Martin Riker
on Jean-Philippe Toussaint

November 20th, 2008 by EVENTS

My love for Toussaint’s work began in 2004, when Dalkey Archive Press published his novel Television in Jordan Stump’s translation. I’d worked for Dalkey Archive since 1998, but had recently gone off to do a PhD, and was keeping abreast of the Press’s new titles by reviewing them when I could. Thus, it was not as a publisher but as a reader and reviewer that I first discovered Toussaint’s work—and was completely floored by it. I wasn’t alone: the book got great review attention, and for a while there was a kind of buzz about it. New Press brought out Toussaint’s Making Love around the same time, and copies of the out-of-print editions of The Bathroom and Monsieur disappeared from Amazon. Then things seemed to calm down.

By 2007, I was back working for Dalkey Archive when translator Matthew Smith contacted us to propose translating Toussaint’s novel Camera. Around that same time, we obtained the English-language reprint rights to both The Bathroom and Monsieur from the British publisher Marion-Boyars. All three books are so funny and strange and incredibly good that we wanted to get them into print as soon as possible. So we decided what the hell, let’s bring them out together.

There’s something very exciting about publishing several of an author’s books together. Instead of putting a single work out into the world, you’re putting into the world a whole way of seeing. You’re saying: This is not just about a book. Here’s a writer who is doing something beyond mere temporary curiosity. This is the real thing, an actual innovation, literature finding a new way to relate to life.

This is why, in the jacket copy for Camera, I refer to Toussaint as a “comic Camus for the twenty-first century.” It isn’t because Toussaint’s writing reminds me of Camus’s stylistically, but because Toussaint offers something that Camus once offered: a new way to think about the experience of being. Though both comic and compelling, Toussaint’s “being” is also quite strange, and at times disorienting. Something often seems to be missing, and indeed something often is.

He tends to leave things out, things you usually look for in a novel, such as cause-and-effect relationships, or plots that proceed toward logical ends, or transitions from one place or time to another. He does not leave these things out altogether, but rather—drawing upon the actual strangeness of living as much as the inherited traditions of literature—truncates, twists, and shapes experience in odd ways. The important point here is that Toussaint’s work is brilliant and thoughtful and existentially moving precisely because of what he leaves out; the gaps are what give his stories their unusual energy. He knows how to make art out of absence, which is probably why critics have placed him in the Beckett lineage—that, and the tendency he and Beckett share to create carefully weighed and orchestrated sentences, sentences that mount and dismount and give perfect little routines in between.

We brought out our edition of Monsieur this past May. I did not expect much publicity; in fact, my hope was to put Monsieur back into the world quietly, to build up momentum for the release of Camera and The Bathroom in November.

And all was going well until, just as The Bathroom was being prepared for the printer, we realized something we should have noticed much sooner: there are in fact two existing English-language translations to The Bathroom, and we owned the rights to the British version. Which meant that we could either go ahead and publish the British translation, or else frantically attempt to locate the two translators of the original American edition (published by E.P. Dutton in 1985) to obtain those rights in time to keep the book on schedule. We chose to go after the American translation, even though it meant paying twice as much for rights. It wasn’t actually a difficult decision; the British translation is fine, but the American is much funnier.

So we looked up Paul De Angelis, who was not only one of the translators of the American edition, but also the original editor. He was a great help, and through him we reached the estate of the other translator, Nancy Amphoux, who had died a few years earlier. Contracts were drawn up and crisis abated.

The Bathroom and Camera came out earlier this month and aside from one or two really dumb early reviews by people who want more “America” in their fiction, the response has been what it should be: curiosity, enthusiasm, and the anticipation of serious fun.

Martin Riker is Associate Director of Dalkey Archive Press, publisher of four Toussaint novels: Television (2004), and Monsieur, The Bathroom and Camera (2008). Toussaint’s novel Fuir is being translated for publication in 2010.

Posted in Editors Speak


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