On Embracing The (Repetitious) Mundane: Two Works By Jean-Philippe Toussaint

by Thomas Brett

I recently discovered some short novels by French novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint. In his books Monsieur (1986) and Television (1997), Toussaint explores with whimsical yet clinical detail the dynamics of repetition–along with the virtues of doing very little to get by in life so that its textures and contours are revealed to us.

In Monsieur, our otherwise unnamed protagonist is a case study in what Toussaint calls “bone idleness.”  We follow Monsieur as he goes through the motions of everyday life–going to his “executive” office job (where it’s not at all clear what it is exactly that he does), socializing, playing ping-pong with his nephew–all while going to great lengths to exert himself as little as possible.  He hides, he escapes, he tries to blend in, he strives to be invisible.  As a result of these strategies, time slows down or at least seems purified, and living becomes light as Monsieur glides through his days, savoring whatever he happens to be doing right here, right now.  Monsieur, both the book and its protagonist, is a quiet celebration of the neutral and the mundane: taking it easy while maintaining acute awareness.

Television treads on similar territory, only this time the protagonist is a French academic who has given up his TV habit and moved to Berlin for the summer to do research for a monograph.  But the micro-rhythms of everyday life soon consume him and he gives in to procrastination, making his many leisure pursuits–from sunbathing to sitting in cafes to swimming–the main event.  He also keeps finding television’s ghostly, flickering presence wherever he goes.

In both of these books there’s an almost ethnographic attention paid to the textured minutiae of humdrum lived experience: how things and activities look and sound, smell and feel.  Unlike most novels, the “action” in these stories  is really not the point.  Instead, Toussaint engages readers in sufficient detail that we forget all about the need for the narrative to “go” somewhere.  The message?  If managed and attended to just right, humdrum experience can blossom with insight and small, easily overlooked revelation.