Category Archives: Toussaint Jean-Philippe

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

Monsieur: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“Yes, Monsieur displayed in all things a listless drive.”

I’m not quite sure how I managed to have several titles from Belgium author Jean-Philippe Toussaint on my shelves, but Monsieur is the first I picked up to read. At 102 pages, this amusing tale is the story of a young executive in Paris whose private life places him in one sticky predicament after another. This is a light, airy tale dotted with absurdities and truisms, the story of a mediocre Everyman who slides by in life.


The first thing that struck me about the protagonist is his anonymity. We know him as “Monsieur,” and when the story opens, he has a new job “on the sixteenth floor of the Leonardo da Vinci tower.” He’s a cog in the machine, but his job seems fairly useless:

Twice a week, a pile of newspapers and specialized economic and financial journals awaited Monsieur at the bottom of his in-tray. He took them into his office and read them over, leafing through them all, annotating certain articles with the fine point of his Rotring, cutting out others, which he kept in plastic folders.

Monsieur seems to have perfected the fine art of delineating being seen with not-being-seen. He joins in conversations, but in meetings he sits next to his supervisor, “scrupulously attentive to remain in line with her body, drawing back when she moved backwards, leaning forward when she moved forward, so as to be never too directly exposed.” He never seems to do much work, and his supervisor, Madame Dubois-Lacour comments, “you always seem to be bone idle,” but to her “this was the sign of the truly great worker.”

While Monsieur’s work life is stable and under control, it’s his personal life that needs reigning in. After he’s shoved by a man at a bus stop, he moves in, temporarily, with his fiancée and her parents, but after his romantic relationship goes south, he remains with his not-to-be in-laws who are too polite to tell him to move on. ….

From this moment, Monsieur’s life spirals out of control. One living arrangement after another finds him in various sticky predicaments as people expect favours, and Monsieur, naturally, is too polite to refuse. This is a man whose passivity results in some odd and funny situations, and yet, when it comes to his not-to-be future in-laws we see how passivity can also be passive-aggressive.

It’s easy to dismiss this novella as ‘fluffy’ but I have a feeling that if  when I read more Toussaint, I’ll pick up some prevailing themes.

Monsieur’s new apartment, which had three large rooms, was practically empty and smelled of paint. Only in his bedroom were there one or two pieces of furniture and a few camping chairs. All the other rooms were empty, with the exception of the entrance, where he had put his suitcases, as well as two boxes of magazines and a portable typewriter. Since the previous day Monsieur hadn’t touched or unpacked a thing. He sat in his bedroom, the light out, in a reclining chair. Dressed in a grey suit, a white shirt and a dark tie that everyone envied him, he listened to the radio and touched himself all over his body, his cheeks, or his sex, coolly, at random, but no comfort, really, came to him from having himself permanently at hand. 

Translated by John Lambert


Filed under Fiction, Toussaint Jean-Philippe