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21 november 2012
L'appareil-photo is perhaps my favorite of the novels I've read so far by Jean-Philippe Toussaint – recognizing that I've only read five of them, and there are many left to go (and, I hope, many more still to be written).
The narrator of L'appareil-photo isn't far from those of the other novels I've read: an indeterminately youngish man somewhat lacking in affect, who takes a path around this or that European city, finding what stimulation he can in the minutiae of life. In L'appareil-photo, the unnamed narrator decides to take driving lessons. Of course, this entails so much filling out of meaningless paperwork that the lessons themselves keep getting deferred, Tristram-Shandy-like, while the narrator sets about the meta-business of qualifying for them. In particular, he can't seem to set about getting the necessary photographs taken so that he can apply for his license. Hence the title of the novel, one might assume (L'appareil-photo, "The Camera"), but as it happens the camera in question isn't at all one that is used to take his driver's-license photos. Toussaint's novels are pre-eminently of a kind where, if a gun is introduced in the first act, it sits placidly unfired at the end of the last.
Practically the first thing that the narrator does when he resolves to take driving lessons is to fall in love with the receptionist at the driving school. "Elle contourna son bureau et traversa la pièce dans une robe claire très légère," he says ["she came out from around her desk and crossed the room, in a light-colored, very thin dress"], he says, and by this point the reader is half in love with her himself (9).
The loved one's name is Pascale Polugaïevski, and her father is a charming emigré, and she seems to have few character notes except amiability and sleepiness. Toussaint's description of how the narrator falls in love with her is one of the deftest, most understated romances I've read recently (though I'm also reading Fifty Shades of Grey at the same time, so my impressions might be strictly relative).
The camera of the title does not make an appearance till late in the novel, and when it does, it's unrelated to the pictures the narrator still needs to get that license. The narrator and Pascale are on a ferry back to the Continent after a getaway in London. While she's asleep (as usual), he finds a cheap camera abandoned in the ferryboat bar. Afraid that its owner will reclaim it (but why?), he quickly snaps several photographs of himself, the interior of the ship, anything really: then saves the film (it's 1988, remember), and drops the camera overboard.
The pictures of the narrator don't turn out. Instead he's left with random shots of an unknown couple – and in the background of one of them, Pascale, sleeping. Of such things do unwritten novels become written.
Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. L'appareil-photo. Paris: Minuit, 1988.