Tr. from French by John Lambert
Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Reticence, recently translated by John Lambert, is the underrated Belgian writer’s existential take on the detective novel. On vacation with his infant son in the small village of Sasuelo, the narrator wanders the streets, avoiding visiting a writer that he is acquainted with named Biaggi, who lives just outside the town. Though he continues to entertain the possibility of visiting the Biaggis, the narrator is overcome by some inexplicable reticence:
Already on the first day, after remaining undecided all afternoon in my hotel room, I’d realized it was more complicated than I’d thought it was going to be to make up my mind to go see them. To a certain extent of course that was why I’d come to Sasuelo, but ever since I’d felt this initial reticence at going to see them I could very well imagine that my trip to Sasuelo, although initially meant as an occasion to see the Biaggis, would in fact end without my having resolved to contact them.
That initial reticence, though, sets off the paranoiac adventure that the narrator embarks on (without ever really “embarking” on anything at all). Soon he begins to wonder if Biaggi knows he is in town, and before long he’s sure that Biaggi has him under surveillance. Though he can’t seem to work up the nerve to actually visit this mysterious character, he does manage to steal his mail — and that’s only the beginning of the queer cat-and-mouse game that transpires. The paranoia ebbs and flows, like the water of the Mediterranean harbor in which the corpse of a black cat floats ominously:
Before moving on I lingered for a moment on the jetty looking at the dead cat, which continued to drift slowly back and forth in the harbor, first to the left then to the right, following the imperceptible flux and reflux of the current on the surface of the water.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint has often been compared to author Samuel Beckett and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, but he also shares DNA with artists as disparate as Albert Camus, Witold Gombrowicz, Franz Kafka, Buster Keaton, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Jacques Tati (all of whom, at some time, he’s acknowledged a debt to). These names give an idea of what Toussaint has to offer, but perhaps of greater importance is Toussaint’s list of influential non-writers in an interview with the Quarterly Conversation in 2008. The first thing Toussaint replied with was “Chess players: Fischer, Kasparov.” It is a fitting response because his novels work like games of chess: they are slow-paced and every move, even the most minute and seemingly random, is a calculated gesture. Toussaint’s focus is, paradoxically, on both the infinitesimal and the astronomical. In the same Quarterly Conversation interview, he explained:
What really matters is to pay attention to what is both infinitely small (the most pathetic, trivial things, the most insignificant details of daily life) and infinitely large (the essential questions we have, the meaning of life, the place of human beings in the universe). A book must contain both darts and philosophy, bowling and metaphysics.
Like Fisher, like Kasparov, like the greatest of chess players, Toussaint focuses on both the tiny moves and the larger strategy underlying it all. In the same interview where he spoke of the chess players, he said:
I like the idea of doing both all at once, all at once black and white, hot and cold, not gray or lukewarm, but both hot and cold. That’s what makes literature what it is (unlike politics, for instance): the simultaneous possibility of two opposite things, instead of a middle ground (gray, lukewarm). Such a juxtaposition of opposed extremes creates ambivalence and ambiguity, and that’s another essential literary quality.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This is what Toussaint’s novels do. He is the chiaroscuro novelist; his books incorporate both black and white, like a chess board. And yet, if one holds a chess board at a far enough distance, the black and white fuse, and everything does appear gray. Likewise, Toussaint’s novels are filled with darkness and light, black and white, both of which are consumed, inevitably, by a gray fog.
Even if Toussaint claims to avoid the “gray, lukewarm” in his prose, that neutral color is everywhere in Reticence. He not only juxtaposes the black and the white, but also the black/white against the gray. Perhaps this is just another example of his incorporation of opposites? Gray fog and overcast clouds complicate the novel’s pages, and in that rainy, grisaille climate the narrator’s identity is equally muddled:
It had rained a lot the night before, and nearby on the ground a large puddle of still water dimly reflected the trees and rooftops of the neighboring houses in the darkness. A light gust of wind occasionally sent a ripple over the surface of the water, blurring the reflections for a moment. Then, slowly, the image recomposed on the surface, trembling for another few seconds before stabilizing, and I saw that the center of the puddle mirrored the silvery shape of the old gray Mercedes, around which, however, by I don’t know what play of perspectives or blind spots, there was no trace of me at all.
This play of perspective continues, keeping the narrator — and by extension the reader — off balance, until, towards the end, both narrator and reader seem to gain some footing. Toussaint novels rarely have a definitive finale or grand outcome; rather, like chess, they end without ending. In chess, the game ends in a checkmate, a stalemate where the winner wins no matter the next move, for the final move (the capture of the king) is never actually made. Toussaint’s novels also seem to end at a stalemate, as though they’ve gone as far as they can go.