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SubStance 35.3 (2006) 95-111

Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Unfinished
Jordan Stump
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The fall of 2005 was an unjoyous time in Paris. In the popular press, article after article spoke darkly of a sour mood that had settled over the French, attributed variously to a sluggish economy, faltering confidence in the future of the European Union, sheer boredom, or a vague sense that France's best days lie behind her. Not surprisingly, the latest Michel Houellebecq novel was being touted as the book of the season, and even as the one (gloomy) bright spot in what promised to be a drab literary rentrée. Actual events, meanwhile, demonstrated the existence of real suffering in the midst of all this moping: first a series of deadly fires in apartment buildings occupied primarily by African immigrants, then a sudden and protracted eruption of rage from the marginalized communities of the suburbs (no doubt paving the way for yet another resurgence of the xenophobic far right). In short, a field day for prophets of doom of all stripes; for everyone else, there seemed remarkably little reason to be cheerful.

Nevertheless, if you had been strolling the streets of Paris in the fall of 2005, you would have seen one spirit-lifting sight, many times reproduced in the windows of bookstores all over the city: a display consisting of a small bouquet of white-covered books, enlarged photocopies of glowing reviews, and a photograph of a tall man in a sweater, his arms raised and crossed just in front of his eyes, a sheepish grin on his lips. The photo depicted the Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint; the subject of the glowing reviews was his latest novel, Fuir, whose appearance, Houellebecq notwithstanding, was unmistakably the major event of the 2005 literary season.

This may seem a strange thing. Toussaint has long been admired by fans of adventurous new conceptions of the novel, but he has never really imposed himself as a literary star. Neither fascinatingly reclusive nor relentlessly self-promoting, he seems to have devoted little energy to the development of an alluring media persona, and his books appear similarly unfrantic to win us over: brief, not all that numerous, often (and, up to a certain point, accurately) described as "impassive" or "minimalist," they offer stories without clear direction, with uncertain conclusions, rather [End Page 95] vague characters, mildly enigmatic motivations, little action, and few Big Ideas. There is of course their wonderful humor, but even that is of a somewhat unforthcoming sort, gentle and dry; and then, in any case, humor is hardly the surest path to follow if you want to be taken seriously.

And yet there we are: little by little, Toussaint has worked his way into the French literary mainstream (an arrival confirmed by the attribution of the 2005 Prix Médicis to Fuir), demonstrating both the force of his own remarkable writing and the durability of a change in the French novel that is now some twenty years old—like Toussaint's career, as it happens, since it was in 1985 that his first book, La salle de bain, was published by the Editions de Minuit. At the time, Minuit's reputation as one of France's most adventurous publishing houses was founded primarily on a glorious—but to some extent faded, or at least fading—past: the golden age of the nouveau roman, the days of Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Duras. But in fact Minuit had already begun to move beyond that incarnation of itself; by the mid-1980s, it was already offering a home to a new generation of writers, and encouraging another (somewhat quieter) shift in the look and feel of the French novel. Soon this shift would be noted, and the novelists responsible for it—Jean Echenoz, Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, Christian Oster, Marie Ndiaye, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and others—would be dubbed the "new Minuit" writers. It should immediately be said, of course, that there is no "new Minuit school"; these writers are bound by no manifesto, and their novels neither...


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