Rethinking the detective novel: Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Reticence

A mysterious narrator, tricks of the mind and admirably pragmatic prose.

Reticence, the fourth novel by Belgian author and filmmaker Jean-Philippe Toussaint, opens with a death. Visiting the fictional Mediterranean island of Sasuelo, the nameless narrator sees a cat’s body floating in the harbour, a fish head on a broken line hanging from its mouth. The mystery of whether its demise was accidental or deliberate haunts him as he reaches his village hotel, hesitant over whether to meet the writer Biaggi as originally intended, constantly drawn to Biaggi’s house but unable to make contact.

Published as La Réticence in 1991 and translated here by John Lambert for Dalkey Archive Press, this is a detective story – albeit an unconventional one. Like nouveau roman theorist Alain-Robbe Grillet, whose first published novel, The Erasers, follows a man investigating a murder that, it turns out, has not happened and which he then unwittingly commits, Toussaint has explored this mode of writing just once. With the reasons for its protagonist’s association with Biaggi never revealed and the issue of who is spying on who, and why, only moving further from resolution, Reticence often rethinks or rejects the genre’s conventions but fits seamlessly into Toussaint’s oeuvre, its lyrical prose, minimal plot and detached first-person narration typical of his work.

As in Toussaint’s preceding novel Camera (1989), which began his departure from Jacques Tati-esque observational comedies Bathroom (1985) and Monsieur (1987), the events are set off by the narrator’s choice to steal: a camera there, four letters from Biaggi’s mailbox here, including the one sent to announce his forthcoming arrival, sitting unopened. Although he leaves two bits of junk post, this inexplicable act makes it far harder for him to call Biaggi, and he returns to his hotel. His encounters with a grey Mercedes and the hotel’s owner make him increasingly concerned that he’s being followed, as he concludes that the cat has been murdered for motives related, but still unknown.

As he realises that anyone at the hotel could be tracking him, the narrator gradually has to overcome his reticence and go to Biaggi. As in The Erasers, events in the world become conflated with tricks of the mind: he imagines Biaggi to die in a similar fashion to the cat, garrotted, and we are invited to speculate with the narrator about who would do this – him? The hotel owner? Why? Then, just as he becomes certain that Biaggi has perished, doubt is raised: is he the driver of the ominous Mercedes that keeps appearing outside his house? The narrator finally has to break into Biaggi’s house in search of answers, but the elements that might provide them – the answering machine, the man raking the garden outside – refuse to yield any certainty about the people at the hotel or the fate of Biaggi.

We learn little about the narrator – all Toussaint offers is that he is 33 and has a small son – so it’s hard for the reader to second-guess what brings him closer to Biaggi. With little dialogue and no direct speech, the movement of people in hotel rooms, the opening of their doors and the accumulation of small incidences, such as the narrator losing one of the stolen letters to the sea and then finding, on returning the other three to Biaggi’s home that those he left have been removed, become ever more significant in determining Biaggi’s whereabouts.

Unusually for detective fiction, Toussaint tends to change mood more than pace. Divided into three parts, the text broken into short blocks rather than chapters, the second ends optimistically: the cat and the lost letter are gone from the harbour, the others have been returned (seemingly without Biaggi noticing) and the narrator realises that his story has gone full circle, raising hope of a reconciliation. The third section opens in the hotel with one of the father-son moments that gives Reticence an engaging tenderness, the narrator watching his child displace water in the bath with a toothbrush glass ‘to see the effect it produced’, wryly contemplating the ‘new pharmaceutical experiments’ that his son conducts each bath time. Then, gradually, we are eased back into the espionage story, the level of intrigue rising until it reaches a non-conclusion, with only the question of the cat’s death being answered.

As the narrator prefers to wander rather than unravel the plot, it is Toussaint’s prose, alternately pragmatic and poetic, that maintains the interest. Recalling Toussaint’s strongest influence, Robbe-Grillet, the locations are described in extensive detail, such as this on the harbour: ‘The sea was still very dark, with hardly a ripple right out to the horizon, and, as the sun rose behind the mountain, slowly lighting up the far side, which was now topped by a distant halo of light, the boats swaying softly in the port started to take on hints of russet and orange, while the contours of the surrounding docks, fishing nets, rocks, trees and flowers slowly shook off the bluish imprint of the night.’

As in classic post-war French texts critically grouped under the ‘nouveau roman’ banner – The Voyeur by Robbe-Grillet, The Inquisitory by Robert Pinget or The Flanders Road by Claude Simon – observations of places and events become enmeshed with the narrator’s mental speculation, Toussaint’s winding paragraphs shifting almost imperceptibly from the imagined to the real, the mundane to the metaphysical. It is a style that he has continued to evolve, later winning the Prix Médicis for Fuir (Running Away) and the Prix Décembre for La Vérité sur Marie (The Truth about Marie) as he established himself as one of contemporary French literature’s most distinctive voices, turning the existential tradition into something into something lighter, warmer and ultimately more open.

 

Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Beyoncé and #BlackLivesMatter: why “Formation” is her most radical release to date

The more mainstream Beyoncé becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Beyoncé has long been associated with empowerment. From her Destiny’s Child days to B’Day to 2013’s self-titled album, instructions for empowerment are everywhere. Make your own money, and don’t let any man take it from you. You are beautiful, and you should feel empowered by your beauty. You can be successful on your own, but a relationship can be empowering, too. Your existence is powerful, in all its forms.

Beyoncé has always sung primarily to an audience that is black and female, which is essentially what transports so many of these songs from generically feel-good to genuinely radical, even if this difference is often elided on the dancefloor.

As a black woman making art for other black women, Beyoncé has often functioned as a cultural linchpin for movements of gender and racial equality before she has explicitly attached herself to them: “Beyoncé” and “feminism” were used in the same sentence long before she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or stood in front of a giant neon sign blazing “FEMINIST” at the 2014 VMAs. And she and her husband Jay-Z were entwined with #BlackLivesMatter before she included graffiti reading “STOP SHOOTING US” in one of her music videos.

But Beyoncé has continually surprised audiences with her readiness to engage explicitly with these complex issues in more experimental forms as her impossible success continues to snowball: in a kind of inversion on the traditional narrative of white male punk musicians selling out, the more mainstream she becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Formation, her newest single, which dropped on Saturday, takes Beyoncé into territory that feels simultaneously familiar and untrodden. It’s a trap-influenced, synthy track brimming with distinctive reminders of her black Southern upbringing and her phenomenal success. Lyrics about black self-love, the pulsing undercurrent of Beyoncé’s entire career, take on new significance in how explicit and familial they are: “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”

Financial gain as a challenge to oppression – an implication of so many of her songs – finds new, more direct, expression: your “best revenge is your paper”. All these words take on greater significance dressed as they are in such potent visual imagery: Beyoncé stands on top of a drowning police car in New Orleans and fans herself in period clothing in a pregnant, ghostly house reminiscent of Beloved’s 124. Without a doubt, this is Beyoncé‘s most radical release.

It’s fitting, then, that Beyoncé makes links between music and political change in her music itself, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because music has personally empowered Beyoncé to have a kind of cultural and financial success that most people (of any race) could only ever dream of, allowing her to challenge cultural norms in becoming a symbol of independence, sex appeal, authenticity, achievement, blackness and femininity, within a racist society that often sees those traits as incongruous. (This is made explicit in the lyric, “You just might be a black Bill Gates”: world-changing levels of success are still seen as white and male.)

Metaphorically, because Beyoncé‘s music has united black female bodies in organised movement for years (think the Single Ladies” dance). She plays with this in Formation: the line “Get in formation” is an instruction for empowerment. With its punning echo of “get information”, it calls on you to get ready to dance, and to resist. As Dr Zandria F. Robinson notes, it is “a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance, [...] formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement”.

The moment of pause is particularly significant because it is so often dangerous – something that the video for Formation” illustrates in its shots of a young black boy dancing, then opening his arms outstretched, in front of white riot police. They pause before raising their own hands. The poet Claudia Rankine once told me that these silent moments are important because of their potential danger: the calm before the storm. “The white imagination lives inside that space. In those seconds [...] is all of white supremacist history building up. You [can] end up on the other side of that with a dead body.”

Beyoncé has used her own moment of suspense productively – fans and critics noted her “deafening silence” on racial equality, asking where her Instagram essay or impassioned tweets were when her audience needed them. Instead, she took the time to craft a thoughtful, nuanced, forceful anthem made by and for black women that will doubtlessly be consumed by audiences indiscriminately around the world (and Jay-Zs streaming service Tidal simultaneously donated $1.5m to #BlackLivesMatter).

A woman often criticised for her enthusiastic engagement with capitalism (like Rihanna, whose “prosperity gospel” is beautifully explained here by Doreen St Felix), Beyoncé has, in characteristic style, used Formation to demonstrate how the master’s tools can sometimes be used to dismantle the master’s house from the inside. As Britt Julious writes, “As long as we live in this world with these systems, the best manner of disrupting, of surviving, of taking what’s yours is using the same methods they might have used on you. Beyoncé knows what she’s doing. Who else could bring Black Panthers to the Super Bowl?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.