Camera: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“In the battle with oneself and reality, don’t try to be courageous.”

Last year I read Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Monsieur, the story of a man whose private life places him in a series of predicaments. Camera has some similarities, but of the two, I preferred Camera. This is a simple tale quirky, amusing and light in the beginning, but the plot takes a darker turn. This is the novella’s opening line, and if it appeals to you, you’ll probably like the story:

It was at about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.

The story begins with an anonymous man showing up at the driver’s ed. office, but it later turns out that this isn’t his first attempt at learning how to drive.  There’s something about this character and boundaries, and we see this almost immediately. Pascale, the young woman at the drivers ed. office needs certain paperwork completed and photos of potential students. The completion of the application becomes a long drawn-out affair which requires numerous trips to the driver’s ed office.

It seemed to me that, in order to be able to turn in the application, the only things that were missing, apart from the self-addressed envelope, were the photos. Before leaving, I let her know that, speaking of photos, a little while ago at my house, I had found some photos of myself when little. Why don’t I show them to you, I said while taking out the envelope from my coat pocket, and, walking around to the other side of her desk, I went through them once by one, leaning over her shoulder in order to point out what I was explaining. 

The next day, he returns, without the required photos, makes himself comfortable in her office and while Pascale can only offer tea, the narrator demands coffee, so off Pascale trots to get coffee. In the meantime, a young student appears at the door. The young man, seeing someone inside the building, during office hours, knocks persistently.

I put my paper down again and  got up to answer the door–this guy was going to get it. What do you want? I asked. I just turned eighteen, he said (as if he was trying to impress me). We’re closed, I said. But I was already here yesterday, he added. I just wanted to drop off my application. Let’s not be stubborn, I said, slowly closing my eyes. I shut the door. 

Gradually the self-obsessed narrator invades Pascale’s life, and she seems the perfect match. He’s charmed by Pascale noting “although she could be very lively, that she permanently challenged life with a lethargy that was just as remarkable.” Whereas the narrator questions everything, dissects every event, Pascale manages to snooze through life. Soon he’s meeting her son and father, has a pedicure, battles for a propane tank and takes a trip to London–all fairly pedestrian events during which a romance begins between Pascale and the narrator. Underneath all of these events, there’s a connective acknowledgement of the passage of time, and a “move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.” 

I’ve read some criticisms of the novella stating that nothing really happens in the plot. I don’t agree: this is about the mundane quality of life as observed by a self-obsessed man who worries about decay and who slides into an existential crisis. My edition, from Dalkey Archive Press, contains an interview with the author.

My approach, rather obscure to those unfamiliar, was based on the idea 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, and that my propensity not to hasten matters, far from having a negative effect, in fact prepared for me a fertile ground where, when things seemed ripe, I could make my move with ease. 

Translated by Matthew B. Smith


Filed under Fiction, Toussaint Jean-Philippe

3 responses to “Camera: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

  1. Interesting review. I’ve seen a few positive accounts of this author’s work over the past couple of years – the name certainly rings a bell.

  2. I have a number of his books on the shelf. It was a lot of fun to read.

  3. I’m sure I’d like this. I did like the opening line.

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