, frankly, an enthusiast of cell phones or even landlines, which I have been known to unplug for days at a time, to the annoyance of housemates. I find it ever more disorienting, though, to read novels set in this “nostalgic present,” ambiguously atemporal as if they could take place any time between the 1950s and early-1990s. Or, more disorienting still, set very clearly in the present but without its technological trappings. These avoidances make the art seem less vital, less able to speak to the present, and like a choice more concerned with making things easy on writers than with offering something to readers. I’ve had some surprisingly heated arguments with other writers, making me an unintentional champion of cell phones and search engines in fiction, but what it comes down to is that I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new possibilities. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters. Not the simple inclusion of emails and other “found texts” in a novel, nor casual mentions of characters owning phones and computers, but scenes in which these technologies allow writers to show something distinctly now, for better or worse, as unexpected yet instantly familiar as a ringtone played on a viola or sung by a bird.
In their article “If Romeo and Juliet Had Mobile Phones,” Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie explore not only how William Shakespeare’s young lovers would see their play’s plot devices undone by cell phones, but also how the presence of such devices would necessarily alter the characters and their world psychologically, socially, and romantically to create not a “failed” version of the story as we know it but a new story with its own possibilities. The original story would be made impossible not by the inconvenience of Romeo texting Juliet to let her know he’s only asleep, but because the ubiquity of networks would make everything different from their sense of public versus private space, the possibility for unsupervised conversation, and their identities hinging on broader social networks than only their families. That’s what undermines so much fiction set in the “nostalgic present,” an unsettling, uncanny valley-esque sense that apart from pretending cell phones don’t exist, the story is set in our time. Because the authors are writing from a networked world and seeing life through that lens whether they allow it to their characters or not. So why not embrace it? Why not make it matter, because it already does however much we doth protest?
It’s not as if cell phones and networks get rid of the loneliness and misunderstanding upon which so much fiction depends. The Pew Research Center’s report “Social Isolation and the New Technology” demonstrates that handily enough, and as Wellman and Rainie put it in their book Networked, we’re experiencing “the weakening — but not the death — of distance.” As long as there’s distance between people and places, between intention and action and understanding, there’s plenty of room to tell stories.
And not only in simple ways like rethinking plot twists, so that instead of arriving too late to spot one another, our characters arrive on time but neither looks up from their phone to notice the other. Or someone pretends to be someone else via text message or email, or steals an identity leading to a chain of dramatic events. A character might miss crucial information because she is distracted from listening to someone in front of her, physically, while more engrossed in what a second disembodied person is telling her on a screen in her hand. Or hears noises in the background while on the phone with his wife, and paranoia sets in about who she was with and to what end. Plot twists are hardly ruined by technology, merely changed, because those mechanical problems are easily solved; it’s the other possibilities that prove more interesting.
For instance, in his novel Running Away (translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith), Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s narrator is aboard a night train in China. While he rides, he talks on the phone to his partner, Marie, back in Paris on a daylight visit to the Louvre. The narrator experiences and describes his own present vividly, while also imagining or reconstructing Marie’s movement through the museum, all of which is entwined in important personal news she is sharing. It’s a scene remarked on and discussed by a number of critics, and by the author himself on KCRW’s Bookworm, because in the collapse of time, space, and physical but not, crucially, emotional distance, the moment demonstrates the potential for loneliness and separation to be deepened rather than assuaged by our devices. It is a kind of contradictory distance possible only in the present, when we have the expectation of always being in touch, but as in Jacques Lacan’s mirror, we are troubled by not touching or being touched as our full selves.
We’re also able — and our characters, too — to remain “in touch” with people no longer accessible to us. There’s a particular sadness to annual Facebook reminders of the birthday of a friend (or Friend, perhaps one we’ve never actually met and years ago accepted an anonymous request from out of an unclear sense of online politeness or blasé unwillingness to rock the social networking boat) after that person has passed away. How long do we leave them among our Friends? Do we reply with birthday wishes and memories? More awkwardly, but with so much potential for fiction, do we respond to their automated natal reminder without realizing they’re dead, as someone inevitably does on Facebook?
In Johanna Sinisalo’s novel The Blood of Angels, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers, a grieving father reads the blog of his recently dead activist son, seeing the vitriol directed at him for his politics from anonymous strangers. This isn’t the spark for a revenge story, though it could be (and has been, somewhat, in Will Ferguson’s novel 419). It’s more akin to what remains the saddest, loneliest passage I’ve ever read, a moment in Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific when the author, adrift among distant islands, dreams of one of his children writing,
Long after he died — for weeks, for months — we kept receiving postcards from Dad, because he had traveled so far and to such small and insignificant places.
It’s all the more heartbreaking now that I’m a father myself, as I wasn’t 20 years ago at first reading. And Sinisalo’s grieving father is heartbreaking, too, because not only is he reading these post-mortem political missives from his lost child, but is seeing a conversation continue around them knowing his son can’t respond despite the blog format anticipating that response inherently — to look at a blog entry is to expect another, or to be curious, perhaps pessimistically saddened, by the long time passed since the last post. Grief, of course, is familiar, and so is loss. But there’s something distinctly modern about a loss that refuses to be made final thanks to our digital ghosts.
It’s those moments, the ones that could only happen now in a networked era, that I’m most interested in as a reader and writer. And my favorite of these, a passage that sings to me as impossible to write in the past, even a few years ago, comes from Mohsin Hamid’s novel How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia
On the outskirts of the city over which this drone is today validating its performance parameters, a crowd is gathering at a graveyard. Two vehicles stand out among those parked nearby. One is a van, emblazoned with the name and phone number of a commercial spray painter, possibly even belonging to the deceased, for it is being used as a hearse to transport his white-shrouded body. The other is a luxury automobile from which emerges a pale of male figures in suits, a man in his sixties and a slender, teenage boy, perhaps his grandson. These two are conspicuously well dressed, contrasting with most of the other mourners, yet they must be closely related to the fellow who has died, since they lend their shoulders to the task of bearing his corpse to the fresh-dug pit. The elder of them now commences to sob, his torso flexing spasmodically, as though wracked by a series of coughs. He looks up to the heavens.
The drone circles a few times, its high-powered eye unblinking, and flies observantly on.
It isn’t just the novelty of the drone’s-eye view, of which this may be the first instance in literature (and if it isn’t, I’d love to know about others). It’s the juxtaposition of a deeply human moment — perhaps the most human, a funeral — with a deeply inhuman, or at least disembodied, observer. We readers only witness this moment because of a drone passing over and presumably that happens by chance as there’s no reason this particular funeral might be a priority target. And yet, who knows, because the mere presence of a drone suggests we are all possible targets, all the time, and that even in our most intimate, emotional moments of grief and loss, our experiences are consumed by and bound up in global networks of technology and power. The drone is unblinking, it flies on unaffected, but we who gaze through its eye hang onto the image of life even after whatever agency operates the craft might reject the funeral as useless data, and delete it make room for another day’s record. It’s a god’s-eye view without any god, only the eye of some pilot many miles away, implicating the reader and the states and systems we are willing or willfully blinded participants in.
I want to discover such moments more often in fiction as a reader and, if I’m able, as a writer. Not to deny the frustrations of cell phones, or because I’m any less anxious about surveillance and corporatization and the commodification of social life. Those things terrify me, obsessively so, but they also fascinate me, and as an artist I want to engage them rather than pretend they aren’t part of how we live now and — it’s hard to imagine otherwise — how we will live the rest of our lives. Pretending otherwise in our stories will only make them appear ossified and exacerbate complaints that literature has nothing left for today’s readers, never mind tomorrow’s who might someday ask how we made sense of ourselves.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
On a train to Beijing in the middle of the night, a man readies himself for sweet, unexpected restroom love with a Chinese girl he met just the day before. Just then, his hated cellphone rings. It’s his on-again-off-again girlfriend half a world away in Paris, calling with the news that her father has drowned, had a heart attack, or both. The man sits on the train in total darkness, listening on his phone to nothing but the sounds of a Paris gallery at midday as his semi-girlfriend runs tearfully through it, having quickly forgotten she’d made the call at all.
I don’t know about you, but if an author writes a scene like that, I want to read his entire oeuvre. I heard this vignette of a man, his Chinese almost-lover, and his distraught Parisian girlfriend discussed on KCRW’s Bookworm, which at times like this feels like my own personal contemporary fiction tipster. Host Michael Silverblatt turned out to be talking to the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, well-known in the Francosphere (and not unheard of as far afield as East Asia) since the mid-1980s, but not an object of English-speaking readers’ attention until two decades later.
That is strange. It’s not as if some native writer in North America, the United Kingdom, or anywhere else coated in the English language had already filled Toussaint’s niche. In order to fill his niche, a writer would have first had to find it when just describing it has proven a complicated task for Toussaint’s admirers, critics, and even translators. Not particularly shy about discussing the motivations behind his work, Toussaint himself has made a few statements about what’s important to him.
He placed great importance on humor at the beginning of his career, and though to an extent he still does, he’s since balanced it with a certain wistfulness. He eschews shades of gray, but he places so many black and white extremes so near to one another that, if you step back, they look like gray. He believes novels have no political role, only an aesthetic one. He deals with both the little irritations and the Big Questions, usually in as close a proximity as possible. He respects no boundary between fiction and nonfiction. And as he said in that Bookworm conversation, you can perform all the experimentation, all the rigid structuring, all the nouveau roman stuff you want, but if your book isn’t first and foremost exciting, hang it up.
2. The impassive three (or two)
To be sure, Toussaint nevertheless gets called a novelist fascinated by structure. In 1985’s The Bathroom, his first book, you see that impulse at its least masked. The first and last sections are both called “Paris”. The middle, longer, section, is “The Hypotenuse”. Each of those sections comprises a string of numbered — not quite paragraphs, but — chunks of text. The first “Paris” has 40 chunks; “The Hypotenuse” has 80; the second “Paris” has 50. I’m not sure that would actually make a triangle.
Some describe Toussaint as a novelist fascinated by goofy situations, so fascinated that he writes them as if they’re the most normal in the world. “When I began to spend my afternoons in the bathroom, I had no intention of moving into it,” goes the narrator’s first line. Yet move into the bathroom he has. Some activity swirls around him as he settles into his lavatorial routines, though he’d rather it didn’t. He receives a letter of invitation from the Austrian embassy. Certain it came by mistake, he nonetheless fantasizes about the soirée it announces. His girlfriend Edmondsson, an art gallery employee, hires a couple of Polish painters exhibited by her workplace to paint the apartment. They don’t seem to do much painting, instead spending most of their energy on semi-successfully skinning a pile of octopuses.
The entirety of “The Hypotenuse” takes place in Venice, where the narrator goes “abruptly, without telling anybody.” Edmondsson visits him there, but eventually she spends her days at various Venetian cultural attractions while the isolated protagonist spends his days running imaginary international darts tournaments. Then comes the book’s most memorable event:
Edmondsson found me a bore. I let her talk and went on with my darts game. She asked me to stop and I didn’t answer. I was sending darts into the target, stepping up to pull them out again. Standing in from of the window, Edmondsson stared at me. Again, she asked me to stop. I hurled a dart at her with all my strength, and it stuck straight in her forehead.
Certain English-language press materials describe Toussaint as a “comic Camus,” and with the Meursault-shooting-the-Arab flavor here, no wonder. Both characters commit their acts of violence suddenly, out of what appears to be nothing more than irritation. (“When The Bathroom’s narrator throws a dart at Edmondson’s forehead,” Toussaint said in one interview, “I understand his gesture and I find it unforgivable, all at once.”) Yet whereas Meursault’s shot lands him on the 1940s Algerian equivalent of death row, The Bathroom dude’s stray dart seems to bring no discernible major consequences at all. You can call this bad storytelling — maybe it is — or you can call this a crock of Frenchy bullshit — maybe it is — but the dart incident goes on less as a driver of the plot than as a sort of spill that seeps into the story’s very fabric.
The Bathroom’s protagonist has no name, as is the case with nearly all of Toussaint’s protagonists. This makes the few exceptions striking, and the first of them would come the following year in Monsieur. Admittedly, it’s not much of a name; he’s called Monsieur. Employed in some executive position at Fiat, he displays “in all things a listless drive.” Motivating all Monsieur’s acts is a deep-seated desire not to have to do more of them.
Monsieur’s carefully cultivated idleness at work somehow convinces his boss of his pure dedication. He injures his wrist playing soccer and either does or does not have it x-rayed. When his relationship with his fiancée disintegrates, he simply remains in her family home, thinking it easier than moving out. When his ex’s mother finally points Monsieur toward a new place to live, a geologist neighbor has him take dictation for the book he’s writing. Monsieur dislikes this, and comes to perceive only one way out: moving again.
I struggled even to summon that short list of events to mind, partly because Toussaint’s books are so similar — “I think a real writer always writes the same book,” he’s said — but partly because his work feels engineered to make you to forget the plot. Whoever Toussaint casts as the central character, I come away thinking not about what they’ve done but how they’ve thought, how they’ve perceived. I imagine this seems too terribly Gallic, but remember, Toussaint is Belgian. World of difference.
Though Toussaint’s American fan base, such as it is, has received Monsieur as a favorite, Europe treated it as a sophomore slump. They applauded 1989’s Camera as a return to form, and strictly speaking, it is, especially if you consider protagonist namelessness to be a pillar of that form. Perhaps this marks the return of The Bathroom’s “hero”; perhaps it doesn’t. The book’s also got one of the most brazenly mild openings I’ve ever read: “It was at about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.”
Over the remaining 109 pages, the narrator hangs around the licensing office drinking tea and reading the paper, falls in with a single mother working the desk there, gets driven around by her mildly eccentric Eastern European dad, eats olives, gets a pedicure, crosses the Channel, goes around Europe, finds a camera on a boat, and throws the camera off the boat. But is there any point in plot summary here? Toussaint’s books practically exist to argue that events don’t really matter; it’s all about the consciousness interpreting them.
Toussaint has mentioned in a few interviews his opinion that novels should be “infinitesimal,” that they ought to put the infinitely small right alongside the infinitely huge. Hence Camera’s celebrated passage (among Toussaint fans) analogizing the eating of an olive with a fork to nothing less than a strategy for taking on reality:
I vaguely felt that the reality with which I was grappling was beginning to show some signs of fatigue; it was beginning to soften and slacken, oh yes it was, and I had no doubt that my repeated assaults, in their tranquil persistence, would end up exhausting reality little by little, as one wears out an olive with a fork, if you will, by pushing down on it lightly from time to time, and then when, weary, reality finally offers no more resistance, I knew that nothing could then stop my impetus, a furious surge that had always been in me, strengthened by everything I had accomplished.
If this isn’t your bag, you could just take Camera as a love story between the protagonist and Pascale, the woman who, in a different reality, would have issued him a driver’s license. But on this inferior approach to reading Toussaint I can do no better than Tom McCarthy, a huge Toussaint fan, who compares it to student guides to Ulysses that “try to persuade us that what’s ‘really’ going on in such and such a scene is Bloom pining for Molly, for example. (‘No,’ I always want to shout out when I read accounts like these, ‘what’s really going on is tramlines vibrating, soap singing and language rioting, just like it says!’).”
3. Narratives of futility
Published in French in 1991, La Réticence, alas, has yet to make it to English. Word on the street is that it represents the zenith of Toussaint’s happening-free narratives. The protagonist sets out on a holiday to the fishing village of Sasuelo, which turns out to be quiet — yes, too quiet. In Context, Warren Motte writes that “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.”
Shaky assumptions also undergird 1997’s Television, Toussaint’s best-known and most outwardly comic novel. Its own nameless narrator ambles around Berlin, supposedly on some sort of academic sabbatical to write a book about Titian. Having just seen his wife and son off on a mini-vacation to Italy, he relegates himself to the company of his computer’s blinking cursor. Displacement? Check. Isolation? Check. Realizing how lazy his increasingly expansive television-watching schedule has made him, he’s decided to quit that habit cold-turkey, which both reduces and intensifies that isolation.
Yet the task of not watching television, which almost completely eclipses the task of writing about Titian, bounces the protagonist from vignette to sedately weird Berlin vignette. He wanders a museum, stopping to intently contemplate its televisual bank of security monitors. He climbs out his neighbors’ bathroom window into their kitchen window in order to remove their fern from the refrigerator before they notice he put it there in the first place. He sits in for a psychiatrist friend, counseling his patients for same-day cash. He sees an episode of Baywatch playing in the distant window of another building while he hears its sound coming from the set in a nearby room. In a sequence of especially inexplicable beauty, he looks out at Berlin from the cramped cockpit of a small plane piloted by one of his academic buddy’s students, a sullen girl, quite possibly hung over, with a penchant for flying as closely over buildings as possible.
Call this fragmentation, call it pointillism; I like stories told this way. In fact, they’re barely stories; they’re fabrics. Dalkey Archive’s press materials compare Toussaint’s novels to the films of Jim Jarmusch and Jacques Tati. I can’t call that inaccurate, in the sense that both directors’ work deals similarly with individuals drifting through, and failing to understand, complicated systems. But the filmmaker Television really gets me thinking about is Chris Marker; the detached, clear voice of Sans Soleil and the like make the world interesting in the same way Toussaint’s prose does.
Speaking of the world, the travel-structured Self-Portrait Abroad came along in 2000. Despite its many resemblances physical and stylistic to Toussaint’s other books, one factor complicates everything: not only does this protagonist have a name, that name is Jean-Philippe. What’s more, his wife’s name is Madeleine. Toussaint’s wife is named Madeleine! (“I will call Madeleine Madeleine in these pages,” he declares, “to help me get my bearings.”) Both authors, Jean-Philippe and Toussaint are forever globetrotting, trying to make various speaking engagements.
On top of all this, I’ve heard rumors that the pieces Self-Portrait Abroad comprises are all or mostly previously published travel writing. So jeez, I don’t really know what to say about the nature of this book, other than that it delivered to me an unpindownable sense of literary pleasure. Whether you’ll feel the same depends on if you like your plots to run in the lowest possible gear, allowing the author the time and space to make his fascinatingly detached observations before his characters reach minuscule victories or, more likely, wet-fuse fizzles. One Kyoto section ends with Jean-Philippe arriving in an ambulance at a friend’s house (he hitched a ride when it responded to the running-over of a nearby cyclist) only to find him not at home. A game of boules that Jean-Philippe wins with a particularly lucky move. “The best day of my life,” he calls it.
“Day was dawning over Tokyo, and I plunged a finger into her asshole.” There we have, in sentence-sized microcosm, much of what I, personally, find appealing Toussaint’s work. Yet another nameless narrator finds himself in a situation he didn’t expect in a place he didn’t expect it to happen, one he wound up in by only the faintest traces of his own volition. Just as something grand and exotic happens on a large scale, a much smaller scale presents an action decidedly more, er, intimate.
If all you knew about 2002’s Making Love was that it contains that quoted line and it opens with the protagonist handling his precious bottle of hydrochloric acid — “I carried it around at all times, with the idea of one day throwing it right in someone’s face” — you might assume it to be the work of one of those European “transgressives.” On the contrary; I’ve read few novelists less transgressive than Toussaint. Nobody’s numbly getting that acid dripped onto their nipples or anything. (Maybe I’ll get some of that when I write my Michel Houellebecq primer.) That plunge is by far the most sexually unconventional act on offer in the book, the first but not the last to feature Marie Madeleine Marguerite de Montalte, the owner of the orifice in question.
A big-name fashion designer and the narrator’s longtime girlfriend, Marie has come to Tokyo to put on an exhibit, and she’s brought the narrator along so they can break up. As a means of decoupling, this at least beats the hell out of an SMS message. This broad aim declared, nearly every element of the plot conspires to create a state of hazy unease. The text delivers it with a curious resignation, in both senses of the word curious. The protagonist is traveling with his girlfriend, but she’s mostly occupied with professional obligations. And while she technically retains the title of girlfriend for the moment, both she and he realize the union nears its end. This all goes down in a land of whose language the protagonist is more or less ignorant; what’s more, he’s usually outside in particularly desolate wee hours. On top of that, he spends a third of the novel suffering under a disorienting fever, and let’s not forget the free-floating question of who best to splash that acid on.
Running barely over 100 pages — not that any of Toussaint’s novels exceed 170 — the book operates under what seem to be stiff textual and psychological confines. Its most harrowing piece of action comes when the narrator, his head clouded with sickness, hops on a train to Kyoto to visit a mostly absent Western teacher friend. He struggles to find his pal’s house and, once there, collapses on a mat and shivers for days. This situation is as strange and outwardly unproductive as he and Marie’s last-gasp attempts at sex early in the novel or his late-night break-in to the hotel gym to swim a few laps. Yet there’s an intriguing interiority here, not just that of the Westerner bumbling through Japan, but specifically of the Francophone Westerner bumbling through Japan. I’ve long felt those cultures go well together, for sufficiently loose definitions of well. However their dynamic of mutual uncomprehending admiration really works, it aligns well with Toussaint’s idiosyncratic literary skill set.
Making Love opens a trilogy united not just by a protagonist but by Marie. The second, Running Away, saw publication in 2005. Though Toussaint hasn’t been given to stylistic variation, something changes in this book’s prose. Perhaps one sentence’s worth of example:
I became the person responsible for her suffering, I was the one who was tormenting her, without my even doing anything — my presence alone was making her suffer, my absence even more so — me, the one who wasn’t there when she needed me, not in Paris when she found out her father had died, not in Elba when she arrived, when all the practical details of the funeral had to be arranged, the one who, after having finally showed up, this morning, at the church, had immediately disappeared, before talking to her, before saying a single word to her, before kissing her and holding her in my arms, before sharing her pain, depriving her of my presence at the same time as making it flicker in front of her, causing her to tremble, giving her chills, just as I always did.
This, I would argue, does not read smoothly. Though interesting in places, I find it primarily generates a dull throb. Did Toussaint actually write the original sentences this way, all mismatching clauses grafted together with comma after comma after unsuitable comma? If so, does that flow better in French? Is this a case of too much faith to the original, or not enough?
In a way, you could call the story’s surviving clarity a transcendence of the style. The summer before the planned breakup their breakup, Marie sends the protagonist on a combined business trip and “pleasure junket” in Shanghai. Zhang Xiangzhi, a mild small-time gangster type, meets him at the airport and acts as his handler; later, a girl named Li Qi turns up and rapidly develops what seems to be a crush on our hero. Li Qi becomes, of course, the other player in that abortive sex scene discussed so tantalizingly on Bookworm. When not focused on racing over Beijing sidewalks or undressing Chinese women in train bathrooms, Running Away lays itself bare to the saddeningly common accusation that “nothing happens.” That’s not true, of course — it almost never is — but nor does the appeal of Jean-Philippe Toussaint lay in what he makes “happen.”
In French, the Marie trilogy is complete. (That, or it’s on its way to becoming a quadrilogy.) La Vérité sur Marie came out in 2009. Little about it has yet been revealed to the Anglophone public, but I hear the breakup has finally gone through. Of course, Marie’s having a new boyfriend won’t put an end to she and the protagonist’s trysts. Having undergone conversion into a Toussaint fanboy while reading his entire body of translated work, I can honestly say that I can’t wait to read about the trouble they drift into.
5. The infinitesimal novel
In a Q&A with Dalkey Archive’s Martin Riker, Toussaint said that “what really matters is to pay attention to what is both infinitely small and infinitely large,” that “a book must contain both darts and philosophy, bowling and metaphysics.” By some mixture of his own effort and his readers’, the applicable concept has come to be called the “infinitesimal novel,” that is to say, the novel that encompasses the infinitely large, the infinitely small, and as little as possible in between. Hence his protagonists’ consideration of vast, unanswerable moral, emotional and intellectual issues as they cut apart olives with their forks, toss pétanque balls, and stick their fingers where the sun don’t shine.
I find Toussaint’s feeling of freedom to do this fantastically refreshing. In an age when even superstar authors wring their hands about the purpose of the novel, the purity of the novel, and the viability of the novel, Toussaint sees it as a flexible form full of possibilities for comedy, melancholy, the cosmic, and the mundane. He seems untroubled by his art, which itself is an increasing rarity, but if he is troubled, it’s only by the question of how to keep things exciting.
Big Machine was an impulse buy at the bookstore, after I read jacket copy describing a “band of paranormal investigators comprised of former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard what may have been the voice of God.” For obvious reasons, I was hooked by the description and curious as to how LaValle would manage to pull all this off.
But pull it off he does. From the first sentence, I fell happily under the spell of the novel’s protagonist, Ricky Rice, and soon I was deep in the world of janitorial duties at Union Station in Utica, New York, and secret orders in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and haunted pasts. This is a novel of tremendous ideas and tremendous heart—and, for me, an extraordinary introduction to LaValle. One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to read everything he’s ever written.
Running Away had an equally hypnotic effect. Previous Toussaint novels—Television in particular—had already made me a fan, and Running Away struck me as being at once very Toussaint-esque and startling new. While Television is largely concerned with stasis, Running Away is devoted to movement. Set in China and the Mediterranean, this novel bounds from one locale to another, laying down connections that are bewildering and enigmatic and, in the end, perplexingly enduring. A side note: the book is worth reading just for the final act, which takes place in Elba. Holy god, it’s amazing.
Both Running Away and Big Machine resist practical logic; they cannot be “made sense of” in the traditional manner. And that was precisely why I found both books to be profoundly transporting: I was so swept away by Toussaint’s and LaValle’s worlds, I stopped caring about the hows and the whys and the what ifs, about matters of plausibility; I only wanted to be there.
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