The most mesmerizing aspect of Toussaint’s narrative logic is how he blurs the temporality between events so that major moments during the breakup recall earlier corresponding moments. His narratives are so intricate, so pleasingly recursive, that the shape they take, the choices Toussaint makes, is where readers will find reward. — Jason Lucarelli
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Dalkey Archive Press, 2016
124 pages, $15.00
.Some couples are always breaking up and getting back together. Their love says no, says yes, sometimes in the same breath. Every apparent end is punctuated by a flash of renewal.
Take the unnamed narrator and Marie in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s tetralogy—Making Love, Running Away, The Truth About Marie, and Naked—who spend all four novels (mostly) breaking up. “But breaking up, I was beginning to realize, was more a state of being than an action, more a period of mourning than a death agony,” says the narrator in Making Love. While each novel in the tetralogy follows Making Love, events do not always follow in chronological order.
In Making Love, Marie invites the narrator to accompany her during one of her exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa, and they spend most of the trip “separating for good.” Running Away occurs the summer before the breakup when the narrator travels to China on an errand for Marie, and later joins her on the island of Elba for her father’s funeral. The Truth About Marie, occurring the spring-summer after Making Love, concerns events surrounding Marie’s other lover Jean-Christophe de G. (Marie accompanying Jean-Christophe the day after her exhibition as he transports a racehorse, Marie watching Jean-Christophe have a heart attack in her apartment), and a few summer days on Elba where Marie and the narrator grow closer over crisis (a great fire burns over a section of the island). All of this is just what happens, the succession of incidents, plot stuff.
But the most mesmerizing aspect of Toussaint’s narrative logic is how he blurs the temporality between events so that major moments during the breakup recall earlier corresponding moments. His narratives are so intricate, so pleasingly recursive, that the shape they take, the choices Toussaint makes, is where readers will find reward. Describing Toussaint’s fiction, Tom McCarthy writes, “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.”
Jean-Philippe Toussaint—Belgian-born writer, filmmaker, and photographer—is the author of nine novels, originally published in French by Les Éditions de Minuit, and published in English by E.P. Dutton, The New Press, and Dalkey Archive Press. He is the winner of the Prix Médicis for Fuir (Running Away) and the Prix Décembre for La Vérité sur Marie (The Truth About Marie). Early critics were quick to classify his work as part of the ‘nouveau Nouveau Roman.’ Toussaint prefers the term “infinitesimal,” which, he says, “evokes the infinitely large as much as the infinitely small…the two extremes that should always be found in my books.” He refers to Samuel Beckett as “the most important reading experience of my life” and “my only model.” While Toussaint’s earlier works contained loopy but concise narratives, detached yet analytic narrators, and plot opportunities offered but rarely exploited, his newer works give a little more, and build upon these earlier facets in exquisite and scrupulous detail. His authorial concerns for “energy,” “rhythm,” “dynamics,” and “the standards of the form” are on peak display in Naked, the conclusion to his magnum opus, translated by Edward Gauvin and published by Dalkey Archive Press.
From the beginning of Naked onward, Toussaint reaches back into the narrative, to previous novels, to reference events, and revisits them with variation in a cyclical, dizzying effect. Take for instance the beginning of Naked’s first half, as the narrator and Marie return to Paris after making love on their last night on Elba. Before separating, they share an extended exchange in the taxi. They hesitate to part. The narrator says, “…I was unable to tell Marie how I felt about her—but had I ever been able to?” It’s a sentence that recalls one from Making Love: “…I had not made the slightest declaration of love to her—but have I ever made her any declaration of love?” On the level of plot, the narrator’s passiveness is one of his primary traits. In some ways, it’s to blame for him staying on the wrong side of the breakup for so long. On the level of form, the two phrases showcase Toussaint’s signature parallel structuring of incidents.
The narrator spends the next two months waiting for Marie’s call. At his window, looking out at Paris, his mind goes back to the time they spent in Japan: “That was where everything had started, or rather everything had ended for us, for that was where we’d broken up…” Eventually he reveals that he was present during the exhibition at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa and not, as Marie might have suspected, on his way back to Paris:
It was only now, more than seven months later in Paris…that I had gained the necessary distance to apprehend all the elements of the scene then underway…So where was I? Where—if not in the limbo of my own consciousness, freed from the contingencies of space and time, still and forever invoking the figure of Marie?
The narrator, “in memories or the resurrected past,” makes his way across the museum grounds as he did in Making Love, but this time on opening night as opposed to the night prior. As he tries to gain entry to the museum, a guard takes special notice of him (the same guard who caught him at the conclusion of Making Love looking for Marie), and the narrator climbs the roof to escape confrontation. On the roof, he peers through a porthole looking for Marie amongst the attendees. Searching the crowd, he sees a guest look up at the ceiling, and leans back to avoid being seen. At this point he realizes that this was the evening Marie met Jean-Christophe de G. and that he had likely been an “eyewitness to their encounter.”
In a perspective shift typical of the tetralogy—Toussaint turning first person perspective into a kind of speculative third person—the narrator describes how Jean-Christophe de G. found himself at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa, how he decided to leave with Marie on his arm (a woman he had never met before), how he mistook another woman named Marie for fashion-designer Marie, and how he gazed up at the porthole to spot the narrator’s figure in the dark. Jean-Christophe, bewildered at having chosen the wrong Marie, considers:
an excuse to ditch everyone and slip out of the museum or even, if possible, to vanish from this story altogether, return to nothingness, from which it seemed he’d been plucked for a brief moment to beget, at his own expense, an evanescent ribbon of life, airborne, twirling, futile, and fleeting.
The narrator abandons Jean-Christophe and recalls the moment he finally spotted Marie through the porthole. He watches her: “I love you, Marie, I told her, but no sound came from my mouth, I couldn’t even hear myself say it, maybe I hadn’t even opened my mouth, maybe I’d only thought it…” He reveals his true feelings to no one but himself.
The flashback ends and the second half of Naked picks up back in Paris, when the narrator receives Marie’s phone call two months after returning from Elba. She says she has something to tell him and they should meet. The narrator recalls that every time Marie called him “out of the blue” was to inform him of a death: her father’s (in Running Away) and Jean-Christophe de G.’s (in The Truth About Marie). The narrator meets Marie at a cafe (he finds her looking “different”) and she informs him that Maurizio, the caretaker of her father’s house in Elba, has died (“when all was said and done, she only called me up in the event of a death,” he says), and that it would be good if they attended his funeral together. The narrator agrees, but holds on to the premonition that Marie held back what she really wanted to tell him.
Traveling to Elba by ferry, approaching shore, the narrator and Marie are greeted by the familiar sight of smoke: “It was so striking that it seemed to me the same fire as last summer, even if that was no doubt impossible, the same forest fire now finally winding down but still burning, and pursuing us, awaiting our return.” Always in the mind of the narrator the present parallels the past, every event mirrors another.
The narrator and Marie are greeted by Maurizio’s son, Giuseppe, who has been keeping watch over Marie’s father’s house. He tells them about the source of the smoke on the island, the burning chocolate factory. Instead of going directly to the house, they stop at the factory and the narrator observes Giuseppe (“…he seemed instead to know the place like the back of his hand…”). During the drive back to the house, Giuseppe explains everything he knows about the fire, “unable to hide a dark, grim satisfaction, the morbid pleasure that comes from announcing bad news when circumstances allow it.” An element of vague danger brought on by the arrival of Giuseppe’s character hovers over the second half of the novel, which chronicles the couple’s stay on Elba, Maurizio’s funeral and Marie’s withheld secret. But Toussaint is not one to tie up loose ends. A few plot options are left unresolved.
Naked is filled with constant ruminations on lost love, memory, absence, fantasy, loyalty, art. Sticking solely to its structure is to downplay its music, pacing, comedy, drama; its ability to captivate, to surprise. Take the prologue where the narrator, before addressing his relationship with Marie, depicts Marie the artist by describing her most ambitious dress design, a dress made entirely of honey:
Developing a theoretical reflection on the very idea of haute couture, she had returned to the original meaning of the word couture as the sewing of cloth using different techniques, stitching, tacking, hooking, binding, which allow fabrics to be combined on models’ bodies, twinned to the skin, and joined together, to present this year in Tokyo a haute-couture dress without a single stitch.
Later, he mixes his musings on “artistic creation” with those of love:
[A]ny true love and, more broadly speaking, any project, any undertaking, from the flowering of a bud to the growth of a tree to the realization of a work of art, has but one aim and intent, to persevere in being, doesn’t it always, inevitably, come down to chewing the same thing over? And a few weeks later, taking up this idea again of love as rumination or continual reprise, I would further refine my phrasing, asking Marie if the secret to lasting love was never to swallow.
It’s fair to say that in order to feel fully immersed in Naked is to have in mind the other books in the tetralogy. (Read at least Making Love and The Truth About Marie before proceeding.) The narrative in Naked constantly reinforces the “superimposition of simultaneous presents,” a concept spanning the entire tetralogy (see the opening of The Truth About Marie when both the narrator and Marie are “making love in Paris in two apartments” at the same time). In Naked, no passage balances this duality better than the final paragraph where Marie pulls the narrator into the guest room of her father’s house, the same room where they made love last summer (“The place was the same, the people the same, our feelings the same, only the season had changed”). They kiss and hold each other “tightly, madly,” and, in the final line, Marie says, “Then you love me?” It’s a phrase that points back to Making Love, to when Marie first accused the narrator of not loving her. The phrase creates the feeling the passage describes: being in two places at once. Now, in the present, the narrator is challenged with providing an actual answer—instead of whispering it on a rooftop—to the question Marie first posed seven months ago. But readers are left answerless, and one almost sees the entire breakup replaying, beginning all over again.
— Jason Lucarelli
Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.
This is a fine review of JPT’s latest, and a good introduction to some of his more important and lively books.