“The Chessboard”: The opening by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

At the start of the health crisis and the confinement of 2020 (“I was waiting for old age, I had confinement”), Jean-Philippe Toussaint conceived a “three-headed” literary project where three threads were to be intimately entangled: the translation of Player chess by Stefan Zweig (a short novel published posthumously in 1943), an essay on the translation and writing of the book we have in our hands today.

If the material and the proportions ended up blurring, the intention did not drift too far. Sometimes diary or notebook, sometimes autobiography or even chronicle of the pandemic, The chessboardmade up of 64 chapters which correspond to the 64 squares of the game board, remains a rare and frank foray outside of fiction – except perhaps with Urgency and patience (Midnight, 2012).

“Has the time for autobiography come for me? » he asks himself, as if he were noticing a side effect of COVID-19 that wasn’t too bothersome. And this crisis, which suddenly brings him back to his past, serves as an opening.

Confined this time in his apartment in Brussels, in a position of withdrawal from the world which is familiar to him – while he still writes his books in Ostend -, the author of The bathroom (1985) and Flee (2005, Prix Médicis), 65 years old, takes his rider from hut to hut according to his memories, while continuing his translation of Zweig, which has since become Chess (Midnight, 2023). He tries, he writes, “to bring back to life some fragile, furtive and moving silhouettes which have crossed [s]for life “.

This former junior world Scrabble champion says that in 1979 his passions for chess and literature were born at the same time. The beginning of an “exhausting quest for perfection”. In writing The chessboardhe says he discovered that his father — an influential journalist for the Belgian daily The evening —, who had symbolically forbidden him to beat him at chess (he didn’t like playing chess, “he liked winning at chess”), had however “tacitly” authorized him to become a writer. “I didn’t have the vocation, I had the permission. »

A journey towards the origins as much as a reflection on literature, this story by Toussaint is a zigzag dive into the depths of the man and the work, from his years as a boarder in a private college in the early 1970s, far from Brussels and the “luminous waters of childhood”.

For him, undeniably, “novel writing is a method of self-knowledge”.

At the same time as it is a means of protection, a talisman against the “sharp edges of reality”. “No matter what I seek through writing, no matter what the books say, writing is this mental shelter in which I take refuge to resist the world. The book, while I write it, becomes a sanctuary, a closed place where I am protected from the offenses of the outside world. »

The chessboard

★★★ 1/2

Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Midnight, Paris, 2023, 256 pages

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