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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

“But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable.”

My escape-reading of late has been a few Beckett related books I’ve come across: Anne Atik’s How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a brief book describing the friendship between the author, her husband, and Beckett, interspersed with some letters, pictures, and brief notes made after their evenings together, and The Critical Heritage, a collection of reviews and interviews, organized relative to the work under review. Both are rather light, the prior being simply intriguing accounts of Beckett the man and the latter mostly reviews written for newspapers and the like. As the introduction to the review collection makes clear, Beckett’s work— especially in the early years though no less even now, I would imagine— is often misinterpreted. Or, it seems possible to say, simply interpreted, the mis- being implicit regarding Beckett’s work; in one interview contained in the volume, asked what, if not a philosophical one, is his reason for writing, he responds “I haven’t the slightest idea. I’m no intellectual. All I am is feeling.”

This sense of ‘feeling’ and not ‘intellecting’ is what always brings me back to Beckett’s prose so strongly and deeply, at least regarding work from the Trilogy onward. One of the reviews in The Critical Heritage, by David Lodge, is a close-reading of ‘Ping‘ which seems to me to make the most basic and easily made mistakes in its way of imposing a ‘meaning’ onto Beckett’s writing— of ‘intellecting’ instead of ‘feeling’ it. That is not to say that intellect has no place in reading Beckett; there is a place for it, but it isn’t in locating determinate aspects of the text which, once located, may be explained. Lodge ‘suggest[s] that “Ping” is the rendering of the consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room…” [even seeming to take seriously, if admitting it is flawed, the idea that the ‘character’ is Christ in the tomb— after “If by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot”!], and a little later on, that it ‘seems to record the struggles of an expiring consciousness to find some meaning in a situation which offers no purchase to the mind or sensation.’ It is indeed difficult to discuss Beckett without relying on such terms as ‘narrator’ or ‘character, ‘ which are built into the history of fiction, that is, are the determinate factors in designating something as fiction for the majority of its history, but the dissolution of those concepts and of the relationship of the text and author is the very thing towards which Beckett’s work worked. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Beckett, Reviews

Books today…

I read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in a day’s time on one of my Christmas-break-at-home reading binges after hearing its name floated on various blogs and from the lips of a respected classmate or two. It’s a truly enthralling book, well-balanced in style and form with a gimmick put to masterful use. If you haven’t read it, the most striking formal aspect is its nested structure: the first halves of the stories, each one about a century apart, culminate in a central story set in the post-apocalyptic future, after which follows the second halves of the stories in reverse order. Each section is a meta-fictive written account in the sense that each story is a self-contained written record (i.e. a private journal, a political thriller novella of a “true” story, etc.) that is somehow discovered by the character in the next story. E.g., one character finds the first half of the preceding story being used as a stump to balance a wobbly bedframe and his attempts at finding the second half become a subplot of his story, and the preceding story (the bedrfame prop one) resumes with the end of the character’s own story in the second half the novel and his discovery of the second half of the journal. A sort of russian nesting doll of a book, as it has been described. All that to background my having just finished his book written prior to that one, number9dream.

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Filed under: Books, Mitchell, Reviews

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