With a new book out almost every year, the Belgian novelist is one of the most popular writers in France. Her latest: Une Forme de Vie, a fictional exchange of letters with an American soldier in Iraq.
Her name may be Amélie, but she’s definitely not from Montmartre. Born in Kobe, Japan, to Belgian diplomats, Amélie Nothomb is a far cry from the elfin young waitress played in the film by Audrey Tautou. Outgoing, incisive and ironic, this Amélie belongs to a distinctly less idealistic world. Discovered in France in 1992 with her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, Nothomb has ever since been a popular fixture of September’s rentrée littéraire—the start of the literary season—and her novels regularly sell more than 200,000 copies each. “When the latest Nothomb arrives, you’re put on notice: summer vacation is over!” a well-known critic cracked a few years ago. But there are surely worse ways to get back in gear than by reading one of her marvelous novels, which tend to mix autobiography, impossible love, eating disorders and a cold and cynical, but highly hilarious, outlook on life.
Although her work has now been translated into 39 languages, Amélie Nothomb wasn’t exactly predestined to rival Georges Simenon and Tintin’s creator Hergé as Belgium’s most successful writer. Following her diplomat father, young Amélie spent her first five years in Japan before moving to China, Burma, Bangladesh and Laos, among other posts. “My parents forced me to write to my grandfather,” she recalls. “That’s how I discovered the necessity and the pleasure of literature.”
After a painful period of anorexia and a disastrous experience in Tokyo, where she ended up working as a toilet cleaner, Nothomb finally settled in Brussels. “I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, so I figured, why not try to do something with my manuscripts?” Good thinking: She was only 25 when Editions Albin Michel, her publisher from that moment on, released Hygiene and the Assassin. Though not a huge best seller, the novel was well received by both critics and readers—successful enough to set her on the road to publishing a new novel every year.
Odd hats and habits
Her big breakthrough came seven years later with Fear and Trembling, the true comic tale of her nightmare experience in a Japanese corporation. Awarded the prestigious Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française, the novel sold half a million copies and swept its author into the French literary spotlight. With her bizarre hats and strange habits, Nothomb is definitely a departure from the usually bland world of literature—she once even ate rotting fruit on a live TV show.
But her true originality lies in her words. She typically writes from four to eight in the morning, she says, after drinking half a liter of black tea. She claims to complete three or four novels every year, most of them kept under lock and key, never to be released. Critics would argue that this feat of productivity is possible mainly because of the brevity of her books. But isn’t this art of the novella precisely what seduced her readers in the first place?
Either way, she is always the main attraction at every literary fair, with hundreds of fans standing in line for hours at her book signings. Also noteworthy is Nothomb’s massive correspondence: She receives several dozen letters every day, and says that she tries to answer most of them personally.
Her newest novel—her 19th—is Une Forme de Vie, structured around imaginary letters between the author and an American soldier stationed in Baghdad, a man beset by fear and mired in obesity. While it is mainly a witty insight into the relationship between an author and a fan, the novel is also a fierce critique of US intervention in the Middle East. “I had already spoken out on the first Gulf War in a previous novel,” recalls Nothomb. “These wars are appalling to me. But I’m just an average citizen, and the only way I can express my feelings about them is by writing.”
Yet Nothomb isn’t one of the usual “hardline anti-Americans” too often found in France. She doesn’t hide her affection for the United States, a country she knows quite well. “I lived there from age eight to ten, while my father was posted at the United Nations, and I have excellent memories of the United States. For example, I’m always stunned by American eloquence: I love the way Americans inhabit their language, keep things direct, very literal, nothing like all the preciosities we’re used to in Europe.”
One of the few contemporary French-language writers translated into English, Nothomb is also studied in literature courses at American universities, including the University of California at Berkeley. Nothomb frequently visits the US, either to meet her readers or just for pleasure. Last year, for the first time, she went to Burning Man, the annual week-long celebration of self-expression and communal arts in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. “My American publisher convinced me to spend the week there, in the desert. I was a little puzzled at first, but I’m so glad I went. It was really exciting to be part of that!” Nothomb’s novels, packed with weirdos and obsessions, clearly fit right in with the radical bent of the Burning Man event. And who knows? The experience might turn out to be another source of inspiration for this decidedly different Amélie.
Une Forme de Vie, Albin Michel, 168 pages, €15.90
Three by Amélie
Hygiene and the Assassin (Hygiène de l’Assassin): The author’s first novel, this brilliant, morbid tale centers on a Nobel Prize-winning author named Prétextat Tach, famed as a racist, obese and reclusive old man. When the world learns he’s dying of a rare form of cancer, journalists rush to his side for an interview. The first four leave in minutes, savaged by the author. But the fifth one, a young woman named Nina, unearths long-hidden secrets about Prétextat Tach’s past. Dark humor at its best.
Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblements): Based on Nothomb’s own experience in Tokyo, this highly successful comic novel recalls her martyrdom in a Japanese corporation. Hired as a translator for a year, the main character—named Amélie—is stunned by the fierce and violent business culture she encounters. Though fluent in the language, she soon discovers that, however honest and dedicated she might be, she’ll never be welcomed by the local employees. A fascinating study of the clash of cultures, Fear and Trembling is still, more than anything, a great work of humor.
The Character of Rain (Métaphysique des Tubes): The Japanese believe that children are gods until the age of three, at which time they “fall” and become human. From this ancient belief, Nothomb draws a witty portrait of early childhood, depicting her first three years as a “tube,” breathing, eating and excreting. But when she grows older—and discovers white chocolate—young Amélie sees her conscience awaken and realizes that paradise will be lost. Exquisitely written, this original “story of the fall” distills the joys and pains every child goes through before becoming fully, and sadly, only human.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of France Today