In 'Parody and Palimpsest,' a look at the playfulness of a popular author
Elon University Assistant Professor Sarah L. Glasco’s first book explores the way a diverse mix of writers and artists shaped Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s stories and how the popular Belgian author references literature and film in his novels to expose readers to other cultures.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint has emerged in recent years as a literary and cinematic visionary, the Belgian author of nine novels published by Editions de Minuit and the creative mind behind three critically acclaimed films. That emergence stems, in part, from the evolution of the deadpan humor in his earliest novels into the somber depictions of everyday life found in later works.
Toussaint’s reputation stretches well beyond his home country. The 57-year-old author boasts a legion of fans in France, Germany and Japan, among other places, drawn to novels with mundane characters who confront philosophical questions with unexpected results.
If the names and places in Toussaint’s novels sound familiar, it’s because they should. Toussaint introduces language, culture and art into his novels by referencing characters and settings found elsewhere in literature and film. His storytelling techniques create a “gateway” to multiculturalism in ways not often seen in contemporary America.
Elon University Assistant Professor Sarah L. Glasco describes those techniques in her first book, “Parody and Palimpsest: Intertextuality, Language, and the Ludic in the Novels of Jean-Philippe Toussaint,” published this winter by Peter Lang.
Based in part on Glasco’s doctoral dissertation, the book explores and contextualizes the references that Toussaint makes to other writers throughout his works. Glasco’s scholarship adds to an emerging field of research into “intertextuality,” by which authors, poets and filmmakers cite or allude to existing works in their own creations, often in the subtlest and most implicit of manners.
From the beginning, humor has been one of Toussaint’s trademarks: slapstick and crude at times, and darker, more subversive, and subtler at others. Cited in works on the French novel of the 1980s and 1990s, these two decades brought about the recognition of this author in the forum of international literary criticism.
While scholars recognize this humor and cite brief intertextual play in some of his texts, none have concentrated on his novels with the depth they demand in terms of intertextuality, Glasco said.
Such references often accomplish two things: they pay homage to writers who inspired the new work, and they introduce audiences to multicultural or global concepts. “It’s like painting a canvas,” Glasco said. “You can add things on, but it will still have remnants of its previous incantation.”
Toussaint’s novels refer not only to the work of French authors, but also to Russian, American and Japanese literatures, for example. Perhaps most obvious in his literary style is Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett. Glasco described a shared “absurdity” that distinguishes Toussaint and Beckett’s most influential works, though their styles are completely different.
Toussaint admired Beckett enormously, Glasco said. He couldn’t help but mimic Beckett’s style at first. It took Toussaint a while, but he finally found his own voice with his first novel “La Salle de bain” (The Bathroom), published in 1985.
“He’s one of those rare novelists who has gained notoriety in both scholarly circles and popular culture,” Glasco said. “Toussaint wants to portray the era in which he lives. He introduces anything and everything modern into his stories.”
Her study thus reveals, presents and analyzes a multiplicity of intertexts, depicting the inner workings of their playful relationships to Toussaint’s texts as a whole, how they are intricately interwoven into narratives, and also how they relate to one another.
Glasco joined the Elon University faculty in 2006 as she completed her doctoral program in French literature at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her scholarly interests include immigration policy in France, intertextuality and global culture in the Toussaint's novels, and literacy-based language learning.
At Elon, Glasco - who was promoted to associate professor beginning this fall - teaches courses on French language, literature, and culture and current events in the French and Francophone world. She frequently serves as a faculty mentor to undergraduate researchers, working in recent years on student projects involving French cinema, agriculture, politics and more.