Self-Portrait Abroad


Originally published on on July 2010

Before pocketing France’s prestigious Prix Décembre literary award a few months ago, Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint had already documented his international fame in fiction. In Self-Portrait Abroad, which has just been released in English, a protagonist named Jean-Philippe jet-sets around the world, speaking about his own novels at a circuit of international literature symposia. Each chapter forms a charming little vignette dedicated to a particular trip: Tokyo, Berlin, Prague, Corsica, Tokyo again, Kyoto, Nara, Hanoi, Tunisia, and back to Kyoto.

The book is not really concerned with place, but rather, as the title suggests, with sketching the self liberated from day-to-day routine. The novel begins: “Every time I travel I feel a very slight feeling of dread at the moment of departure, a dread sometimes shaded with a soft shiver of elation. Because 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).”

These first two sentences may sound a little hoity-toity, but humor soon leavens the novel’s tone, making it playful and often cute. Jean-Philippe’s persistent fears of dying abroad amount to no more than static shocks from doorknobs in Tokyo and lower-back pains on a sushi restaurant zabuton: “I kept changing my posture as the courses came and went in front of me, kneeling, looking straight ahead, my legs forming first a Y then an L, a P, an R, an &, and finally, a complete wreck, a poor M with two branches, a pitiful hiragana, a defeated katakana.”

Wherever Jean-Philippe happens to be—in Berlin haggling over a slice of aspic in a butcher shop, or in Hanoi contemplating the universe during a rickshaw ride—he never travels far enough to lose sight of home. An Italian friend in Tokyo updates him on hometown gossip such as “what Nono and Nénette were up to, the Albertinis, the Antomarchis.” On a trip to Nara, he does some last-minute Christmas shopping for his distant wife and children before a professor whisks him off to a strip club: “We set our bags of Christmas presents down beside us in the darkness, arranging them neatly on both sides of our chairs before looking up at the stage where a stark-naked stripper was spreading her legs on the floor and stuffing a little red ping-pong ball into her vagina before making it pop like a champagne cork.”

The novel’s foreshadowing of sex, much like its obsession with dying abroad, fails to amount to anything tangible. The one time Jean-Philippe gets close to a woman, en route to Prague in a train compartment, she tells him with a smile: “You don’t know how to make love in a train.”

What our Francophone protagonist does know how to do is drink; and, with the help of a hangover, his existential angst comes out of the woodwork—or rather a boarded gate. On finding a Keihan subway station in Kyoto that he had used years ago now abandoned, Jean-Philippe weeps, noticing it “strewn with stones and old lighters, broken glass and clumps of weeds.” He feels attached to the deserted platforms, which are part and parcel of his fleeting world, one that can only be known superficially.

Self-Portrait Abroad hits upon life’s biggest themes without feeling contrived or slow. The chapters bounce forward with a rare kind of literary energy, a delicious sense of humor and a peculiar kind of intimacy. This book is contemporary fiction at its most original, though it may occasionally remind you of Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch and Franz Kafka.