At the dawn of his career, Jean-Philippe Toussaint convincingly sketched the kind of writer he wouldn’t be. In Bathroom (1985), the narrator — the first in a series of anonymous men to drift through the Belgian author’s books — finds himself tediously engaged in conversation with one of the tenants of the flat that he and his Parisian girlfriend will soon be taking over: “Since he was going to retire at the end of the year, they would live permanently in Normandy, in a converted farmhouse. The prospect filled him with gladness… He would write a novel. And will you have a garden I asked?, to stop him from telling us the subject of his novel, the twists of plot and side incidents.” For Toussaint, tone has always taken precedence over plot. Yet in recent years, his works have relinquished the sly, waggish quality that gave books like Bathroom, Monsieur (1986), and Camera (1989) such pep, adopting the more measured lyricism that can be heard in Running Away (2009) and its sequel, The Truth about Marie.
As a consequence of Toussaint’s gift for creating episodic fiction that is sensuous rather than sensational, prospective readers of his latest novel needn’t worry much about how familiar they are with its predecessor. (Though as a caveat, if one can recall the elemental finale of Running Away, then The Truth about Marie‘s fiery ending will assume added poetic resonance.) One reads Toussaint for his dashing sentences – and for their surprising, sometimes exulting engagement with a tangle of feelings.
Running Away tells the story of the narrator’s voyage to China, where he acts as a business liaison for his Parisian girlfriend, who runs her own fashion house and has financial commitments abroad. On an overnight train ride to Beijing, he receives a phone call from Marie informing him of her father’s death. By twists and turns, he makes his way to Elba to attend the funeral, which he ducks out on for reasons he keeps to himself. No wonder, then, that at the beginning of The Truth about Marie, the couple has split up.
Exercising his usual delight for contrivances, Toussaint starts the novel with one of what will turn out to be several coincidences. (Then again, allowing for the artful end to which such details are harnessed, concordances might be the better word.) Reflecting back on the events that transpired over a sweltering, rainy night in Paris, the narrator calculates that he and his ex-girlfriend made love to two different partners around the same time. She, to a man he mistakenly names Jean-Christophe de G. and he, curiously, to a young woman also named Marie; however, this Marie is denied even a walk-on part in the book.
Things go south for Marie and Jean-Christophe de G. after he takes ill and must be rushed to the hospital. Distraught, Marie telephones the narrator and implores him to hurry over to what had once been their apartment. When he arrives, she tells him how she met her new paramour in Tokyo, where she broke up with the narrator a few days before. Volatile emotions rise to the surface: Toussaint is brilliant at capturing a relationship’s fluctuating emotional weather.
When the narrator returns to his apartment, the other Marie is gone. On the sheets of his bed, he finds traces of menstrual blood, the sight of which acts as a talisman, fusing together the characters of book:
And, mentally following the trajectory of these few drops of blood on my finger, I imagined the absurd loop linking Marie to Marie this night. This blood, soon without any definable color, consistency, or viscosity, lacking any veritable material reality, as my fingers came into contact with diverse materials throughout the night, sheets, clothes, wind, fading a little more with each contact, softening in color, before the rain washed it away completely, these few specks of blood, which although no longer materially present were nonetheless symbolically significant, had caused me to trace mentally their course from Marie’s body, their source, through all the successive places I’d passed that night…
I was looking at those drops of dried blood on my bed, knowing where they came from, but, in a sort of mental confusion and daze, I associated this blood with Jean-Christophe de G., as though this were his blood, as though, in my bed, there were a few drops of Jean-Christophe de G.’s blood, blood that Jean-Christophe de G. would have shed that night in Marie’s apartment, blood belonging to him, a masculine blood — blood of drama, violence, and death…and, in a sudden paroxysm of irrational fear — or lucidity — I understood then that if Jean-Christophe were to die this night, I’d have to explain why there was blood on my sheets…
Sadly, Jean-Christophe de G. passes away, but as the narrator learns from Marie, his name is actually Jean-Baptiste.
Over the next few days the narrator, who blithely continues to refer to the dead man by a misnomer, looks him up on the Internet and begins mulling over his life, weaving together fact and speculation. He learns that the man was a horse breeder and that his name carries a whiff of scandal owing to the so-called Zahir affair. Named for the eponymous thoroughbred in the breeder’s keep, the imbroglio is based on rumors floating around racing circles. At issue is whether or not Jean-Baptiste or Jean-Christophe de G. withdrew his horse from a race in Tokyo because of something to do with doping.
In the middle section of the novel, which largely concerns Jean-Christophe de G.’s strenuous efforts to shuttle Zahir out of Japan, Toussaint’s language reaches another level of intensity. But the section concludes with what at first might seem one coincidence too many: remarkably, the narrator runs into Marie at the horse track where Jean-Christophe de G. had invited her for a date. What prevents this coincidence from being hokey is the way the events surrounding Zahir are anchored in literary history. As the narrator notes, zahir is a word that was made famous by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges.
In Borges’s short story “The Zahir,” a man who is also named Borges comes into the possession of a coin (the zahir of the title), a seemingly ordinary coin with the letters N T and the number 2 scratched into it. Soon the protagonist’s thoughts become all-consumed by the coin. (“The thought struck me that there is no coin that is not the symbol of all the coins that shine endlessly down throughout history and fable.”) In the pages of a book discovered in a bookshop, “Borges” reads the following: “In Arabic, ‘zahir‘ means visible, manifest, evident…the masses use the word for ‘beings or things which have the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad.’ “
In Toussaint’s novel it is Marie herself who takes on these unsettlingly archetypal qualities, to the point of the narrator’s obsession:
At times, spurred on by nothing more than a single detail Marie had shared with me, or let slip, or which I’d discovered, I’d allow myself to build the scaffolding of further developments, distorting the facts occasionally, transforming or exaggerating them, even romanticizing them… I may have been mistaken in many of my assumptions about Jean-Christophe de G., but never in those about Marie, I knew Marie’s every move, I knew how 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.
If love, as they say, is a form of madness, The Truth about Marie suggests it is a madness governed largely by the presumption that the beloved can be known and decoded. And the only thing certain about this book that traffics in so many uncertainties is that it proves, in the end, worth getting a little obsessed over.