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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

You Are Leaving the American Sector

Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Traduction de John Lambert

Texte intégral

Je suis donc, aussi bien dans ma vie que dans mes
livres, un Européen pluriel et nomade, qui joue avec
délice de cette variété de langues et de cultures propre
à l’Europe, et se sent partout chez soi en Europe ou
nulle part, ce qui revient au même–, aussi bien à Bruxelles
qu’à Paris, à Londres ou à Venise, à Madrid ou à Berlin.

  • 1 The presentation note to Europa Schreibt states that “all essays will be translated into German an (...)

1From a visual point of view I would rather that my text not be translated into English.1 I would rather, from a simply aesthetic point of view, neither as protest nor as polemic, that my text be the only one not translated into English, but into an Oriental language (Chinese, for example, for a better understanding by all). In fact, even before it is put together, I imagine with trepidation this volume on the European specificity of European writers translated entirely into English, and I cannot stop from thinking that my few pages in Chinese, insinuating their ideograms into this pudding, could possibly throw an ironic light on the situation of languages in Europe, and the domination of the language spoken… in America. To be sure, it might seem a very insignificant detail to ask which languages the text I am now writing will appear in, but it is nevertheless a question of language (which is no trifling matter for a writer).

2In fact it is not by chance that I would like my text translated into Chinese, because, in order to achieve the distance necessary for grasping the possible European specificity of my books, I intend to take a detour through Asia. I take the idea of a detour, roaming and carefree, with its seductive Tristram-Shandyesque flavor, from the French philosopher François Jullien. A Hellenic scholar, he explains that his methodological choice of passing through China is a way of stepping back from the history of European philosophy, suggesting even that he “went through China to better read Greek.” Paradox aside, the idea of a detour should be taken seriously, like a necessary distance, an indispensable retreat to interrogate a reality that has become too familiar. By means of this detour through Chinese thought, things that might seem banal or be taken for granted again become remarkable and problematic. So rather than simply ask myself what is specifically European about my look at reality, I would like to put the question another way: how, for a Chinese reader, am I a European author?

3First of all, the places inhabited by the characters of my books are as European as they come. The apartments they live in are European and the hotels they stay in are European. Of course Paris, my city (I am Belgian, but I went to secondary school and university in Paris), is at the heart of my books, and one could almost say that the narrators of all my books are Parisians, they live and work in Paris (if you can call that working), which they leave only for brief trips abroad, to Venice or Milan. Then, leaving France but not yet Europe (one must wait for my last novel, Faire l’amour, for the first trip to Asia), my narrators settle here and there about the continent, in a village on the Mediterranean (La Reticence) or Berlin (La Télévision). This diversity of European cities present in my books, sometimes simply a decorative element (Paris or Venice in La Salle de bain), but sometimes also an essential part of the story like Berlin in La Télévision or Sasuelo in La Réticence, gives my novels a European flavor that must seem all the more vivid when seen from afar, from Shanghai or Peking. I am, then, as much in my life as in my books, a pluralist and nomadic European, taking playful delight in the variety of languages and cultures proper to Europe, at home everywhere on the continent — or nowhere, which amounts to the same thing — as much in Brussels as in Paris, in London as in Venice, in Madrid as in Berlin.

4I was born in Brussels (Belgium) in 1957, I went to primary school in Belgium and secondary school and university in Paris (France). Afterwards, I lived in Madrid (Spain), Berlin (Germany), Corsica (France), and again in Brussels (Belgium). A native and resident of the city that symbolizes, better than any other, Europe and its institutions, I am myself a reasonably good synthesis of the European spirit, a meeting of Latin and Germanic characters, to which, like a pinch of salt, one could even add an ounce of East-European flair due to my distant Lithuanian origins. For personal, cultural, or familial-touristic reasons (a trip to Lithuania, my grandfather’s homeland), or to accompany the translation of this or that book in this or that country, I have been to most countries in Europe. I speak French (very well), English (rather well), German (rather badly), I can get by (badly) in Italian and (very badly) in Spanish. I can read the newspaper in German, English, Spanish, Italian, and French. My books have been translated into the principle European languages: English, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Greek, Portuguese, Catalan, Czech, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Romanian, and Polish. I am, then, in all respects a European writer, and like the Austrian writers who write in German or the Irish writers who write in English, I come from a small country and I write in a big language.

5On closer inspection one will not find political or economic motifs in my books, no social tableau of the contemporary world. Yet my novels are intensely contemporary. My first book, La Salle de bain, was innovative as much in terms of its form and fragmentary structure as in its very everyday themes. The recurrence of places (or non-places) representative of the contemporary world, bathroom, waiting room, supermarket, phone booth, airport, etc., gives my books, I believe, an a-geographic, universal dimension, to the point that a Chinese reader will find his way as well as a European reader by superimposing his own impersonal spaces on my descriptions. In the same way, the philosophic or metaphysical motifs present in my books are not particularly rooted in European culture. There is no organized, referenced, cultivated philosophical discourse, but rather a practical philosophy traced out in the most common instants of everyday life, in its lulls and downtimes, in elevators, in the street, the bathroom. So just like the European reader the Chinese reader would be familiar with the principle themes evoked in my books and savor the inquiries on the meaning of life, the imperceptible variations on the symbolism of water, and reflections on the passage of time.

6Some time ago a literary review asked me to name the ten best literary works in human history. Without giving it much thought, I chose only works by European authors. I named Pascal and Montaigne, I could have added Goethe and Shakespeare, I could have recalled Dante and Cervantes; but I cited mostly twentieth-century authors, Proust and Beckett, Musil and Kafka. It all happened as if in my own personal pantheon there were simply no great South American, African, Indian, or Chinese authors, or any North American authors either, and, of course, no Oceanic authors (they don’t write there, they surf). No, for me, without even thinking about it, all the great writers, all those who had influenced me, who had made up my culture and nourished my own pursuits from my schooldays to my last books, came from Europe. Without really thinking about it — although it must be obvious to a Chinese reader — I very naturally situated myself within the European, and even French, literary tradition that starts with Flaubert and continues to the nouveau roman, with its constant attention to style and form.

7In December 2001, riding a night train in south China between Canton and Changsha, I looked at my Chinese editor’s wife lying in front of me on her couchette reading La Reprise by Robbe-Grillet, in Chinese. Watching her read I wondered, fascinated, what exactly she got from Robbe-Grillet’s book. I myself had read it several weeks earlier, and it seemed to me that its coded universe, in which style takes on such importance, would not be easily accessible to a Chinese reader. Of course I had often wondered what Asian readers were reading when they read European books in translation. And every time someone tried to persuade me that they lost enormously in translation, my response, paradoxically, was that most European readers, when they read a book in their own language, also lose much with respect to the author’s intentions, and that, in the end, each reader, European or Oriental, cultivated or ignorant, was just at a different point on the scale of how much was lost between the author’s intentions and what the reader could still discern, and that, in the end, a cultivated and sensitive Chinese reader could get more from a book translated from a European language than a European reader ignorant of the finesses of style in his own language. Because literature, beyond continents and frontiers, is an intimate exchange between two human beings.


Further Reading:
The Bathroom: A Novel. Translated by Paul De Angelis. Obelisk, 1990.
Monsieur: A Novel. Translated by John Lambert. Marion Boyars Publishers, Ltd., 1991.
Making Love: A Novel. Translated by Linda Coverdale.
New Press, 2004.


1 The presentation note to Europa Schreibt states that “all essays will be translated into German and English.”

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 205k


Born in Brussels in 1957, the author, scriptwriter, and editor Jean-Philippe Toussaint studied political science and history in Paris. In 1989 he made a film version of his novel Monsieur, in 1992 he made a film version of his novel L’appareil-photo entitled La Sévillane. In the following year, he was invited by DAAD to spend a year in Berlin, where he completed the film Berlin 10:46’’. In 1997 he wrote the screenplay and directed the film The Ice Rink (with Bruce Campbell, Tom Novembre, Dolorès Chaplin). Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s books are translated in twenty languages, his films have played in numerous countries. He is the author of literary texts published by prestigious magazines and newspapers world-wide. Jean-Philippe Toussaint lives in Brussels and Corsica.

John Lambert (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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