In The Truth about Marie, Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint takes us on a journey from Paris to Tokyo, with a sensuous detour to the island of Elba. It’s a book that begins with a thunderstorm and ends in massive forest fires, a love story examined through the lens of a tumultuous breakup. When the novel opens, Marie is spending a night with her new lover, Jean-Christophe, in the apartment she and the unnamed narrator formerly shared. At the same moment, in his apartment a few blocks away, the narrator is making love to a woman about whom we learn only that she, too, is named Marie. A drama will unfold this evening, bringing the ex-lovers back together, if only long enough to move a dresser out of a bedroom.
Readers familiar with Toussaint’s œuvre will recognize these characters: though the book is not exactly a sequel, it is narratively linked to the 2005 novel Fuir (published in the U.S. in 2009 as Running Away, also translated by Matthew B. Smith). The earlier book focuses on the disintegration of the couple’s relationship during a trip to Japan, and The Truth about Marie begins months after their breakup proper. Toussaint beautifully renders that period—for some of us, indefinite—when a relationship has ended, but we continue to live in its atmosphere. The “truth” he describes has little to do with Marie herself; rather, it speaks to the idea that the only stability in love is instability. “I loved her, yes,” the narrator tells us, “It may be very imprecise to say I loved her, but nothing could be more precise.”
When the narrator does focus his attention on Marie herself, it’s often in frustration: “. . . Marie always left everything open,” he says, “windows, drawers—it was exasperating, she’d even leave books open, turning them over on her night table next to her when she was done reading.” He wants closure. Toussaint, on the other hand, seems more interested in narrative possibility. The novel follows its own associative logic, and the plot has less of an impact than the dream-state the language creates. On several occasions, the narrator imagines the most intimate details of Marie and Jean-Christophe’s relationship, describing entire scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. It is the tension between the thrilling immediacy of these scenes and the frequent reminders that they are all “made-up” that gives The Truth about Marie its haunting quality. The narrator—like so many people who love and dream—revels not only in his fantasy of the other, but also in the knowledge of his self-deception.
This might give the impression that he is insufferable, but fortunately, the narrator has a sense of humor about his own unreliability. As Beckett once wrote, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and unhappiness is as familiar to this narrator as weather. It is the particular unhappiness of the scorned lover who clings to his version of events, often willingly obscuring reality. For example, about a third of the way through the novel, the narrator learns that Marie’s new lover’s name is actually Jean-Baptiste, but he continues to refer to the man as Jean-Christophe, providing a comically self-reflexive explanation:
I even suspect I’d done this intentionally so as not to deprive myself of the pleasure of getting his name wrong, not that Jean-Baptiste was a better name, or more elegant, than Jean-Christophe, but the latter simply wasn’t his name [. . . this] jab, however small, however simple, gave me great pleasure (had his name been Simon I’d have called him Pierre, I know myself).
In an interview with Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, translator Matthew B. Smith discusses Toussaint’s use of humor:
This is one of the main reasons I wanted to translate his work. I think it’s also what sets him apart from other writers. Toussaint uses a certain type of situational humor whose operating principle is actually quite simple. It consists of relating a comic act or absurd situation [. . .]in a markedly flat or unassuming way. Although it sounds simple, I think to actually pull it off and make it funny takes a tremendous amount of skill. After reading and rereading Toussaint, it still remains somewhat of a mystery to me how he makes it seem so effortless.
If it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how Toussaint’s writing makes us laugh, it is even harder to render that humor, with all its nuances, into another language. Grammatically, Smith’s translation keeps the idiosyncrasies of Toussaint’s style intact. In Marie, the most prominent of Toussaint’s stylistic features is the long sentence. Like Proust’s, these sentences can run on for pages, and some translators might be tempted to “smooth out” certain passages by breaking them down. To do so, however, would be a disservice to readers; these sentences are often carefully constructed to mirror the cadences, the rises and falls, of the narrator’s inner voice. Consider one of my favorite passages, in which he describes Marie’s failure to locate her passport at a checkpoint near Tokyo’s Narita airport :
But Marie could never find her passport when she needed it, and, suddenly roused from her reverie, as if caught off guard, her face already betraying the tiresome futility of the search to come, she was overcome by a mad frenzy, that strange mix of panic and goodwill she displays when looking for something, desperately digging through her purse, turning and shaking it in every which way, taking out credit cards, letters, bills, her phone, dropping her sunglasses on the ground, trying to stand in the limousine and twisting around to check her skirt’s back pocket, the pockets of her leather coat, of her sweater, positive she had it with her, that damn passport, but not knowing in which pocket she’d put it, in which bag it could possibly be, twenty-three bags exactly (without counting the plastic sack with the fugu sashimi, in which she also glanced just to be sure)—all in vain, the passport was nowhere to be found.
The breathlessness within these clauses reproduces the narrator’s (and, ostensibly, Marie’s) mental state. We get the sense that, while the narrator is poking fun at Marie here, the franticness of the passage actually reveals his own instability at this moment, as he searches for Marie and is unable to find her. The length of the sentence allows us to experience the way in which sentiment can, without warning, throw a moment into terrible relief. The image of Marie glancing in the plastic bag containing her lunch is funny, but it’s also poignant. And perhaps this is what is most remarkable about Toussaint’s work: it is always driven by compassion and deadpan intelligence, but neither quality upstages the other. His prose is exacting and buoyant, and it never flags. I don’t know how he does it, either, but I do know that this story of love regained and lost is moving and utterly true.
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