A Conversation with Jean-Philippe Toussaint
My friend (and yours) Jim Ruland had a chance to speak to Jean-Philippe Toussaint recently, and sent this interview. I was going to run it on Hobart, but the schedule didn’t allow for it to appear in a timely manner there. Instead, we are cross posting it here at HTML Giant and on Hobart’s lovely blog to get the interview as much attention as we can.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of nine novels. Originally, published in France, the slender books have secured the Belgian author a reputation as a stylist who favors impressions over plot, comic situations over character development. Since 2007, Dalkey Archive Press has been publishing Toussaint’s work in English, trickling out two or three novels a year to a growing audience of eager enthusiasts for the quirky little books.
The most recent novel, Self-Portrait Abroad, released earlier this month, features a Belgian author traveling to cities in Europe and Asia. A sensual train trip to Prague, a visit to a strip joint in Nara, a victory in a lawn bowling tournament in Cap Corse are described in Toussaint’s quintessential style.
We’re never told the purpose of these travels, or even if the voyages are connected. Nothing much happens and there’s little to link the vignettes save for a curious epigram:
Every time I travel I feel a slight dread at the moment of departure, a dread sometimes shaded with a soft sliver of elation. Because I know that any trip brings with it the possibility of death—or of sex (both highly improbable of course, yet not to be excluded altogether).
This is Toussaint in a nutshell: A deeply felt impression that trumps experience, a seriocomic tendency to editorialize, musical language and a whiff of the absurd.
As Toussaint’s visits to the United States are infrequent, I was fortunate to speak with him last month after his book signing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
Ruland: What is it like to come to a new place, where your books are appearing in a new language for the first time, even though they were written many years ago?
Toussaint: Yes, it’s a strange feeling because Self-Portrait Abroad was translated in English ten years ago by a friend of mine, John Lambert, who had already translated Monsieur for a British publisher. Afterwards I tried to find a publisher in the United States, but nobody wanted to publish it. With Dalkey it’s possible to publish the book in English. So it’s quite strange. But I know my books. I wrote some texts 15 years ago, but I know them very well. They are my texts, my characters. I feel very close to them.
Ruland: That’s very interesting, especially since there’s a strong autobiographical element. The protagonist of Self-Portrait Abroad is an author very much like yourself.
Toussaint: Yes, it is, it is. It is the only book I wrote where the protagonist is clearly myself. A Belgian writer, he has the same wife, the same children, the same age. The same questions. He is myself. But I introduce also some element of fiction. It’s not only autobiography. So I think it’s interesting to introduce some element fiction. The other books, like Running Away, it’s clearly fiction, but of course there’s some element of my real life. For me it’s not a problem. I could say that everything is autobiographical even if I don’t really live it in the real life, because I live it when I write it. I experience it with my senses. Everything. I think everything is coming from me.
Ruland: Is there a lot of autobiography in your earlier work, such as Camera?
Toussaint: Well, yes, of course, but it’s not so clear. It’s not exactly me. But of course, I feel everything, and I know very well the main character, the narrator.
Ruland: As a reader who is encountering your work in English chronologically, the novels have this progression of incredible stillness to almost manic movement.
Toussaint: I would say the priorities are different. In my first book, there is more humor. And there are, I would say, for every new book that I write, I have always the same problems. I think a real writer writes always the same book. But it’s important also to renew some things. In The Bathroom and Camera I think I would like to express a view of the world and I try to be funny, the humor was very important. And now it’s quite different. Especially with the last books Making Love, Running Away, and Self Portrait Abroad, and the next one to be published in English, The Truth about Marie, there is more gravitas, there is more melancholy. Different as I get older. Maybe that is the reason.
Ruland: The humor in your early novels is very pronounced. But I think once you learn how to read your style, you can find humor in all the books. You’re not going for the joke as often, but the humor is always there. Would you agree with that?
Toussaint: Yes, maybe, but with some books, like Television, humor was really a priority. Now it’s different. It’s not a priority. I can write some pages without humor and it’s okay. Before if there was no humor I would find it no good, not interesting. When I read the books for an audience and if people didn’t laugh I was very sad and thinking it’s not a good book. That was the criteria.
Ruland: But there are plenty of funny moments in Self-Portrait Abroad. The lawn-bowling scene… I find the grandiosity of the narration hilarious.
Toussaint: It’s quite difficult to speak about humor. What’s important is the efficiency of humor. It’s a question of feeling. I have some ideas about literature, but about humor, it’s really difficult. It must be instinctive.
Ruland: And also very much about context. Television is the most slapstick of your books. There’s a kind of literary situational comedy where the protagonist is set up to fail.
Toussaint: Yes, there is humor of the situation. The situation is really funny. I try really hard to create the situation. For Television, it was a priority. I think Television is my funniest book.
Ruland: My favorite is Monsieur. He’s an amalgamation of poses. And some of these are so out of touch with his surroundings, that it becomes very funny. In other novels, when the narrator recognizes these poses in other people, he skewers them with editorial digressions and parentheticals that electrify the prose in a very funny way.
Toussaint: Monsieur is a theoretical character. He looks like an idea of character. He is like other characters in literature: Palomar, a character by the Italian writer Italo Calvino. Also there is a character by a French writer Valery, Monsieur Teste—like Mr. Head. He is always thinking, he is very theoretical. With Monsieur, I tried to create such a character.
Ruland: Mr. Palomar is similar to Monsieur. He only exists in terms of his impressions and ideas.
Toussaint: Yes, exactly. I would like to create a character like Monsieur Palomar. A character without qualities. Instead of Monsieur Something, Monsieur Nothing.
Toussaint: I think it’s a coincidence. My book was issued one year before the film. So she [Sofia Coppola] really had no time to read it and make an adaptation for cinema. I think it’s a coincidence. But it’s the same places in Tokyo. It’s the same hotel. It’s very funny. There’s a lot of coincidence.
Ruland: You have a very elastic definition of what constitutes a novel. Have you met much resistance to your books, that they aren’t long enough, don’t contain enough narrative, or are in some way lacking as a novel?
Toussaint: For me I don’t mind. It’s not a question. A novel is a notion. You can do what you want. For me, you can write non-fiction in a novel. You can do poetry in a novel. I think the genre novel is very interesting because it’s very free. Very open. That’s why I write novels. If I had written in the 19th century, I think I would have written poetry. Nowadays, the genre is so open you can do what you want.
Ruland: In the anthology, Best European Fiction 2010, you refer to your piece, “Zidane’s Melancholy,” as a novel.
Toussaint: It is a very short text. A sort of interrogation about a literary genre. It is at the same time nonfiction, an essay, poetry, something like psychoanalysis, something like literary criticism. Everything inside. Not a novel. It’s not even a short story. It’s everything.
Ruland: What would you like your readers to take away from your latest book Self-Portrait Abroad?
Toussaint: I would say it’s a very funny book. It’s very light. It’s also really the only one where things are autobiographical. I experience everything I’ve narrated. There are some very funny situations.
Ruland: It feels lived. I read it while traveling, waiting in airports and flying from once city to another. I found that it awakened me to the wealth of sensory impressions around me. All the information that one chooses not to take in while traveling. Many of the scenes are simply exquisite observations. As soon as something like a story takes shape…
Toussaint: That’s always my idea. It’s not telling stories. Here it’s clear. What I’m talking about is absolutely uninteresting. I am talking about things that I lived. Very little things. Uninteresting things. Always daily life stuff. And it’s my life. I try to make literature with my life. It’s my project.
Ruland: It’s a wonderful project. The next novel to be published in English…
Toussaint: The Truth about Marie. It was the last book to be published in France, last September. I think it’s a very interesting book because there’s some reflection about literature.
Ruland: How different is it from Self-Portrait Abroad?
Toussaint: It’s not so different. There’s a cycle. A cycle about Marie. Because in the last three books there is always a narrator and the character of Marie. Making Love, Running Away, and The Truth about Marie. I am always speaking about Marie. Marie is more and more important. In the last book, she’s really the main character. I think that’s maybe different. I have never had such an important feminine figure.
Ruland: Marie makes a very bold impression, yet she’s extremely elusive. Is she more present in this next novel?
Toussaint: Maybe not so much. It is always my style. It’s all that I can do.
Ruland: What are you working on right now?
Toussaint: Maybe I will continue with Marie.
Ruland: You travel quite a bit. Is this your first time in California?
Toussaint: No, ten years ago I was invited by the Film Festival of San Francisco for my film Ice Rink but I stayed just a week. I don’t really know California. I discover it now.
Ruland: And have been here long enough to get a favorable impression? Or will it show up in a novel someday…
Toussaint: I have always impressions. I don’t know what I can do with this impression. Impression I have, but I don’t know what to do with it.