Thursday, September 23, 2010


by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

It was about at the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that in my immediate horizon two events came about, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way. As it happens I had just decided to learn how to drive, and I had barely begun to get used to this idea when some news reached me by mail: a long-lost friend, in a letter composed with a type-writer, a rather old type writer, had informed me he was getting married. Now, personally, if there's one thing that terrifies me, it's long-lost friends.

The Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint is quickly becoming one of my favorites. The opening sequences of “Camera,” one remind me of the enjoyment I experienced recently reading another work, Television, by the same author.
Toussaint’s writing is comic and in this case that entails a sort of comedy with a tendency toward the mechanical. People, gestures and events become like automata — compressed, sprung, interlocked and endlessly repeating. The action, limited as it may be in this book that exhibits the author's control over inaction, in “Camera” take place among automobiles: machines whose very name encodes self-generated motion without end. To the extent there is any plot it involves the hero’s repeated trysts with the driving-school secretary. But this exists within and overlays a background of mechanical wordplay.

It seems that not much happens in “Camera.” But the hero is in a continual battle with a reality of driving lessons, journeying and falling in love. The hero muses that “in my struggle with reality, I could exhaust any opponent with whom I was grappling, like one can wear out an olive, for example, before successfully stabbing it with a fork.” That olive appears a few pages later, in a restaurant scene whose dialogue is passed over entirely, the better to let us appreciate the olive’s lined surface, its “resistance diminishing” beneath the pressure of the tines. Who will win this battle is not always clear. In an interview reproduced at the novel’s end, Toussaint cites Kafka: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.” Continuity or focus is provided by the titular camera. The novel progresses and this reader had fun with the real moments while not necessarily sharing the level of despair brought forth by the author. The battle can be fun, if you let it.

Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Dalkey Archive Press. 2008 (2005)

View all my reviews

No comments: