Friday, August 20, 2004

Painful Love

Before she left for the land of cheese and beer, Brdgt and I were talking about the perfect length of book for a graduate student. We cannot read books one right after another; we must read several things at a time. Furthemore, we must read things for research that are not books--administrative records, minutes for meetings, hand-written journals, etc.

As a result, the length of the perfect book (for our reading pleasure) is about 120 pages. The novella is the perfect book. A tightly written story that can be read, if motivated, in a few hours and that is not so complex that it cannot be put down for a few days. Sometimes I fear buying or checking out longer books because they might languish on my shelves without every having been touched. Happily, I have several such small books waiting for me: Joseph Roth's Rebellion, Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Heinrich Böll's The Silent Angel (a great writer from Cologne about the destruction of the city after WWII), Cees Nooteboom's Philip and the Others, and Pierre Michon's Master and Servants (actually a collection of novellas).

I few days ago I read Making Love by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (from Belgium). In 116 pages it describes the end of a relationship--and end that comes long after the love has left. The couple is in Japan where the woman will mount a fashion show; her lover is only there for support. But their lovemaking is painful--very painful--if you have seen the ending of Wings of the Dove, you know what I mean. Obvious these two people ought not be together.

That incident sets off a romp through Tokyo on a snowy night. They stick together solely for reasons of familiarity, but they have nothing loving, or even cordial, to say to one another. As the woman starts to work on her exhibit, the man slips away.

The book is tightly focused on the experiences of each moment. The man (who is the narrator) obsessively looks around, describing his environment, just to find things to occupy his mind in the long periods of ennui. His conversations with the woman are annoyances that cannot end soon enough. These long descriptions are rich with details about daily life in Tokyo (restaurants, clubs, business meetings, architecture, subways and trains ...). On the surface, they are intriuging pictures of how the Japanese live; in context, they emphasize the alienation felt by the couple.

My big problem with the book: the man travels with a bottle of hydrochloric acid, perhaps his "out" if he feels completely trapped (he does not commit suicide in the book, nor does he dwell on it). This seemed contrived.

This is a well written book. The prose are quick; every word had been carefully chosen (and translated into English). But it is difficult to say why people would want to read it. It is a painful subject, and Toussaint makes the reader feel the emotions of continuing a farcical romance. There is no out: nothing that lets the reader feel that one person has betrayed the other, no affair, no attraction to another, no illness, abuse or addiction. There is no contrivance that drives the couple to dissolve. There is only a loss of momentum--only the end.


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