In a wry 1997 novel, his fourth in English translation, clever Belgian author Toussaint (Making Love, 2004, etc.) tackles the omnipresence of television in contemporary culture.
The unnamed narrator is an art historian working in Berlin while his pregnant partner Delon and his young son enjoy an Italian vacation. He’s studying “the relations between political power and the arts in sixteenth-century Italy,” specifically, the balance of power as embodied in the relationship between Renaissance master Titian Vecellio and Emperor Charles V, his patron and portrait subject. The narrator’s days are taken up with researching Titian, wandering about Berlin, swimming at public pools, and—at first haphazardly, later compulsively—watching television. Toussaint gradually paints an endearingly funny portrait of a mildly obsessive introvert (a Gallic Walter Mitty, if you will) who’s “paralyzed” by interruptions to his good intentions. Upstairs neighbors in his apartment building enlist him to water their jungle of houseplants while they’re away, and his benign botanical neglect provokes a hilarious, Chaplinesque scene upon their return. His friendship with a bohemian scholar-translator involves him in several inconvenient brief encounters, including a visit to a family absorbed in viewing Baywatch that gives the narrator the distinct impression that all of Berlin is so occupied. Meanwhile, Toussaint’s pleasingly loose plot assails our hero with mounting evidence that TV infiltrates his every waking moment. (Note, as he does, his subject Titian’s initials.) The decision to stop watching altogether severely tests his inner resources, and even his nearest and dearest innocently reinforce TV’s hold on him: When Delon and his son return from vacation, they bring him a VCR as a present. The story ends quite wonderfully with a moment of subdued resignation that’s perhaps best described as an anti-visionary experience.
Ever so slightly redundant and attenuated, but most readers will be charmed nonetheless. Very entertaining indeed.