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la salle de bain
18 october 2012
Jean-Philippe Toussaint wrote La salle de bain long before his intriguing recent novels Fuir and La vérité sur Marie, but a certain strong relationship inheres among the three novels. And for all I know, every single novel that Toussaint writes may have this same structure. I'm still learning, and I intend to find out more and deliver the results here.
All three novels have a three-part movement, in which a first-person male narrator travels out, has an adventure, and returns. All three are oblique, if not maddeningly vague. All three have a mercurial female love interest who keeps flitting, or perhaps charging, in and out of their life; they flee this woman as much as they seek her. (In the latter two, it's been the Marie of the title; in La salle de bain, the lover is called Edmondsson.) In all three, the minutiae of life occupy the foreground to the extent that we're not really sure a background exists. And all three make enigmatic use of sport.
In La salle de bain, the sport is tennis, though several others are mentioned in a more offhand way (including soccer), and darts, at one point, play a literally piercing role in the plot. I won't say much about tennis in La salle de bain here – as infrequently happens on lection, I am saving the topic for scholarly projects – but suffice to say that in the best postmodern fashion of Tristram Shandy and its heirs, the tennis matches in La salle de bain keep getting deferred until they never actually take place. In Toussaint's fiction, the journey is more important than the getting there. And the never getting there at all is more important than the journey.
The narrator of La salle de bain starts out in the bathroom, and you have a feeling he's going to stay there for a while. With the perversity of a novel that has a section called Paris which is set almost entirely in Venice, La salle de bain gets going when the narrator leaves the bathroom for good after a few pages. He later checks out of a hotel which he's treated almost like a hospital into a hospital that he treats a lot like a hotel. The novel's paragraphs are numbered: 40 in the first section, 50 in the last, and 80 in a middle section called "Hypotenuse." But a right triangle with sides of 40 and 50 should have a hypotenuse of about 64. The narrator reads and quotes Pascal, but the only copy he can find (during the most of the novel that he inexplicably spends in Italy) is in English.
Some of this may be avant-gardism for its own sake, but one gets a sense in La salle de bain that Toussaint is showing us the incommensurableness and contingency of life. No wonder people want to spend more of it in the bathroom.
Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. La salle de bain. Paris: Minuit, 1985.