The Truth About Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (trans. Matthew B. Smith). Dalkey Archive Press. $12.95, 168 pp.
In no particular order, here are some things the unnamed narrator tells us about Marie in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s latest work to appear in English. She is happy to wear flip-flops that are “barely attached,” and leaves her bathing suit “carelessly on the kitchen floor” of her dead father’s house. She’s unable to act when faced with a man having a heart event, forgetting her own address while talking to the emergency services. When Marie’s passport is needed urgently she roots through about two dozen pieces of luggage with “that strange mix of panic and goodwill she displays when looking for something.” Her usual attire is a long t-shirt with nothing on underneath (though she will be caught wearing less than that), and she often arrives late for appointments. An internationally known artist, she is sensual, sexually available, and eager, but also awkward around the narrator, her former lover. Soon into this charming novella he occupies the uneasy position of a needed friend she appreciates and hates “with a passion.” Yet he feels drawn to her afresh, even finding her disorganization a form of “ravishing insouciance, enchanting and radiant, a clear display of Marie’s charm at its best,” though he immediately adds that it “was delightful as long as one wasn’t directly involved.”
That’s a mistake on the part of the narrator, for a reader of The Truth About Marie can’t help but think her selfish, insular, and thoughtless. There’s nothing delightful about a woman whose dim-wittedness forces her male friend, the ailing Jean-Christophe, lying on the bedroom floor in her apartment, “pale and sweating profusely, a blank stare in his eyes,” to grab the phone from her in an attempt to save his life. Marie is also a mystery, for we don’t see much art from this artist, and her own nature is never given directly, but mediated through the narrator, who abruptly leaves another Marie lying in bed in his own apartment to assist his former girlfriend after her call in the middle of the night: “Marie, upset, confused, bewildered, had called me for help, pleading with me to come quickly, without any explanation, come quick, she told me hurriedly, come right now, hurry, it’s an emergency, beseeching me, begging me to get to the rue de la Vrillière at once.” That she can’t get out of what’s going on predates this book. In Toussaint’s 2009 novel Running Away, which also featured Marie and the narrator, she calls him long distance about her father’s death, “not sobbing, her voice seemed calm, if trembling a little bit, out of breath, in a hurry to tell me, in great confusion.” The narrator listens intently for some pages, enticed by “the frail and sensuous texture of Marie’s voice.” She doesn’t ask after the narrator, whose life she has interrupted half a world away, she just talks ceaselessly down the line, as incapable then, as she is in The Truth About Marie, of thinking outside her own thoughts.
What we have in this attractive novella, then, is a picture of two essentially uninteresting people; but fortunately Toussaint has given the narrator the gift of thinking in delicious prose, describing, in detail: what first responders do; what the narrator believes happened the night of Jean-Christophe’s incident; what a scared horse running around an airport does as men struggle to capture him; and the sight and effects of a forest fire. Toussaint keeps well away from the parsimonious dictates of realist fiction, despite the detailed how-ness of certain activities, and appeals to us, through his exquisite breath control, on the level of the long, sinuous sentences that at times transform into grand passages. What’s attractive here is the solo performance of the narrator’s thoughts, and the easy control Toussaint exhibits.
That control starkly contrasts the passivity of the narrator, who rarely is an initiator. Events and people’s emotions (primarily Marie’s) wash over him; as best he can, he reflects on them, at times amplifying what he’s heard. Toussaint shows the narrator’s mind at work while also letting us see the pacing of the book:
Marie’s call—it was a little before two in the morning, this I’m sure of, I looked at the time when the phone rang—had been extremely brief, neither of us able nor really wanting to talk, Marie had simply called for help, and I was speechless, paralyzed by the fear of a late-night call, a feeling confirmed, exacerbated even, by the irrational and violent onrush of embarrassment, annoyance, and guilt I felt immediately upon hearing Marie’s voice.
Despite the urgent need to get to her place, the narrator pauses to differentiate between this Marie and the Marie he leaves in bed. On the next page he leaves his apartment at “two thirty in the morning” out into a heavy summer rain, losing his way due to the weather. “I was still running when the Place des Victoires came into sight.” He resumes, “on wobbly legs, soaked from head to foot, still moving forward . . . but no longer running, walking slowly, graceless, as if holding back each step and yet advancing against my will, no longer wanting to go on, imagining the worst.” Two pages later: “I was still about a hundred feet from [Marie’s] building, and I’d stopped running, I was walking briskly, picking up my pace and slowing it down at the same time, in the same contradictory movement, the same propelling force, the same conflicted stride.” A slow, almost regretful advance, which is how The Truth About Marie is told; and we are given details by the narrator who seems to have an ability to construct events he never witnessed, and so we question what he’s told us.
One such event involves Jean-Christophe’s horse, Zahir, aboard a plane as it flies through yet another storm. (The two storms may be seen as emblematic of the emotions running through the characters, or it may be that Toussaint simply likes their possibilities. Beach episodes occur in this book and Running Away, as if he’s combining the same elements in different ways to show his virtuosity as well as the potential of such scenes.) After giving us the thoughts of Marie and Jean-Christophe, the narrator, who was not on the plane, writes this: “Zahir was aware of nothing but the certainty of being then and there, he had that certainty shared by all animals, silent, tacit, infallible. What lay outside his stall remained unknown to him, the sky, the night, the universe. The power of his imagination stretched no farther than the space in which he stood, his mind was stopped at the walls of his stall and could only return to the confusion of his own hazy consciousness.” Obviously, the narrator has an unhampered imagination, since he can present Zahir’s feelings as if they were his own. He assumes he knows the horse, like he knows “Marie’s every move, I knew how she would have reacted in every circumstance, I knew her instinctively, my knowledge of her was innate, natural, I possessed absolute intelligence regarding the details of her life: I knew the truth about Marie.”
That astonishing statement is left untouched, but later the narrator admits his limits:
I could reconstruct [a particular night] in mental images with the precision of dreams, I could cover it in words with a formidable power of evocation, all in vain, I knew I’d never reach what had been the fleeting life of the night itself, but it seemed to me that I could perhaps reach a new truth, one that would take its inspiration from life and then transcend it, without concern for verisimilitude or veracity, its only aim the quintessence of the real, its tender core, pulsing and vibrant, a truth closer to invention, the twin of fabrication, the ideal truth.
On closing this book we can, for a time, remain captured by the fact that its core is that “the truth about Marie” can mean that the truth lies around Marie, but does not contain her; and that only art—the transcendence from sheer reality—offers us a higher truth. The narrator is reaching for the all-seeing eye of the subjective artist. But Jean-Philippe Toussaint has reached that level through his use of words, making us see, if only briefly, the improbable as real. Is Marie sensuous and worth the trouble? Pfui! The writing is the achievement here, and the delight, and amusement, in watching a deeply talented author wring such descriptions and visions from a love-struck narrator.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey has written reviews and articles for journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, was published in October 2010 by Enfield & Wizenty.
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