In the geology of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s career and development as a writer, his third novel, Camera, is easily placed in the same strata as his debut, The Bathroom. However, Camera is funnier and more romantic (in the nameless narrator’s weird way). The book opens:
It was about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way. As it happens I had just decided to learn how to drive, and I had barely begun to get used to the idea when some news reached me by mail: a long-lost friend [. . .] had informed me he was getting married.
And this is true – the events are not connected in any way, except by occurring to the narrator. The phrase “from time to time” is repeated over and over throughout the story, and I am tempted to read some significance into this phrase, but then again they may not necessarily be connected in any way.
What happens is that the quirky, obsessive narrator decides to take driving lessons. He goes to the driver’s ed office to sign up and he meets the young woman, Pascale, with whom he spends most of the book.
The narrator in Camera is, as the back cover of the book states, “obsessed with himself.” Often his self-obsessive relation of details, which could easily have gotten grating and annoying, is actually rather funny:
Besides that, having nothing special to do in Milan – read the paper, of course, lifting my head from time to time to contemplate the shaded pathways of the park – I walked around almost the whole day, going from place to place with my newspapers under my arm, and was soon inconvenienced by numerous little annoying blisters that were perniciously forming between my toes (right there where my baby skin is so delicate, let it be a warning to you). I began walking in an unnatural way, to say the least.
Despite the idea of movement, the driving lessons, the trip to Milan, the driving about the city with Pascale and her father, the narrator draws toward the still darkness where he feels he is able to “think,” much in the same way the narrator of The Bathroom seeks immobility. However, the narrator here seeks a black screen void of words and even images – simply a plane:
Seated in the darkness of the booth, my coat wrapped around me, I didn’t move. I thought. Yes, I was thinking and, when I was thinking, eyes closed and body sheltered, I imagined another life, identical to this life in shape and scope, its breathing and its rhythm, a life in every way comparable to life, but with no wounds imaginable, no aggression, and no possible pain, far away, a detached life that blossomed up through the thinning ruins of exterior reality, and where a different reality, interior and peaceful, accounted for the sweetness of each passing moment, and it was scarcely words that appeared to me then, nor images [. . .] but moving forms that followed their course in my mind like the movement iof time itself.
Okay, so there appears to be a reason for the repetition of “from time to time” after all. In Camera, Toussaint moves from the mundane to the comic to the romantic to the dark and beautiful as fluidly as the narrator’s ecstatic vision of the movement of time. The Bathroom and Camera are similar books in many respects, very obviously from the same period of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s development as a writer, and I am tempted to say that Camera is a richer novel (it is more emotionally moving), but each novel moves brilliantly within itself, existing in and accomplishing its own moment in time.
After the novel is an interview with Jean-Philippe Toussaint by Laurent Demoulin, entitled “Towards an Infinitesimal Novel,” where Toussaint speaks about his process and intentions with his work. Dalkey Archive has given yet another gift to the English speaking/reading world by initiating and offering translations of these early novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint.