Making Love was the first volme of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s “Marie” trilogy; this is the second. It’s also, for my purposes, the most recent, since I’ve now got to stand around until a translation of last year’s La Vérité sur Marie appears. I hope it’s written and/or translated differently than Running Away because, even though I read a fascinating book at it its core, man, there’s something the matter with this prose.
Perhaps an example:
I became the person responsible for her suffering, I was the one who was tormenting her, without my even doing anything — my presence alone was making her suffer, my absence even more so — me, the one who wasn’t there when she needed me, not in Paris when she found out her father had died, not in Elba when she arrived, when all the practical details of the funeral had to be arranged, the one who, after having finally showed up, this morning, at the church, had immediately disappeared, before talking to her, before saying a single word to her, before kissing her and holding her in my arms, before sharing her pain, depriving her of my presence at the same time as making it flicker in front of her, causing her to tremble, giving her chills, just as I always did.
This, I would argue, does not read smoothly. Maybe it’s different for those possessed of particularly poor reading skills and who thus ride all texts as rocky roads, but I couldn’t stop re-punctuating this book in my head for improved flow. Here’s how I would’ve done the above passage:
I became the person responsible for her suffering. I was the one who was tormenting her, without my even doing anything. My presence alone was making her suffer; my absence even more so. Me, the one who wasn’t there when she needed me: not in Paris when she found out her father had died, not in Elba when she arrived, when all the practical details of the funeral had to be arranged. The one who, after having finally showed up this morning at the church, had immediately disappeared: before talking to her, before saying a single word to her, before kissing her and holding her in my arms, before sharing her pain; depriving her of my presence at the same time as making it flicker in front of her, causing her to tremble, giving her chills, just as I always did.
If I’m going to get impudent, I might as well take it to the limit. Here’s another degree of revision:
I became the person responsible for her suffering, the one tormenting her without even doing anything. My presence alone made her suffer; my absence even more so. Me, the one who wasn’t there when she needed me: not in Paris when she found out her father had died, not in Elba when all the practical details of the funeral had to be arranged. The one who, after finally showing up this morning at the church, disappeared before talking to her — before saying a single word to her — before kissing her and holding her in my arms, before sharing her pain — depriving her of my presence while making it flicker in front of her, causing her to tremble. Giving her chills, just as I always did.
Why would I feel it my place to retool the words of an internationally respected novelist nearly 30 years my senior? One excuse: I’ve spend the past couple weeks editing a friend’s novel, putting myself in a prose-economizing sort of mood. A more complicated reason: I’ve grown to enjoy Toussaint’s books enough that the dull-throb-inducing qualities of Running Away — and as far as I can tell, they’re isolated to Running Awayspecifically — spooked me. What could be the correct response?
I’d like to buy translator Matthew B. Smith a beer and talk this over. I have so many questions: did Toussaint actually write the original sentences this way, all mismatching clauses grafted together with comma after comma after unsuitable comma? If so, does that flow better in French? If it does, does it or does it not fall under the purview of translatorial duty to rework the text — minimally, of course — for better Anglophone consumption? Is this a case of too much faith to the original, or not enough? If the former, which particular elements of it won the bulk of that faith?
I can’t tell you whether or not these readability issues are beside the point, but at least they don’t render the book completely opaque. In a way, you could call the story’s surviving clarity a transcendence of the style. (Oh, and did I mention that there aren’t any paragraphs, just medium-to-large chunks of text separated by line breaks?) The summer before the planned breakup of Marie and the nameless Toussaint protagonist, she sends him on a combined business trip and “pleasure junket” in Shanghai. Zhang Xiangzhi, a mild small-time gangster type, meets him at the airport and acts as his handler; later, a girl named Li Qi turns up and rapidly develops what seems to be a crush on our hero.
Li Qi becomes, of course, the other player in that abortive sex scene on a train I mentioned hearing about on Bookworm. She and the narrator spend the first half of the book wordlessly waiting for their moment, and when it finally comes in the middle of the night on the railway to Beijing, Marie wrecks it. She calls on the protagonist’s hated cellphone, handed to him at the beginning by Zhang Xiangzhi. Marie’s father has drowned, had a heart attack, or both, and now she needs her man to help out with the funeral. Which is on Elba. (A big three-in-the-seat motorcycle chase comes first, though.
When not focused on racing over Beijing sidewalks or undressing Chinese women in train bathrooms, Running Away lays itself bare to the saddeningly common accusation that “nothing happens.” That’s not true, of course — it almost never is — but nor does the appeal of Jean-Philippe Toussaint lay in what he makes “happen.” Increasingly, I find great pleasure in the way that his nameless narrators’ internal monologuesreflect almost exactly the way I perceive and experience the world. (And that's not even counting its love for coffee houses!) To flip to a random example:
I was still, and I remained for a long time, in that state of suspension one enters while traveling, that intermediary state in which the body, in motion, seems to be making steady progress from one geographical location toward another (like the arrow I’d tracked on the in-flight video screen on my trip back from Beijing, charting the plane’s movement over a stylized world map, covered with mountains), but in my mind, incapable of adapting to this mode of steady and slow transition, is, for its part, unable to keep from splitting its attention between thoughts of the place we’ve only just departed, and concurrent thoughts of the place we’re approaching.
This passage has to do with travel, which I can already tell will turn out to be one of those elements of Toussaint’s novels that won’t go away. No problem; all this jetting to and fro did more than its part to attract me to his books in the first place, and I’ve got some catching up to do in that department. I’m thus provided with the distinctively fascinating combination of a voice that essentially echoes my brain’s own which belongs to a character whose motion strikes me as not simply desirable but inevitable. I mean, what am I going to do instead — buy a house?