Category Archives: jean-philippe toussaint

New Toussaint Coming from Dalkey

In a couple of weeks Dalkey will publish the latest Toussaint translation, Self-Portrait Abroad, coming in at a whopping 80 pages. This one sounds a bit more Running Away than Television.

It’s described by its translator, John Lambert, at Words Without Borders (which also includes an excerpt) as consisting:

of glimpses, less essays than reminiscences, of places Jean-Philippe Toussaint has traveled, often for readings or as the literary member in a group of French cultural emissaries. These locales, which include Kyoto, Hanoi, Prague, and Berlin, among others, serve as occasions for the author to sketch eccentricities in both his setting and himself.

There’s also a short piece by Lambert at The Elegant Variation, where we learn:

Translating Toussaint is consequently the locus of a curious reversal in my life, whereby the active moments of translation are far less productive than the passive ones. I really make headway when I give myself up to a Toussaintesque flow of traffic or of time, of the waters of the Spree River in Berlin or the cascade of words that flows over me in the shower, on my bike or in my car when picking up my daughter after school. As a consequence the real moments of translating Toussaint move from the active to the passive realm, from behind my desk to behind the meat counter, at a parent-teacher meeting or at the dentist’s, from a moment spent hunting for a word on the Internet to one where I’m at a loss, if not for words altogether then at least for an adequate way of expressing them.

The Complete Review labels the book appealing trifle.

About 5,000 Reasons to Read Jean-Philippe Toussaint

That’s roughly what you’ll find in Tom McCarthy’s excellent LRB essay on the author. Placing Toussaint into the context of post-nouveaux roman authors (though McCarthy notes that Toussaint claims to find Robbe-Grillet unreadable), he offers excellent readings of most of Toussaint’s works, including untranslated ones:

Born in 1957, Toussaint was out of the blocks quickly: by the age of 35 he’d published four novels. It’s the last of these, the so far untranslated La Réticence, which most blatantly betrays his generation’s haunting by its predecessor. With its setting in an off-season fishing village, its quasi-repeating narrative loops that see an eminently unreliable narrator trace and retrace circuits through the corridors of a hotel or to and from the house of an absent friend-cum-rival whom he may or may not have murdered, its obsessive attention to surfaces and objects, or the geometric pulsing of a lighthouse’s ‘cône fulgurant de clarté’ through the black night, over and over – in all these aspects, the book reads like an apprentice’s studied emulation of Robbe-Grillet’s masterpiece The Voyeur. The paradox is that, when La Réticence came out in 1991, Toussaint had already published three well-received, quite differently styled books: The Bathroom, Monsieur and Camera. It’s almost as though, having successfully completed the first stretch of his career, he decided to go back and write a hommage or pastiche, a finger exercise to reassure himself that he could ‘do’, straight-up, a genre that he’d been transforming from the get-go.

And when you’re done with that, read TQC’s interview with Toussaint, as well as reviews of Running Away and Monsieur.

Review of Running Away

Nice to see a review of Jean Philippe Toussaint’s Running Away at Words Without Borders, although the general cold-shouldering of this author continues to baffle me (well, not really . . .):

This brief summary leaves out the feelings that form the real unity of the book; a dramatic plot is clearly not the main organizing principal of this novel. Toussaint makes use of the devices of a plot-based narrative, yet he consistently leaves mysteries unresolved and continuously deflates any dramatic tension that may have built up. From the beginning, the generic elements of a thriller are put into play, but here they fizzle and fade out. The narrator’s “sort of mission” for Marie involves giving a manila envelope of cash to Zhang, whose dealings are possibly “dishonest and illicit” though the narrator “hadn’t heard anything about [him] being involved in organized crime.” At one point Zhang receives a phone call and drags the narrator and Li away from their bowling game (a scene not without some of Toussaint’s characteristically dry humor) and onto a motorbike for what is perhaps a furious chase scene. Or maybe it’s not, as nothing comes of it. The events of the plot point to pursuit and danger; Zhang drags Li and the narrator to the motorbike and they rush off, accompanied by the scream of sirens, taking a shortcut through a construction site. Yet, in the end, no one appears. Zhang delivers his package to a bar, and the narrator is left to return to his hotel.

We also reviewed this book in The Quarterly Conversation (as well as offering a slew of other Toussaint-related content). The Front Table also reviewed, as did (obviously) the Complete Review.

By the way, check out the cover at one of the above links. Dunno if this will scare away potential readers or intrigue them . . . call it the extreme approach to book covers.

CR Readers’ Picks

Based on Amazon purchases made through links on this website, the following are the "picks" of Conversational Reading’s readers for 2008:


By a large margin, The Invention of Morel was the most popular purchase among readers of this blog. Obviously, my sincere praise of this book helped move it along, but I’m convinced that not nearly as many copies would have been purchased if this wasn’t a great book, and if Borges wasn’t Bioy’s literary collaborator. A great read, and if you haven’t had a chance to yet, definitely pick it up.


Not really a surprise, but something of an unusual pick is experimental British writer B.S. Johnson’s novel-in-a-box, The Unfortunates. Clearly, readers were drawn to this one for the atypical presentation (loose signatures collected in a box), although Johnson’s status as one of Britain’s most notable experimental authors of the late 20th century certainly didn’t hurt. For all you Johnson fans looking for more, be sure to check out Jonathan Coe’s excellent biography, Like a Fiery Elephant.


2666. For quite obvious reasons.


There’s a bit of a tie for fourth place with Senselessness, Television, and The Siege of Krishnapur, all excellent books. It’s a little interesting to see Television so high up, as it was published a couple years back and I’ve been talking more about two of Toussaint’s other books this year: Monsieur (re-issued this year) and Camera (published in English this year). But I won’t argue with your choice: I like them all, but I would put Television on top.


A number of books tied for fifth place:


And here are the rest that made a notable impression, saleswise:

Publishing Toussaint at Dakley

Dalkey Archive editor and Quarterly Conversation contributor Martin Riker has a piece at the Semininary Co-Op Blog about how Dalkey came to publish three Jean-Philippe Toussaint works in the same year.

There’s something very exciting about publishing several of an author’s books together. Instead of putting a single work out into the world, you’re putting into the world a whole way of seeing. You’re saying: 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.

This is why, in the jacket copy for Camera, I refer to Toussaint as a “comic Camus for the twenty-first century.” 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.

Also see our review of Toussaint’s Monsieur and our interview with Toussaint.

Toussaint at Splice Today

Quarterly Conversation contributor John Lingan writes on Jean-Philippe Toussaint at Splice Today.

This is the philosophical thrust of Toussaint’s early work. The books’ aloof protagonists and unadorned language recall The Stranger,
but Toussaint makes his larger points stylistically where Camus made
his narratively; Meursault’s actions lead him to prison where his best
coping mechanism is the resigned existentialism that Camus espoused. 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. The
books’ plots are likewise about everything and nothing all at once; so
much happens, yet so little is of actual consequence.

Also see our interview with Toussaint.

Toussaint Reviews

The Complete Review reviews the two new Dalkey books by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. As a reminder, The Bathroom is a reissue of the original English translation of Toussaint’s first published novel, and Camera is an original translation of one of Toussaint’s earlier novels. I believe Camera was his 3rd, but don’t quote me on that.

In my opinion, both of these books are worth reading. Though they’re short, you should really read them twice if you’re to make anything of them, so instead of two, 70-page lengthy novellas, it’s more like two, 140-page short novels.

I would agree that in light of Toussaint’s later work they appear somewhat limited, but that’s not so much a criticism of these two as an acknowledgement of the writer Toussaint has become. Camera seems to be the conclusion of a certain way of writing Toussaint discovered with The Bathroom, and his post-Camera books would then take the basics of that style and make it into books that are distinct from his earlier works.

For more on Toussaint, see our review of Monsieur, and our interview with the author himself.


Scott McLemee looks at what sounds like the antecedent to Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s short novel Television.

Odd and nonlinear “Within the Context of No Context” itself certainly is. It is short, consisting of a number of brief sections. They range from a single sentence to several paragraphs, and each section has a title. While brief, the text actually takes a while to read. The relationships among the parts are oblique, and some of the prose has the strange feel that you would probably get from a translation of Schopenhauer done by Gertrude Stein.

“Within the Context of No Context” is about television, among other things — about the history of the mass media, with television as its culminating moment, but also about what TV does to the very possibility of understanding the world as having a history. It is an essay in cultural criticism. But it can just as well be called a work of prose poetry. Trow’s thoughts unfold, then draw back into themselves. This is very strange to watch.

After a quarter of a century, it may be difficult to appreciate the originality and insight of Trow’s essay. He seems to be making points about the media that are now familiar to almost everyone. In 1980, though, they were not so obvious. It’s not that he was venturing into futurology. Nor was Trow a sociologist or historian, except in the most ad hoc way. He did not offer theories or arguments, exactly, but took notes on the texture of American life following three decades of television.

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