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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Annie (1982): a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America

Featuring bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. 

Thirty-five years ago this summer, the movie Annie was released. Thirty-five years later, it still makes absolutely no fucking sense. It is a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America with bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. Are you ready, children? Then we’ll begin.

We open at Hudson St Home for Girls. We know this because there is a sign that says Hudson St Home for Girls.

Annie is leaning out of the window, singing sadly and sweetly about her imaginary parents. Her childish ideas of what adults like – “Bet they collect things like ashtrays and art” – is actually very touching. A strong open for Annie.

We do, however need to urgently talk about her hair – a strange combination of Pippi Longstocking, Bowie’s Starman-era mullet and Tom Jones curls.

Despite this misfortune, Annie seems to have absolutely bags of confidence – first singing loudly about her living parents as the only non-orphan in the home while all the other bereaved children try to peacefully cry themselves to sleep, then threatening another child three times the size of her with tiny, angry fists and cocky walk. Look at her, swanning around like Billiam Big Balls.

Annie gives no fucks. Until Dahlesque villain Miss Hannigan enters with a comedy-sized bottle of gin and a frankly iconic silk robe. She immediately threatens to outright murder all the children, and also does that high-pitched Stop copying me! mimicking voice, so there’s really nowhere more villainous for this character to go. She’s peaked.

Now for the cleaning montage: where every child reveals themselves to be a secret Olympic-level athlete.

This girl is cleaning the staircase with every single limb.

Everywhere in this orphanage is dirty, falling apart and miserable. Seemingly hundreds of girls are under the care of a single, drunk abusive guardian and get all their sustenance from a meal called “mush” (served hot and cold!). You might be thinking, Wow, seems like what this children’s home needs is some good ol’ fashioned taxpayer funding increased state intervention and government regulation! But apparently you’d be wrong!

At the end of their cleaning montage, Annie sneaks out of the home in a laundry thanks to Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry. A man so aligned with his small laundry business that he seems to have been predestined for it in a striking incident of nominative determinism. Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry is a stand-up guy who protects the orphans by sending them out into New York City, alone.

Annie spies her enemy: men.

But as soon as Annie is out in the world she runs into the ultimate evil: the meddling state. She just manages to escape a stern looking policeman, in order to beat up six scrawny boys with her tiny, powerful fists – a touching feminist scene. Just look at those Why I Oughta fisticuffs!

Don’t mess with the bad bitch.

After she has joyfully hurt the boys, she barely befriends a cheerful dog before the New York City Pound tries to rip it from her warm embrace. Then the stern-looking policeman is back, and Annie is frog-marched back to the home. And she would have got away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling government agents! Just look at these badge-wearing wankers.

But who is this classy broad?

Another meddling state official? The New York Board of Orphans sent her? Miss Hannigan goes into a tizzy – but never fear! The woman, Grace, insists, “I am the private secretary of Oliver Warbucks.” Yep, you heard it here, kids. Johnny Big Dollar! Geoffrey Moneybags! Hilary Capitalism-Is-The-Only-Equaliser! She’s his secretary. And private secretary at that – none of these public secretaries for millionaires.

She wants an orphan, for one week, to make Mr Warbucks look good. Annie persuades Grace to pick her, and Grace persuades Miss Hannigan to let her go. So Grace runs off with Annie to the Warbucks mansion. Oh, boy! It’s beautiful!

Pause for the awkward Inexplicably Magical Ethnic Minority stereotype. His name is “Punjab”. He doesn’t speak, but does often spontaneously dance, and can seemingly make inanimate objects levitate, control animals and fix injured body parts. This is a truly and deeply racist portrayal.

Annie is asked what she wants to do first – and thanks to years of trauma and abuse she assumes they mean which thing she should clean first. The staff chuckle warmly at these symptoms of a horrific and exploited childhood. Then they all sing about how nice this luxury mansion is and how Annie will never have to lift a finger in this house, the most soothing musical number I think I’ve ever heard. This is my safe space. Wait on me, Drake!!!

It’s also in this scene that Annie reveals she used to sleep “in a tomb”, which is pretty fucking dark for a cheerful movie musical.

Daddy Warbucks arrives and Grace runs him through his messages. “President Roosevelt called three times, sir, this morning, he said it was very urgent.” “Everything’s urgent to a Democrat!” he spits back because THIS MAN IS CLEARLY A REPUBLICAN. We get it, Daddy.

This is also the scene in which Annie asks Daddy Warbucks to “hang me in the bathroom”, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical.

Cut to Miss Hannigan drinking water from a vase and making out with a radio, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical. She launches into an amazing, three-and-a-half-minute song about how horny she is. Cool. Normal. Fine.

Her brother Rooster turns up, and maybe I’ve just been watching too much Game of Thrones, but I get extremely strong incest vibes from the pair of them. I’m convinced this film can’t get much stranger.

In the ensuing five minutes, back at the Warbucks mansion Punjab disposes of a bomb, left by a “Bolshevik” singing The Internationale. Warbucks “is living proof that the American system really works,” Grace explains to the audience Annie, “and the Bolsheviks don’t want anybody to know about that!” I love capitalism!!

Next up is a scene taking directly from my subconscious: Annie takes her dog to the movies, gets overexcited, falls asleep & is carried home by a billionaire. Everyone sings about how great it is to go to the movies with your dog and your billionaire. Suck it, La La Land.

Deep depression / What do we care? / Movies are there! The dancers sing, which is also my personal life philosophy.

Anyway, they go to see Camille (1936) which has a MESSAGE about LOVE and MONEY or something. The next morning, Grace suggests Warbucks adopt Annie. “I’m a businessman. I love money, I love power, I love capitalism, I do not now nor never will love children!” “You know, they’re never going to love you back,” says Grace. Warbucks has a sudden awakening and decides, actually, he loves Annie more than he loves money. (But he still really, really loves money.)

In one of the weirder moments of the film, Grace celebrates Annie’s adoption by singing She makes you relax / Like a big tax / Rebate! Did you even see the orphanage, Grace?! Maybe a little less rebates would mean a little more basic provisions for orphaned children!

Warbucks goes to formally adopt Annie and Miss Hannigan sings another three-minute song about how bloody horny she is. Gotta respect that level of horn. It does include lyrics about her “very wet soufflé”, but she doesn’t call him Daddy even once.

We learn Daddy Warbucks was born very poor in Liverpool but “decided” to be rich when his brother died of pneumonia as a child. By 21, he was a millionaire. The American dream works! USA! USA! USA! He says that not having someone to share his life might almost be as bad as being poor. Luckily for him he has bought the affections of a ten-year-old, so one has really led to the other. USA! USA! USA!

Annie says she’d rather find her real parents than be adopted. The hunt begins!

But first, a totally arbitrary diversion to watch the recording of a toothpaste advert. Obviously. It’s cute though.

Once that’s over, it’s obviously time to go to Washington (?!?!) to see the President (?!!). Warbucks and President Roosevelt debate 1930s New Deal Programs to create jobs for the unemployed. The President asks a ten-year-old to help him devise this social welfare programme. She responds by singing a song because, hey, she doesn’t understand the Civilian Conservation Corps, she’s ten!

Everyone sings and thinks about how great and progressive America, and centrism, are around a big oil painting of George Washington.

Meanwhile, Miss Hannigan and her brother are flirting outrageously about concocting a plan to impersonate Annie’s parents (dead, we learn) for the reward money.

Annie’s parents (Rooster and his girlfriend) turn up, collect their reward money, and take her away. Miss Hannigan gets in the car too and Annie catches on. The ragtag bunch of orphans run and tell Daddy Warbucks what’s up. Meanwhile Annie escapes from the car and we’re in that classic movie trope: car chasing orphan on railway drawbridge. Miss Hannigan suddenly seems to care for Annie’s wellbeing when Rooster starts trying to kill her, and Rooster suddenly hits his sister and knocks her out, which is pretty fucking dark for a children’s movie musical. Annie and Rooster climb extraordinarily high on the raised drawbridge.

Deeply uncomfortably, the climax of the action comes when Punjab rescues Annie from a helicopter by unwrapping his turban and using it as a rope to swing down and grab her.

With all that behind them, Annie and Daddy come together to sing about how amazing their rich lives together are. Warbucks has gone on an amazing journey of discovery to learn that money isn’t the most important thing. (The most important thing is actually money AND orphans.) I don’t need anything but you – and the enormous private circus hosted in the garden of my stupendous mansion with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance! I’m rich as a Midas! Warbucks sings happily.

God Bless America!!!!

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