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from the June 2015 issue

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s “Urgency and Patience”

Reviewed by Jeffrey Zuckerman

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s novellas astonish in how they allow us into the heads of his unexpectedly fascinating narrators. Appropriately enough, his slender essay collection, Urgency and Patience, take us just as deeply into the mind of this singular author.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s novellas astonish in how they allow us into the heads of his unexpectedly fascinating narrators. Appropriately enough, his slender essay collection, Urgency and Patience, take us just as deeply into the mind of this singular author. “I’ve forgotten the precise hour of the exact day I decided to start writing, but that hour exists, and that day exists; that decision, the decision to start writing, is one I made abruptly, on a Paris bus,” the book’s first piece begins, and with those words an insistent circularity imposes itself upon the text. Indeed, a scant fifty-odd pages later, we are treated to the book’s closing  image of “bus 63, peeling away into traffic towards the Seine, slowly vanishing from my memory.” 

But this degree of repetition is to be expected from an author who frequently reprises the same scenarios, the same personas and relationships throughout his meticulous and miniscule fictions. All his protagonists—from his unforgettable debut, The Bathroom, to his recent tetralogy meditating on a lover named Marie—are men without names, haphazardly making their way through a world they presumably should know well. They have occasional breakdowns of perception, when everything in one dimension or another becomes flattened, as if they wanted, experimentally, to test the reality of what they were experiencing. Expressed with the same authorial hand, all these moments, in being reduced or diminished, accrue a veneer of sameness—and, yes, circularity. Toussaint even acknowledges this repetitive “ageless imagination” within his own essays:

I could have begun a sentence in Madrid in the early ’90s and ended it in Corsica fifteen years later:

“A little flower-lined staircase led up to the hotel entrance with a double glass door. I walked up the steps at the entrance and crossed through an arbor under which white tableclothed tables had been set for breakfast.”

The little flower-lined staircase would be the same, issued from an ageless imagination. But the first sentence is from Reticence (1991), depicting the hotel in Sasuelo, while the second is from Running Away (2005), and describes a hotel in Portoferraio.

To read a suite of eleven essays in this vein is to see Toussaint’s style concentrated; his motives, influences, and urges clarified.

Perhaps the most unexpected revelation in Urgency and Patience, a book filled with descriptions of Toussaint’s writing process and pastimes (chess, buses, letters to Beckett), is that this sameness of style and subject finds no parallel in Toussaint’s life. He decides on a bus to become a writer; he rattles off such cities as Paris and Médéa and Erbalunga and Barcaggio and Berlin and Kyoto as locales in which he wrote various pieces: “I show up, claim these places for myself, set up shop: computer, printer, research. When I go, I take everything with me, and leave no traces of passage.” In this light, his fictions almost seem like a constant refuge from an inconstant world. His influences, too, are so deeply internalized as to become indirect and diffuse. He tells us in two different essays that he started writing a month after reading Crime and Punishment—not immediately after, but a full month after. Toussaint’s real home is not a physical one, but entirely within his head.

If what matters most to Toussaint is the world within, then the two driving forces that give this collection its name, urgency and patience, become the two necessary modes for writing successfully:

That’s all there is to writing a book: this alternation between phases of gush and perseverance. After weeks of being blocked while I was writing The Truth about Marie, suddenly Zahir was fleeing down the runway at Narita. The scansion that set in then; the words that raced out, driving forward, dashing after the purebred; the jerky, staccato rhythm of the sentence calqued on the horse’s gallop—these have something to do with breathlessness. We—the author, the reader, the pursuers, the sentence—are literally breathless. Beside these scenes written in urgency are moments when all forward progress stops, when the winds have fallen, and we are irreparably becalmed. That is when we must persevere, hang on, grit our teeth, keep not getting there, for urgency keeps moving forward, keeps working underground, building up energy.

This particular passage resonates so deeply not just because it so perfectly draws a connection between how he works through his books and how I read them, but because it so perfectly describes the experience I, oddly enough, had as a proofreader assigned to The Truth about Marie. My eyes, normally attuned to misspelled words and errant punctuation, found themselves swept helplessly forward by the sheer momentum of Toussaint’s words and the actions they described; three pages later, with a shock, I realized I would have to go back over those same pages slowly and with the patience that Toussaint himself had tolerated for so much of the book in its composition.

Edward Gauvin seems to have devoted the same patience to translating Toussaint as I once did proofreading him; Gauvin’s facility with both the original, crisp French and a correspondingly transparent English are in full evidence here. A reader intimately acquainted with Toussaint’s novels might well wonder if his mind occasionally becomes as flattened, as empty, and as analytical as those of his overlapping narrators. The delightful revelation offered by Urgency and Patience is that such a prospect is nigh well impossible. 

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