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la vérité sur marie

6 september 2012

La vérité sur Marie is a sequel to Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novel Fuir, but as is sometimes remarked of American series movies, it's less a true continuation of the story than an immediate remake of the original.

To elaborate: in both novels, the narrator gets involved in oblique and obscure ways with Marie, and also with a weird, powerful, wealthy man. The involvement occurs in, or gravitates toward, Asia (China in Fuir, Japan in La vérité). A sporting event is central to the novel, and the sport is followed by a blistering night-time chase scene through an Asian capital. In the third movement of each novel, set on the island of Elba, Marie and the narrator tentatively move toward an eventually passionate reconciliation.

In Fuir the elements include Beijing and bowling; in La vérité sur Marie, Tokyo and horse racing. As long as our heroes end up in each other's arms on the island of Elba, I can see this pattern carrying on through several novels to come. Singapore and badminton; Hanoi and team handball; Seoul and synchronized swimming.

I may seem to be tiring of Toussaint after just two novels. But I liked Fuir, and I might have liked La vérité sur Marie equally well had I read it first. Though perhaps not. There's one signal difference between the novels: the presence, in extremis, of horses in La vérité. Horses in this novel are injured, burned, exhausted, terrified, traumatized, and killed (albeit accidentally). Humans are, too, but let's face it, we often care more about horses than humans; they are so much less at fault, and can't usually avoid or cope with what threatens them.

The more attractive passages in La vérité sur Marie are reflections on what it's like to be a writer. The first chapter of the book concerns an event (I won't say exactly what) that the narrator couldn't possibly have experienced; in fact, it's crucial to his story that he isn't there. So how can he tell it? He's faced with the problem of being a third-person narrator for a portion of his first-person narrative.

Les événements … s'étaient mis à affleurer à ma conscience, sans que je cherche particuliérement à les reconstituer par un effort délibéré de la memoire. Non, j'en revivais simplement des bribes dans mon demi-sommeil, laissant émerger quelques conjectures dans mon esprit — hypothèses et images —, en faisant appel à des zones différentes de mon cerveau, selon que j'avais recours au raisonnement pour élaborer des hypothèses, ou que j'en appelais au rêve pour invoquer des images. À quelques faits avérés et vérifiables advenus cette nuit-là, il m'arrivait d'ajouter de pure fantaisies, que j'intégrais librement à ma rêverie …

[The events of the night … blossomed in my consciousness, without my trying to reconstruct them particularly through any deliberate effort of memory. No, I just relived them piecemeal in half-sleep, letting certain conjectures – hypotheses and visual images – emerge in my spirit, calling on different parts of my brain, according to whether I needed logic to elaborate the hypotheses, or dreams to call up the images. In addition to verifiable facts from that night, I added in pure fantasies, which I mixed liberally into my revery …] (164)
Much like Virginia Woolf in "An Unwritten Novel," but far more sanguine about the appropriateness of his more-than-half-fabulating method.

Less sufferable are the narrator's reflections on what it's like to be irresistible. Because of course he is, given that he's a debonair and brooding intellectual in France, and given that the equally irresistible Marie can never stay away from him for long, no matter how many international boyfriends she conquers. What's his secret? It seems that women are fascinated by him because each of them thinks that she alone can perceive his über-sexy features.

Chacune d'elles était en fait persuadée que ces qualités invisibles, qu'elles avaient décelées en moi, échappaient à tout autre qu'elle-même, alors qu'elles étaient en réalité très nombreuses à être ainsi les seules à apprécier mes qualités secrètes et à tomber sous le charme.

[Each of them was actually convinced that these invisible qualities that they'd discerned in me escaped everyone else but herself. But in reality there were lots of women who were alone in appreciating my secret qualities and falling under their spell.] (170)
But the central romance of Fuir and La vérité sur Marie does ring true, and hold its interest, despite the hyperbole. Impulsive and insouciant, Marie is the kind of woman who never seals a suitcase or gets it to the airport on time, who leaves her passport in a random shopping bag, who can't be bothered to make plans for more than the next fifteen minutes in advance, and who consequently seems almost thrilled when something like a raging forest fire develops on the island of Elba; the catastrophe seems to validate her perpetual lack of preparation. Like the narrator of these two novels, one can fall in love with such people, but one cannot live with them for long.

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. La vérité sur Marie. Paris: Minuit, 2009.