17 January 2013

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir | Running Away (2005)

I was reminded of movie director Alan J. Pakula's films when reading Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Fuir (2005), or Running Away, but only because of the importance of the telephone: far from Pakula's realism, this novel is obviously Nouveau Roman inspired, with an (unnamed) unreliable narrator.

Chronologically, Fuir occupies the mid-position in Toussaint's three 'Marie' cycle novels, between Faire l'amour (2002), or Making Love, and the as yet untranslated La Vérité sur Marie, (2009), which will presumably be titled The Truth about Marie.

The novel's first sentence, Serait-ce jamais fini avec Marie? (lit. 'Would it ever be finished with Marie?'), is spoken by the narrator, and immediately we know there's a relationship problem, but that comes in later. Marie has sent the narrator to Shanghai to hand a $25,000 money packet to Zhang Xiangzhi, his slightly reluctant host. At an exhibition he meets Li Qi, a woman who seems to promise sex, and she invites him to take the train to Beijing with her, so he readily agrees to meet her at the train station, but is surprised to discover that Zhang Xiangzhi is going with them too. On the train, while most people are sleeping, the narrator is on the point of having sex in the toilet with Li Qi when the Pakula moment comes: it's Marie on the phone to say that her father has died at his home in Elba. This changes everything, and the narrator's sexual enthusiasm for Li Qi moves into detumescent mode. End of the first of three parts.

Now they're in Beijing, it seems that Zhang Xiangzhi could be in a relationship with Li Qi, but the narrator is no longer concerned: Marie's phone call has had a big effect: there's a difference between the world that's under his nose and the way he perceives it; the real is distorted, there's a separation, a kind of fracture, in fact he's in a state of permanent jetlag.


Zhang Xiangzhi shows him a little of Beijing in a half-hearted way, then gets a motor bike and rides them both to a bowling alley, where Li Qi later turns up with a package that the narrator guesses contains drugs that Zhang Xiangzhi has spent the twenty-five grand on. Then there's another earth-shattering phone call (although we never really find out why), this time from an unknown person to Zhang Xiangzhi, and the trio all hop on the motor bike followed by the cops, and the novel briefly turns into a kind of silent movie comedy: there's virtually no dialogue in the whole book anyway. In this way, a phone call again leads to the end of the section.

So will the common grief of Marie's father's death bring the couple together again? Well, it's not as simple as that. The narrator flies back to Paris and on to Elba to attend the funeral, but instead he just phones Marie and decides to play hide and seek for several hours. Marie finds him and they try a little sex but it doesn't work so they decide to go for a swim but he stays on the shore while Marie takes to the water.


Her father had a heart attack swimming here, but surely Marie hasn't? Has she? It seems not, so we'll rely on the narrator at the end...won't we? Nathalie Sarraute spoke of l’ère du soupçon, or 'the era of suspicion' which the Nouveau Roman heralded, and with the, er, Nouveau Nouveau Roman, it's still wise to be suspicious of the truth of what the narrator tells us.

(There's a link to a very interesting article on Jean-Philippe Toussaint in the London Review of Books by Tom McCarthy, which at the same time also tells us something about McCarthy.)

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'Stabbing the Olive', by Tom McCarthy

My other posts on Jean-Philippe Toussaint:

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Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Faire l'amour | Making Love
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Nue

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Vérité sur Marie | The Truth about Marie

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