Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Reticence

Never having read Toussaint before, I had no idea what to expect when I opened up the latest of his works published by Dalkey Archive (they’ve published nine now, including The Truth about Marie, which was just longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award).  Perhaps that’s a good way to approach this book, with no foreknowledge.  But I’ll go on . . .  Reticence (La Réticence, 1991; tr. from the French by John Lambert, 2012) turned out to be a wonderfully atmospheric and ambiguous tale about paranoia.  It will frustrate many readers, but once I started playing along I found the whole thing enjoyable.

Review copy courtesy of Dalkey Archive.

In Reticence, a nameless narrator, thirty-three years old, has taken a holiday to the fictional island of Sasuelo.  It’s the end of October, and he has with him his eight-month-old son.  The story he tells begins with a disturbing omen — a dead cat is floating in the harbor — but otherwise all appears to be fine as our narrator walks around the town pushing his son in a stroller.  The primary reason — if there is any reason — he went to Sasuelo was to see the Biaggis.  Perhaps some old friends.  Before he arrived, he sent them a letter, letting them know he’d be in town.  But, now that he’s in town, he just can’t seem make that visit.

To a certain extent if I’d come to Sasuelo it was to see the Biaggis.  Until now, however, held back by a mysterious apprehension, I’d always put off the moment of going to visit them and steered clear of the area around the house when I went for walks in the village.  Even on the day of my arrival, when I was still planning on going over to their place as soon as I’d got settled into the hotel, I’d stayed in my room all afternoon.  Two days had now gone by since then and I was starting to wonder at the fact that I hadn’t yet bumped into them in the village, even if I’d been careful to avoid their house every time I went out. 

He does venture to the house eventually, but upon arrival he again felt some strange reticence and simply stood outside.  He checked their mailbox and found that his letter had just been delivered.  A way to keep his presence unknown, then, he takes back his letter along with a few of the others and leaves. 

It’s about that time that we readers sense that something is not right here.  After all, some of the narrator’s trips around the village, to the docks, and to the Biaggis’ are at night, and he leaves his son at the hotel.  And just who are the Biaggis, and why does our narrator, who seemed to feel just fine visiting them, begin to feel apprehension at the thought of seeing them? 

But Reticence gets more and more strange when, without any foundation, our narrator is convinced the Biaggis (or at least Paul Biaggi) are on to him, spying on him, even staying at the same hotel, the better to keep an eye on him:

Four tables had been occupied, which intrigued me because it seemed to me that there hadn’t been so many guests on other days.  Could it be that someone who didn’t normally eat breakfast in the dining room came down today for the first time?  Could it be that Biaggi – because I immediately thought of Biaggi – had come down to have breakfast in the dining room this morning?  But if it was Biaggi, I thought, why had he come down precisely today for the first time?  Why, if he was at the hotel, didn’t he have his breakfast brought up to his room as he must have done on the other days?  Was he now indifferent to whether or not I knew he was staying at the hotel, or had he realized I’d cottoned on and given up trying to hide altogether?

Our narrator becomes more and more convinced something is amiss, that Biaggi, whom we haven’t seen, is getting closer and closer to him — again, though, why does this matter if he himself was planning on visiting the Biaggis on the first day he arrived at Sasuelo? 

It’s a story filled with questions as the tension constantly builds.  We readers know that the narrator is being irrational, but we go along with him (what else can we do — we know so little), suspecting something is amis but without any foundation.  His paranoia becomes the hook that pulls us along.  We see him begin a paragraph wondering if Biaggi was somewhere and end it with certainty, and we keep going, even sometimes forgetting ourselves that this narrator must be slightly unhinged, and here he is with an infant.  Speaking of which, where is the mother?

If this sounds fun and interesting, I promise it is, but I must also proffer a warning: this is a book about atmosphere and paranoia, not about answers.  I loved it.  I was certainly worried for the narrator, but not for the reasons the narrator would hope.  Then again, there are moments when the narrator seems to know what’s going on, and then he just keeps walking.

So, not knowing much about Toussaint going in, this book was certainly enough to build up my appetite.  I now have another author I need to catch up with.

4 thoughts on “Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Reticence

  1. leroyhunter says:

    Sounds well worth a look, Trevor. I’m interested in Toussaint thanks to the strong coverage of The Truth About Marie, and I like what you say about this one: “this is a book about atmosphere and paranoia, not about answers.” Perfect!

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m planning to get through all of his work now, leroy, all because of this book — can I recommend it any more? :)

    Do let me know once you get to it.

  3. Scott W. says:

    I love that cover, and your review arrives just when I’m feeling a desire to read more of Toussaint. I read his Faire L’Amour (Making Love) a couple years ago, yet it’s one of those curiously tenacious books, and keeps popping into my head at odd moments. He’s certainly a master at creating atmosphere. I can blink and find myself in the clear cold Tokyo night of Faire L’Amour.

  4. leroyhunter says:

    A mysterious little piece of work, but nicely done. I enjoyed it so thanks for the pointer Trevor. It certainly whets the appetite for more Toussaint.

    For all the hints and possibilities the narrator offers about what’s going on, having digested it a little the oddest thing is possibly the presence and careful tending of the infant boy through all that happens. Quite sweet, but terribly strange when juxtaposed with dead cats, nightime stalking and breaking & entering.

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