Monsieur by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

The 20th century was fertile ground for literary investigation into the paradox of rendering nothing on the page. Nothingness’s depiction can be, as in Beckett, something utterly miserable: cosmic absurdity brought down to break the will of the average individual. It can become, as in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, part of a terrible existential moment as individuals confront the inevitable onset of a world without humans. But nothingness can also be quite different: it can be, as presented in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Monsieur, something light and comical. Call it an utterly banal, self-inflicted nothingness, the slacker’s dream of a nothingness full of comfort because it requires the least from him of anything. Perhaps this is the kind of nothingness with which we are now best able to relate.

Monsieur’s titular protagonist is about as inactive an anti-hero as you’re likely to get. Out of sheer inertia, he continues living in his fiancée’s parents’ apartment well after the bride-to-be has started up with another man. (Her mother eventually finds Monsieur a new place to live.) After moving out, when his new neighbor boorishly co-opts him into transcription duty Monsieur sees no escape: to move to yet another new apartment would require exertion, as would telling his neighbor to buzz off, so he just becomes the man’s secretary. Monsieur’s dedication to inaction runs so deep that even a painful, fractured wrist that is swelling right before his eyes cannot raise the tiniest note of urgency:

Monsieur knew full well that X-rays were common, painless procedures, and he would have gone along without too much apprehension if, to go through with it, he didn’t have to go to the hospital (Monsieur was not particularly fond of hospitals). And so, sitting down again, he asked the Parrains if by any chance there wasn’t a doctor in the building, for example a radiologist.

Toussaint’s peeking absurdity is visible, just barely, in what next happens to Monsieur. He’s told that there is in fact a doctor in the building and that he need only telephone to see if he makes house calls. Adverse as he is to telephones, our protagonist nevertheless contemplates the matter, decisively slaps his good hand on the table, and asks Monsieur Parrian for the phone. When he returns from the call, which we are not privy to, Madame Parrian remarks on her surprise that Monsieur already knew the doctor’s number. Monsieur replies that he didn’t call the doctor; he called his boss. “Oh, I didn’t know you worked,” replies Parrian. After a brief segue way Monsieur ends up—somehow, it’s never explained—in the doctor’s apartment, but his wrist is never definitely seen to.

It somehow makes no sense at all and exactly perfect sense that Monsieur would summon the resolution to make a call, and then call the wrong person, or that the lady of the house he lives in would have no idea that he’s employed. As in this segment, the strategies Monsieur implements to pursue inaction, and the effects of their successful implementation, give us very ambiguous insight into the protagonist. Is he pathologically shy, or does he just prefer to get along with minimum interference? We, like Madame Parrian, come to intimately know Monsieur’s defining trait, an all-encompassing drive toward inaction—and almost nothing else about him.

Although Toussaint never provides evidence to convincingly resolve the question of whether Monsieur is shy or misanthropic, it is certain that his goal is to arrive at the point of least interaction, and always by exerting as little energy as possible. He seems to be very much like the cat in Schrödinger’s famous thought-experiment, which Monsieur explains to his friend:

A cat was placed in a closed chamber with a capsule of cyanide in such a way that, if the atom underwent radioactive deterioration, the detector would activate a mechanism that would break open the capsule and kill the cat. . . . The atom in question having in fact a 50 percent probability of undergoing this radioactive deterioration within the hour, the question was the following: sixty minutes later, was the cat alive or dead? . . . However, according to the Copenhagen interpretation, he went on, when the hour was up the cat was in limbo . . . the simple fact of taking a look would radically alter the mathematical description of its state, transforming it from the state of limbo to a new state, where it was either positively alive of positively dead.

I believe Monsieur envies the cat in its box, sitting there happily in its state of limbo, completely unaware that someone could open the box and force it into a life or death confrontation. Similar to the cat’s delicate balance, Monsieur’s life is a fragile thing, and every intrusion into it is a calamity, a crisis whose resolution might be harmless or catastrophic. The cat’s advantage over Monsieur, what really makes its life enviable, is that it, being an animal in a box, has no idea that its limbo might ever end, whereas Monsieur must constantly fret over his and battle to preserve it.

Late in the novel, Monsieur discovers what must be his box: the rooftop of his apartment, where he can sit alone, staring off into the depths of space:

Around Monsieur, now, it was like night itself. Immobile on his chair, his head bent back, he once again let his view mingle with the infinity of the skies, his mind reaching out towards the curve of the horizon. Breathing peacefully, he scanned the whole night of thought, all of it, far into the memory of the universe, to the depths of the glimmering sky. Reaching ataraxy, no thoughts stirred in Monsieur’s mind, but his mind was the world—that he’d convened.

This moment occurs rather late in Monsieur, and it is possible to make out, although only by carefully looking (this is a novel about inaction and nothingness, after all), a definite withdrawal of Monsieur from the world, a withdrawal that finds its pinnacle in these evenings on the roof. As the short, spare, elliptical Monsieur progresses, its protagonist spends more and more time completely alone; he comes to talk as little as possible; he even figures out how to get other people at work to push the elevator buttons so he can keep his hands in his pockets.

In his pursuit of complete disassociation from the world around him, Monsieur comes to resemble an electron, perhaps one intent on joining an atom of inert gas. The people who continually attempt to impose their will upon him throughout the book—his neighbor Kaltz, a woman Kaltz attempts to ensnare, his brother, even a teenager who almost beats him at ping pong—may be seen as the cosmic forces the Monsieur/electron wishes to escape. At times Monsieur even describes himself as an electron that calls on quantum forces to tunnel to safety:

Perhaps seeing Monsieur there, before him on the pavement when he should have been behind him in the room, Ludovic, in a fit of giddiness, would imagine that Monsieur, who obviously could be in only one place at one time, displaced himself apparently without transition and that his energy, like that of the electron, in its sleight of hand (hip, hop), effected a discontinuous leap at a certain moment, but that it was impossible to determine at which moment this leap would take place as there was no reason, according to the Copenhagen interpretation, for it to happen at one given moment rather than at another.

Here, Toussaint is likening the cosmic randomness of the electron’s jump—one of the most fundamental activities in the universe—to the meaninglessness of all activity in Monsieur’s life. Why do things happen to Monsieur? Why do people keep disturbing him? And most importantly, why is Monsieur acted on at some times but not others? Monsieur has no idea, he uses the metaphor of the electron to demonstrate his utter bewilderment with a world that would first force him to teach physics to a teenager and then permit him to just jump free of his burden.

I would argue that a man in this kind of a relationship with the world, one who sees it as utterly capricious, as pure randomness to be escaped and avoided, cannot be anything but frightened of it. It’s quite easy to read Monsieur as more of a commanding figure, as an individual who, like many of Toussaint’s other characters, is a reluctant warrior, dispatching bolts of irony to preserve his distance from the world. This is indeed a popular reading of Monsieur’s character, one supported by his twin quips (“People, really” and “Indeed”), but I think this reading is wrong. Toussaint so rarely places us inside Monsieur’s head that any reading is ultimately fraught, but to me Monsieur seems rather frightened of the world. His irony isn’t haughtiness, it’s self-preservation. Certainly, Monsieur has his outbursts and his snide private jokes, but the fact is that despite these other people seem to greatly distress him. Here he turns something as simple and banal as a work meeting into a trial:

Monsieur sat at the 17th seat on the left where, he knew from experience, his presence went the most unnoticed, beside Madame Dubois-Lacour who, as supervisor to a large part of his activities, responded to most of the questions asked of him and, throughout the meeting, calmly smoked his cigarette. Monsieur was scrupulously attentive to remain in line with her body, drawing back when she moved backwards, leaning forward when she moved forward, so as to be never too directly exposed. Whenever the Chief Executive said his name out loud, Monsieur leaned forward, as if surprised and, inclining his head respectfully, responded straight away in dry, precise, technical, professional terms. Hip, hop. After which, fingers trembling slightly, he retreated into his neighbor’s shadow.

Notice that “hip, hop,” the same figure Monsieur employs while thinking of how he bounded away from the teenage physics student Ludovic. Monsieur’s frequent use of this phrase implies that his life is, like Schrödinger’s Cat’s, a series of close calls as fundamentally incomprehensible and random as an atom’s decay.

The book ends with Monsieur perhaps as happily in his box as will be possible. He has somehow gotten down off his roof and into the company of a woman, and the book ends with the two of them immersed in a blackout that, as far as we can tell, covers all of Paris. Monsieur, finally able to see “the sky in its natural state now, far from the parasitic city lights,” sided by a woman who has taken the liberty of making the first move, seems finally at ease with another human being.

Monsieur is a measured, pleasant read, but it does suffer in comparison to Toussaint’s mature work. This was his second novel, published and relatively successful in the U.S. at a time when not much of Toussaint was available to us. But now English-language readers have access to Television and Making Love, and these are more complex works, more rewarding novels than Monsieur. Though they retain the same basic character familiar from Monsieur (and The Bathroom, Toussaint’s first novel), they place this protagonist into increasingly complex situations, allowing the basic theme of the nothingness-loving protagonist to resonate against well-constructed scenarios involving contemporary phenomena. Television, for instance, pits the typical Toussaint protagonist against the lure of television, and as he wages his own inept, rationalization-ridden battle against the screen, Toussaint casually deconstructs the roll of TV in modern society.

There’s nothing quite that complex in Monsieur, although it does maintain its own particular pleasures. The novel is a marvel of restrained, polished prose, and the secondary characters are defined in the space of a beautiful, pithy sentence. It is a book that, though outshone by Toussaint’s later writing, remains definitely worth reading.

Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.

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