Were I to claim that Jean-Philippe Toussaint shared a certain amount of common ground with Ian McEwan, I might be in danger of coming off as flippant or, worse, willfully obtuse. Toussaint, after all, is a Belgian avant-garde novelist known for his radically plotless books that seem intent on revealing as little as possible about their protagonists. McEwan is a purveyor of skillfully propulsive novels about upper-middle class English people, who has — fairly or unfairly — become synonymous with upper-middlebrow literary fiction. Toussaint is an exemplar to those of us who want to see the novel being taken to places it has not yet been. Ian McEwan is a writer whose books David Cameron has used for PR purposes (he once arranged to have himself photographed on a suspiciously empty tube between Epping and Charing Cross, cross-legged and suavely engrossed in On Chesil Beach). It’s the kind of comparison that could easily be mistaken for an attention-grabbing stunt. But I’m going to make it anyway — in good faith, I assure you — because it’s one that kept occurring to me as I read Toussaint’s brilliant and compelling The Truth About Marie, the latest of his novels to be translated into English.
I don’t mean to imply that Toussaint is really an upper-middlebrow novelist masquerading as an avant-gardist (he’s definitely not), or that he shares a sensibility or a set of artistic objectives with McEwan. They present the reader with very different kinds of experience, and demand very different intensities of reading. But they are each in possession of a rare and remarkable gift for creating stunning standalone scenes that involve the steep deceleration of narrative time. McEwan’s long and absorbing set-pieces — Enduring Love’s hot air balloon disaster, the battle scene in Atonement, the disappearance of the child in the opening pages of The Child in Time — are, famously, the best thing about his books.
The truth about The Truth About Marie is that it is essentially one set-piece after another. It’s divided into three distinct parts. The first details the events of a single night, during which Jean Christophe de G., the wealthy lover of Marie (the ex-girlfriend of the unnamed narrator) suffers a massive heart attack in her apartment and dies on the spot. In her state of panic, she phones the narrator, who leaves his flat just half a mile away (where he has been making love to another woman, also named Marie) and walks through a Parisian downpour to be with her in the apartment they used to share. The second part jolts us back to the beginning of Marie and Jean-Christophe’s affair. It’s this section that really showcases Toussaint’s spooky powers of chronological manipulation, his idly urgent exploration of the vast spaces of a single moment. In a sequence that accounts for almost half the length of this short novel, the narrator (who offers us no plausible assurance of the reliability of his testimony) comprehensively details an occurrence at which he himself was not present: the transportation via cargo plane of a racehorse, owned by Jean-Christophe, from Tokyo to Paris. In the third part, Marie invites the narrator to come and stay with her in Elba at the home of her recently deceased father, and a forest fire breaks out that threatens to consume them. The novel, in other words, is three show-stopping climaxes specifically not in search of a plot. It’s as though the best, most audacious bits of McEwan’s books had been extracted from the stories of which they serve as centerpieces, in order to be fastened loosely together into some wholly strange and original (nouveau) nouveau romanesque construction.
The Truth About Marie reveals its author’s perennial obsession with the tensions between motion and stasis, which is, as always, nested within a larger concern with the inescapable progression of all bodies towards immobility, and all lives towards death. (Even in the earlier, more whimsically comic works like The Bathroom and Camera with which Toussaint made his name in the 1980s, there is always this slow, quietly horrified circling of the abyss of mortality.) When the paramedics arrive and attempt to resuscitate Jean-Christophe de G. with a defibrillator — to reverse, as it were, his body’s progression from movement to stillness — Marie observes the failure of this attempt, and her lover’s lifeless body is suddenly revealed to her, laid bare in the fullest sense of the term:
Falling back onto the floor, the body lay motionless, and Marie understood then that Jean-Christophe de G.’s heart had stopped beating. Marie approached the paramedics and looked down at the stripped body, its face hidden by the oxygen mask, its white inanimate flesh dotted with electrodes, skin like a fish, cod or flounder, and Marie couldn’t help thinking that it was this same motionless body that she’d held in this room less than an hour earlier in that very spot, this body stripped naked and dispossessed, objectified by a whole array of medical apparatuses, shaved, hooked to an IV and ventilator — this body reduced to its bare substance, bearing no sign of Jean-Christophe de G.’s personality. She realized then that up until this moment she hadn’t really looked at his body, not once throughout the whole night, not even while making love had she taken an interest in his body, she’d hardly even touched it, hadn’t paid it the least attention, being concerned as she always was with her own body alone, caring only for her own pleasure.
The word that keeps impressing itself upon the reader here is “body.” It appears eight times in three sentences. The passage is a kind of narrative still life, in which the facticity of death, the pallid truth of what we are, is stared down. Marie is apprehending this man as though for the first time here, really seeing the condition of his existence at the precise moment at which that existence has ceased. What she is looking at, in other words, is a thing — a thing that, without her ever beginning to appreciate it, has always been a thing — a body revealed and “objectified” by the epiphenomena and appurtenances of sudden death. Here and elsewhere, Toussaint’s beautifully ruthless descriptions reveal the seemingly paradoxical way in which a death at once conceals and lays bare what a person, every person, actually is. As the narrator reaches Marie’s apartment, he passes the paramedics as they carry Jean-Christophe’s body to the ambulance, and he does not know who or what he is seeing on the stretcher. All he knows is that he has been summoned by a panicked Marie, and that now he is seeing a body being removed from her building — a body which, for all he knows, could well be hers. He then observes some visual details that reveal the form as that of a man. “I gleaned nothing,” he tells us, “but isolated details, focused, removed from their context, caught only in passing, his socks, dark, imposing, as if this man would henceforth be reduced to these, his wrist, horrid, to which the IV was attached, a livid wrist, yellow-hued, cadaverous, his face pale, on which I focused closely, scrutinizing its features to see who this was, but in vain, his face, completely covered by the oxygen mask, was perfectly invisible.”
Jean-Christophe de G. is depersonalized in death, “reduced” to an anonymous aggregation of parts. Most novelists would use this as a starting point for an attempt at reintegration, for a narrative that might endeavor to give this man back the identity taken from him by death. But Toussaint’s narrator makes no such effort, and Jean-Christophe remains a more or less wholly concealed figure (as does the narrator himself, and as does Marie). In fact, he casually informs us at the very beginning of Part II that Jean-Christophe de G.’s real name was actually “Jean-Baptise de Ganay” — a fact gleaned from his obituary in Le Monde — and then reverts anyway, for the remainder of the novel, to calling him Jean-Christophe. There’s something savagely vindictive about this insistence on ignoring the facts of the man’s life. He is denying Jean-Baptiste his real name, using the privileges of narratorship to punish him for his affair with Marie. There’s a lesson in this that might be too awful for us to want to learn, which is that death takes from us not just our lives, but also our right to insist upon a particular version of those lives. What we think of as “our” truths, in other words, are just as provisional and corruptible as what we think of as “our” bodies.
There’s a suspect and slightly creepy moment not much later when the narrator admits that he may have been wrong in many of his assumptions about Jean-Christophe — or “Jean-Christophe” — but insists that he is on much surer ground when it comes to Marie. “I knew Marie’s every move,” he assures us, “I knew how she would have reacted in every circumstance, I knew her instinctively, my knowledge of her was innate, natural, I possessed absolute intelligence regarding the details of her life: I knew the truth about Marie.” As is so often the case with such excessive insistences, this draws attention to precisely the kind of uncertainty it attempts to conceal. The narrator does not, cannot, know “the truth” about Marie. Either there is a truth, and he doesn’t know it — because he wasn’t there — or (more likely) there is nothing like a truth to “know” about a person in the first place, let alone a person who isn’t oneself.
So the substance of the novel is, necessarily, an indulgence of the narrator’s imagination, as he creates a vivid version of what happened before and after Jean-Christophe’s death. The Japanese section, about the transportation of the racehorse, is by far the most impressive of these. (It takes place, incidentally, just after the events described in Toussaint’s earlier novel Making Love, in which Marie, who is a successful fashion designer, brings the narrator with her on a business trip to Tokyo so that they can take some time out to concentrate on breaking up properly). It focuses much more intently on the horse than on the two human characters. There’s a long, nightmarish sequence in which Marie and Jean-Christophe remain in the hold of the cargo plane with the petrified animal, trapped in a metal container inside a winged metal tube hurtling through a turbulent night sky. The fact that the horse’s name is Zahir is a clue to the position he occupies in the narrator’s mind (Borges’s story “The Zahir,” which is about an object that completely and exclusively occupies the waking and sleeping consciousness of anyone who beholds it, is referenced as the source of his name). This animal, whose raison d’etre is speed, is being kept completely immobile inside a machine that is moving at incomprehensible speed toward a destination that is, to him, likewise incomprehensible. The scene, which seems to illuminate and magnify our powerlessness to escape the trajectory of time and the destination of death, produces in the reader a kind of base animal unease.
At one point, the narrator happens across Marie and Jean-Christophe at a racecourse in Tokyo, and he observes them without their noticing him. It is not long after he himself has broken up with Marie. “I looked at Marie,” he says, “and it was clear to me then that I was no longer there, that I wasn’t the one with her anymore, this man’s presence revealed nothing if not the reality of my absence. I had before my eyes the striking revelation of my own absence.” This, in fact, is one of the few moments up to that point at which the narrator is actually present for the scene he describes. It becomes a sort of premonitory glimpse at the reality of his own death, and it illuminates the paradoxical way in which his absence has all along been the most overbearing presence in the novel. This is the way Toussaint’s writing achieves its revelations: at first slowly and imperceptibly, and then suddenly and blindingly. It’s a beautiful moment in a strange and unsettling novel that upholds its author’s status as one of the most exciting figures in contemporary fiction.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”—Blaise Pascal
“What’s the point in going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”—Homer Simpson
The novel is perhaps the most housebound of all art forms. At both ends of its supply chain, there is a fairly strong imperative to stay put. There have always been writers who practice their profession in unusual locations, of course, just as a certain amount of reading is always going to be done on the move—on buses, on trains, on planes. But the literary exchange is, for the most part, a sedentary one. Writers tend to hold up their end of the deal by sitting at a desk and staying there until the book is written; readers tend to hold up theirs by sitting still, book in hand, until it is read. “The novel,” as Martin Amis once observed, “is all about not going out of the house.”
Between these two static real-world points, however, is almost always plotted a line of imaginary action. The form, in other words, tends to deal in stories, in narratives, in plots—which is to say that it concerns itself, by and large, with what happens when people do go out of the house. The great narratives are all about men and women going outside and having things happen to them. Odysseus would probably not have been worth talking about had he stayed in Ithaca pottering about the palace, just as his Twentieth-century reincarnation Leopold Bloom would probably not be nearly so great a character had he stayed put in his house on Eccles Street flipping through old issues of Titbits, admiring the cat, and making sure that no one came around to have sex with his wife. The story of Anna Karenina would have been a less tragic one had she stayed at home in St Petersburg reading novels and playing with young Seryozha, but then it might not have been worth Tolstoy’s time telling it. Even Christ himself would not have made much of an impact on the western imagination had he continued hanging out at his Galilee workshop focusing on his cabinet making.
Aristotle saw both tragedy and comedy as predicated on changes in the fortune of a character (and character was, for Aristotle, subordinate to action). In comedies, stuff happens that leaves characters better off at the end than they were at the beginning; in tragedies, stuff happens that leaves them worse off (often to the point of being dead). Either way stuff has to happen, and for this stuff to happen, the characters have to go out of the house. Pascal’s pensée about all humanity’s problems stemming from “man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” may well be right—or at least might have been before the advent of the Internet—but as practical advice it is of even less use for literature than it is for life.
So the history of narrative fiction is, in a sense, a history of imagined action (poetry, of course, is another thing entirely). But there is a small but fascinating niche within that history, a sort of quiet backstreet in the vast, hustling metropolis of fiction, where nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere. I developed a fascination with these books a couple of years back, when I was a graduate student writing a thesis on the work of the Irish novelist John Banville (himself a writer who could never be accused of excessive plotting). With a couple of Banville’s books, it seemed to me that he was getting away with an omission that would, in the work of most other writers, have been an outright deal-breaker: he was leaving out the plot. Novels like Ghosts and Eclipse struck me as being in some sense Banville’s purest and most honest work because of the way in which they all but did away with the artifice of plot, with the encumbrance of having things happen.
I went through a phase of seeking out books that effected this omission in increasingly extreme ways. It is probably no mere accident that this phase coincided with a period during which I was spending most of my own time at home alone, writing, reading—working or not working or, more often than not, some uneasy compound of both—and generally not going out of the house. My life felt radically plotless, devoid of incident to an almost avant garde extent. So I suppose I identified with shut-ins and hermits and layabouts in a way that I didn’t identify with characters who went out and did things, who became embroiled in plots and events. During this period, I came across a book called Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre, which seems to me to be the ur-text of this sub-genre. It is in fact not a novel at all, but a sort of anti-memoir or non-travelogue. The French aristocrat, military man and occasional author—whose older brother was the reactionary political philosopher Joseph de Maistre—wrote the book in 1790 while he was under house arrest in Turin for dueling. During the forty-two days in which he was confined to his rooms, he occupied himself by writing an idiosyncratic account of his inner life and his immediate surroundings. He begins with the following exhortation which, by managing to be at once relentlessly jocular and obscurely mournful, sets the tone for the rest of this peculiar little book:
Follow me, all you whom humiliation in love or neglect in friendship confines to your apartments, far from the pettiness and treachery of your fellow men. Let all the wretched, the sick, and the bored follow me—let all the lazy people of the world rise en masse;—and you, whose brain is aboil with sinister plans of reform; you, who in your boudoir are contemplating renouncing the world in order to live; gentle anchorites of an evening […] be so good as to accompany me on my voyage, we shall travel by short stages, laughing all along the way at travelers who have seen Rome and Paris.—Nothing shall stop us; and abandoning ourselves gaily to our fancy, we shall follow it wherever it wishes to take us.
It’s difficult, of course, and perhaps even misguided, to separate this strange anti-manifesto from its historical context. De Maistre was a French aristocrat living in Turin, and as he wrote these words his nation was undergoing a radical separation from its monarchist past which, for many members of the social class to which he belonged, entailed the even more radical separation of their heads from their bodies. A huge and violent historical narrative had led him to Turin; a small and violent personal narrative (something to do, I think, with a thwarted love affair that led to the duel) had led him to be placed under house arrest. During the time he was writing this book, his existence amounted to a confinement within an exile, to a compound displacement from the site of activity, of incident. To stay indoors is to ensure that nothing much happens to you. Not going out of the house, voluntarily or otherwise, is a way of forswearing plots of all sorts.
As a kind of real-life patron saint of literary shut-ins—as the brother superior of ‘gentle anchorites’—de Maistre bequeaths a scattered legacy of plotless novels about staying in and not doing things. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, in which the titular shiftless aristocrat spends much of the book avoiding getting out of his dressing gown and venturing forth from his St. Petersburg apartment. Oblomov’s entire existence is a repudiation of the very idea of activity, a protest against the pointlessness of motion. He is constantly baffled by his friends’ incomprehensible strivings after worldly success, romantic conquest and intellectual abstraction. Such pursuits lead too often to disaster. History itself is a grim repository of evidence for Oblomov’s stance (or, rather, recumbence). Reading history, Goncharov writes, “merely casts you into melancholy. You study and read that in such a year there were calamities and man was unhappy. He gathered all his forces, worked, rooted around, suffered terribly and labored, always preparing for brighter days. Now that they had come, you’d think that history itself would take a break, but no, again clouds gathered, again the edifice collapsed, again there was work and more rooting around. The brighter days didn’t linger, they raced by—and life kept flowing, always flowing, smashing everything as it went.”
Reading Oblomov doesn’t make a life spent in dressing gown and slippers seem appealing; despite his scrupulous avoidance of misery’s apparent causes, Oblomov is not an especially happy guy, and the novel is, as much as anything else, a satire against the shiftless entitlement of the serf-owning aristocracy. But it does make asking “what’s the point of it all?” seem more than just an excuse for apathy. Avoiding living is, of course, a perverse way of avoiding death. If life keeps “flowing, always flowing, smashing everything” as it rushes toward the ocean of death, the desire to scramble for the bank and sit the whole thing out on dry land is understandable, if ultimately self-defeating and futile.
The horrible, intransigent fact of the individual’s inevitable end seems to sit like a stone at the dead centre of many plotless novels. (Malone Dies, in which Malone lies naked in bed, and then dies, is maybe the most explicit example of this, and Beckett’s attraction to Goncharov’s novel is well documented—he occasionally signed his letters to his lover Peggy Guggenheim “Oblomov”). History is either a chaos or a plot, but both end, one way or another, in death. Although he only mentions it once in passing, it is by no means an inconsequential detail that the nameless narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s 1985 novella The Bathroom is a historian. This strange, impassively hilarious book presents the disjointed reflections of a young academic who decides to spend his time hanging out in the bathroom of the Paris flat he shares with his girlfriend. He lolls about in the empty bathtub, smoking cigarettes, listening to soccer matches on the radio, receiving the occasional visitor. He wants a life without movement, it seems, because movement itself is powerfully associated with the forward rushing momentum of time.
Like Oblomov, he wants no part of the world. Looking out his window at one point, he watches people on the street fleeing a heavy rainfall, and imagines it as a “continuous downpour obliterating everything—annihilating everything.” But then he realizes that it not the “movements taking place before my eyes—rain, moving humans and automobiles” that fill him with dread but rather “the passing of time itself.” About a third of the way into the novel, the narrator abruptly and unaccountably leaves his flat and gets on a train to Venice. Once there, he promptly books into a shabby hotel which he then spends much of the remainder of the novella not going out of, essentially substituting a Parisian confinement for a Venetian one. Inactivity is his aim because it is, as he sees it, the ultimate aim of all activity, all movement. The “essential tendency of motion,” he tells us, “however lightning-swift it may appear, is toward immobility,” and “however slow it may sometimes seem, it is continuously drawing bodies toward death, which is immobility. Olé.” This is a bit like a more explicitly philosophical version of Homer Simpson’s questioning why Marge would want to go anywhere when “we’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”
In U and I, his quasi-memoir about his long-standing obsession with John Updike, Nicholson Baker admits to feeling slightly restless as a reader when reaching that point in a novel when the author stops mucking about with description and atmospheric evocation and gets down to the serious business of plot. He takes issue with a remark of Updike’s about writers who “clog” their narratives with description. “The only thing I like are the clogs,” objects Baker, “—and when, late in most novels, there are no more in the pipeline to slow things down, I get that fidgety feeling.” Baker has gone on to make a career out of these bits: his novels are all clog and no narrative. The “plot” of Room Temperature—a great and funny book about not going out of the house—concerns a young father sitting in a rocking chair feeding his infant daughter warm milk from a bottle. Pretty much literally nothing happens; the closest we get to action is when the narrator exhales forcefully in the direction of a paper mobile hanging from the ceiling of the baby’s room, and the paper flutters around for a while. And here’s the thing: there’s not a dull moment in the book. Baker’s brilliance as a writer lies in his ability to make the (apparently) utterly trivial utterly compelling.
The attraction of plotlessness in fiction is less easy to account for than that of plotlessness in life. There is an awful lot to be said for a propulsive narrative—it is, after all, usually what keeps us turning the pages, what keeps us coming back to find out what happens next, how the characters develop, how it will all end. But when a writer manages to cut away all this artifice, leaving us with just the raw pulp of personhood, while still compelling us to read on, it is a fascinating trick to pull off. I don’t have much interest in the pronouncements of dinner party eschatologists like David Shields (the only appropriate reaction to someone announcing the death of the novel is to surreptitiously check your watch and mutter something about having an early start in the morning), but there is something undeniably compelling about a book that can do away with a thing as seemingly crucial as stuff happening.
Plots are mostly necessary. Writers need something for their characters to do, some reason for them to exist; they need some taut thread of narrative along which they can string their bright beads of observation and insight. Characters need to be kept busy so that we as readers don’t get bored with them, just as we as people tend to keep busy so that we don’t get bored with ourselves (and so that we can pay the rent). But as Oblomov asks of both the life of manic activity lived by one friend and the latest work of literary social realism championed by another, “where is the human being in this?” His own story provides an answer, of sorts, to his question. When you stay inside, when you opt out (or are kept out) of narratives and events—when you cease to be a character in a plot—what you are left with is, for better or worse, the person. The human being is right there: lying around in his dressing gown, or in his bathroom, or bottle-feeding his baby, dying alone, reading or writing. Doing whatever it is people do when they don’t go out of the house.
(Image: Diptych part one from pinkmoose’s photostream)
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.
Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever was my book of 2010. It was an exhilarating discovery: a short, upsetting, foxy novel published way back in 2001. A writer friend mentioned it in a passionate way one evening in the spring, and I bought it the next morning. By the time I’d finished, my head had rotated backward.
Other candidates were Down By the River by Charles Bowden, The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins, Zulu by Caryl Ferey, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sánchez Piñol. All of them I sat or stood or walked around reading in enchantment. But only Robison’s novel was so stirring and mind-pickling, after I finished it, I sat down at my computer and looked up her email address.
Robison is stuck with the minimalist badge. Why Did I Ever should not be. The novel possesses abundant character—not style, not whimsy, not the popular flatulence, but a substantial idea of itself. The plot is about a screenwriter and her work, her boyfriends and her family, and a horrible event in her son’s life. It’s written in short, diary-like entries, some titled, some numbered—some hard-hearted, some tender. But the thing hums while it files its clips. Best, it makes the reader fill in gaps, but doesn’t leave him hanging. And it’s so, so funny, smart, and fun. It’s a book that brightens darkness. Robison’s narration and dialogue open wormholes to revelation. It’s a book that creates in itself an incredible amount of space and time.
After I finished it, I thought of two stipulations. One: the world must, but cannot, be taken seriously. Two: books should be, but are not, taken seriously. Between these two, Why Did I Ever made me a bargain. It takes so little seriously—and so much—it made me care deeply for its world and then, again, my own.
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