The Unbearable Lightness of Travelling

[4 June 2010]

By Michael Buening

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad is made up of short reminiscences on travel by the book’s narrator, a Belgian writer like himself. Its emotional and comic precision makes for one of his more accessible books, deriving power from its elegant slightness.

The narrator is most often traveling for literary business – a writer’s conference in Vietnam, a speech at the French Institute in Tunisia – and Toussaint uses these trips to explore the disorientations of modern globe trotting. He delights in the absurdities that result in complicated layers of nationalities and languages. At a boules contest in Corsica, the narrator’s friend Christian and his Japanese girlfriend Noriko speak to each other in Spanish since it’s “the only language they both understood” and the comic momentum of the story is punctuated by her cries of ¡santo cielo!.

Throughout Toussaint showcases an abashed humor that helps make palatable the often abstract emotions underpinning his work. His front quote states, “I know that any trip brings with it the possibility of death – or of sex (both highly improbable of course, yet not to be excluded altogether).”

The first and last stories take place in Japan and, whether intentional or not, the writing as a whole is reminiscent of the early 20th century Japanese writers who wrote heavily biographical fiction, in particular the melancholic tenor of Nagai Kafū’s travel writing in American Stories.

As with Nagai, the oblique and seemingly unconnected stories accumulate force in the way they skirt an unspecified hurt. The narrator frequently mentions his wife Madeleine – “I will call Madeleine Madeleine in these pages to help me get my bearings” – and the nostalgia with which she is described hints at some form of longing or loss.

Toussaint’s writing can be strong on tone but murky on particulars, but in these tales of minor embarrassments and miscommunications he uses his strengths to captures the vague sorrow that can infect a traveler. In the final chapter, “Return to Kyoto,” the narrator finally succumbs to an awareness of passing time and the loneliness and dislocation it entails. “The tears didn’t come, although I would have welcomed the voluptuous sensation of crying.”

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