“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.
The author finds himself in Hanoi where “the traffic . . . is like life itself, generous inexhaustible, dynamic, in permanent motion, constant imbalance and slipping into its midst and become one with the chaos gives you an intense feeling of being alive.” He tells us that, “very often, seated in the back of a cycle rickshaw, I let myself be carried along the streets of Hanoi for hours at a time, abandoning myself to the random succession of crossroads and avenues.” Toussaint drags himself everywhere, but never sees the people and places that make up the world; rather, he is concerned only with painting his self-portrait, so to speak. Thus, the novel’s scenes are jarring: the author, of course, can afford to abandon himself, to let himself go with the flow of traffic in which he sees life. The rickshaw driver, however, whom Toussaint barely perceives, cannot abandon himself so easily: the driver can see what he likes in the flow of traffic, but unlike our author, he has no choice whether to flow or not. If the traffic in Hanoi is chaos, it is only because Toussaint refuses to distinguish, to give name and understanding to the logic of the crossroads and avenues, to the undiscovered logic of the human lives around him. Instead, Toussaint sits stunned by a realization of his own inner logic.
Sitting in his little rickshaw, Toussaint comes to grips with time and death; the traffic is like water in a torrential riverbed, never meeting any obstacles, always avoiding them, sweeping them around and continuing on its way, ever curving, always find new directions and advancing without resisting or forcing anything, imposing on nothing and nevertheless irresistible, imperious, with the force of the wind, the necessity of the tides.
The description, as it starts, could easily describe Toussaint himself: avoiding all hardship, never resisting, only taking advantage of his own freedom for some momentary pleasure, never confronting the world as it is. Toussaint apologizes, in a sense, for this state of affairs: his non-committal bystanderism is as irresistible as the tides. And yet, although even great art cannot solve crises, art can nevertheless bind us together by its own force; it can reveal new truths about the world and the self which can lay the foundation for existence in the world. Toussaint, however, perverts this aspect of art by stealing the possibility of revelation, through travel, for himself—his travels don’t illuminate us or the world, but rather only provide a weak glow, as from a space-heater, that he can purr beside, without ever opening his eyes.
At times, Toussaint’s writing retains its former charm:
I suddenly became aware looking out the window that it was neither day or night outside, but simultaneously day and night, and that to the right of the plane I could see the moon, shining in the sky in-line with the wing, as well as the sun, far out in front of us, which for the moment was still just a blurred pink and orange glow similar to the cottony contours of a Rothko, lighting up the horizon of the immense sky divided evenly into day and night, into Europe and Asia.
The rest of the passengers in Toussaint’s plane are asleep; the buzz of globalization cannot conquer the hum of a peaceful sleep. Toussaint’s grappling with this paradox of time and place in the face of globalization, however, never comes to fruition. Toussaint ignores the essential paradox of globalization, that while one group of people have become stupendously mobile, losing their ties to time and place, scouring the globe for the least sign of self-discovery, another, larger, group of people have become even more immobile, tied to poverty, to whom Toussaint’s self-portrait would present a laughable enigma. Toussaint retreats further into himself rather than confront the mingling of Europe and Asia; the sky suggests a Rothko, but only insofar as Toussaint can delude himself into an appreciation of nature, one not informed by a willing opening up of the self to new experience, but to the channeling of novel experience into long eroded paths.
So what are we to make of this series of half-funny impressions, muted realizations, and cut-off narratives?
By the end of the novel, Toussaint reveals that in his past, writing had indeed been a way of resisting time, a way of making scratch marks on the river-bed. But that time, he tells us, is over. Now, he realizes how fully powerless he is against time; he is as impotent to slow his progress downstream as his writing is impotent to move us. For a novel cannot allow itself to be carried forward, the novel is that which carries us forward. The tragedy of Toussaint is that he has convinced himself that writing, in the face of death, can only be brief amusement and dry anecdotes, questioning, to the point of self-destruction, its own importance. He has lost in the river of time the knowledge that all writers must possess to continue on, that writing is not important in itself but that writing grants its own importance, by the breadth of its scope, by the abysses it reveals, the pleasures it denies, the joy it hints to, by the moving secrets that echo in the throat of the author and in the stomach of the reader. Writing which doesn’t believe in itself is always insipid.
Yet the failure of Toussaint the novelist is a victory for Toussaint the human being. His novel is a record—for those who read it—of the self-discovery that Toussaint does not need writing to live; that the appreciation of life is enough for him. In that sense, Self-Portrait Abroad, is, at times, moving, but only in the way a conversation with a man finally content with himself might be, not in the way of great art. Its value lies in staging the tension, which all artists must deal with, between life and art. Indeed, although the writer is dead, the man lives on.