One thing I’ve observed from reading certain contemporary French writers is their penchant for bringing genre elements into what, for lack of a better term, one might call “literary fiction.” In the English-speaking publishing world (where I’m sure more than a few dog-loving editors buy hybrids known as “labradoodles” without complaining that the beast is neither one nor the other) it’s done with some trepidation, and published even less, as though writers and the people who advance them cold hard cash are frightened of having reviewers dither over how to classify the thing and end up ignoring it altogether. Which is generally how it turns out, anyhow.
The implication is that genre fiction, whether science-fiction, thriller, mystery, crime, or fantasy, is somehow unworthy of consideration as literature; an absurd thought, considering the quality of genre fiction as practiced by today’s masters (and yesterday’s: the list is yours to make). In Britain today, authors such as Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Sarah Waters, and China Miéville (to name only a few; there are many, many more) have all produced works that, though they play with the tropes of mystery, crime or science-fiction, could easily rank alongside contemporary literary fiction. Character takes center stage, narrative is sometimes bent out of shape, nuance has its day, and we’re less interested in the end in whodunit than in the players onstage. Here in America we have Richard Price and James Ellroy, again among others, whose novels are reviewed not in crime columns but in the mainstream front pages of the few book review supplements we have left. Price, in particular, is always interested in the hierarchy of crime (much as David Simon’s acclaimed HBO series The Wire showed how the fluttering of a drug dealer’s money roll on a streetcorner could cause major storms in the mayor’s office) and the effect of crime on both the innocent and the guilty.
In France, though, the roman noir has been part of the mainstream for decades. Boileau-Narcejac (who wrote the novel Hitchock’s Vertigo was based on), Frédéric Dard, and— before I forget—can anyone say Simenon, who wrote both crime fiction and what he called romans durs (“hard novels,” thrillers with a psychological and sometimes psychopathic bent)? Or even Albert Simonin, whose Touchez pas au grisbi was turned into a famous movie that helped relaunch Jean Gabin’s languishing career? In the latter years of the last century the French could boast of not only Jean-Patrick Manchette, but also, and still active, René Belletto, Jean Echenoz, and Patrick Modiano, all of whose works bear a resemblance to the detective story, but whose novels are considered as literature, tout court. And that’s without mentioning the hundreds of stars and highlights of Gallimard’s famed Serie Noire, a publishing arm devoted solely to thrillers, detective stories and mysteries. Even Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu can be seen as both a detective story and as a tale of espionage; the narrator being both a spy and the private eye who pieces together the clues in search of, well, time past.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint has always rubbed up against genre without fully yielding to it. His 1991 novel, la Réticence, translated aptly as Reticence by John Lambert and published this month by the excellent Dalkey Archive Press, comes closest to what we might think of as the mystery story. Or the crime story. Or even an espionage novel. I say might, because Toussaint watches where he steps, albeit with light tread, and when he gets too close he steps away as though the full blast of genre might, like a rabid skunk, give him a face full of stink. For Reticence has elements of all and of none, and, as with each of Toussaint’s brief novels, it stands alone as something unique and shimmeringly strange in its languid journey through the thirty-three year old narrator’s growing fear that he is being spied upon by the very man whose family he has come to visit on a Mediterranean island. An innocent excursion turned into a paranoiac head trip.
When he arrives, eight-month-old son in tow (has he undergone a divorce? A separation? Has his wife died, or disappeared, or is she simply back at her place of work, unable to pay such a leisurely visit? He never tells us) at the home of the Biaggi family, he discovers no one there, as well as a mailbox with letters days old (including the very letter he had written to announce his forthcoming arrival) which he impulsively grabs and takes away with him. Thus to the Biaggis the narrator is neither here nor there, someone unexpected, a phantom of sorts; a man, as in other novels by J-P Toussaint, present at his own absence.
The mystery kicks in when he begins to sense that Biaggi is watching his every movement; that somehow he, the narrator, has fallen into the gears and wheels of someone else’s narrative machinery. As with all of Toussaint’s works, it’s the texture of the prose, the minutiae of the narrative, that matters most. There are no large events here; this is life measured not in days but in seconds, emotions gauged not in the large shifts between love and disaffection but in the milliseconds of misinterpretation. It’s Eric Rohmer instead of Michael Bay. You want to know the plot of Reticence? But plot’s hardly ever the point with Toussaint. It’s in examining a narrator who somehow misses the signals that the author excels at, leaving the reader always both one step ahead of the protagonist (for we see the story unfolding in all its fatalistic wonder) as well as a stride behind. We both sense what’s coming and know that we’ll probably be dead wrong when we’ve reached the end.
The narrator’s reluctance is best summed up by himself: “The Biaggis must certainly have returned home by now, and as time went on and I stood there at the window putting off the moment when I went to see them, I started to think that if tonight as well it was so difficult for me to take what seemed like such a simple decision as dropping in on some friends to say I was staying in the village, it was basically due to the reticence I’d felt at visiting them on the first day, a reticence that I still hadn’t been able to shed in fact, and which, far from having abated with time, had only grown as the days went by, to the point where ever since I’d taken the liberty of removing the letters from their mailbox this had hobbled me entirely and made it all the more difficult for me to go see them.”
And then the reader thinks: Well, I’ve been in that situation thousands of times. We hesitate before introducing ourselves to the attractive woman (or man) at the cocktail party—we take a step towards her or him, and then give up, fearing failure or absurdity, usually both; or pick up and immediately set down the phone before making the call that may well change our life, bring us into proximity with the desired one, or connect with that man or woman who will aid us in our career. Once delayed, almost forever missed.
It’s that pain—that existential pain coming from our own weakness, our fear of discouragement—that Toussaint so brilliantly explores in what on the surface seems a mundane story filled with dressing and feeding an infant son, or with the speculation over the nature, sinister or otherwise (mostly sinister in light of the growing anxiety of the narrator), of a dead cat floating in the harbor, a scene in the telling reminiscent of Robbe-Grillet’s early novel The Voyeur (also set by the water) in a cold and clinical description which lends the scene the dark hum of portent: “There was a dead cat in the harbor that morning, a black cat floating slowly on the surface of the water alongside a small boat. It was straight and stiff, and a decomposed fish head hung from its mouth out of which protruded a broken strand of fishing line two or three inches in length…. The cat must have leaned out over the water to catch hold of the fish, and once he’d caught it the hook had become snagged in his mouth, he’d lost his balance and fallen in.”
Then, towards the end of the novel (or, properly speaking, novella), he gets into the Biaggis’s house. The mail has been taken in; someone has been there. And it’s only when he reaches the port that night that, as the lighthouse beam blinds him in its endless nocturnal revolutions, he realizes he knows exactly where Biaggi is. And whether the man is dead or alive. And we are plunged back into the noir of the roman, back to his first visit to his friend’s house, when he heard a strange noise coming from the rear, and all of the increasing dread, the feeding and dressing of his young son, the snooping around the corridors of the hotel, all of which resulting in a payoff of speculation that at first leads him to one inescapable conclusion, the conclusion of someone with too much fiction on the mind, too many movies seen, too much, well, noir, only to have his expectations upended, the seemingly endless assumptions that have gathered over the previous hundred pages, now multiplying, doubling back onto themselves, leading our unnamed narrator into the inevitable final moments of a journey without end.