There is a passage in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Camera (or, more accurately, in Matthew B. Smith’s translation) to which I often return. As with much that is great in Toussaint’s novels, which are often very short but seemingly add up to one long, semi-autobiographical narrative, the passage springs from a moment that should be utterly unmemorable. The unnamed narrator is getting a passport photo, a formality that provides a platform for one of Toussaint’s characteristic shifts from the mundane to the profound:
‘It was night now in my mind, I was alone in the semi-darkness of the booth and I was thinking, protected from outer torments. The most favourable conditions for thinking, the moments when thought can let itself naturally follow its course, are precisely moments when, having given up fighting a seemingly inexhaustible reality, the tension begins to loosen little by little, all the tension accumulated in protecting yourself against the threat of injury – and I had my share of minor injuries – and that, alone in an enclosed space, alone and following the course of your thoughts in a state of growing relief, you move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.’
The first time I read this, it struck me as the perfect description of the state of anxiety: a constant fixation on things that don’t really matter, the possibility of physical discomfort or a social faux pas, that rarely ceases to clog the mind, only relenting in moments that feel incredibly fragile and never last. It’s a perfect example of what Toussaint calls his ‘infinitesimal’ writing, which explores the impossibly small details of everyday life and the unfathomably large philosophical ideas that shape it. Camera provided a breakthrough in this approach, after his first two novels, The Bathroom (1985) and Monsieur (1986), which were subtle comedies, with a lack of direct speech feeling like an analogue to the quietude of the protagonists of Jacques Tati’s films.
Camera retains their fragmentary style, eschewal of dialogue, and refusal of a grand narrative. Little happens here, besides the narrator briefly stealing a camera while on a ferry and taking a few underwhelming photographs, but he does find more ‘favourable conditions for thinking’ and falls in love with Pascale. This allows Toussaint to bring a new tenderness into his typical focus on the minutiae of everyday life: his apparent affectless style allows moments such as when the narrator takes Pascale in his arms to warm her up when she’s cold, encouraging her to move her feet to get her blood going. These tiny interactions are what make up love, as much as the electric meetings between people, bitter arguments and break-ups that often characterise relationships in life and fiction, and Toussaint’s jurisprudence in weighting the story’s events gives these moments an importance that is too rarely found in literature.
Writing about the mundane is difficult, the obvious trap being that what you make is boring. Camera is never dull, but in its miniaturism, it offers an intriguing counterpoint to Joyce’s gargantuan effort, in Ulysses, to capture all that happens to Leopold Bloom in a single day, and to B.S. Johnson’s obsession with writing fiction that was true to life (including his own frustration that the central character in his second novel, Albert Angelo, only used the toilet once throughout the narrative). One of the skills of writing is in editing the mundanity of everyday life, and while one can imagine Johnson being impressed with Toussaint’s debut, in which the narrator retreats to living mostly in his bathtub, a novel endlessly punctuated by the protagonist going for a piss would be tedious – unless, possibly, akin to The Bathroom, that was the central conceit.
In a long London Review of Books piece on Toussaint, Tom McCarthy makes much of several vignettes in Camera where the narrator records himself stabbing an olive with his fork, and how this changes his food’s texture before he eats it. Toussaint subtly boils the essentials of life down into this motif, drawing comedy out of its repetition without it becoming repetitive. McCarthy also highlighted Toussaint’s relationship with the nouveau roman – that loose group of post-war French novelists whose works experimented with the position of the first-person narrator (who was often unreliable), using extensive descriptions of material objects as a way of examining that narrator’s concerns and consciousness. In Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes places the nouveau roman within a long line of French literature, coming after Albert Camus and Maurice Blanchot’s ‘colourless’ writing and the gradual but irreversible disintegration of the bourgeois novel. That may sound like a dead end: perhaps so, but Toussaint embraces it in Camera, writing something where little is said and less happens, with the narrator grudgingly going through the motions of daily life while he struggles to think his way out of this impasse. In this, he finds a new direction for the nouveau roman without simply replicating its stylistic innovations – for that reason, I think Camera is the best novel of its time.
Image © James Leocadi