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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jean-Philippe Toussaint

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To purchase Television

Title: Television
Author: Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 168 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Television - US
Television - UK
Television - Canada
La Télévision - Canada
Television - India
La Télévision - France
Fernsehen - Deutschland
  • French title: La Télévision
  • Translated by Jordan Stump
  • With an Afterword by Warren Motte

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Our Assessment:

B+ : decent tale of the comfortably numbing ease of contemporary life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 21/6/1997 .
FAZ . 25/1/2002 Niklas Maak
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/1/2005 Joy Press
TLS . 9/1/1998 Robin Buss
The Village Voice . 7/1/2005 Mark Holcomb
Die Zeit . 26/7/2001 Hans-Peter Kunisch

  From the Reviews:
  • "The energy which ought to go into the Titian study is eventually devoted to an entirely different project, absurd in its solemnity: to give up watching the television, which in the process almost becomes human. His life is slowly transformed into a duel with the illusions emanating from the set, whose superficial images seem to hypnotise him, even to imprison him in a virtual reality." - The Economist

  • "Fernsehen ist ein böser, brillanter kleiner Deutschlandroman. In der französischen Literatur ist das selten" - Niklas Maak, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(A) charming, meandering sliver of fiction in which images and ruminations gracefully accumulate. " - Joy Press, The New York Times Book Review

  • "With a narrative voice sustained with seemingly casual ease, Toussaint conducts his audience through an often funny and sometimes slyly percipient novel." - Robin Buss, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Toussaint is in DeLillo territory here, of course, yet he sidesteps clinical dissection with warm, conspiratorial prose and the bittersweet compassion of a fellow TV junkie." - Mark Holcomb, The Village Voice

  • "Toussaint erzählt provozierend nebenbei. Doch sofort freut man sich an den Details der Beobachtungen, an den zugespitzten Gedanken. (...) (S)ein irritierend lässiges Prosastück Fernsehen" - Hans-Peter Kunisch, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Television opens this account with the proud proclamation: "I quit watching television." Six months earlier -- "just after the end of the Tour de France" -- he quit, and now claims: "I never watched television again."
       The bulk of the novel recounts the early days of abstention, the end of summer, spent in Berlin where he is working on a book, his pregnant wife and son away most of this time on vacation in Italy. As it turns out, television is both hard to avoid and hard to resist. Screens are everywhere, and it's the easiest, most passive entertainment one can turn to. When the narrator mentions he has quit, people defensively maintain that they hardly watch either, but all the evidence is to the contrary: everyone is hooked.
       Despite his best intentions, the narrator's resolve isn't particularly impressive, either -- it actually takes little more than twenty-four hours after making his decision before he succumbs and turns on a TV again to get his fix (his excuse being that not watching TV could only realistically be expected from him at home).
       Television, he feels, is symptomatic of what's wrong with him, and with life.

For where books, for instance, always offer a thousand times more than they are, television offers exactly what it is, its essential immediacy, its ever-evolving, always-in-progress superficiality.
       This isn't a novel about one man's struggle with his television-addiction -- and turning off the set isn't the solution to his problems. He's mired in passivity, unable to put his mind to much of anything, taking the path of least resistance and essentially lazing away his days. Among the few demands made of him is the request by some neighbours that he water their plants while they are on vacation, a task he fails at spectacularly (and hilariously).
       The narrator is an intellectual, an art historian at work on a book about Titian (for which he has received a generous grant), but his research quickly peters out and it's almost impossible for him to get beyond the opening words. (But he does notice that his subjects initials are "TV" (Titian Vecellio) -- as if the conspiracy of pernicious television domination could be found even here.)
       The narrator's laid-back lifestyle -- swimming, leisurely meals in cafés, the occasional pseudo-expedition or discussion with an acquaintance -- troubles no one, and even he can't feel very guilty about it. Contemporary society doesn't make any greater demands (and, after all, all around him people are glued to their TVs, and at least he's not), action and accomplishment are too much to ask for. The narrator feels the occasional twinge of guilt, but his lifestyle is too comfortable for him to take on any real challenges. Ultimately, it's the small victories -- the ability to turn off the TV (for now, not ever) -- that are all he asks of himself
       Toussaint doesn't attack contemporary ways head on, understanding that they are too firmly entrenched and too enjoyable for any reasonable person to readily give them up. But he does suggest some of the costs. His narrator is dimly aware of some of what he is missing: he sees himself in the pose of a painting of Charles V and senses the disquiet in his gaze, an artistic depiction which goes so much deeper than the images on television ever can, and offers so much more -- such as the questions that haunt him too (even though he is barely willing to address them):
What were we thinking about ? What were we so serenely afraid of ?
       Television enjoyably presents this lazy, indulgent life and the temptations the narrator succumbs to -- and the ones he, occasionally or temporarily, resists. In a roundabout way, Toussaint shows why it is so easy to avoid the difficult questions and any sort of activism or involvement, specifically for the pampered modern author or academic on the international circuit. Clever, entertaining, and occasionally very, very funny.

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Television: Reviews: Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Other books by Jean-Philippe Toussaint under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jean-Philippe Toussaint was born in Brussels in 1957.

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