Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a Belgian writer of short and, at times, fantastic adventures revolving around the minutiae of characters whose lives encompass obsessions and apartments, who are tossed about by love or paranoia, and whose experiences take in fires, mineralogy, horses trapped in planes, and Indian meals that may or may not be eaten, with each episode in these packed lives, even when seemingly humdrum, delivered with a calm that belies the intensity of ideas presented in carefully constructed yet seemingly informal sentences that possess rhythm, depth and, often, a sense of humour. Toussaint’s translated novels and novellas have become available in the last few years from Dalkey Archive. Now, for the first time, readers have this semi-memoir focused on his writing. No one needs to have read his previous works to be able to appreciate the charm and intelligence present in Urgency and Patience.
For the most part, the eleven pieces collected here were published in periodicals, some undergoing amendments since their first appearance. In order, their titles are: “The Day I Began to Write,” “My Offices, “Urgency and Patience,” “How I Built Certain of My Hotels,” “Literature and Cinema,” “Reading Proust,” “I, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov,” “The Day I Met Jérôme Lindon,” “For Samuel Beckett,” “The Ravanastron,” and “In Bus 63.” Absent are recollections of the day he was born, where his parents worked, what school was like, if he’s married or a hunchback, for this is an intellectual memoir that, when it occasionally admits a personal sketch or remark, does so precisely because it connects to writing.
“The Day I Began to Write” seems to promise what many would classify as a significant moment, but the first sentence refines our expectation: “I’ve forgotten the precise hour of the exact day I decided to start writing, but that hour exists, and that day exists; that decision, the decision to start writing, is one I made abruptly, on a Paris bus, between place de la République and place de la Bastille.” A few lines down the fragility of memory is demonstrated for a second time: “What I know with greater certainty—the memory grows clearer now—is that, when I got home that day, that Monday—I don’t know if it was really a Monday, but I like to think so, I’ve always had a soft spot for Mondays…” (As Henry Miller wrote in the opening paragraphs of Tropic of Cancer : “It is the twenty-somethingth of October. I no longer keep track of the date. Would you say—my dream of the 14th November last?”) How old was Toussaint? “I was twenty (or twenty-one, who cares? I’ve always been a year off all my life)…” Each supposed link in the chain of memory pulls us further away from what we might consider important—facts backed up by a firm date—and pushed to regard action and mood as the dominant features. Compare those gaps to this concrete reminiscence from “On Bus 63”:
And yet for all that, Beckett’s work isn’t difficult; it is within the grasp of a child of twenty-three. I was twenty-three when I discovered Beckett’s books, I was living in Paris in my grandfather’s apartment. I read Molloy in a wing chair (or a Gainsborough chair, noblesse oblige) of aging pale blue velour, the upholstery on the arms slightly worn, in the bedroom of that apartment on the rue de Longchamp.
While Toussaint’s first day as a writer can’t be completely determined—absences are frequent in his fiction as well—that day stands out. “The best books are the ones where you remember the armchairs you sat in while reading them,” he states in “Reading Proust.”
Beckett and his work are evoked many times in this slender book. Here is the opening of “For Samuel Beckett” that tells us something about both writers:
In the early ’80s, I wrote Samuel Beckett a letter. I explained that I was trying to write, adding that he was probably often sought out by strangers, and so rather than asking him to read my work, suggested instead that we play a game of correspondence chess with, at stake, a play I’d written. If I won, he’d read it and give me his opinion. If he won, I’d read over my own play at my leisure. I closed my letter with these words: “Just in case, 1.e4.” By return post, Samuel Beckett replied: “Black resigns. Send the play. Sincerely. Samuel Beckett.” I sent him my play, and one or two weeks later, I got another handwritten note: he had kept his word, read my play, and advised me to trim certain passages.
True to the beginning of this book, when they meet for the first time, at the bottom of a stairwell (a potential Beckettian setting) of Les Éditions de Minuit, Toussaint’s publisher, he can’t recall what anyone said. “Some memoirist I am.”
Appended to the 2008 English language edition of Camera (originally published in 1988) is an interview with Toussaint where he says that the first paragraph of that brief novel “took me over a month to write…” Some of the methods behind his composition of novels are presented in the title essay, “Urgency and Patience”:
For The Truth about Marie, I had to do even more research than usual, since I was tackling several themes largely unfamiliar to me… I went so far as to climb on a horse and go for a ride in the Corsican maquis in the summer of 2006. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been on a horse… For the heart attack, I skipped having one myself (self-sacrifice has its limits), preferring to call up a doctor friend instead, and invite him to a Brussels brasserie for lunch.
Before and after that light-hearted passage we are presented with the philosophy behind finding the right state in which to write literature (and how reminiscent of his novels this alternation is).
“In writing a book, everything always begins and ends with patience. Beforehand, the novel must be left to steep in itself; this is the ripening phase, when the first images occur, characters are sketched.” Eventually “letting go one day is also indispensable…” Then revising occurs. Over four pages we read how, for Toussaint, “inspiration is received and urgency acquired,” and of his dissatisfaction with “that great romantic myth” wherein inspiration comes from “God or Nature…” Instead, urgency “has a realm, an abstract, metaphorical place” that can be “attained through immersion.” In the imagery he uses, this requires sinking through the zones of a kind of ocean to come to rest in “the realm of urgency, the world of abyss” where “the inner eye widens, and a fictive, fabulous world appears in our minds.” If we concentrate, and are not interrupted, then “…sentences are born, flow, fall over each other, and everything is right, everything works out, everything gathers and fits together in this intimate darkness that is inside of our very minds.” To some, writing on the abyssal plan will come across as no less romantic a notion than to be inspired by the Lake District or opium; it is also an open question how consciousness can surprise itself.
A number of conceits are entertained in this variety of essays: that characters and hotels are built the same way, amalgamations of many things coming together to be rendered down into something that fits onto a page yet can expand in a reader’s mind; how biologists and filmmakers, who must “compromise with reality,” are “well-balanced, responsible, and measured” while mathematicians and writers create ideal worlds “whose rules they themselves devise,” are “anxiety-driven, irresponsible, onanistic dreamers who’ve lost all touch with reality (I see the time has come to say a word about Proust)”; the aforesaid words on Proust (“sweet Christ, how can anyone write a book that long?”); the lead figure in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; and other topics, such as typewriters, computers, and office space (“I thought it was literature I loved, but goodness me, it was office supplies all along!”).
Even if he can’t remember what the telegram from the publisher Jérôme Lindon said in his acceptance of the manuscript of The Bathroom, his first work to be published (“The Day I Met Jérôme Lindon”)—and by this time that’s not surprising—Jean-Philippe Toussaint is always the genial host whose sly wit and self-deprecating humour go equably along with a passion to set down the best words he can, no matter how long it takes, and to create, as he puts it playfully in “The Ravanastron,” an affectionate tribute to Beckett’s Watt, “literature itself, my lambkins.”
Urgency and Patience: Essays by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Trans. Edward Gauvin | Dalkey Archive Press | 66 pages | $13.95 | paper | ISBN: 978-1628970791