Parody and Palimpsest

Intertextuality, Language, and the Ludic in the Novels of Jean-Philippe Toussaint

by Sarah L. Glasco (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 259 Pages


Parody and Palimpsest: Intertextuality, Language, and the Ludic in the Novels of Jean-Philippe Toussaint adds to the emerging body of work on intertextuality through expansion of critical examinations of the novels of this award-winning author, presenting him as the ultimate magister ludi. Sarah L. Glasco links Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s novels to cross-disciplinary texts that include not only Russian, American, and Japanese literatures, but also film and visual art. Toussaint alludes to the works of numerous French canonical authors, such as Pascal, Flaubert, Gide, Proust, and Apollinaire, with a multicultural mix of Faulkner, Beckett, Nabokov, and Kawabata, for instance, and the works of filmmakers, painters, and ancient philosophers like Wong Karwai, Mark Rothko, and Aristotle. Ultimately, intertextuality in Toussaint’s novels is linked to global cultures and new media via his contemporary literary landscapes. This in-depth study reveals, presents, and analyzes a multiplicity of intertexts, depicting the inner workings of their playful relationships to the texts as a whole, how they are intricately interwoven into Toussaint’s narratives, and also how they relate to one another. Through a process of rereading and reinterpreting Toussaint’s texts, Parody and Palimpsest illuminates both linguistic and narrative subversions, parodies, and pastiches, and, subsequently, Toussaint’s ludic landscapes emerge. Readers are then able to unmask other identities his texts can embody in order to rediscover them through the language, literature, art, products, and thus culture of others.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1. Bathrooms, the Banal, and the Critical Consensus: Toussaint as Magister Ludi and the Novels of the 1980’s
  • Chapter 2. La Salle de bain: (Re)cycling Through Time
  • Semantics and the Saugrenu
  • Syntax and Structure
  • Pascalian Allusions: A Reticent Narrative of Retreat
  • Pascal Meets Proust and Nabakov
  • Chapter 3. The Evasive Maneuvers of Monsieur
  • Contextual Evasion
  • Narrative and Textual Evasion
  • Beckettian Allusions: Musings on Molloy
  • The Flaubertian Allusion: Parodying Monsieur’s Sentimental Education
  • Chapter 4. Persuing Pascal(e): Ludic Incongruities via Text, Context, and Intertext in L’appareil-photo
  • Ludic Incongruities in Text and Context
  • Playing on Pascal: Toussaint’s Ludic Lexicon
  • Pastiching Proust and Other Intertexts
  • Chapter 5. (Re)presenting Reality: The Reticent (Meta)narratives of the 1990’s
  • Deciphering Common Threads in Two Seemingly Different Stories
  • First Read of La réticence: Confusion, Conclusions, and Comic Catharsis
  • Subsequent Readings: Revelations, Allusions, and Ludic Discoveries
  • Semantic Fields and Representations of Reality
  • To Watch or Not To Watch?
  • Proust, Gide, and the Plight of the Writer
  • Chapter 6. The Misadventures of Marie: A 21st Century Tetralogy
  • The Sexual Evolution of Toussaint’s Literary Lovers
  • Staging the Novel: The Filmic Facets of Fuir
  • Eroticism or Pornography?
  • Poetics and Phonetics
  • The Intertextual Dialogs of Apollinaire, Kawabata and Beckett
  • Re-imagining Toussaint’s Novels
  • Demystifying Marie
  • Chapter 7. Past, Present, Future: What’s Next for Jean-Philippe Toussaint?
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Subject Index
  • Author Index


Thank you Yves de la Quérière for teaching me so much and believing in me. This book would have never happened without you. Your brilliance and your sense of humor sustained and inspired me in graduate school, and made me love literature more than I thought possible. Thank you as well to Warren Motte and Alain-Philippe Durand for taking the time to read the book in your very spare time. I hope you understand how grateful I am for that. Thank you Jean-Philippe Toussaint for permission to use your beautiful photograph “La bibliothèque de Canton.” Your generosity of spirit is much appreciated. A huge thank you to my fabulous colleagues and friends Sophie Rigolot Adamson and Olivia Jones Choplin for their on-going support of this project. Vous êtes des trésors. Thank you to my parents Carroll Hill Glasco, Jr. and Laurel Bulger Glasco for always encouraging me no matter what I wanted to do in life. Many parents push pragmatism over passion on their kids, and you never imposed this mentality on me. Having the emotional space and freedom to pursue your passions is just as important, if not moreso, as the financial means and innate abilities, and this gift is not lost on me. Finally, thank you Ed, Quinn, and Sasha for your patience. Indeed, all your patience.← vii | viii →

← viii | ix → ABBREVIATIONS

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. Nue. Paris: Minuit, 2013. [N]

––—. L’urgence et la patience. Paris: Minuit, 2012. [UP]

––—. La vérité sur Marie. Paris: Minuit, 2009. [VM]

––—. Fuir. Paris: Minuit, 2005. [F]

––—. Faire l’amour. Paris: Minuit, 2002. [FA]

––—. La Télévision. Paris: Minuit, 1997. [TV]

––—. La réticence. Paris: Minuit, 1991. [LR]

––—. L’appareil-photo. Paris: Minuit, 1988. [AP]

––—. Monsieur. Paris: Minuit, 1986. [M]

––—. La Salle de bain. Paris: Minuit, 1985. [SB]← ix | x →

← x | 1 → · 1 ·


Toussaint as Magister Ludi and the Novels of the 1980’s

Fiction … now makes [language] the center
of its reflexive concern, and explodes
in ludic, parodic, ironic forms.1

—Ihab Hassan

Born in Brussels in 1957, contemporary Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of twelve books published by Éditions de Minuit and one of the fortunate writers to enjoy great success both in scholarly circles and with the general public. His novels have been translated into over twenty languages and are part of French literature curricula at universities worldwide. He holds degrees in political science and modern history, which he received upon completion of his studies in Paris in 1978 and 1979, respectively. Toussaint has also won many literary prizes, among them the prestigious Prix Médicis for his novel Fuir in 2005 and the Prix Décembre for La vérité sur Marie in 2009; he was also one of four finalists for France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for his most recent novel Nue, which appeared in September 2013. He currently lives in Brussels with his wife Madeleine, has previously lived and worked in Paris, Algeria, and Corsica most notably, and has traveled extensively around the globe discussing his work. In addition to writing books and writing and directing films, Toussaint is also a photographer whose ← 1 | 2 → images have been displayed in Brussels and Kyoto. His novels contribute significantly to the emerging corpus of literary works featuring intertextuality, oftentimes as parodic and humorous, and thus embody veritable palimpsests.2 By expanding critical examinations of the novels of this award winning author, Toussaint’s works are tied to cross-disciplinary texts that reveal transcultural discourses and include not only Russian, American, and Japanese literatures, for example, but also film, visual art, and socio-cultural and linguistic markers.

Some of the most remarkable traits among the author’s stylistic resources as they relate to ludic interpretations include alluding to other texts in the form of direct references as well as more subtle and surreptitious subtexts waiting to be revealed. Sometimes these allusions are isolated instances, while at others the intertexts weave a complex web of thematic and linguistic undertones often signaled by specific semantic fields. This offers the careful reader a richer experience and attests to the author’s sophisticated ludic sensibilities. Within the intertextual context, he often overturns expectations in falsely signaling another event that would seem to add depth to the plot but never happens, or by playfully creating an anti-climactic effect from an unexpected outcome. Furthermore, Toussaint has a penchant for incongruity and the saugrenu, which may result in smiles of perplexity from the reader.3 The humor is a very uneasy one, and thus the reader may laugh without knowing why, or may feel that laughing is not an appropriate response given the context; this is indicative of l’humour noir and Toussaint’s more subversive sensibilities.

Published in 1988, his third novel L’appareil-photo, for example, is comical, contemporary, and packed with references to popular culture; it is perhaps for these reasons, thus, that even the first-time reader of Toussaint’s texts or a reader who may not have any background in literary theory or philosophy is able to enjoy his books. In an interview with Michèle Ammouche-Kremers, Toussaint waxed poetic on the ideal reader, explaining simply that “Le lecteur idéal est celui qui aime ce que je fais et que mes livres rendent heureux” (29). He also expressed that “Beaucoup de choses sont effectivement préméditées,” but further insisted that “ce n’est pas non plus un jeu à décoder. Certains éléments intentionnels sont toutefois intéressants … Tant mieux si on [les] voit mais cela n’a pas d’importance si on ne [les] remarque pas” (31). On the whole, these statements suggest the multiplicity of ways that one may approach his texts, and yet were likely expressed tongue-in-cheek. Although the author has quickly become a staple in discussions of contemporary French literature in scholarly circles, he also appeals to a much wider audience that can take his books at face value and appreciate them for just that. In an article about ← 2 | 3 → L’appareil-photo entitled “Le nouveau « nouveau roman »,” critic and author Jacques-Pierre Amette describes Toussaint as an author who “[pratique] … « le monologue intérieur visuel », genre délicat qui vient à la fois de Joyce, de Beckett, de Claude Simon, mais, plus haut, d’un certain Marcel Proust …” (10). Toussaint seems to acknowledge Proust throughout many of his texts; however, he is the first to admit the overwhelming influence that Samuel Beckett had on his writing when he was much younger. In an interview with Jean-Louis Tallon in November 2002, he explained that after having read Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment and before writing La Salle de bain, “[son] plus grand choc littéraire fut la découverte de l’œuvre de Samuel Beckett.” He elaborated this further, accentuating that “C’est [l’œuvre de Beckett] pour moi LA grande influence littéraire. J’ai lu toutes ses œuvres et me suis mis à écrire comme lui, à être influencé par son style, au point d’en arriver à une sorte d’impasse toute ‘beckettienne’ (rires) de l’écriture.” He added that fortunately he was able to sufficiently “digérer l’œuvre de Beckett, au bout de deux ans, en trouvant dès La Salle de bain [sa] propre voix et [son] propre style.” Even though he has been able to get past his apparent obsession with Beckett, the influence lingers, and he has scattered allusions to the works of his literary idol throughout his own novels, which will be illuminated in our discussions on intertextuality.

Nine of Toussaint’s twelve works published by Éditions de Minuit are subtitled “roman.” Autoportrait (à l’étranger) (2000) is one exception. La Mélancolie de Zidane, which came out on November 9, 2006, is a sort of mini-chronicle based on true events of the 2006 World Cup soccer championship. And most recently, L’urgence et la patience (2012) is an autobiographical essay on the writing process, a collection of some previously published texts with excerpts from some of his novels.4 The purpose here is to deal specifically with Toussaint’s novels published by Minuit. He published his first novel La Salle de bain in 1985. From the beginning, humor has been one of his trademarks: slapstick and crude at times, and darker, more subversive, and subtler at others. Cited in works on the French novel of the 80’s and 90’s, these two decades brought about the recognition of this author in the forum of international literary criticism. Scholars across the board mention the presence of all sorts of jeux—jeux langagiers, jeux d’esprit, jeux de miroirs—to name a few, and most acknowledge their existence and even use words such as ironic(al), comic(al), and humor(ous) specifically and somewhat interchangeably to describe the author’s novels. Toussaint’s texts do often function like mirrors that invert or reverse previously perceived images. They also attribute an enormous amount ← 3 | 4 → of descriptions to modern objects and clearly mark this author as an artist of sorts and a chronicler of contemporary times. Many critics have also touched on linguistic, grammatical, and syntactical elements such as the use of parentheses, and these elements as ludic dimensions merit elaboration. He often distorts conventional linguistic notions by manipulating verb tenses, sentence structure, and punctuation. While the brief simple sentences were certainly indicative of Toussaint’s first two novels at the beginning of his career, one can already detect a distance emerging from the stylistic minimalism by his third novel in terms of sentence structure, for example. Sentences go from a basic construct of simple subject, verb, complement, period, to paragraph length fragments divided by commas, relative pronouns, and present participles. These sentences become so long and complex that they simultaneously and paradoxically speed up and slow down the reading as will be evidenced. Initially, on the one hand, the reading is accelerated because with no periods in sight, there is no place to pause for reflection. On the other hand, however, the reading is slowed because these sentences are so lengthy and fragmented that by the time the readers reach the end, they must go back to the beginning in order to remember what the original subject and verb were, not to mention grasp the more general sense of the thought being expressed. This is one stylistic trait where Toussaint acknowledges Proust in particular.


X, 259
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Comparative literature Global culture Media French literature
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 259 pp.

Biographical notes

Sarah L. Glasco (Author)

Sarah L. Glasco is Assistant Professor of French in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina. She holds a PhD in Romance languages from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she focused on the contemporary French novel with a supporting program in contemporary Hispanic literature. She has published in the French Review, Expressions Maghrébines, and Perspectives on Undergraduate Research Mentoring and continues to pursue teaching and research in her varied interests that include Samuel Beckett, Azouz Begag, multicultural France and immigration policy, and sociolinguistics in language teaching and literature.


Title: Parody and Palimpsest
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272 pages