Monday, March 19, 2012

Absent/Present: The Truth about Marie

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Truth about Marie, which I read in Matthew B. Smith’s translation of the French original La Vérité sur Marie, is a wonderfully elemental metaphysical romp. I’m not sure what that means, either, just as I’m not sure how to describe the book itself: it’s three connected chunks of text that verge on stream-of-consciousness, all narrated by a Nameless Guy who tells stories about his sort-of-ex-girlfriend, the Marie in the title, a fashion designer.

It was a dark and stormy night—a very hot summer night with thunder and lightning—in Chunk One, when I found Marie in her Paris apartment with a man who has a heart attack. Chunk Two, set in Tokyo before Chunk One, also involves a storm, plus the soon-to-be-dead-man’s racehorse, who doesn’t want to get in a carrier so he can fly. In Chunk Three, Marie is at a house on Elba, where Nameless Guy joins her; horses have a role in this piece, too, and there’s a big fire. All this makes for lots of furious air, water, and fire, plus some earth. The elements.

What’s most interesting about The Truth about Marie is that I didn’t feel like I learned much about Marie: Nameless Guy narrates all sorts of stories about what she does when he’s not around, inventing, but claiming,
“…I knew 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.”
He tells us what she does and wears when she gardens on Elba (apparently) he gets there: “rather kitschy flip-flops, with a plastic daisy in bloom in between her two big toes.” He tells us how Marie and the soon-to-be-dead-man riding in a cargo plane with the racehorse (Zahir, who is named for a Borges story) after the horse bolts and shuts down Narita airport. And we know that Marie loves chaos and leaves things open: luggage, drawers, and so on. But I didn’t feel like I learned many heavy, deep, or real truths about the ethereal Marie.

That’s not a complaint. It’s good because Nameless Guy offers plenty of scenes with situations that present universal truths that go far deeper than describing only Marie. These truths that relate to Marie are truths about all of us:  sudden death and changes of fate, the evocation of a summer storm that feels “tropical and pernicious,” and (ouch, ouch, ouch!) emptiness and absence. In reminiscing about Marie, the narrator mentions watching the bank across the street from Marie’s apartment, at night, saying,
“…all of this taking place in what seemed like a suspended moment in time, dynamic and intense, a moment of pure nothing, an emptiness charged with an invisible energy ready to explode at any instant, a gap continually animated by little events, unrelated, trivial, small in scale, occurring at regular intervals so that right when we’d be ready to go back to bed the tension would flare up again and put us back on guard…”
That piece of a sentence (it’s not even half) is a nice splinter of the book, which is composed of moments that Toussaint, too, makes feel unreal, suspended, empty yet concrete, immediate, and blaring with drama. That sort of paradox fits something Nameless Guy says about Marie, as well, “I loved her, yes. It may be very imprecise to say I loved her, but nothing could be more precise.”

My own truth is that I enjoyed The Truth about Marie very, very much, particularly its end, which is something resembling sunny, warm, and happy, where absence turns into presence—that’s what people need after all—at least for a time, and the narrator shifts to the second person [edit: oops, sorry, this sentence includes an example of direct address, which feels just as significant (if not more significant?) than using the second person] in the final sentence, after having already used the first and third persons. I thought Smith’s translation read very nicely, creating a voice that offers a welcoming balance of humor, melancholy, and sincerity. The writing had a nice rhythm, long sentences and all. I’m looking forward to reading more of Toussaint, including his previous books about Marie, one of which Smith translated.

Disclosure: I bought my copy of The Truth about Marie… but should note that I’ve enjoyed speaking with Dalkey about literature in translation.

Up Next: David Albahari’s Leeches, another book on the longlist for the Best Translated Book Awards. Others that I’ve read, in addition to The Truth about Marie, are, with links to past posts: My Two Worlds (Sergio Chejfec, tr. Margaret B. Carson), Zone (Mathias Énard, tr. Charlotte Mandell), and Funeral for a Dog (Thomas Pletzinger, tr. Ross Benjamin). I have two others on the shelf that I plan to read soon: Scars (Juan José Saer, tr. Steve Dolph) and Stone Upon Stone (Wiesław Myśliwski, tr. Bill Johnston).


  1. Wow, that's quite a sentence - and that's not even half of it?! Thanks for the detailed review, which gives me a great idea of what to expect. Love Dalkey Archive :-)

  2. Thank you for the comment, Andrew... I admit: I went back to check, to be absolutely sure that's not even half of the sentence. Really, truly, it's not even half of the sentence. I'm glad this post was useful for you and hope you enjoy the book if you read it!

  3. long sentences and all? LOL

    Nice makes me want to read more, as I had just read a portion that was excerpted in Tin House, which confused me more than anything else.

    I loved your phrase "empty yet concrete"...elegant!

    I like Dalkey too!

    Can't wait to hear what you think of Leeches...

  4. Thanks, Amy, for checking in on this one! Well, the sentences in Marie aren't nearly what they are in Zone but! I enjoyed the book a lot, though it's difficult to explain why: I think I liked the paradoxes, how all the minutiae added up to something big, how that moment of closeness or happiness can last. (Rather romantic, I suppose!) Plus there were a lot of funny moments.

    I haven't read a lot of Dalkey books but am enjoying getting caught up, thanks to a big box of books I bought during their winter sale.

    As for Leeches, well, that's a very different experience! I find it very, very funny at times... and oddly endearing at times. But it's slow going; of course that fits my life right now so that's not a bad thing at all!