“The good, the admirable reader,” said Vladimir Nabokov in his Lectures on Russian Literature, “identifies himself not with the boy or the girl in the book, but with the mind that conceived and composed that book.” Perhaps he was anticipating that current sacred cow of American fiction: the requirement that protagonists be “relatable,” likeable Everyman/woman figures, in recognizably representative surroundings, with whom maximal readers will identify or, as a publisher would say, “connect.” Nowadays, readers with a yen for destabilizingly unconventional storytelling, unreliable narrators and provocative or subversive behavior are increasingly catered to by non-US works, such as the spectacularly audacious new novella by Belgian author Jean-Philippe Toussaint: The Truth About Marie, now out from Dalkey Archive in a virtuoso translation by Matthew B. Smith.
The Truth About Marie is Toussaint's third novella, after Making Love and Running Away, to feature Marie and this narrator, her sometime lover. However, knowledge of the previous books is unnecessary to enjoy Marie, whose arresting first line establishes our nameless hero as louche, mendacious, and utterly enigmatic. “I realized that we had made love at the same time, Marie and I,” he recalls, “but not with each other.” Nor, in fact, with anyone else, as we’ll soon discover. Although Marie went to bed with a man, and the narrator went to bed with a woman (also named Marie), no actual sex took place—not due to restraint or delicacy on the part of the author or characters, but because in Toussaint’s fictional landscape, sexual consummation would break the spell that sustains his dizzyingly high-wire act, in the same way that we awake, joltingly, from a dream when we hit the ground falling.
The seductive dream-logic pervading Marie—which begins with the narrator being summoned, in the early hours of the morning, to the Paris apartment of his ex-girlfriend, the titular Marie, because a man named Jean-Christoph de G. has died there—enables Toussaint to ignore every convention of storytelling and to not only get away with it, but also to expose, ultimately, those defied expectations as fundamental to his narrative intentions. Crucially, the book’s first person narrator is both classically unreliable and magically omniscient, able to describe in intricate detail events, such as those leading up to the death of Jean-Christoph, that took place when he wasn’t present. He explains:
No, I wasn’t there that night, but I’d followed Marie in thought with the same emotional intensity as if I had been, as in a performance executed without me, not from which I am absent, but in which only my senses participate, as in dreams, where each figure is no more than an expression of one’s self, recreated through the prism of our own subjectivity, sprung from our own sensibility, our intelligence and fantasies.
He attributes such ace ventriloquism to his knowing Marie so very well—“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.” (We can scarcely say the same. Admittedly, we know more about Marie than we do about the narrator, who doesn’t share even basic biographical information. Still, as a character she remains, doubtless according to Toussaint’s purpose, a hazy apparition, a slippery manifestation of the crazy=sexy cliché.) When it comes to other people, like the late Jean-Christophe, the narrator concedes that his inferences and reconstructions are fallible. Presumably, this disclaimer applies to his startlingly surreal account of Jean-Christophe’s international transportation of his racehorse, Zahir, an animal whose subjectivity is nevertheless conveyed, and done so terribly convincingly and movingly.
By emphasizing the patchy, emotion-led reliability of his narrator, Toussaint seems to be drawing a parallel between the fiction writer’s attempt to create living, breathing characters and the real life process of knowing and understanding another person—both endeavors wholly determined by the depth and limits of the individual’s imaginative projections. In Marie, the narrator’s miraculous conjuring of scenes from which he is geographically and temporally separate allegorizes the work of authors, while the level of fabulously descriptive detail in those scenes winks at the artifice of the traditional first person narrator, who typically describes his or her surroundings with a carefulness unheard of in any real person’s interior monologue. For example, here’s a passing impression of Jean-Christophe’s abandoned shoes, which are
of delicate material, rawhide or calf-hide leather, a classic pair of wingtips firm and smooth, certainly very comfortable, faithful to the reputed excellence of Italian shoes, the best of which truly fit like gloves over one’s feet, of an indefinable color, fawn or chamois, its laces extremely thin and sturdy like fishing line, with a velvety, almost furry upper, bordered by a multitude of tiny decorative perforations subtly underlining the topstitched line of the seams, and, traced in the lining—a new lining that likely retained a slight scent of fresh leather—a discreet and seemingly coded golden inscription.
This hallucinatorily visual prose style is Marie’s mainstay, the force that simultaneously captivates and effectively suspends disbelief—incredibly, given the book’s explicit fantasticalness and its lack of plot or linear chronology. After Jean-Christoph’s death and the encounter between the narrator and Marie, which takes up most of the first section, we slide back to the recent past, when all the characters are in Tokyo and the adventure with the horse occurs. In the third and final section we move to the present day and to Italy, where the narrator has followed Marie. On the island of Elba, the two fall into the trippiest sequence so far, involving diving for sea urchins, an out-of-control fire, injured horses, and a gradual edging toward the romantic reconciliation which, naturally, will signal the end of the tale. But, like the most vivid of dreams, Marie’s hypnotic atmosphere and jaggedly beautiful images linger on and on—inspiring, if not necessarily identification with the author, then definitely reverence for his blazing talent.