10.11.2006

Making Love and Television by Toussaint, Reviewed






Making Love, and Television by Jean Phillipe Toussaint capture moments of nauseating ambiguity, chilled ecstasy, and technology as a jarring and inescapable interruption to the normal circadian rhythms of sleep, cities, and sex. His novellas remind me of the short science fiction of Ray Bradbury, because of their succinct stabs at depicting worlds meant to exist only in fantasy, but that in reality, feel so close to home. I don’t consider Toussaint’s work to be genre fiction, but he writes for a more popular audience than most writers I prefer to read, and he is indeed popular in both France, and Japan.


Both of these stories are about endings [3], the lengthy process of ending an addiction, a dependency, a love, a habit, and the long horizon of life forever without “X”, “…the rich future that one can imagine one’s torture enjoying,” [1] and the agonizing or delicious path of the “truly gifted procrastinator.” [2]

“Supposedly, at least, he [the protagonist] is a man of the written word, an academic who has taken a sabbatical year in Berlin in order to write a study of Titian. Yet even the initial letters of his subject’s name, Tiziano Vecellio, inscribe the name of his nemesis, writ large. Staring into his own computer screen (yet another simulacrum of TV), he realizes that after several months of work on his project, he has written only two words, “When Musset.” [2]

The anti-hero of Television decides to quit once he’s witnessed the final stage of the Tour de France (a theatre of heroes and non-procrastinators), “…and then I stood up and turned off the set. I can clearly picture myself at that moment, the very simple gesture I made, my arm fluidly extending as it had a thousand times before, my finger on the button, the picture imploding and disappearing from the screen. It was over. I never watched television again.” [3a]

On thinking over a more difficult resolution, the stalled ending of his love for Marie (MoMA), the anti-hero of Making Love asks himself, “…how many times had we made love together for the last time? I don’t know, lots of times. Lots…” [3b]

The idea of the gaze (the vapid gaze, the feminist idea of the gaze, the art critical gaze, vision vs. blindness) is a subset of Toussaint's theme of addictions. The protagonist in both is attuned to his habitual vice of gazing, staring blindly as the endless stream of pictures rolls past in Television [1] , and, thinking about his girlfriend, and the potential effect of his hidden bottle of hydrochloric acid, “…Marie wondered, with perhaps justified uneasiness, whether that acid might end up in my own eyes, aimed at my own gaze.” [3]

He also refers to the anti-hero’s blindness (the injured, ignorant type which chooses not to see things clearly) vs. his rejection of blindness (the man guided by a sense of his own aesthetics, who sees more clearly) in a passage pointing out the ineffective emotion-sacking emptiness of television vis a vis cinema, “As a matter of principle and pleasure, I never watched movies on television, for instance (just as I don’t read books in Braille.)”

As he works towards quitting his addiction, the protagonist is caught up in a period of overindulgence, reaching the final limits of his maximum greed, and in doing so, he notes that the world around him continues to become more and more consumed by Television, "I'd noticed, the space set aside for the TV schedule in newspapers had been steadily growing, slowly and insidiously, imperceptibly and relentlessly." [3c]

In Toussaint’s stories, technology is an interruption, or an impotent aid. Toussaint uses the Fax as a bleak fortune teller in two scenes, both in Making Love, “…moaning in each other’s arms, we went on making love in the half-light of that hotel room, when suddenly I heard a faint click behind me, while at the same time, the room was invaded by a bluish aquarium glow, silent and disturbing. Without the slightest outside intervention, and in a silence all the more startling in that nothing had either preceded or followed that faint click, the television in the room had turned itself on. No program had begun, no music or intelligible sound was coming from the set, and the screen showed only the static and snowy image of a message in English on a blue background accompanied by a constant and almost imperceptible electronic hiss. YOU HAVE A FAX. PLEASE CONTACT THE CENTRAL DESK." [4]

Later, the ailing academic reacts against the chilliness of technology, and against his own fever induced chills, by sending a fax to his girlfriend, this time, one he has calligraphed himself using ink, and a brush. [5]

Toussaint’s narrators wish to find places to simply exist without interruption, and connect to the world, where living movements become palpable, whether high above Tokyo in a skyscraper during an earthquake, in a university swimming pool, sunbathing naked in Germany, or in the womb. He takes us away from the computer screen and the television where his characters can examine the tactile nature of the real world in its expansiveness. The academic’s pregnant partner Delon calls him while he’s on his leave, “When she was swimming, she told me, the baby was swimming in parallel, she could feel the baby’s body moving in her stomach, the baby must have realized that she was in the water as well, and began to swim in her stomach. She fell silent, and I imagined them both swimming in the still Mediterranean waters, deep blue and clear, one above the other, one inside the other, two angels, the big, slow, relaxed one smoothly extending her arms and legs in the limpid water, smiling, happy, laughing her laugh that never stopped when it started up in the water, gradually robbing her of all her strength and at the same time making her want to pee in the water, forcing her to throw back her head and paddle desperately to keep from sinking to the bottom, laughing her wonderful laugh that I so loved in the water, and the other, the little one, not yet born, not even my baby yet, tiny and warm, curled up in the amniotic fluid, suspended in her mother’s warm belly as she carefreely swam this way and that in the water." [6]

Again, addressing the tactile and the tactless, an anxious, needy, coupling begins with a disconnect between the two lovers, in Making Love, one needing to connect intellectually, the other tangibly, “In the distress that had driven her into my arms, it was the warmth of my body she was seeking, not the versatility of my dialectics, she didn’t give a fuck about my words…" [9]

The narratives also volley blocked beginnings, transitions gone astray, and transitional objects of strays. [7] The academic with writer’s block, the forgetful caretaker who kills his neighbors houseplants, the frustrated preparations for a museum opening, an attempted getaway dampened by fever and clogged sinuses, the jetlagged couple dying for a nap, all are examples of the uncomfortable itchiness of the present moment. These small disappointments set off the minute seconds of decompression come to fruition, “I turned off my computer, whose continuous faint electric hum seemed to give way to a sudden sigh of relief, as if the machine were gently decompressing. I stood at my desk for a moment and looked out the window." [8]

In Making Love, and Television, particularly during the sensual passages -- Delon diving for urchins [6a] ; the history of Marie's nickname [6b] ; the sound of one friend's voice; or the bits where Toussaint portrays his characters keen observations of others the way a writer would, are simply and cleanly translated by Linda Cloverdale (ML) and Jordan Stump (T) . They both invoke the spirit of slow unfolding, "at the almost stationary speed with which time passes when you pay attention to it." [6c]

Toussaint's stories are the opposite of television, a continuous stream of small shocks, which keeps us in a paralytic state of numbed alertness, [8a] rather they are a continuous stream of material force, believable, probable, surprising, and touching, clarity, which moves us gently, persuasively, through states of emotive awareness. There's a harmony too between these two books when read one after another, the kind of echoing and relating that I look for when I discover a new writer. It's clear they were written by the same man, even though they were translated by two different translators, and that's somehow comforting. His voice (and the voice of his translators) is like the quiet and convincing voice of Bernard in Making Love, "he always spoke in a low tone, calmly, as if in a permanent muffled whisper, which made whatever he said extraordinarily persuasive, if you could hear it." [8b]

The cinematic dissolve at the end of Making Love, and the last few words of Television, "simply savoring that little moment of eternity: silence and darkness regained." [10] also seem to be written to refer to each other. The anti hero turns off the television, and another, more bizarre attachment, comes to an end as well.

[1] Television, P.66
[2] Television, Afterward, p.168, Warren Motte, 2004
[3a] Television, P.1

[3b] Making Love, P.8
[3c] Television, P.36
[3] Making Love, p.5
[4] Making Love, p.20
[5] Making Love, p.92
[6] Television, p.59-60
[6a] Television, p.60
[6b] Making Love, p.34

[6c] Making Love, p.52
[7] The television in Television, and the bottle of hydrochloric acid in Making Love
[8] Television p.30
[8a] Television p.11
[8b] Making Love, p.88
[9] Making Love p.55-56
[10] Television, p.164

[Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Linda Cloverdale, Jordan Stump]

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