For any serious French writer who has come of age during the last 30 years, one question imposes itself above all others: what do you do after the nouveau roman? Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon et compagnie redrew the map of what fiction might offer and aspire to, what its ground rules should be – so much so that some have found their legacy stifling. Michel Houellebecq’s response has been one of adolescent rejection, or, to use the type of psychological language that the nouveaux romanciers so splendidly shun, denial: writing in Artforum in 2008, he claimed never to have finished a Robbe-Grillet novel, since they ‘reminded me of soil cutting’. Other legatees, such as Jean Echenoz, Christian Oster and Olivier Rolin, have come up with more considered answers, ones that, at the very least, acknowledge an indebtedness – enough for their collective corpus to be occasionally tagged with the label ‘nouveau nouveau roman’. Foremost among this group, and bearing that quintessentially French distinction of being Belgian, is Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Born in 1957, Toussaint was out of the blocks quickly: by the age of 35 he’d published four novels. It’s the last of these, the so far untranslated La Réticence, which most blatantly betrays his generation’s haunting by its predecessor. With its setting in an off-season fishing village, its quasi-repeating narrative loops that see an eminently unreliable narrator trace and retrace circuits through the corridors of a hotel or to and from the house of an absent friend-cum-rival whom he may or may not have murdered, its obsessive attention to surfaces and objects, or the geometric pulsing of a lighthouse’s ‘cône fulgurant de clarté’ through the black night, over and over – in all these aspects, the book reads like an apprentice’s studied emulation of Robbe-Grillet’s masterpiece The Voyeur.
more from Tom McCarthy at the LRB here.