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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle