Despite the title of celebrated Belgian novelist Jean-Phillippe Toussaint’s latest novel, “The Truth About Marie,” little is revealed about the nameless protagonist—nor his love interest and ex-girlfriend, the titular Marie. This is not to say that Toussaint has abandoned his trademark impeccable imagery; his story alternates between lush and restrained styles, and between romantic and unnerving images. Through a wealth of evocative and detailed descriptions, rendered in English by Matthew B. Smith, Marie is revealed to be a capricious, self-involved sexpot, not unlike the staple female characters of French cinema. But when all is said and done, the novel that is left has a two-dimensional quality; there are no truths to be revealed about a woman who is utterly false. Toussaint makes no apologies for his emphasis of technique over plot, and indeed this is not where the problem lies. The uniquely stylized novel could be truly captivating if one cared about the characters he so devotionally describes. Despite a remarkable premise and a superb eye for detail, “The Truth About Marie” fails to invite a strong response.
This third novel of a loose trilogy is centered once again on Marie and the protagonist. Traveling between Paris, Tokyo, and Elba, he envisions Marie’s experiences with her new lover, Jean-Christophe d. G., an eminent elder statesman in French horse racing. Toussaint’s premise puts a noteworthy twist on the traditional style of the romance novel, focusing on a protagonist who is omniscient of his former love’s actions, due not to an inexplicable authorial whim, but instead to his intimate, seemingly limitless knowledge of Marie.
Toussaint’s love story is flecked with humor, which is most successful in its protagonist’s observations about his life. For instance, after sharing a brief moment of passion with Marie, he shamefully realizes that this is the second time he has fingered a woman this night; the previous participant was, ironically enough, also named Marie. However, most of Toussaint’s punchlines are based on nudity—which quickly grows tiresome—and Marie’s infinite quirks, such as her penchant for doffing her clothes, her lack of concern for others, and her complete inability to function in a crisis. She is a woman only a fictional man could love.
Toussaint’s measured tempo, which is at tantalizing at best and tedious at worst, requires patience but can pay off in spades. The story alternates between long stretches of calm and moments of intense action, with the author’s ability to dissect social interactions shining brightest in the latter. In a delightful but seemingly irrelevant plot twist, Jean-Christophe d. G’s horse Zahir escapes into the night, a moment that is described in striking prose. As his master searches for Zahir, “suddenly, charging out of nowhere, with the same unexpectedness as when he’d disappeared, Zahir’s black and powerful body materialized in the beam of the headlights, at once galloping and at rest, mad, his eyes gleaming with terror, his coat black and wet, as if suddenly defined against the night into which he had just moments before, dissolved.”
When Toussaint loses his restraint, however, the tone can quickly turn sentimental. He brilliantly keeps the protagonist’s self-revelations to a minimum, so that information is only revealed about him through his interactions with Marie, emphasizing his obsession. As the protagonist gazes upon Marie, he reflects upon “[t]he hands and the eyes, the only two things that matter in life, in love, in art.”
The protagonist fulfills the lofty promise he makes at the end of the book, vowing to “reconstruct that night in mental images with the precision of dreams, I could cover it in word with a formidable power of evocation, all in vain, I knew I’d never reach what had been the fleeting life of night itself, but it seemed to me that I could perhaps reach a new truth, one that would take its inspiration from life and then transcend it, without concern for verisimilitude, or veracity, its only aim the quintessence of the real, its tender core, pulsing and vibrant, a truth closer to invention, the twin of fabrication, the ideal truth.” It is possible that the crux of the novel’s problem lies within its impeccable premise. As the protagonist is hopelessly in love with Marie, his imaginings of her experiences, although beautifully described by Toussaint, are immaterial. Their separation, though exhaustively narrated, is never explained; the reason as to their parting is left undiscussed. Touissant’s exquisite craft makes this shortcoming—the crucial lack of context—all the more frustrating. In the unsatisfying end, the protagonist manages to reunite with Marie, but without the slightest glimmer of knowledge as to why they separated in the first place, this triumphant conclusion turns into a pat one.
—Staff writer Hayley C. Cuccinello can be reached at email@example.com.