The Truth about Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

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The title of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s most recent novel, The Truth About Marie, is an impish wink and a nudge to the reader. The plot, such as it is, involves a man describing his ex-girlfriend Marie’s relationship with another man after she leaves him (him, the narrator). Of course, the narrator is not actually present for most of the events that occur in the novel. As he says at one point, in reference to his replacement, “this man’s presence revealed nothing if not the reality of my absence.” The novel is his way of reinstating himself in Marie’s life. By appointing himself omniscient narrator, he regains some measure of control over his life. He describes, with blithe authority, emotional states, thoughts, and incidents, and then steps aside to say to the reader, “Of course, I wasn’t actually there at the time, but this is how it might have gone….” He does not conceal the fact that his “true” story is mostly fabrication but casually allows the reader to see the gaps in his wattle and daub reconstruction. I know, I know, this sounds like another pious meta-fiction teaching us about the artificiality of narrative and of “Truth” itself, blah blah blah. But Toussaint’s novel lacks the antic provocation and formal “look what I can do”s that novels of that type sometimes suffer from. It is an elegant and quiet consideration of the way we use narrative to lend form and beauty to our lives, more an extended disquisition on color and the play of light and shade in the world than a philosophical axe-grind.

The first part of the book details the events of one night, during which Marie’s lover suffers a heart attack as they are about to spend the night together, an event that precipitates the reunion of the narrator and Marie. Considering the speculative, forensic nature of the narrator’s project, one might wonder whether the death of the competing lover is a sly joke or narrative wish-fulfillment. Turns out, narrative retribution isn’t our man’s game. Nor does he seem interested in crafting a bland, self-help-ish narrative of explanation and resolution. He doesn’t seem to have any political agenda. Nothing much actually happens. The book has more elemental concerns than plot and character; wildflowers, a fire on the island of Elba, a horse loose on an airport tarmac in a rainstorm. It is replete with imagistic tableauxs, scenes of fine-etched clarity that have the elusive resonance of dreams, with their portents and their inexplicable apocalypses. For instance, the aforementioned horse, Zahir, is described this way: “…suddenly, charging out of nowhere, with the same unexpectedness as when he’d disappeared, Zahir’s black and powerful body materialized in the beam of the headlights, at once galloping and at rest, mad, his eyes gleaming with terror, his coat black and wet, as if suddenly defined against the night into which he had, just moments before, dissolved.” While there are any number of thematic interpretations one can tease out of this scene or any other, it mostly seems to exist simply because it is beautiful.

So the book meanders here and there like a quiet walk with someone pointing this or that out, finding what the narrator calls, “the quintessence of the real” in the ordinary. The narrator imagines for us what Marie’s relationship with the other man might have looked like, which includes the events with the horse on the tarmac. Marie and the narrator reunite on the island of Elba. They swim; they eat shellfish; a fire occurs. Toussaint’s prose is unadorned, but the best passages have a curatorial feel, accretions of everyday details arranged just so, with an eye for color and materiality. Here is a passage about Marie: “Next to her, on the seat, sat a bouquet of wild flowers she’d arranged the night before in the kitchen, with a sense of refinement she demonstrated time and again when dealing with colors and fabrics, never forcing novelty or originality, just a small gesture, simple, confident, natural, bringing together, in a vase, the obvious and the impossible…” This is a sly reference to the author’s own style, or at least the narrator’s.

The book is sedately contemplative. Reading it, you sometimes feel as if you’re doing deep breathing exercises. The narrator recreates events, not out of some revisionist impulse, but because it allows him to stop time and hold up everything for closer examination, searching for its core, its whatness. He concisely describes his project thusly: “I knew that night contained its own objective reality…but that reality would always be out of my grasp, I could only circle it, approach it from different angles, go around it and attack it from the side, but I’d always come up short, as though what had actually happened that night was fundamentally unattainable to me, out of my imagination’s reach and irreducible to language. I could reconstruct that 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…” “Truth” is a construction, then. In Toussaint’s novel, this is not a bitter pill. It is simply an opportunity to see that the ordinary is actually totemic. His narrator represents the world in order to find the mystery that pulses at the core of everything.

Peter Mack lives in Oakland with his wife and dog. More from this author →