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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Dunkirk is an accomplished, expressive war film without the blood and guts

Christopher Nolan both stretches time and compresses it, creating suspense without horror.

The first line heard in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk is a declaration of identity. “English! Anglais!” shouts the inky-haired, milky-faced Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he hurries toward a group of French soldiers at the end of a deserted street, having narrowly escaped being gunned down by Germans. Identity is crucial in this movie. Questions arise about the nationality of a grunt who appears to have fallen mute: is he a German spy? And with several hundred thousand soldiers cornered in Dunkirk awaiting evacuation in May 1940, foreigners are weeded out of the lines of men waiting for rescue by British vessels.

Only one naval ship has been committed to the evacuation: with German bombers dotting the sky, picking off the troops waiting on the beach and jetty (or mole), the military won’t risk putting in jeopardy any vessels that may be needed come the next big battle. In the absence of other options, an improvised flotilla of civilian boats makes its bobbing way across the Channel towards Dunkirk.

That cry of “English! Anglais!” could also signal a returning home for the British-born, Anglo-American Nolan. For 20 years, he has been almost exclusively a Hollywood filmmaker, darkening the mood at multiplexes with his sombre Dark Knight series and his riddle-me-this puzzle pictures Inception and Interstellar, and becoming in the process one of the world’s genuine superstar directors. Dunkirk brings him back to his roots while continuing to pose the sort of structural challenges that have animated him since Memento (still his most wickedly inventive work) and The Prestige (a close second).

To maintain a triple-pronged narrative that cuts between soldiers such as Tommy on the beach, plucky civilian volunteers such as Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) inching across the waves toward France, and the RAF Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) babysitting the lot of them from the air, Nolan’s screenplay fuses the three timelines. This gives the impression that everything is happening concurrently, when, in fact, there are minuscule flashbacks, flash-forwards and replays of the action from different angles sewn into the editing. The events on the mole occupy around a week, the ones at sea a day, while the darting aerial combat lasts merely an hour. Providing momentum and continuity is Hans Zimmer’s surging score, which is shot through with mechanical groans and shrill, sawing violins redolent of exposed nerves.

Cinema has been stretching time since at least Battleship Potemkin but it is unusual to find elongation and compression used simultaneously. The soldiers’ long wait to be rescued, as they take cover in one ship that gets torpedoed and another that is beached, is necessarily abridged. The pilots’ mission, on the other hand, is stretched out and rendered in intricate detail; at one point, Farrier’s survival comes to depend on nothing more than a piece of chalk.

It’s a sly joke for Nolan to confine an actor as imposing as Tom Hardy to a cramped cockpit as well as hiding his pretty face with a disfiguring mask for the second time. (His unintelligible turn in The Dark Knight Rises caused viewers everywhere to cup their ears in a collective “Eh?”) Casting elsewhere works on the Thin Red Line principle that minor characters are more easily defined when played by stars: Kenneth Branagh is a naval commander, Cillian Murphy a shell-shocked soldier. Advance publicity has dwelt on the acting debut of Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, who is the latest British pop star cast by the director following Tim Booth in Batman Begins and David Bowie in The Prestige. Styles does a decent job and doesn’t bump into the furniture, though there are other elements in the film more worthy of note.

Chief among them is the decision to create suspense without horror, substantiating Nolan’s claim that this is not so much a war movie as a survival film. Audiences are put on high alert by an ambush in the opening scene and by the shot of a dead man’s foot sticking out of the sand. A soldier asked how he knows that the tide is coming in responds by pointing out that bodies are washing up on the shore. Yet Nolan is manifestly not playing a game of oneupmanship against Saving Private Ryan. Hints of violence are sparing. Soldiers killed by bombs simply disappear in an explosion of earth, and the one death in which our empathy is actively solicited falls loosely and ignominiously into the category of friendly fire.

For all its accomplished action sequences and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s expressive cinematography, which mimics at times the distressed texture of Super 8, the picture is distinguished by a knack for undercutting genre conventions without diminishing them emotionally. Pretty much the only red stuff shown is the strawberry jam handed out on slices of bread aboard a hospital ship; the one time we hear the words of Churchill they are read aloud from the morning paper by an exhausted soldier understandably lacking in bombast or ceremony. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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