Sweep the bookcase that surrounds my Victorian living room with your eyes and then, you know.
J’aime Amélie Nothomb.
Her dark, charismatic characters, whom I always imagine brown-haired, pale, taciturn.
Her mysterious landscapes where children meet to die; her winding streets that wind through my imagination; her murderous dialogues, revealing human monstrosity.
In truth, I should title this article “Amélie in Majesty”!
And this passion for the Nothombian pen dates from her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin [in French: Hygiène de l’assassin].
Release date in France: August 28, 1992. I’m only 3 years old.
My first readings include the Goosebumps series, which will be the subject of a separate article, Camus, who taught me to read, and Saint-Ex, without whom I couldn’t dream.
“Too young for Nothomb”, replies without batting an eyelid the only bookseller in our beautiful Gers village.
So be it. I’ll wait.
My first years of school were punctuated by scraped knees during long walks in the countryside and an unquenchable thirst for learning.
My relatives, anxious to offer me an ideal education, enroll me in a municipal school which welcomes a dozen children. The setting, the teaching, even the canteen; everything is designed to promote absorption.
However, the very idea of having to spend more than ten minutes concentrating on my daily work seems hellish to me: I quickly become a master in the art of simulation.
If my grades turn out to be excellent and my temper always mild (I’ve always wanted to please, a fault that I find difficult to get rid of), our schoolmaster is not fooled: not made for traditional classrooms.
Gets bored; Escapes; Wastes herself.
He tells me one morning:
“So, you want to write, draw, sing, dance, live? For that, you will have to read. Read again and again.”
In fact, I have become a word addict.
Each week, he brings back about ten books from his personal collection; while my comrades are struggling to finish their math or collage work, I plunge my hand into his canvas bag and lay down on the floor.
Then, I devour.
I cover his entire children’s collection in a matter of a few weeks.
We conclude that it’s time for me to explore the paths of Classical Literature.
Besides, a secret; the unfinished song of little Gavroche with whom I fell in love remains to this day a traumatic moment in my life as a child.
Entry to elementary school: while at home I listen to Satie and study Bartók, at school I get to contemporaries.
The unthinkable happens; as I enter elementary school, on a hot September afternoon, my pianist’s fingers grip Hygiene and the Assassin.
The announcement of the imminent death of Prétextat Tach, Nobel Prize winner in literature, misanthrope and obese, arouses unprecedented enthusiasm among journalists around the world.
Few have the privilege of approaching the great man; the first four, betrayed by their incompetence and fatuity, are rudely dismissed: the first is singled out for his stupidity, the second, disgusted, flees the story of the ritual orgies of Tach, the other two do not escape the vexations orchestrated with jubilation.
Only Nina, through her perfect knowledge of the writer’s work, manages to face the contempt and sadism displayed by Tach; the two then engage in a duel with speckled foils, which will lead the writer to reveal himself and his surprising past…
The latter could be summed up in these terms: without Hygiene of the Assassin, I would not have become a writer.
This novel was decisive in my definition of horror; obviously, this is not a horror novel per se; however, her writing, both cruel and poetic, sublimates a work in which the author does not hesitate to explore the troubles and perversions of the human spirit.
Thus, reading Amélie Nothomb is like guilty pleasure: her themes, often disturbing, resonate with my own metaphysical questions; her protagonists, brought to light by fierce writing, turn out to be vile and cruel; her victims, sublimated by the narration, enter into immortality as martyrs.
MES FAVORITE QUOTES
– […] I’m going to teach you something that you probably don’t know, you female: no one –you understand– no one knows a person better than their killer.
– And if I told you things orally, would you believe me?
– I do not know. So give it a try.
– Alas, it’s not easy. If I wrote this moment, it is because it was impossible to say. Writing begins where speech stops, and this passage from the unspeakable to the sayable is a great mystery. Speech and writing take turns and never overlap.
– […] strangulation is the most directly manual kind of killing there is. Choking gives the hands an impression of incomparable sensual fullness.
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Now tell me: have you ever read Hygiene and the Assassin or any other work by Amélie Nothomb? How do you perceive the cruelty in her writing?
Looking forward to reading you,
Note: all translations from French to English are mine
Cover picture by John Everett Millais, Ophelia (detail), 1851-1852, oil on canvas, 76,2 × 111,8 cm (30.0 in × 44.0 in), Tate Britain, London.