Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a Belgian author who has published 6 novels up to the present, La Television being his fifth. Warren Motte calls Toussaint’s body of work an “epic of the trivial” (179), which is an apt description for the quotidian, quiet events of his work, wherein the small things of life make up the larger amount of the novels.
The novel begins, “J’ai arrêté regarder la télévision.” [“I stopped watching television.” (My trans.)] (7) From there the unnamed narrator tells the reader about the summer he spent alone in Berlin. He is a Parisian academic in his thirties who is in Berlin to research and write a book about the painter Titian and political power. His companion and child are vacationing in Italy, while he stays behind to work. Finding himself watching too much television, he decides to stop in order to devote more time to his writing. From this renunciation of television the novel unfolds. There are no big events in the novel, no events that lead to a climax. It is a quiet work that is thoughtful and often drolly funny (I chuckled to myself a number of times).
Throughout the novel, the narrator meditates on television and its relation to himself and society. He seems unable to avoid thinking about it or watching it regardless of his determination to stop. He is asked to water his upstairs neighbors plants and ends up in their bedroom watching sports on the t.v. He walks down the street and comes upon a store with a wall of t.v. sets playing in the window. At the apartment of a student of one of his friend’s, he finds himself sitting on the couch watching t.v. with her parents. And, worst of all, on his first night without the t.v., he sits on his couch in front the silent set and, reading the newspaper, focuses on the television listings.
The narrator constantly avoids writing, but also tells himself that he is working, for “ne pas ecrire est au moins aussi important qu’écrire.” [“not writing is at least as important as writing”] (75) He swims in a pool and considers it work. Throughout, he never manages to solve the simple problem of what name he will use for Titian in his book.
Outside of all this, the narrator finds interest in the small things, in daily life. He is always looking around, and keeping busy in different ways. Even washing windows he finds fun, and compares the spraying of the washing fluid across the window with the painting technique of Pollack.
I’ve read a number of Toussaint’s novels and am always amused by them. His stories of the small events in life are quite interesting, and I think people will appreciate them should they give him a chance. He is not a flashy writer in plot or style, but the simple, rather colloquial narration (albeit that of an art history scholar) is a pleasure. The Dalkey Archive site says he is compared to the films of Jim Jarmusch, and I, too, find myself thinking of “Stranger than Paradise” as a work similar in its attentions.
Motte, Warren. Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990. Dalkey Archive, 2003.