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Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Television is not "about television." It is "about" a Frenchman in Berlin who spends the summer on his own while his wife and two children (so he says - one's in utero) vacation in Italy. The unnamed narrator - we'll call him "JP" - is supposed to be writing a monograph on Titian. But for one reason or another - and no reason is ever fixed upon - he's blocked. It's not the kind of block that involves a lot of crumpled A4. In the course of the novel, JP spends just about no time at his desk. Instead, he elaborates a marvelous metaphysics of writing, a philosophy of scholarship according to which one works hardest when one does something else altogether.
JP is something of a scamp.
I'd decided to spend the summer alone in Berlin to devote myself to my study of Titian Vecellio. For several years now I'd been planning a vast essay on the relationship between political power and the arts. Little by little, my focus had narrowed to sixteenth-century Italy, and more particularly to Titian Vecellio and Emperor Charles V; in the end, I'd chosen the apocryphal story of the paintbrush - according to which Charles V bent down in Titian's studio to pick up a paintbrush that had slipped from the painter's hands - as my monograph's emblematic center and the source of its title, The Paintbrush. I'd begun a sabbatical from my university post at the start of the year, so I could concentrate on my writing. Meanwhile, having learned of a private foundation in Berlin with a mission to aid researchers of my stripe, I'd applied for a grant. I put together a file with a detailed description of my project, carefully emphasizing that my research would absolutely require a visit to Augsburg, where Charles V had resided from 1530 until I no longer know what year (oh, dates) and where, most significantly, Titian had painted several of the finest portraits of Charles V, the large equestrian portrait now at the Prado, for instance, as well as the seated Charles V in Munich's Alte Pinakothek, his face pale and sad, a glove in his hand. It goes without saying that a stay in Augsburg might have been extraordinarily fruitful and profitable for my work, but at the same time I was perfectly prepared to concede that this project on Titian Vecellio wasn't really as specifically German as I'd sought to suggest in the skillfully-crafted little essay [le petit mémoir habilement tourné] attached to my grant application, and that at bottom it was no more difficult, for example, to travel to Augsburg from Paris than from Berlin. Munich would have been ideal. In the end, though, I got the grant (which goes to show), and the three of us went off to Germany.
In this passage, the humor begins with the shrinkage of the "vast essay" into a small gesture - the emperor's picking up of the paintbrush - that might have been entirely trivial (if indeed it occurred), but that is just the sort of banality that modern scholars mine for meaning. The grant from a foundation in Berlin is, in its very quiet way, madly comic. There is nothing about JP's project that ought to bring him to the Prussian capital. As he himself says, Munich - in the south, and much closer to France (not to mention Augsburg) - would be "ideal" - assuming that there was any good reason to leave home at all. When JP gets his grant - "(which goes to show/comme quoi)" - he fairly sticks out his tongue. Having reduced his magnum opus to a monograph, JP is perfectly poised to transmute the slog of hard writing into a more virtual project. What could be more agreeable, after all, than "working" while swimming hypnotically agreeable laps in a public pool?
Concentrating on the simple natural sequence of my movements, I swam peacefully in the blue-tinged water, reflecting on the evolution of my work, swimming never having seemed to me incompatible with scholarship, quite the reverse. Reflected glints of sunlight skipped amiably along beside me, multiple, rainbow-hued, refracted, shimmering along my arms with every stroke,, and so, pursuing my pool lengths, I continued to work peacefully on my monograph. There are always two distinct processes...
[I'm sorry; I break out laughing at the idea of working peacefully while doing the backstroke. The swimming, however, continues without interruption:]
There are always two distinct processes in any literary endeavor, it seems to me, two separate poles, complementary in a way, but requiring two diametrically opposed qualities. The first, subterranean, is a gestational process, demanding looseness and flexibility, a game and open mind, in order to fuel the handling of new ideas and new materials, while the second is soberer, more orderly, requiring method and discipline, austerity and rigot; this is the process that takes over when it comes time to put the text into its definitive form. Let's say that since the beginning of the summer, of those two poles, one Jansenist, the other free-flowing, I'd been favoring the more free-flowing one.
This wholly bogus explanation, coming in at about the halfway point of the novel, is such a wicked understatement of JP's idleness that it has a luxurious quality, as though JP had discovered Golconda in his desk drawer and were idly sampling his newly-found riches. There is no hint, anywhere in Television, that JP's extended procrastination (which is certainly not what he calls it) will have any unpleasant consequences in the future. At the beginning, it's true, you may worry on the feckless scholar's behalf. In an Anglophone novel, there would certainly be a hell-to-pay menace looming in the foreshadowing. In JP's language, however, that would be "Jansenist." Television is joyously "free-flowing."
And nothing could be more free-flowing that the third of the novel that is devoted to the chronicle of one day in July. It begins with an "informal working breakfast with myself" and then a stroll toward "the study and its thousand untarnished promises of good work to come." Alas, once seated at the computer, JP finds that "nothing came." After a marvelously insignificant fret about what to call his subject - the artist known as Titian goes by several names, and one must make a choice - JP turns his computer off and goes outside to enjoy the beautiful day. He walks to the nearby Halensee Park, where the lawn that stretches down to the lake is littered with sunbathers, "most of them naked." Within the space of a few deadpan paragraphs, JP begins his own striptease - unprecedented in fiction. One by one, he removes the clothes he's wearing, until he's down to his boxers and his hat.
I rose and stood on the lawn, my hat on my head. Apart from my hat, I was wearing only my underwear, rather roomy and pouchless, one of those American styles of underwear that could easily pass for swimming trunks. My outfit thus remained perfectly decent, nothing to worry about there. I took off my underwear. I could feel a few drops of sweat slowly trickling over my temples. I didn't move. I was still as hot as ever; none of this had helped much.
The idea of disrobing in order to cool off is so preposterously disingenuous that the remark about "perfectly decent" would almost seem to be unnecessary, but it packs a wallop just the same. "I was decent" becomes "I was indecent" in the small stretch of five words (four in French: J'enlevai mon caleçon"). But Mr Toussaint is not aiming for smut here. What he is calling attention to is the conflict between Jansenism and "free-flowing." JP's instinctive pudeur - his modesty - must somehow to be overcome if he is to enjoy himself. He can't just strip like the healthy Amazon who plays ping-pong nearby, wearing only her shoes and socks. His clothes come off slowly, item by item, under protest, as it were, because of the heat. The disrobing is all so unexpected that you don't at first wonder just how premeditated the trip to the park must have been, but long before JP puts his clothes back on, you know that he has yearned to be naked in a park full of naked people.
There is a physicality about JP's presence that I have never encountered in fiction before. It is only mildly carnal, just as inhabiting a human body is, for the most part, only mildly carnal. Physical sensations register on every page. Most of them are quite ordinary, like the feel of swimming-pool water against the skin. You have felt the same things yourself, countless times, but you have probably not talked about them; not out of decency but simply because there is an art to being interesting about such things. And Mr Toussaint is supremely interesting about JP's body. He uses it to illustrate JP's deep-seated resistance to scholarship and austerity. He also uses it to underscore the two-dimensional meaninglessness of television.
I've said that Television is not about television, but the novel meditates richly on the problematic nature of the medium. In the opening lines, JP tells us that he quit watching television, cold turkey, after the preceding summer's Tour de France. "I never watched television again." This turns out to be true only in a deep sense - there's a delightfully Gallic riff in the middle of the book about how the rule against watching television applies only at home. It would be better to say that JP stops attending to television. He understands that "this is how television presents the world to us every day: speciously, enjoyable only if we give up three of the five senses we ordinarily use to see it as it is." (The original French more cogently and less regrettably has "appréhender" for "see.") JP wants to use all of his senses, and that's why what he smells, tastes, and, overwhelmingly, touches is woven so thickly into the novel's texture.
Perhaps the apogee of Mr Toussaint's contraposition of the television and the body occurs in a late moment, when JP likens watching television to a disease. This sounds like a terrible cliché, but JP believes that people regard their own television-watching habits in terms of something like cancer.
I'd often observed this kind of quiet, troubled modesty when people were forced to speak of the relationship we all have with television. They seemed to broach the subject in spite of themselves, as if discussing some grave illness which touched their lives not indirectly but on the most intimate level. Unable to deny their affliction, they strove at least to minimize its consequences, underscoring the frequent respites that the illness still granted them, the happy times when it torments seemed bearable, when its effects seemed to fade, when they could thus lead a normal life, those several evenings a week when they still went out to the theatre or a concert, those long Sunday afternoons spent simply reading at home. No doubt this brought them a kind of reassurance, this insistence on the few hours of their lives still spared by the disease, and so they complacently thought their condition less serious than it was, its progression less unstoppable, when in fact the disturbing symptoms were only multiplying: turn to the last pages of any newspaper, and you'll see those thousands of tiny coded bits of information spreading and spreading, invading columns like infected cells, metastasizing, progressively replacing the ever-weakening healthy cells of the newspapers (some of them, defeated and overrun, were already in the terminal stage); and even out in the streets, the cafés, in the buses and subways, on the radio, in the offices, in ever conversation the subject was never anything other than television, as if the very basis of conversation, its single visceral material, had become television, and in spite of all this everyone went on looking away, forever denying the gravity of the disease (even Titian's initials, I'd suddenly realized, were T.V.).
Like much of Television, this seems worthy of Proust, and I wonder if Mr Toussaint is not making a decidedly Proustian case against television.
What's so interesting about JP's renunciation of television is that it's not made in the interest of finishing his monograph. Indeed, the monograph lies on the hard drive of his computer, and access requires him to look at another screen. That is why he can't work. (He is an industrious note taker, although he claims - striking a very familiar chord for me - that his notes are never of any use.) Eventually, when his wife returns from her vacation, he comes back from his, and buckles down to work and responsible fatherhood. (Although I may spoil a pleasant surprise, I think it's important to note that JP has no amorous adventures while the cat's away, but contents himself with routine ogling - that mild carnality.) He even "watches" television - the adventures of Robin Hood with his son, a political debate featuring a neighbor with his wife. But he turns it off after everyone else is asleep.
I leaned back against my pillow and sat for a long time in the dark, not moving, simply savoring that little moment of eternity: silence and darkness regained.
Television is a sprightly caper that registers not so much as an intellectual or imaginative exercise but rather as actual, physical exercise - as exercise accomplished. Much of it is very funny; there's a story line about the neighbors' houseplants that is simply madcap. But more deeply it is about the unity of the things that we do with our bodies, not the least important of which is reading novels. (March 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press