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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television

The afterword spins it as a depiction of the battle for our attention, between the novel and television, in a society where “television’s dominion in [our] society’s aesthetics is nigh absolute.” Which feels pretty limp, as far as a motivating idea for this novel goes. And if that were the case, why wouldn’t the narrator be more incapable of reading? He seems to be doing quite well, on Volume 3 of Musset’s complete works. The struggle doesn’t so much seem to be between literature and television, but between the ways in which we allow ourselves to be used by a medium. There is an abundance of framing in the narrator’s descriptions of what he sees, which echoes the television frame: the large glass wall in his gym that overlooks a soccer field where people play in all weather, the window through which he watches a naked young woman look for a shirt, the frames of the paintings in the Dahlem Museum, the window in the security booth through which he watches the museum’s security camera feeds. The medium through which we get our media, then, and how that alters our consumption, not the battle between mediums for domination. For he even tells us about the librarian who holds before him with pride a single diskette containing the complete works of Musset, indexed and catalogued— which doesn’t have a reference to what he’s looking for. On the museum security monitor— a TV, after all— he recognizes “after studying the monitor for some time” one of Titian’s paintings of Charles V, and closes his eyes to recall the canvas in detail. The security cameras, just as how he earlier described television, “[flow] along hand in hand with time, aping its passage in a crude parody where no moment lasts and everything soon disappears, to the point where you might wonder where all those images go once they’ve been broadcast, with no one watching them or remembering them or retaining them, scarcely seen at all, only momentarily skimmed by the viewer’s gaze.” With the monitors framed by the booth window, though, he freely pushes past their snare to recall a piece of art in detail, while a visitor in the room with Titian’s painting is “slowly coming and going…, silently making his way across the fuzzy screen, leaving a very faint trail of himself in his wake, then merging with himself and gradually re-entering his corporeal envelope when he stop[s] before a painting.”

But a security camera really isn’t television, in the proper sense. Our narrator watches TV through a secondary frame another time, as he is waiting for a friend of a friend in her apartment. Her family all huddled around the television set, watching Baywatch dubbed into German, he wanders over to the window and looks across at the next building and all of the people huddled around their own TVs in their own apartments. Until he stumbles across a television with “no human presence visible before it, a phantom television in a sense, disseminating images in the emptiness of a sordid living room on the fourth floor of the building across the way.” With this, he notices the same television show being disseminated to both the family in the room he is in and to no viewer over there, “the image and sound reach[ing] me simultaneously, but from two different sources, stereophonically in a way,” and he begins to shift his gaze to other windows with other televisions broadcasting other images, “changing channels,” as it were, while the audio stays the same, “creat[ing] whatever program I wished… and I reflected that this really was exactly how television presents the world to us every day: speciously, enjoyable only if we give up three of the fives senses we ordinarly use to see it as it is.” There we go: “to see it as it is,” as he does, in a way, later on in the museum, as a medium which turns its subjects into phantoms.

Maybe that’s when Toussaint’s comedy shines, when something’s speciousness is revealed. I’ll quote a longer passage which I found very funny:

Distractedly I took a newspaper from a stand and made for the front counter, where I laid it down by the cash register. “I’d like some towels as well,” I said in my best German accent. “Excuse me?” said the woman behind the counter. “Towels,” I said. I stood there in front of her and smiled politely, in the position of slight inferiority that always comes with an imperfect knowledge of the local language. “Maybe you don’t sell towels?” I said, with the tinge of irony that is sometimes my way. “No,” she said. “And what are those?” I said, affably (not meaning to humiliate her), pointing at the many packets of Kleenex lined up behind the counter. “Those are Kleenex,” she said. “Well, I’ll take one of those instead, then,” I said. “Kleenex. How much do I owe you?” I continued in my best German accent. She must have taken me for a tourist, in my straw hat. “Excuse me?” she said. With both hands, she gestured me to wait for a moment, quickly scrawled “two marks thirty five” on a piece of paper, and held it up before my eyes with an expression of exasperated angelic patience. I paid and left the store. (Taschentuch: Kleenex, Handtuch: towel, such a fussy language).

His hint of pride at pointing out the obvious is quickly revealed as his own ineptitude with the language. Perhaps that speciousness is also why I found the novel funny at times, poignant at others, but a little uninteresting, unexciting, unintriguing for the most part. An enjoyable light read, but not essential. Thinking through it here, I find it a bit redeemed, but nevertheless, there is writing that is aware that it is writing and writing that pretends it isn’t. I don’t mean meta-fiction or self-referentiality— the narrator makes a few references to his own present writing, rather out of the blue, such as not being able to remember how old is son is in the time he’s writing about— but writing, with or without those trappings of meta-x and self-x , that can tell a story, can work within even quite traditional modes, and still be conscious of itself as writing, still remember that language and writing aren’t givens (which, in a way, the above passage does… but it is a fleeting moment, a bit of comedy that, perhaps like the novel as a whole, doesn’t quite realize fully what in it I find interesting).

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Filed under: Reviews, Toussaint

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