home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

la télévision

16 january 2013

La télévision lacks the narrative energy of previous and subsequent novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, though it's still entertaining and well worth reading. It's less a narrative than a series of fictionally-couched philosophical observations: about research and writing, about art history (and history in general; how one imagines a past). And of course, about its title medium. To give away the nonexistent plot, here's the narrator's own moral to his story: "Depuis que j'avais arrêté de regarder la télévision, on avait deux télés à la maison [After I stopped watching television, we got a second TV]" (218).

The narrator spends much of his time complaining about television: how it distracts him, fills his head with factoids, presents a distorted and alienated picture of reality, fractures urban living spaces into cubicles where everyone's watching the same show separately. These are familiar notions if you've grown up with TV and the hatred of TV (the two come packaged together, it seems); Toussaint is about my age (born in the late 1950s), and though the U.S. was probably a bit more TV-saturated in my youth than Belgium and France were in his, the same principles and experiences apply. Still, despite the familiarity of the ideas, they're expressed well; the scenes of TV-watching (and not-watching) in the novel ring true.

All the same, to read a novel published in 1997 about the inescapability of television is like reading a novel about the pervasiveness of radio in 1947, or the ubiquity of manuscript books in 1447. Never has a complaint about hypermodernity so quickly seemed to be about the distant past. Be careful what you train your critical gaze upon: it might vanish before you're done dissecting it.

In 1997 I was futzing around marking up text in HTML with the idea that it would be displayed mostly in text-only web browsers. France, at the time, was not much on the Web at all, spending time instead on Minitel, a now-defunct sort of national intranet. Across the Channel in Britain you could get most of your news from Ceefax, a system of information fed through – inevitably – people's TV sets, and one that delivered it a good deal better than 2013's ad-clogged websites. The novel is actually set in reunified Germany, but while computers are present, TV reigns. The world seemed destined to be dominated by television for a while to come. Not that people have stopped watching it in 2013, of course; but it's one medium among many, one that newer and newer interfaces have asserted individual control over. I don't know whether our audio/visual culture is better than it was 16 years ago, but it's certainly different, and different in ways that La télévision couldn't imagine.

The initial event of La télévision is the unnamed narrator's swearing off TV. (He's a Frenchman on academic sabbatical in Berlin, and his wife and son are on vacation in Italy, so he has ample free time not to watch television.) He's self-conscious about this initiative. He pretty much does without TV in his own apartment. But when you're in someone else's home, you have to watch out of politeness, don't you? And how about bars? What if there's some unmissable sporting event? Surely even the most steely of resolutions can be bent.

Without TV, you'd think that the book he's writing on Titian and politics would flourish, but as so often in Toussaint's novels, the central activity of the book keeps getting deferred in Tristram-Shandyish ways. We actually see our hero write all of two words: "Quand Musset," for reasons too esoteric to explain here (85). As the narrator asserts,

Les chances que l'on a de mener un projet à bien sont inversement proportionelles au temps que l'on a consacré à en parler au préalable.

[Your chances of making good progress on a project are inversely proportional to the time you spend talking about it in advance.] (45)
Hence, because he spends so much time in La télévision telling us about the book he's fixing to write, it stands to reason that he won't get any writing done at all.

In fact, the most sustained action in the book centers around the narrator's hilariously inadequate attempts to keep his upstairs neighbors' plants from dying while they, too, go on vacation. Not for the first time, Toussaint reminds me of Jacques Tati. As brilliant as he is at this low-key, long-set-up comedy, it's probably wise that he uses it sparingly; it's all the funnier, all the more rueful, for Toussaint's restraint.

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. La télévision. 1997. Paris: Minuit, 2011.