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Toussaint, Camus

By Bud Parr

Martin Riker from Dalkey Archive Press has an interesting piece at "The Front Table"* on his love for Jean-Philippe Toussaint's work. Regarding why it's important to publish several of Toussaint's books together, which Dalkey is doing, he says "This is not just about a book. Here's a writer who is doing something beyond mere temporary curiosity. This is the real thing, an actual innovation, literature finding a new way to relate to life."

Riker says Toussaint is a "comic Camus for the twenty-first centuryë explaining,

"It isn't because Toussaint's writing reminds me of Camus's stylistically, but because Toussaint offers something that Camus once offered: a new way to think about the experience of being. Though both comic and compelling, Toussaint's 'being' is also quite strange, and at times disorienting. Something often seems to be missing, and indeed something often is."

Indeed. Toussaint's Bathroom (La salle de bain), which was made into a film in 1989, opens (in Nancy Amphoux and Paul De Angelis' translation):

"When I began to spend my afternoons in the bathroom I had no intention of moving into it; no I would pass some pleasant hours there, meditating in the bathtub, sometimes dressed, other times naked."

John Lingan, reviewing Toussaint's three Dalkey published books at "Splice Today" also makes the Camus connection, saying "The books' aloof protagonists and unadorned language recall The Stranger, but Toussaint makes his larger points stylistically where Camus made his narratively..." Lingan adds Pynchon into the mix, saying,

"The Bathroom, Monsieur, and Camera more closely resemble The Crying of Lot 49's shaggy, ultimately directionless structure, but without Pynchon's mock-epic ambitions and paranoia. Rather, Toussaint's everymen are trapped in their author's own purposeful form. Their desire to fully catalogue a day's action, to bring a day's contents to light, turns out to be as ineffectual as their own professional and personal lives."

I personally find author comparisons a bit too confining, even if the context can be helpful when exposing a largely neglected author (in the U.S.) to a new audience. Toussaint said in a recent interview at The Quarterly Conversation that "Literature has no real political or social role to play. Its role is primarily aesthetic. It's an art. But it must absolutely offer a view of the world."

Camus has always struck me as being quite on another spectrum where world view is everything and his art is a means to that end. While that doesn't negate the comparison necessarily, I wonder if implicitly pegging him as a philosphical novelists might be a disservice, where at the very least we're left wondering what that philosophy is or wondering if instead it is merely a condition. Lingan brings up some of the mathematical games Toussaint plays that seem to go nowhere, saying, "Toussaint occasionally leaves philosophical breadcrumbs for readers to follow, but they never quite lead us to concrete meanings or explanations." Hmmm. What do you think? Is their a better connection to made for Toussaint's writing, or is Toussaint a Camus for our age?

You'll find a piece from Toussaint's Self-Portrait Abroad translated by Edward Gauvin at Words Without Borders, and Toussaint's novel Fuir is being translated for publication in 2010.

* via Conversational Reading

Published Dec 3, 2008   Copyright 2008 Bud Parr

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