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11 november 2012

Monsieur has a structure a little different from the other novels I've read by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, but some of the same Toussaint themes are there: aimless and mercurial movement, feckless apathy, and a sense that things will turn out all right if you just roll downhill. Toussaint's protagonists don't pay much attention to the niceties of social obligations, but they often find out that social success comes to those who pay no attention to social obligations, or to much of anything at all, for that matter.

Monsieur, the otherwise unnamed title character, reminds me of Jacques Tati's M. Hulot (as no doubt I'm the 99,999th reader to observe). Monsieur is more voluble than Hulot, but just as much an innocent in a world that bears him along like a chalice. He floats here and there, bumps into people but never mixes with them, obliges people without buying into their goals and needs, and gets everything he wants – largely by the principle of not wanting very much.

Along the way from nowhere to nowhere, Monsieur works at a corporate job, helps write a geology textbook, tutors a young student in physics, and spends quite a bit of leisure time with quite a few other aimless people. Ultimately, he makes a human connection with a woman named Anna Bruckhardt, who barely exists as a character for the reader, as if to say either: that she isn't important to Monsieur either; or, that she's so important that his connection with her stays appropriately on the other side of the fictional veil.

It wouldn't be a Toussaint novel if there weren't sport in it somewhere. Briefly mentioned are "football en salle" (14) and races at "l'hippodrome" (25), but the central sport scene (though brief) is a ping-pong game (61-65) that leaves Monsieur a bit worn out after competing with a younger player who insists that "au ping-pong je suis un dieu [at ping-pong, I'm a God]" (64).

One would be tempted to call Monsieur a picaresque novel if its protagonist ever managed to get anywhere. But getting there, as I've learned in reading Toussaint, is hardly the object of these saltatory, asymmetrical novels. I admire them for little touches which Toussaint works in while getting nowhere at all in the big picture. In Monsieur, I especially liked a scene where Monsieur teaches his six-year-old twin nieces to play chess, only to find that what they like best is not moving or taking pieces but realigning them on their squares while saying "j'adoube" (71). Or Monsieur at the office, whiling away his time in front of the obligatory corporate-decor aquarium:

[Il] regardait les poissons les mains dans les poches, ne se lassant pas de contempler l'inaccessible pureté des trajectoires qu'ils traçaient avec indifférence.

[With his hands in his pockets, he watched the fish, never getting tired of contemplating the inaccessible purity of the trajectories that they indifferently traced.] (90)
An aesthetic experience not unlike reading Jean-Philippe Toussaint.

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. Monsieur. Paris: Minuit, 1986.