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Geometry is Everything

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Tom McCarthy took part in a debate on Christian Boltanski‘s links to OuLiPo at the Grand Palais in Paris on 29 January.

McCarthy has also published an essay on Jean-Philippe Toussaint in the latest issue of the London Review of Books. At times, it reads like a manifesto:

“For any serious French writer who has come of age during the last 30 years, one question imposes itself above all others: what do you do after the nouveau roman? Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon et compagnie redrew the map of what fiction might offer and aspire to, what its ground rules should be — so much so that some have found their legacy stifling. …Other legatees, such as Jean Echenoz, Christian Oster and Olivier Rolin, have come up with more considered answers, ones that, at the very least, acknowledge an indebtedness – enough for their collective corpus to be occasionally tagged with the label ‘nouveau nouveau roman’. Foremost among this group, and bearing that quintessentially French distinction of being Belgian, is Jean-Philippe Toussaint.

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. …

…He’d made the addition of an element that Robbe-Grillet and Simon’s work, for all its greatness, almost entirely lacks: humour. The protagonists (all nameless) of the first three novels are essentially slapstick heroes in the Keaton-Chaplin mould. They amble through the modern urban landscape, amusing themselves by triggering and retriggering an automatic doorbell, flirting with a pretty secretary, or failing to observe the etiquette of a posh tennis club or dinner with the girlfriend’s parents, or to master the workings of cars or the rules of the Highway Code. The affect, here, stems from the naive individual’s skewed encounter with systems larger than himself, an encounter which, reprised again and again, plays out Bergson’s first rule of comedy: that life should be reshaped into a self-repeating mechanism (it’s no coincidence that so much slapstick involves cars: in Bergson’s terms, automobiles are automatically funny).

What this aesthetic shares with its uncomic nouveau roman forebears is an anti-naturalist, anti-humanist bent: we’re being given access not to a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on — but rather to an encounter with structure. In a wonderful sequence in Camera, Toussaint sets up a scene of dialogue in a restaurant and, having placed a bowl of olives on the table (as a naturalist writer would do to provide background verisimilitude), suppresses the scene’s dialogue entirely, and describes exclusively the movement of hands as they reach towards the bowl, the trajectory of fruit from hand to mouth, the ergonomics of pit-transfers from mouth to tablecloth and, most striking of all, the regularly spaced imprints made by the back of a fork’s tines across the skin of the lone olive the narrator toys with before stabbing it. We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.

In The Bathroom, this logic frames the entire book, which — prefaced by Pythagoras’ rule about the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides — assumes a triangular form, its three sections entitled ‘Paris’, ‘Hypotenuse’, ‘Paris’. When the hero, in a willed narrative refusal to go out into the world and make something happen, takes to his bathroom and decides to stay there, he luxuriates in the tub’s parallel sides and in the patterns formed by the towel-rails, as though space itself was like the olive, embossed with evenly spread lines. Watching his lover move round their flat, he discerns the ‘curves and spirals’ described by her arms. We exist and assume subjectivity to the extent that we occupy a spot on or traverse the grid: an implicit assertion that’s part Descartes, part Deleuze. Geometry is not just an aesthetic: it is, to borrow a term from Deleuze, our ‘habitus’. When the narrator finally leaves the bathroom and the flat whose passages he’s ‘stalked’ (shoes intercepting shafts of light, half-open doors on each side providing symmetry and rhythm), he travels in the cube of a train compartment to a Venetian hotel, there to install himself in a new bathroom, to stalk new hallways, all of which he describes in careful detail. His lover, joining him, tries to entice him out to see Renaissance works of art, but he’s not interested. Pictures can’t be inhabited, unlike the neutral, unanimated surfaces and planes of corridors and door-frames.

At one point The Bathroom’s hero even buys himself a dartboard, ‘sober-looking’ and ‘concentric’, and, drawing on a round table columns representing various countries, plays out a darts ‘world cup’ — alone, of course. There are echoes here of Huysmans’s Des Esseintes, who abandons the countries of the world in favour of their simulacra. But Toussaint’s is a next generation decadent: where Des Esseintes’s creations convey the smells, sounds and colours of the landscapes they replace, Toussaint’s narrator has excised all mimesis. His world-in-absentia has been reduced to a shorthand cartography, the dartboard’s intersections and the circular chart: abstract globes made up of characterless vectors. And it’s here that The Bathroom’s single genuine ‘event’ takes place: as his lover stands beside the board nagging him once more to get up off his arse and visit Venice, the narrator, quite deliberately, throws a dart into her forehead, piercing it as though it were an olive’s skin. This, perhaps, is the nouveau roman’s greatest legacy: an understanding of what renders space meaningful. It’s an understanding that Greek tragedy (with its houses, cities and whole states founded on primal murders) also displays — and one which illustrates why Houellebecq is so wrong about Robbe-Grillet’s writing. In The Bathroom, as in The Voyeur, space is brought into its own, made present in the only true way possible: through acts of violence.

…Another way in which the Eastern novels differ from their predecessors is in the priority they give to that bugbear of all things even vaguely avant-garde: relationships. For all their narrative refusal and machine-like logic, Toussaint’s first three novels also involved emotional encounters between men and women. They could even be seen as playful renditions of quite conventional romantic situations, but only if re-engineered through a certain kind of reading, much as some student guides to Ulysses try to persuade us that what’s ‘really’ going on in such and such a scene is Bloom pining for Molly, for example (‘No,’ I always want to shout out when I read accounts like these, ‘what’s really going on is tramlines vibrating, soap singing and language rioting, just like it says!’). But Making Love and Running Away are unabashedly ‘about’ the troubled love between the hero and his girlfriend. …

Is this a crypto-reactionary step backwards towards humanism, sentimentalism, positivism and the whole gamut of bad isms that the vanguard 20th-century novel expended so much effort overcoming — and, moreover, a step backwards enabled by some of that vanguard’s own techniques? It’s hard to say. In La Patinoire (‘The Ice Rink’), a film Toussaint scripted and directed, the French director-character (it’s a film about the making of a film) tries to explain to his American star that he hides love stories behind elaborate formal exercises. Is that an inverse way of saying that, in order to get away with formal exercises, he uses love stories as a sweetener, a Trojan horse? Either way, the star, who doesn’t speak French, smiles back and says, ‘I don’t understand’; then, as the ice melts beneath the spotlights, and the geometrically scored skate-marks disappear, he goes off and screws the leading lady the director covets. It’s a brilliantly comic moment — and one that (again) replays, or becomes a snapshot, en abîme, of the complex cultural legacy Toussaint has inherited, and its relation to a dumb mainstream culture in a corner of whose soil it must somehow take root and grow. …”

[Pix by Andrew Gallix.]

First posted: Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010.

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