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la réticence

13 december 2012

Of all the novels I've read – and I've read a few, though only enough to make me realize how enormous my ignorance of world fiction really is – Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La réticence reminds me most of Alain Robbe-Grillet's Le voyeur (1955). A man is visiting a seaside location (technically an island in each case, I believe). He circles around the same places with great insistence, with a hyper-awareness that things aren't as they should be. Scenes, events, emotions repeat themselves, with minor changes. The difference is that in Le Voyeur we ultimately emerge into a murder story; in La réticence we aren't quite sure at the end that we've emerged into anywhere at all.

I suppose that the narrator of La réticence is a man, anyway. At one point he wears a tie. If I were more sensitive to French, I'd have noticed him referring to himself with gendered adjectives; at one point I tried to notice that for several pages at a time, but gave up; the author is pretty reticent himself about a lot of details. The narrator is travelling with his (let's say his) baby son. The son has been weaned, and eats baby food eagerly, so there's no nursing. But he's one of the odder babies in literature. He spends most of his time asleep in their hotel room, or being pushed around in his stroller, clutching his stuffed toy seal. He cries now and then, but leaves the narrator great swatches of free time to wander the town, break into this or that building, steal mail, contemplate drowned cats in the harbor, all the usual vacation activities.

La réticence explains its title early on. The narrator has travelled to this town to visit his friend Biaggi; at least, visiting Biaggi is a major pretext and/or tangent to the trip. He's even written ahead to tell Biaggi he's coming. But once there, the narrator decides to put off the actual visit; he's reticent. He steals Biaggi's mail, intercepting the news of his own arrival. But that just makes matters worse. He becomes convinced that Biaggi not only knows he's in town, but is stalking him: tailing him in a beat-up grey Mercedes, taking a room in his own hotel (but staying just out of sight, the better to spy on the narrator). The tone of the novel hovers between the funny and terrifying wings of the absurd.

And then, not much happens. The narrator breaks into Biaggi's house; he listens to Biaggi's untended answering machine. He stalks around the harbor at night, where that dead cat lies decomposing in the water. He drops Biaggi's mail in the water by mistake, and fishes it out again (but neglects to tell us precisely which items he's fished out, and eventually delivers to Biaggi's house). We never see Biaggi. The narrator never does anything purposeful in the town. He moves among the inhabitants like a somewhat petulant wraith. And then, after about 150 pages, the novel is suddenly over.

I shouldn't like this kind of stuff – it's a centerless reading experience, mixing the matter-of-fact with the outrageous in an unsettling proportion – but I do, very much. Books like La réticence explore the field of narrative in fascinating ways. How much of our experience in fiction is tied, not to linear plots, but to the familiar local narratives of single paragraphs, however impertinently arranged?

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. La réticence. Paris: Minuit, 1991.