"The Truth about Marie" by Jean-Philippe Toussaint [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
The Truth about Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated by Matthew B. Smith
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Why This Book Should Win: Toussaint’s The Bathroom probably would’ve won this award had it been around when that was first published. He’s also one of the most enjoyable contemporary French writers.
Today’s post is by Damian Kelleher, an Australian writer who also runs this website featuring an amazing array of reviews, mostly about international authors.
I knew [Marie] instinctively, my knowledge of her was innate, natural, I possessed absolute intelligence regarding the details of her life: I knew the truth about Marie.
The narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Truth About Marie is nothing if not bold. It is “Spring Summer,” and the narrator and Marie have been separated for about four months. The narrator is drowsing after sharing caresses with his new girlfriend, also named Marie, while previous-Marie is awake, drinking grappa, with her new boyfriend. They very well could, the narrator muses later, have been making love at the same time, which means that they were in a way, still sharing intimacies even though they are no longer together.
And then the telephone rings and the narrator is called to Marie’s apartment in a panic: her new lover Jean-Christophe has had heart attack. After watching the ambulance officers carry away a covered body the narrator enters Marie’s apartment where he spies an opened bottle of grappa and a disheveled Marie. The body, the telephone call, the almost naked Marie, the grappa: from these few details he constructs the evening that his ex-girlfriend must have had, devoting thirty pages in a one hundred and sixty page novel to the imagined evening of Marie’s, and perhaps five or six lines to his own, equally sensual activities. The narrator, it seems, is so cognizant of Marie that he is able to capture her night more clearly and with greater precision than his own, more clearly even than Marie herself could state it. He knows the truth about Marie even where she does not.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s latest novel to be translated into English, The Truth About Marie, grapples with the problems of solipsism, the possessive nature of both love and its opposites, rejection and hate, and the question of whether an individual can truly understand the inner self of another person. Toussaint’s narrator ignores his own reality in favour of Marie’s, decoupling the narration from his own personal experiences (such as making love with his current girlfriend, also named Marie), which he would know quite well, to the last evening of the other Marie and Jean-Christophe, an evening about which he knows nothing other than that Jean-Christophe had a heart attack and died, and that they were drinking grappa. He infers very large things—motives, feelings, thoughts, experiences—from very small things—“dark, imposing” socks, a baggy t-shirt, shoes near the bed—and from this becomes convinced that he, of all men, understands Marie.
If the first section of the novel shows how well the narrator understands Marie, then the second deals with Jean-Christophe, her now-deceased partner. Jean-Christophe (well, more accurately Jean-Baptiste, but the narrator insists on jealously recalling the other man’s name incorrectly throughout the book) and Marie are engaged with transporting a racing horse from Tokyo to Europe after it fails a drug test and is unable to compete in a race.
Toussaint writes near the start of this section that,
I can only imagine Marie’s gestures when with him, her mood and her thoughts, on the basis of information witnessed or inferred, known or imagined, and combined with the grave, painful moments I knew Jean-Christophe de G. to have endured, joining in this way a few incontestable truths to the cracked and incomplete mosaic, full of gaps, contradictions, and inconsistencies, of the last months of Jean-Christophe de G.’s life seen through my eyes.
But he goes on to imagine more than that, delving deep into the details of their burgeoning relationship as they work together in transporting the horse via plane. The pair’s difficulties stem from the inherent logistical complications of transporting a horse, but the narrator sees in these troubles the illumination of both Marie and Jean-Christophe’s personalities, and how they might balance and counter-act the other. Marie, for example, frustrates Jean-Christophe when she cannot find her passport at a critical juncture, and then becomes frustrated with him as his tone shifts from conciliatory to demanding and rude. Later, a similar act of assertion regarding the Japanese aircraft workers and the horse itself attract her, and still later she is touched to discover that Jean-Christophe must wear glasses when performing delicate tasks. For the narrator, these minor interactions create worlds of subtlety as the power relationship between the two shifts and then finally settles on the level of equillibrium between two people where the next most likely development is a romantic interaction.
The third and final section seens Marie and the narrator together at Marie’s father’s home by the sea. Here they are together properly, and here, most tellingly, is where the narrator is least able to make sense of Marie’s motives. When she is away she is reducible to the constraints and known qualities of a story-telling device, but when she is with him and acting of her own volition and in plain sight, he is unable to construe her actions and words in a way that is meaningful to the sense of narration. It is only when, later, she falls asleep (or is unconscious—it isn’t clear) following a raging fire that the narrator is able once again to assert his own dominance over the situation and create meaning out of the motives of others.
Toussaint highlights these situations best during the major “set pieces” of each section. In each section there is a significant event around which the rest of the narrative revolves, and it is in these sections where the “truth” about a person’s character is most revealed. In a way this is similar to real life in that, say, a sudden fire in a community will exaggerate the selfless and generous qualities of some, while magnifying those less desirable attributes in others. Toussaint’s narrator consistently struggles with his ability to understand the motives and desires of other people, and though he believes he “knows the truth about Marie,” it becomes clear that what he means by knowing could more accurately be described as a certain willingness to attempt to know. The narrator is willing to try to get to the bottom of other people and discover how they function, and the act itself means that he has become inherently better equipped at understanding a person than someone who has not attempted.
The Truth About Marie is concerned with the manner in which an individual creates a story out of their own life and out of the lives of those around them, and how we try, desparately and hopelessly, to enforce narrative structure on actions, desires and experiences which refuse to conform to them. Marie is not knowable to the narrator except when she is absent or unconscious—which means, when the narrator is able to control everything. When they are together as two autonomous individuals he is bewildered by her but charmed, unable to force structure on her actions but enamoured with them, his feelings and sensitivities heightened by the sheer unpredictability of the other. That the narrator loves Marie is clear; that he does not understand he becomes clear as well. By the end of the novel it is apparent to the reader that it is not important so much to understand another person as to be willing to attempt it, and it has become apparent to the narrator that, sometimes, the warmth of a person’s body as they lie asleep next to you in the trust that you will keep them safe, is perhaps understanding enough. He may in fact know Marie best, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he knows her well, or accurately. And in the end, that’s fine.