‘A slow accretion of language that makes us think about the way we look at the world and the things within’ – Self-Portrait Abroad by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (translated by John Lambert)

The seventh of Toussaint’s “novels” published in the UK—and the sixth by the mighty Dalkey Archive – Self-Portrait Abroad comprises eleven chapters, or snapshots, towards an even newer novel – observations of the self among others (that is, among other people and observations of others) written in an almost flat prose that, from a distance, has all the movement and interest of a vast desert and yet, on closer observation, teems with life and writhes in action.

The unnamed protagonist (I think we can all guess that it is Jean-Philippe the writer) constantly mistakes people for friends or characters of his, their appearance fires his memory to think about other times and places, as if the world and the people in it served as a constant reminder of the tension between the here and now and the things of the past, of reality and the fiction made from it. The Pacific is like the Mediterranean, a flower arrangement reminds him of the colours of Anderlecht football team, and, like the hapless heroes of Toussaint’s early novels Television, Monsieur, and Camera, he has problems with the telephone and doorknobs – he has trouble with things.

While in Hong Kong airport, he experiences a “momentary loss of temporal and spatial landmarks”, just how the reader feels when faced with a Toussaint novel; although grounded in geography (whether personal as in The Bathroom or global as in Running Away), the space is always the novel, the time is always the narrative, the real is always a temporary fabric, not quite transparent, not quite graspable. In Berlin, he does psychological battle with a terse shop assistant over ham and aspic jelly. Travelling with his wife Madeleine by train to Prague, eroticism and food make the “promise of Prague” better that its actuality. While on the Cap Corse peninsula of northern Corsica, he plays a boules tournament accompanied by his wife and daughter, a surfboard wielding Japanese woman, and Corsican friends. He wins a Corsican ham. Back in Tokyo, suffering from back pain, he attempts to negotiate the seemingly miniaturized architecture of Japanese stores and restaurants; while eating, he physically and mentally agonizes over the imposed violent yoga of his seating positions; he also attempts to make sushi and sashimi, wielding a knife in a Japanese restaurant’s kitchen with varying degrees of success. He has no more luck in Kyoto – this time language is the problem – even armed with a meishi (a Japanese business card), the taxi driver is unable to find the address of a German painter the writer wishes to visit. In the ancient Japanese capital of Nara, one of his tour guides is much more interested in visiting a stripshow than the historical shrines and temples. After a comic meeting with a German-speaking taxi driver in Hanoi, our writer attends a literary conference where he is sure – but not convinced – that one of the invited guests is the actress and singer Jane Birkin. Two archaeologists gatecrash his car journey to Sfax in Tunisia, where – although he has had a premonition he would die while in the city – seems more worried about his creased shirts. On his final visit to Kyoto, he comes across a streetcar station he once used; now abandoned, the station is a “sort of no-man’s land between the platforms.”

Plot is synthesized to the particular, story to an organization of sentences. Nothing much happens in Toussaint’s novels, small things accumulate, the narrative is full of synechdochal details – doorknobs, hams, shirts, umbrellas; there are no murders, no suicides, no screaming lunatics set on destroying the world. What there is is a slow accretion of language that makes us think about the way we look at the world and the things within.

Any Cop?: In his short novels, Jean-Philippe Toussaint redefines what fiction is and what it can do. His writing, to quote the nameless writer of Self-Portrait Abroad, is “a way of inscribing myself in time, of setting landmarks in the immateriality of its flow, incisions, scratches.” Enjoy the itch.

Steve Finbow

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