Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Jordan Stump

(Dalkey Archive)
Our hero tells us he is going to give up television. At least once the Tour de France ends. Presumably this will help him on his research in Berlin, for which he has been given a hefty grant. The subject? Hold onto your hats:

It's 1550 in Augsburg. The painter Titian has been assigned to paint a portrait of the Emperor, Charles V. In his studio, one day,

    Titian changed his mind, deciding to switch to another brush and add a golden highlight rather than a touch of white, and let his brush slip from his grasp. It fell through his fingers and landed at the emperor's feet. Dispensing with the customary greetings and reverences, the two men exchanged a glance of tremendous intensity. The brush lay on the floor at their feet, a tiny gold dot at the tip of its fine, contained flame of hairs. Inclined, its colored point glistening with oil, the brush lay on the marble, and no one in the room made a move. Already the muscles in Titian's back, shoulders, and arms were readying the gesture with which he would bend down and pick up the brush, but Charles V acted first, stooping down to retrieve the brush and return it, thereby implicitly recognizing the precedence of art over political power.

Television is positively bustling with strange-serious-ridiculous stuff like this. First off, there is this bizarre picayune study project of a single moment plucked from the 16th Century, narrated so meticulously, so minutely, that it reminds us of 16th Century portraits, with all their picayune details.

Then, there is the day-to-day in the Berlin summer of this Titian dropped-paintbrush student. For example, our hero tells everyone that he has given up television, only to find everyone else saying "I hardly watch it either." Then he promises to care for the upstairs neighbor's plants while they are on vacation, but he forgets, lets them all die (helped along by his stuffing a rare fern into the refrigerator).

He gets lost in the Dahlem Museum, but ends up in a deserted guards' watch station, in front of dozens of closed circuit television screens, watching (on tv!) other museum-goers viewing paintings. He gets lost in Berlin, in the Rilkestrasse (where else?) looking for a lady who is to take him for an airplane ride; he ends up in an apartment where one can look out the window and see countless apartments with countless televisions blaring away, all mostly on the same channel.

    And it was then, still distractedly watching those glowing televisions in the windows of the building across the way, that I was struck by the presence of a television glowing all alone in a deserted living room, with no human presence visible before it, a phantom television in a sense, disseminating images in the emptiness of a sordid living room on the fourth floor of the building across the way, with an old gray couch half visible in the dimness.

§     §     §

In the notes I made as I was making my leisurely way through Television, I wondered "Why is this all so interesting?" We are dealing with a massive procrastinator preparing to write a long and supremely stupid study of some dinky event from 1550. We get to follow him through the streets of Berlin, meeting with other people who are pothering around with their own minuscule projects. "Why is it I can't put this one down?" I ask myself. This is no Alan Furst novel, not even a page turner like Geisha or Buddha-Da or even an Alan King blockbuster.

Maybe it's the ridiculous details: a computer mouse, he finds, when seeking something to do with his project --- "From among the dozen or so vaguely bluish folders that appeared before me in the electronic window I'd opened, I selected the file titled The Paintbrush and opened it with two more quick strokes of my finger over the mouse's clitoris, expertly teasing its little ductile zone."

It is possibly the gratuitous (but maybe not too gratuitous) introduction of tv and computer and security screens everywhere. Or working the computers at the Pompidou Library, he finds that Titian was also known as "Tiziano Vecellio" --- (that is, T.V.) Then he discovers that to access Titian, one has to type in "TIT" into the computer. Then there is the day his friend's psychoanalyst goes on vacation, so he goes into the doctor's office and sits and listens to the clients and no one knows the difference.

Our author (or his talented translator) has seeded the tale with so many quirks and puzzlements that we just don't want to leave it alone. Our neo-existential hero is not all that far from The Stranger --- but his world is less violent, thus, perhaps, even more nonsensical.

The closest I've come to this style of writing is Javier Marías' Heart So White. It is a tale, often a very funny tale, of yet another passive, somewhat dislocated man who has a slightly looney take on the world. He --- or the author --- essentially has one thing to say. That is: We've lost the passion and we've lost the innocence. What we have left, all this machinery of the 21st Century, may mean something, but then again, maybe it doesn't. So bob's your uncle.

Finally, he says, I think, although I am a bit daft after all this: it may be important to muddle through our lives without getting too involved, without being too moved (or too hurt) --- as long as we do it with good heart and no small wit.

The only thing that counts, after all, is that we are not in the grave.

At least, possibly, not yet.

--- J. J. Warren
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