For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith. (France, Dalkey Archive Press)
Camera is one of three Dalkey Archive Press titles that made the Best Translated Book of 2008 list (along with I’d Like and Homage to Czerny), and one of four Jean-Philippe Toussaint books that Dalkey currently has in print (the others are The Bathroom, Television, and Monsieur, with Running Away due out in 2010).
Toussaint is a strange, affecting writer. Nothing really happens in any of his books, or at least no “exciting” events like you find in a lot of plot-heavy books—in this one, a self-obsessed man falls in love with the woman from a driver’s ed office, they fall in love, they go on vacation, he finds a camera on a ship—but that’s sort of the point. The focus of his novels is more on the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind (workings which are usually a bit off, in a captivating, humorous sort of way), rather than external events that befall him.
In the afterword included in Camera, Toussaint describes this novel as “the description of a condition, the condition of someone’s place in the world. The book progressively shifts from the ‘struggle of living’ to the ‘despair of being.’ “ Sticking with the theoretical (sic) for a moment, Toussaint then goes on to explain the underlying program of this novel:
Yes, you’re right, it’s a manifesto, a program. I don’t know how aware of this I was. But still, it took me over a month to write the first paragraph. [. . .] It’s a very impertinent opening. I’m responding very offhandedly to Kafka’s famous aphorism: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world,” with “In the fight between you and reality, be discouraging.” So yes, it’s a manifesto, but it isn’t a theoretical essay or piece; it’s there, in the book itself, int he opening paragraph of the book, as a theory in action. Underlying my novel is, although it isn’t express theoretically, an idea of literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the “not interesting,” the “not edifying,” on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books.
Don’t let this emphasis on the “uninteresting” dissuade you though—Camera, like all of Toussaint’s books, is a very funny, very charming novel. That first paragraph that Toussaint alludes to is a great example:
It was about at the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that in my immediate horizon two events came about, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way. As it happens I had just decided to learn how to drive, and I had barely begun to get used to this idea when some news reached me by mail: a long-lost friend, in a letter composed with a typewriter, a rather old typewriter, had informed me he was getting married. Now, personally, if there’s one thing that terrifies me, it’s long-lost friends.
Over at The Front Table, editor Martin Riker explains his view of Toussaint and why Dalkey brought out three books by Toussaint this year:
There’s something very exciting about publishing several of an author’s books together. Instead of putting a single work out into the world, you’re putting into the world a whole way of seeing. You’re saying: This is not just about a book. Here’s a writer who is doing something beyond mere temporary curiosity. This is the real thing, an actual innovation, literature finding a new way to relate to life.
This is why, in the jacket copy for Camera, I refer to Toussaint as a “comic Camus for the twenty-first century.” It isn’t because Toussaint’s writing reminds me of Camus’s stylistically, but because Toussaint offers something that Camus once offered: a new way to think about the experience of being. Though both comic and compelling, Toussaint’s “being” is also quite strange, and at times disorienting. Something often seems to be missing, and indeed something often is.
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