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"Wonderful . . . Toussaint is a genuinely funny writer."—Kirkus Reviews
The amusingly odd protagonist and narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novel is an academic on sabbatical in Berlin to work on his book about Titian. With his research completed, all he has left to do is sit down and write. Unfortunately, he can't decide how to refer to his subject—Titian, le Titien, Vecellio, Titian Vecellio—so instead he starts watching TV continuously, until one day he decides to ...
"Wonderful . . . Toussaint is a genuinely funny writer."—Kirkus Reviews
The amusingly odd protagonist and narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novel is an academic on sabbatical in Berlin to work on his book about Titian. With his research completed, all he has left to do is sit down and write. Unfortunately, he can't decide how to refer to his subject—Titian, le Titien, Vecellio, Titian Vecellio—so instead he starts watching TV continuously, until one day he decides to renounce the most addictive of twentieth-century inventions.
As he spends his summer still not writing his book, he is haunted by television, from the video surveillance screens in a museum to a moment when it seems everyone in Berlin is tuned in to Baywatch.
One of Toussaint's funniest antiheroes, the protagonist of Television turns daily occurrences into an entertaining reflection on society and the influence of television on our lives.
The TV set is still sitting in the living room, dark and forsaken. I haven't touched it since. I'm sure it still works. I could find out with a touch of the button. It's a standard model, sitting on a lacquered wooden stand made up of two elements, a shelf and a pedestal, the pedestal in the form of a thin black book, upright and open, like a silent reproach. The screen is an indefinable color, dark and uninviting, I wouldn't call it green, and very slightly convex. On one side a little compartment houses the various controls. An antennasprouts from the top, its two stems making a V, a bit like the twin antennae of a crayfish, and offering the same sort of handle for anyone who might want to pick it up and drop it into a pot of boiling water to rid himself of it even more completely.
I spent the summer alone in Berlin. Delon, whom I live with, went off to Italy on vacation with the two children, my son and the not-yet-born baby we were expecting-a little girl, in my opinion. I assumed it was a little girl because the gynecologist couldn't find a male member on the sonogram (and when there's no male member, it's often a little girl, I'd explained).
Not that television ever held an especially important place in my life. No. On average, I watched maybe two hours a day (maybe less, but I'd rather err on the side of generosity, and not try to puff myself up with a virtuously low estimate). Apart from major sporting events, which I always watched with pleasure, and of course the news and the occasional election-night special, I never watched much of anything on television. As a matter of principle and pleasure, I never watched movies on television, for instance (just as I don't read books in Braille). For that matter, although I never tried it, I was always quite sure I could give up watching television anytime, just like that, without suffering in the least, without the slightest ill effect-in short, that there was no way I could be considered dependent.
And yet, over the previous few months, I'd noticed a slight deterioration in my day-to-day habits. I spent most afternoons at home, unshaved, dressed in a wonderfully comfortable old wool sweater, watching television for three or four hours at a stretch, half-reclining on the couch, taking it easy, a little like a cat in its bed, my feet bare, my hand cradling my privates. Just being myself, in other words. Thus, this year, unlike years past, I followed the French Tennis Open on television from beginning to end. At first it was only a match here and there, but then, with the quarterfinals, I began to take a real interest in the outcome, or so I explained to Delon to justify my long inactive afternoons in front of the set. Most of these afternoons I was alone in the apartment, but sometimes the cleaning woman was there too, ironing my shirts beside me in the living room, mute with contained indignation. On the worst days, the broadcasts started at noon and didn't end until after nightfall. I emerged from those sessions nauseous and numbed, my mind empty, my legs limp, my eyes bleary. I went off and took a shower, letting the warm water pour over my face for many minutes. I was wiped out for the rest of the evening, and, however reluctant I was to admit it, there was no getting around the fact that, ever since I'd very gradually begun to turn forty years old, I was no longer physically up to five sets of tennis.
Apart from that I did nothing. By doing nothing, I mean doing nothing impulsive or mechanical, nothing dictated by habit or laziness. By doing nothing, I mean doing only the essential, thinking, reading, listening to music, making love, going for walks, going to the pool, gathering mushrooms. Doing nothing, contrary to what people rather simplistically imagine, is a thing that requires method and discipline, concentration, an open mind. I swim five-hundred meters every day nowadays, at a rate of two kilometers per hour, a leisurely pace I admit, equaling exactly twenty pool-lengths every fifteen minutes, which is to say eighty pool-lengths in an hour. But high performance isn't my goal. I swim slowly, like an old woman (albeit without the bathing-cap), my mind ideally empty, focused on my body and its movement, carefully observing my motions and their timing, my mouth half-open as I exhale, blowing a spray of little lapping bubbles over the surface. A float in the blue-tinged pool, my limbs surrounded by limpid water, I slowly reach forward and push the water behind me with long strokes, my knees drawing level with my hips; then, as my arms slowly extend once more, my legs simultaneously push the water behind them in one coordinated and synchronized movement. In the end, I rank swimming very highly among the pleasures that life has to offer us, having in the past somewhat underestimated it and placed it rather far behind physical love, which was until now my favorite activity, apart from thinking, of course. I do in fact very much like making love (on more than one account), and, without going into my own personal style in that domain, which is in any case closer to the sensual quietude of a leisurely breast-stroke pool length than to the surging, swaggering outburst of a four-hundred meter butterfly race, I will say above all that making love brings me an immense inner equilibrium, and that, the embrace at an end, as I lie dreamily on my back on the soft sheets, savoring the simple companionship of the moment, I find myself in an irrepressible good mood, which appears on my face as a slight, unexpected smile, and something gleaming in my eye, something light-hearted and knowing. And it turns out that swimming brings me the same sort of satisfaction, that same bodily plenitude, slowly spreading to the mind, like a wave, little by little, giving birth to a smile.
And so I realized, busy as I was doing nothing, that I no longer had time to watch television.
Television offers the spectacle not of reality, although it has all the appearances of reality (on a smaller scale, I would say-I don't know if you've ever watched television), but rather of its representation. It is true that television's apparently neutral representation of reality, in color and in two dimensions, seems at first glance more trustworthy, authentic, and credible than the more refined and much more indirect sort of representation painters use to create an image of reality in their works; but when artists represent reality, they do so in order to take in the outside world and grasp its essence, while television, if it represents reality, does so in and of itself, unintentionally you might say, through sheer technical determinism, or incontinence. But the fact that television offers a familiar and immediately recognizable image of reality does not mean that its images and reality can be considered equivalent. Unless you believe that reality has to resemble its representation in order to be real, there's no reason to see a Renaissance master's portrait of a young man as any less faithful a vision of reality than the apparently incontestable video image of an anchorman, world-famous in his own country, reading the news on a TV screen.
A Renaissance painting's illusion of reality, rooted in colors and pigments, in oils and brushstrokes, in delicate retouches with the brush or even the finger, or a simple smearing of the slightly damp linseed oil paste with the side of the thumb, the illusion that you have before you something living, flesh or hair, fabric or drapery, that you stand before a complex, human person, with his flaws and weaknesses, someone with a history, with his own nobility, his sensitivity, his gaze-just how many square millimeters of paint does it take to create the force of that gaze, looking down through the centuries?-is by its nature fundamentally different from the illusion offered by television when it represents reality, the purely mechanical result of an uninhabited technology.
I'd decided to spend the summer alone in Berlin to devote myself to my study of Titian Vecellio. For several years now I'd been planning a vast essay on the relationship between political power and the arts. Little by little, my focus had narrowed to sixteenth-century Italy, and more particularly to Titian Vecellio and Emperor Charles V; in the end, I'd chosen the apocryphal story of the paintbrush-according to which Charles V bent down in Titian's studio to pick up a paintbrush that had slipped from the painter's hands-as my monograph's emblematic center and the source of its title, The Paintbrush. I'd begun a sabbatical from my university post at the start of the year, so I could concentrate on my writing. Meanwhile, having learned of a private foundation in Berlin with a mission to aid researchers of my stripe, I'd applied for a grant. I put together a file with a detailed description of my project, carefully emphasizing that my research would absolutely require a visit to Augsburg, where Charles V had resided from 1530 until I no longer know what year (oh, dates), and where, most significantly, Titian had painted several of the finest portraits of Charles V, the large equestrian portrait now in the Prado, for instance, as well as the seated Charles V in Munich's Alte Pinakothek, his face pale and sad, a glove in his hand. It goes without saying that a stay in Augsburg might have been extraordinarily fruitful and profitable for my work, but at the same time I was perfectly prepared to concede that this project on Titian Vecellio wasn't really as specifically German as I'd sought to suggest in the skillfully-crafted little essay attached to my grant application, and that at bottom it was no more difficult, for example, to travel to Augsburg from Paris than from Berlin. Munich would have been ideal. In the end, though, I got the grant (which goes to show), and the three of us went off to Germany. At the beginning of July, Delon left for a vacation in Italy with the two children, one in her hand, the other in her stomach (eminently practical when you're always loaded down with an insane number of suitcases and handbags, as she is), and I'd accompanied the three of them to the airport. My job was to carry the tickets. I can clearly see myself in the great hall, heading toward the massive departures board, tickets in hand, looking up, comparing the one to the other with an uncertain air. Then I came back to Delon, who was waiting beside her baggage cart, and said-I don't know if every word I spoke during this stay in Berlin will be reported so faithfully here-"Gate 28." "Are you sure?" Delon asked. A nagging little doubt suddenly crept into my mind. "Gate 28, yes" (I'd gone back to check again). We kissed at some length before going our separate ways, and I bid them farewell by the check-in counter at gate 28. I gently passed my hand over my son's head and under my Delon's sweater, tenderly touching her stomach, and I watched them step through the simple little triumphal arch of the metal detector. "Good-bye, good-bye," my son signified with a wave of his hand (and now I wanted to cry: that's just like me).
Back home again, I did some straightening up, carefully tidying my study in preparation for the work to come (I was planning to launch into my writing very early the next morning). I began by clearing off the tall black bookshelf, where a great many papers had accumulated since my arrival in Berlin: mail and bills, assorted calling cards, various unclassified documents related to my work, some coins and old concert tickets, and a great stack of newspaper clippings in French and German that I'd been saving to read later, in tranquillity. I must have carefully cut all these articles out, one after another, as the days went by; I can well imagine myself clipping away, sitting at my desk, then standing to go and put them on a shelf with the others, to be thrown away at some later date, if not to be read at some point. Once I'd completely emptied the armoire, I began to sort through my clippings, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my study, the distended sleeves of my old wool sweater pushed up to the elbows. With a large plastic trash bag lying open nearby, I took the articles one by one from the piles around me and began to skim through them a little, naturally, as one does (sometimes, in my archival zeal, I even went so far as to stand up and get a pen from my desk to annotate a paragraph, or underline a sentence, or date a clipping), then tossed them into the bag, preserving only a few particularly interesting specimens, rigorously selected, for later perusal; with delighted anticipatory relish, I went and laid these on the nightstand in my bedroom once I'd finished my tidying. Then I quickly swept up, opened the balcony door to air out my study, went and gave the rugs a good shake in the open air, and got rid of the briefcase and portfolio that were sitting on top of my bed. With these various preliminaries completed, I set my alarm clock to 6:45, and, checking one last time to be sure that everything in the apartment was in order, that everything was ready in my study, my desk neat, a ream of blank paper beside the computer, my books and notes properly arranged and ready for use, I very gently closed the study door, made my way to the living room, sat down on the couch, and turned on the television.
Some time before, as if caught up in some sordid intoxication, I'd taken to turning on the TV in the evening and watching everything there was to see, my mind perfectly empty, never choosing any particular program, simply watching everything that came my way, the movement, the glimmering lights, the variety. At the time I didn't quite realize just what was happening to me, but looking back, I see that short-lived period of overindulgence as a classic forerunner of the radical decision that was to come, as if, to make a clean break, you first had to go through such a phase of excessive consumption.
Excerpted from Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint Copyright © 1997 by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 2, 2005
In a word, superb. That's what this book is. I can only hope his flow and syntax are as beautiful in the original French as they are here. Toussaint effortlessly creates a character then brings you into his world. The only shame about this book is that the original language version isn't as readily available in the States. It leaves you wanting more Toussaint--in any language. Truly one of the better titles of our time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.