If there’s one thing the French can do, brilliantly and innovatively, it’s write about love. There’s a particular kind of narrative that reaches down through the ages, from the Abbé de Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, to André Breton’s Nadja, which is about the creativity inspired in the male artist by the fascinating woman. The narrator lives through the chosen woman; his goal is to render the dazzling uniqueness of her being, particularly when the woman in question is mad, bad or sad and not necessarily sympathetic. In Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s exquisite novella, Marie is the kind of scatty, messy, sexy, unpredictable charmer to have tempted French men for decades, but she is also given warmth and vitality, a kind of spontaneous energy that is wholly endearing. More than any of his compatriots, Toussaint lets the reader see the extent to which love for Marie powers this narrative, creates it out of nothing, and the result is a surprisingly slick and elegant, controlled and yet passionate, blinder of a tale. Of all the books I’ve read for this week, this is the one that has excited me the most.
The story is divided into three episodes, each of which focusses on one single event when the lives of Marie and the unnamed narrator coincide. At the beginning, both are involved with other people, having split up shortly before the start of the narrative (recounted in Toussaint’s previous novel, which there is no need to have read). The narrator is with another woman called Marie – probably not coincidentally – and Marie is with an older man, a racehorse owner called Jean-Christophe de G. When Marie’s partner ends up having a cardiac arrest, the narrator is the next person Marie calls after the paramedics, and he fights his way through an elemental storm over Paris to be by her side. The middle episode predates this first one, and recounts a moment early in Marie’s relationship with Jean-Christophe when they are at the racecourse in Japan. Marie agrees to return to Paris with him, but it turns out they are transporting his horse back too. This is an amazing tour de force, forty pages again set in stormy weather, describing the wildly frightened horse breaking loose in the airport and being unwillingly detained on the plane. The final episode takes place in Elba, after both previous ones, where Marie has gone to visit her late father’s house, inviting the narrator to join her. As the two grow closer, a wild fire breaks out at night, threatening the local stables and the house where our protagonists are staying.
Each of these vignettes is full of incident, starting subtly, in quiet, contemplative ways then building and building to vivid, violent episodes. Toussaints narrative voice is just, well, brilliant. The descriptions are cool and precise but charged with emotion and the events pick up on certain elements that echo one another across the course of the book – nights split by thunder, lightning, fire, the threat to horses, the moment when the narrator finally enters the action, always standing to one side as a witness to Marie in her intense emotions. Although no conventional plot is created, what matters is the rhythm of the encounters between Marie and the narrator, as she slips in and out of his life until the final, moving pages. So questions go unanswered, details of the ‘story’ are neglected, but Toussaint’s genius is to direct the reader to what is more important underlying the events, to making the connections, to experiencing the ebb and flow of vitality in both the narrative and the lives it describes. I suppose if you had to stick a label on this you’d be obliged to call it experimental, but that does the narrative such an injustice. Readers are often scared by textual innovation, whereas this is simply the right narrative for the job, and whilst it is unusual, it is utterly compelling.
For what the narrator lets slip, gradually, is that these highly precise accounts of episodes in Marie’s life contain a great deal that the narrator himself could not possible have witnessed. When it comes to characters like Jean-Christophe de G, he readily confesses that he might have much of it wrong, not least the fact that the man’s name is actually Jean-Baptiste (but he doesn’t like him, is jealous, so doesn’t care much). But Marie’s experience is another matter:
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.
Now of course, the reader here yells ‘hubris!’ and experiences a delicious shudder of incongruence between those vibrant, almost hyperreal descriptions and the recognition that they are inevitably the products of the narrator’s imagination. But we are not left with this as some sort of bizarre textual game. No, the narrator modifies his arrogance by showing us the intensity of his imagination, fuelled by love for Marie, as the real origin of his narrative.
if I failed to appear physically among the other figures, I knew I was intimately present, not only as the sole source of each evocation, but at the heart of each and every character, to whom I was bound in ways unknown, with hidden and secret ties linking us together – for I was as much myself as each one of them.
In other words, Toussaint takes us deep into the jungle of narrative, where the narrator is always bursting with a multitude of people, whose lives he has imagined so fiercely and fully that he knows more about them than they do about themselves.
it seemed to me that I could perhaps reach a new truth, one that would take its inspiration from life and then transcend it….its only aim the quintessence of the real, its tender core, pulsing and vibrant.
What I admired most about this little book is the way it combines a profound inquiry into the process of creating stories with – and this is by far the more dominant element – a tryptich of powerfully evocative scenes behind which an immense tenderness for Marie is easy to discern. This is a love story, one that seamlessly interweaves desire, imagination and the need to be part of the beloved’s life even when, or perhaps especially when, she is actually absent. No one I know of is writing like this, so if you are interested in literature, add the name of Toussaint to your list.