Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a Belgian prose writer and filmmaker. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages and he has had his photographs displayed in Brussels and Japan. His 2009 novel La Vérité sur Marie won the prestigious Prix Décembre.
"[Reticence is] a brilliant combination of a sort of nervous delirium and stifled laughter. In this, Reticence finds [a] perfect and subtle balance of seriousness, derision, and poetry."
"Dreamy and funny and haunted in a way all his own."
"In Toussaint, everything depends on [an] 'almost.' Minor breaks in routine become moving because human action per se is depicted as fragile, ephemeral, absurd."
"Toussaint is a genuinely funny writer . . . small erotic moments are captured perfectly . . . makes me long for more by Toussaint."
All show, no tell. That’s the best way I can think to describe Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s work. Terrence Malick adapting Beckett. Extreme minimalism. Delicate maximalism. Strange ballet on the page.
I’m recommending Reticence here, but all show, no tell could easily be said of the Parisian Belgian’s work as a whole. Reticence, published in France in 1991 and just now being issued in English by Dalkey Archive, doesn’t stray greatly from the more recently notable Running Away and The Truth About Marie. Like those works, the prose is more pacing than plot, more action than emotion, more supposition than exposition. Drop a Toussaint novel into a writing workshop and show your students how to crack a table into rational and emotional halves.
The “story” of Reticence is quite simple. Our narrator and his young son (still sleeps in a crib, no language or mother) spend a few nights in a small fishing village, the idea being to visit a writer friend named Biaggi, who keeps a house there. Something holds our hero back, though. An “initial reticence” takes over, so consuming he can’t sleep, and in the midst of this reticence he becomes convinced Biaggi knows he’s in town. In fact, he’s convinced Biaggi is following him, even having him watched by the proprietor of the hotel.
By nights, our hero sneaks about the village, leaving his son to sleep alone. Struggling with misgivings about seeing a friend is apparently a greater motivator than fear of leaving his infant son. In one of his first insomniac outings, our hero spies in the night water a dead cat floating with a piece of fishing line out its mouth:
"The way it was floating it was impossible to see its face, and it was only when the current caused its body to pivot slightly that I saw it had a fish head in its mouth, from which a broken bit of fishing line protruded a couple of inches. And it was precisely this piece of line that made me think later in the evening — at the time I’d just looked at it without giving it too much thought — that the cat had been murdered."
So much depends upon a murdered cat. With our hero full of questions, the answers he accepts are never quite waterproof enough for us readers to accept. So cycles of crisis-conflict-climax repeat again and again and again, and suspense piles and piles and piles, no dramatic beat ever completely resolved:
"How else to explain the fragment of fishing line in its mouth? How could such a tough and resistant bit of line be cut by the animal itself? And how, supposing it had indeed managed to cut the line, to explain the presence of a trolling line just a few feet from the side of the pier when it should have been out at sea anywhere from thirty to sixty feet underwater? Why, above all, was the end of the line cut so cleanly, as if with a knife, if it’s not because once the cat had been caught in the trap that Biaggi had set the night before — because Biaggi was in the village, I was now sure of it. . . ."
The human mind is only half rational. Why not visit his friend? Because he doesn’t feel like it. Why doesn’t he feel like it? Because he’s reticent. Why is he reticent? I don’t know, but here’s a book about what reticence can drive a man to do. And this makes Reticence, like all of Toussaint’s books, beautifully unsettling, and happily irrational. Running into a friend may as well be a life and death affair. And really, “giving it too much thought” can make anything a matter of life and death. Six degrees of separation from fishing line to murder.
If this were a book of Envy or Sexual Attraction or True Love, no reader would question the rationality or motives behind the narrator (although the better parents in us might judge him for the nighttime walks). What Toussaint shows us in each of his books — showing again and again and again, cinematically — is that nothing need happen for drama still to exist. A literary Malick, Beckett with a bigger prop department. Nothing needs to be told for a reader to want to listen. Great writing does not need a story.