"Naked": Belgian Author Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Last Novel in a Four-Part Love Story
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This article is part of a series of profiles of ten Francophone authors who have been long-listed for the Albertine Prize, a reader’s choice award launched this year by the Albertine bookshop in New York. Albertine booksellers selected ten of the best French novels translated into English in the past year; US-based readers can vote between March 16 and April 30th on the Albertine site here.
The Belgian author Jean-Philippe Toussaint has a niche, but extremely enthusiastic fan base in the US. An award-winning author of nine novels, many of his books have been translated into English, including his tetralogy, a love story, with the publication last year of Naked, the final volume, translated by Edward Gauvin.
Toussaint begins his novel with a quotation from Dante, which he has said is akin to a declaration of love for his character Marie: “To write of her that which has never been written of any other woman.”
The fashion designer Marie Madeleine Marguerite de Montalte, is the heroine of all four novels, and has been described as “one of contemporary fiction’s most fully realized female characters.”
When Naked was published in France in 2013, Toussaint had been writing about Marie for 10 years, and ending his relationship with her was not easy, the author has said. In cinematographic style, (Toussaint has also worked on experimental films) the tempo increasing and slowing as the geography changes, Naked pulls together elements from his other three novels, Making Love, Running Away and The Truth about Marie as well as resolving Marie’s liaison with the unnamed narrator. It is entirely possible, however, to read Naked without having read the previous novels. The narrator’s obsession and frustration with Marie, the ups and downs of their relationship, their separations and reunions take place in beautifully described scenes in Tokyo, Paris and on the Island of Elba. Strangely enough, although Toussaint is a master at meticulous descriptions, the reader is never told what Marie really looks like in detail, which makes her seem even more ethereal. The narrator recalls a previous trip to Elba: “Cautiously, I drew closer to her in my mind, and through the tree branches in the little yard shivering in a light breeze made out her bare silhouette, the skin on her shoulder dappled with sun-shimmer, crouching by an earthenware jar, kneading the potting soil with both hands and tamping it down, evening out the earth around young shoots she’d just replanted and watered…”
The reader does get close to Marie’s artistic perspective in the book’s opening description of a dress made from honey that she has created for a runway model at a fashion show. In a 2014 interview, Toussaint said: “I am not particularly interested in fashion, but it fascinates me as an incentive for writing: the airy grace of adjectives used to describe colours and materials, the sonority of names of fabrics, their precision, their variety… The fashion show organised by my heroine, Marie, at the Spiral in Tokyo is at the same time conceptual and minimalist. With the honey dress, Marie invents a dress that is tied to nothing, that stands on the body on the model by itself, a levitating dress, light, fluid, melting, slowly liquid and syrupy, floating in the air while being at the closest to the body of the model, since the body of the model is the dress itself.”
As the narrator continues his account of his obsession with Marie, there is humor, tenderness, sensuality, poignancy, irony and some adventure as the characters travel around the world, ending up, in the final scene, on the island of Elba, where a chocolate factory is still smouldering after a fire.