Sept/Oct/Nov 2018

In My Feelings

Amélie Nothomb's oeuvre of big moods and obliterating encounters

Charlotte Shane


Strike Your Heart

by Nothomb

translation by Alison Anderson

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NO WORKING WRITER believes in the shattering power of an encounter—with another person, with a new sensation, with possibility—more than Amélie Nothomb, the prolific Paris-based Belgian who’s published a novel a year since 1992’s Hygiène de l’assassin (rendered in English as Hygiene and the Assassin, though a more accurate title would be The Assassin’s Purity). Her first book offered an impressive blueprint of what would define her subsequent work: arrogant, infuriating personalities; vicious character clashes; childhood love so obsessive that it bleeds out over an adult’s entire history; and philosophical declarations about war. (Nothomb’s fervent worship of “war,” used to describe any grand conflict, is as distinctive a signature as her actual name.) “My books are more harmful than war,” brags the author at the center of Hygiene, “because they make you want to die, whereas war, in fact, makes you want to live.” His demeanor is so provoking that it incites murder, which is another Nothomb theme. People are always destroying one another. She’s killed a self-named avatar off on at least two separate occasions.

At just over 150 pages, Hygiene is one of her longer efforts. She never dwells. “Many people accuse me of writing short books,” Nothomb told an interviewer in 2014. “I am encouraged to develop, to deepen. But I cannot help it.” (She claims, plausibly, to write three or four novels a year, and puts her current total at more than ninety.) She chases intensity, which requires dispensing with denouement. The murder in Hygiene, for instance, is given three lines, and the book concludes almost immediately after this climax. “It was quick and clean,” she writes. “Classicism never commits any errors of taste.”

Nothomb likes dramatic actions because they are the reliable outcome of emotional turmoil, but she is more interested in feelings than in consequences. She follows the thread of an emotion until that thread runs out or terminates in a knot. (While the murderer in Hygiene is at peace, the killer in book number four, The Stranger Next Door [1995], is not so lucky: “I no longer know anything about myself,” reads the last line.) Her characters are pure receptors of pleasure and, more often, agony; they morph and contort in reaction to agitation in the same way we imagine amoebas respond to stimuli: instinctually and helplessly. Her mercurial sensitivity reminds me of the most destructive Greek gods and goddesses, the ones for whom every challenge—inner and interpersonal—demands an outrageous, often violent, response. To be among other people, those ultimate stressors, is to live under siege, even when they don’t think they mean us harm. As Nothomb writes in Loving Sabotage (1993), “all periods of peace end in war.” And, “no one on this earth is indispensable, except the enemy,” because “thanks to the enemy, that unfortunate accident called life becomes an epic.”

Loving Sabotage is her second novel and first foray into autofiction. The plot revolves around a child’s infatuation with her classmate, set against a background of tribal clashes between kids of disparate nationalities, all of whom temporarily live in China, where their parents work. Young Amélie is a perverse savant, a glorious monster, too precocious by half and yet utterly winning. “If you could feel for me even one-tenth of what I feel for you,” she thinks to her beloved, “you would be glad to suffer, knowing the pleasure you bring me in doing so.” The authority and rhythm of her words are intoxicating, to the reader as well as to Amélie herself. “Everything seems awesome, especially me,” she says, eventually arriving at the insight that “the universe exists so that I can exist.” Nothomb gets away with grandiosity and melodrama because she is highly intelligent—and funny. “I remember very well the day I learned that I was going to live in China,” she writes. “I was only five, but already I understood the essential part, which was that I would be able to boast about it.” The book is ruthless, as wild and exact as a snakebite. It is still her finest work.

Nothomb’s subsequent autofiction—The Character of Rain (2000) and The Life of Hunger (2004), among others—replicates some of Loving Sabotage’s greatness, but it would be impossible to re-create its effect exactly. Every emotion Amélie feels is the most important emotion any person has ever felt. It is definitive, complete yet boundless. Her interior responses to the world suggest she is a god because they mark her as infinite, a being of inexhaustible—and therefore superior—depths. In The Character of Rain, Nothomb refers to her infant self as “God” for the first two chapters and retains the confidence even after dropping the device. “I felt deep sorrow for her,” Amélie says of a domestic helper who is like “the anti-Christ . . . the anti-me”: “How terrible it must have been for her not to adore me. . . . My other loyal followers radiated happiness.” In The Life of Hunger, she writes that her great appetite for bliss “seemed to me to be exactly what it was: a supremacy, a sign of election. . . . God was me in a state of pleasure or potential pleasure: therefore he was me all the time.”

Click to enlarge

Claire Tabouret, Makeup (curly hair) (detail), 2016, acrylic on panel, 24 × 18".

What I appreciate about Nothomb’s self-worship, and the way its requisite sensibility infuses all her fiction, is its recognition of the tremendous worth and clarity in what Americans, slanderously, still sometimes refer to as “feels.” There is dignity in feeling because there is selfhood in it; our emotions teach us about ourselves even if we don’t like what we learn. (She despises moods, which imply spineless inconstancy, but reveres emotions, which so often inspire deep commitment and investment.) Feeling and thinking are regularly pitted against each other in the Western world, conceived as antagonistic modes of being, but feeling is a sort of thinking. Emotions havecoherence and integrity. It’s not that feeling categorically lacks reason but that it lacks moderation.

This, for instance, is the god-child Amélie’s response to her mother telling her she’s drinking too much water:

I felt a tsunami of rebellion. Getting drunk on water was my mystical happiness, it didn’t harm anyone. . . . In a world in which everything was counted, where the largest portions still seemed to me to be subject to rationing, the only reliable infinity was water, an open tap over the eternal spring. I don’t know if my dipsomania was an illness of my body. I’m more inclined to see it as the health of my soul.

Nothomb’s women are governed by emotion, but are too proud, too determined, and too cunning to be dismissed as “hysterical.” “Your sister was crazy,” one husband tells his wife, who corrects him without pause: “No. My sister was fragile.” Only a woman would think to make this distinction; perhaps only a woman understands it.

NOTHOMB'S TWENTY-FIFTH published novel, Strike Your Heart, is a parable, so it makes sense that it reads like the voice-over of an animated fairy tale: spare, severe, with an archness that implies wit without quite achieving it. Mothers are villains, the most extraordinary children are orphans, and kindly strangers function like bumpers on a bowling lane, keeping catastrophes in check. The pacing is so impatient it verges on fitful, even for her. Months and even years are swept away in a single sentence. “The next day, the grandparents’ car was hit by a truck,” one typical passage reads. “They died instantly. Diane was at the lycée when she heard the news. She lost consciousness.” After a week in the hospital, Diane wakes to a doctor’s astonishment: “I’ve never seen someone react so violently to a death.” “My grandparents meant everything to me,” she explains. As the genre dictates, women must occasionally become comatose; familial comforts must be denied.

Diane is Strike Your Heart’s heroine, the preternaturally beautiful and gifted daughter of a vain and superficial woman who—click the “like” button if you can relate—realized she committed social suicide by giving birth at twenty, and consequently “felt nothing” for the child who delights everyone else. Because she’s so precocious, Diane recognizes her mother’s suffering by the time she’s four and vows to “become Queen, not out of personal ambition, but in order to hand the crown to her mother and console her for everything in her life that seemed so constricting.” The queen business is metaphorical, and the notion of Diane ruling anything is preposterous. She’s so compromised by her fixation on her mother, so consumed by her efforts to resist “foundering in the abyss” of her lovelessness, she can muster no true will to power. Instead, she’s forever searching for a way to bear her formative deprivation. When the aforementioned doctor informs Diane that a friend’s parents have agreed to raise her, she asks him, “Do you think my mother hates me?”

She soon seizes upon the idea of pursuing a career in which she can “pinpoint what was wrong and save human lives,” where her “suffering could serve to explore the suffering of her patients.” At medical school, she studies cardiology under Olivia, an assistant professor whose charisma masks wickedness. Olivia is not only an unscrupulous, vampiric careerist, but also a cold mother to her own little girl—one far less likable than baby Diane—and yet, we can gather, deserving of love nonetheless. Diane, in keeping with her noble pledge, steps in to care for the neglected child. Further tragedy ensues, which need not be spoiled here. The book won’t take a full afternoon to read.

Nothomb is at her best when she luxuriates in the crevices of an emotion’s rational irrationality, but Strike Your Heart never settles down long enough to excavate much of anything a character feels. (“Thoughts whirling, tumbling, racing,” reads one chapter’s painful opening.) It seems she cares less about Diane than she’s cared about her lovely leading ladies in previous parables, like Pannonique of Sulphuric Acid (2005) and Plectrude of The Book of Proper Names (2002)—both of whom are marked as deserving of obsequious esteem from their first appearances. (“We love and admire Pannonique,” one of Sulphuric Acid’s many nameless characters says, articulating the sentiment of practically everyone else in the book.) Nothomb’s attention to Diane is obligatory, automatic. Even her unexotic name indicates a sort of authorial fatigue; she’s a goddess, sure, but not an interesting one. Perhaps beauty and adversity are no longer a combination sufficient for inspiring Nothomb’s respect, which leaves Diane unloved by both her mothers.

When Nothomb writes about herself, or at least a version of herself, there is braggadocio but not falsity. When she writes more explicitly outside herself, without a tether of exhilarated self-scrutiny, the resultant allegory can feel flat. Pannonique and Plectrude and Diane don’t have the dimensionality of real people because that would be superfluous. Their stories only require they be gorgeous, with a masochistic sense of honor. (For Pannonique, that story consists of surviving a concentration camp created for a TV-viewing audience. For Plectrude, her central pains are rejection by a mother figure and a family history of suicide.) Nothomb’s autofiction doesn’t have much of a plot because it doesn’t really need it; the objective is to describe moments of extreme interior experience, not to unfurl a narrative. A woman has an important feeling could be an evergreen tagline, though “important” is probably redundant.

It may be unfair to evoke Elena Ferrante against Nothomb, yet given the coincidence of Loving Sabotage’s Amélie falling in love with an Italian girl named Elena, I cannot pass it up. The authors share a US publisher and an abiding fascination with female relationships. But Ferrante fuses character to plot, relying on the former to dictate the latter, while Nothomb tends to subordinate one to the other: her energy is either with a book’s characters or with its story, but not both at once. (No one could fault Ferrante for failing to “develop” or “deepen.”) Nothomb is interested in capriciousness and cruelty, and affinities so immediate they scarcely need, and perhaps can’t yield, explanation. “Her greatest ambition was to have the longest hair in the world,” Amélie says of her sister in The Life of Hunger. “How could I have failed to be madly in love with a creature who nurtured such noble plans?”

Strike Your Heart isn’t very good, but I think that’s OK. When a writer produces more than twenty titles, there are bound to be a few disappointments. Without the zest of narcissism, Nothomb’s writing can become wooden. No longer self-conscious about her self-aggrandizement, she abandons her humor and her eccentricities, and largely gives up plumbing the shameful bottomlessness of the ego, which is what gives her strongest passages their complexity. If I can be forgiven for stating the obvious, most of us care about ourselves more than we care about others, not because we don’t value others but because we’re stuck inside ourselves. We reserve a special energy for our own slights and connections that, at best, we can only intellectually imagine in other people: I know you have feelings, but I feel my feelings so much more!

“If literature doesn’t care for my suffering I don’t see why I should care for it at all,” says a character in Nothomb’s only play, Human Rites. She is a young woman in wartime, desperate to burn her professor’s library for warmth. “My war consists of being cold,” she tells him. Pain has revealed her or reduced her, dependin g on your point of view, into a creature that can only move in one direction: instinctually, helplessly, toward relief. “Do you think you’re the only one?” the professor asks her. “I don’t know,” she answers him honestly, adding the more important point: “I don’t care.”

Charlotte Shane is a frequent contributor to Bookforum and a cofounder of TigerBee Press.

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