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).

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cause & Effect: César Aira’s Varamo

César Aira’s Varamo is a wonderful Rube Goldbergesque novella, an elegant and humorous conglomeration of seemingly incongruous actions, consequences, and objects that combine to show the reader how a third-class clerk in Panama named Varamo receives his pay in counterfeit money and comes to write a “masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Child” by the next dawn. I read Varamo in Chris Andrews’s translation.

Colón, Panama, in 1910. Varamo takes
place in 1923.
Aira’s story examines creativity and representation, following Varamo, a civil servant lacking special job skills, as he goes home after receiving the fake money: at home he works on a taxidermy project involving a fish and, eventually, uses his notes about the fish as a basis for his poem. (Original title: How to Embalm Small Animals.) At the end of the book, we find truth as the “raw material” for fantasy plus some peculiar observations on permanence. Varamo’s city, Colón, for example, remains as long as he does, and Varamo discovers that a die-shaped piece of candy he had stuck to a branch hours before remains stuck, despite having been pecked, daintily, by birds.

The fish has a stranger fate, and it’s interesting to see the poor thing as the object of two creative projects. The first is an attempt to make the fish appear, in death, as something more than it had been in life: a piano-playing fish. Then, if I understand this correctly, the chronicle of Varamo’s work on the fish becomes, through transformations involving random papers and a Rosetta Stone-like document that Varamo obtains through a chance meeting, the famous poem.

I found Varamo particularly fun because Aira suffuses his story with mentions of chance, accidents, improvisation, anarchists, literary genre, and cause and effect. Two examples:
The poem’s capacity to integrate all the circumstantial details associated with its genesis is a feature that situates it historically.
Like all adults, he was afraid of accidents. What dismayed him most about them was the temporal constant between the instant, or fraction of an instant, in which an accident could occur, and the long months or years required to repair its effects, if indeed they were reparable and didn’t last a lifetime.
I enjoyed Varamo very, very much, perhaps most for the lovely absurdities of its portrayal of the (or maybe “a”?) so-called writing process, a term I fought when I attended workshops at writing conferences years ago. For me, writing—and now translating—has never felt like an explainable process, other than certain mechanical actions, like sitting in a chair and applying fingers to a keyboard. I don’t believe in ethereal muses, either, but I do believe in cause and effect in the form of a myriad of mental processes, most of which occur rather randomly and quickly, (only, alas, to be forgotten, making me wonder how I (I?!) came up with my final drafts) that lead me to choose words that come together to create seemingly reasonable English-language versions of Russian texts. I don’t know Chris Andrews’s stance on any of this but I thought his Varamo established a voice that meshed nicely with the novella’s content, a voice that I looked forward to reading.

Disclosures: I picked up a copy of Varamo from publisher New Directions at BookExpo America in 2011. Thank you! I always enjoy speaking with New Directions about literature in translation.

Up Next: Anna Funder’s All that I Am. (My time for English-language reading has been at a new low in recent months because I’m teaching a college course this semester… but spring break is on the way!)

Photo Credit: Library of Congress, via Wikipedia.