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Latest Review: "Self-Portrait Abroad" by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Matthew Weiss on Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad, which is translated from the French by John Lambert and was published by Dalkey Archive Press earlier this year.

On a random note, assuming I finish writing my review of Patrik Ourednik’s Case Closed by Friday, we’ll have reviewed three Dalkey books in two weeks . . .

Anyway, most all of Toussaint’s books (in English) are available from Dalkey and I’d highly recommend The Bathroom and Television.

Matthew Weiss is a new reviewer for us and will hopefully be writing more in the near future. Here’s the opening of his review:

“Every time I travel I feel a very slight feeling of dread at the moment of departure, a dread sometimes shaded with a soft shiver of elation. Because I know that any trip brings with it the possibility of death—or of sex (both highly improbable of course, yet not to be excluded altogether).”

Before the story even begins, Self-Portrait Abroad presents us, for better or worse, with a statement of themes. Departures, arrivals, mingled dread and elation, death, sex, and a modest tone of bemusement, distance, and irony all constitute Toussaint’s mode of apprehending his existence in the world. Place-names give Toussaint his chapter headings: Tokyo, Kyoto, Cap Corse, Tunisia. Our narrator travels from airport to airport; cars drive him from place to place; conference organizers present him with things: flowers, telephones, wine . . . He wanders through a festival in Japan; he plays petanque in Corsica; he has sex in a train in the Czech Republic; he is aroused in a humid car in Tunisia; he sits back in a rickshaw in Hanoi . . . Places exist in this novel only insofar as they give rise to Toussaint’s thoughts on himself. He arrives in Tokyo by plane: “Seen from above, at four thousand feet, there isn’t much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.” Indeed, from the elevation of Toussaint’s head, there is little difference between the sweat of Hanoi traffic or the amusements of lazing petanque competitors in Cap Corse.

As an author, Jean-Philippe Toussaint is known for the just-so observation; he attempts to sustain this style throughout this latest work, albeit with considerable difficulty. Words which surprise, it seems, have left him: “Taking off our coats we walked side by side in Tokyo under the island sun before stopping at a modern, insipid, and impersonal café.” Even in this single sentence lie clues to the author’s deeper problems. Toussaint tries, in Self-Portrait Abroad, to find meaning in the impersonality of cosmopolitanism by diverting all far-flung experience into his own personal fountain of self-illumination. In doing so, however, he reduces his writing—as opposed to his life—to an even greater insipidness than can be found in any modern café. And yet, Toussaint is not a poor writer; rather, his difficulty in Self-Portrait Abroad, presents itself slowly and, ultimately, reveals itself as the difficulty of a man writing, who has lost, by the end, his need to write.

Click here to read the full review.



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