Interview with Amelie Nothomb
The Winter issue of Tin House is now available, and includes an interesting interview Heather Hartley conducted with
French Belgian Japanese cosmopolitan writer Amelie Nothomb. Hartley’s intro does a great job in pointing out the huge difference between Nothomb’s popularity in the States (despite being published by New Directions, Picador, and Europa, she’s relatively unknown) and her cult-like popularity in France.
Every year since the 1992 publication of her award-winning first novel, Hygiéne de l’assassin (forthcoming in English, as Hygiene and the Assassin, from Europa Editions in Fall 2010), Amélie Nothomb has published one novel a year, brought out in high style each September during la rentrée, when the most sought-after books appear on the French market. Her publishing house, Albin Michel, opens its season with her book launch. Her novels have been translated into over thirty languages, including eleven in English, and her awards include the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, the Prix René-Fallet, the Prix Alain-Fournier (twice), the Grand Prix Jean-Giono, and many others.
She’s a phenomenon in France. In the tradition of Dead heads, groupies called “les Péplautes” (their name derives from her 1996 novel, Péplum) devote a good portion of their lives to following Nothomb from reading to reading, attending her lectures, and keeping up with the latest details of her peregrinations. But Amélie Nothomb is not French. The daughter of Belgian diplomats, she was born in Kobe, Japan, and spent a large portion of her childhood abroad in China, Laos, Bangladesh, Burma, and back in Japan. Many of these experiences are an integral part of her novels.
And since Tokyo Fiancee is a 2010 Best Translated Book nominee, it only seems fitting to quote this part of the interview:
Heather Hartley: In Tokyo Fiancée, you write, “the worst accidents in life are linguistic.” You play on the double meaning of the word “maîtresse” [which in French can mean either “teacher” or “mistress”], the Japanese notion “to play” [very different than the French literal meaning of “jouer,” to play], and the difficult, absolutely inescapable concept in French of “you”: the informal tutoiement or formal vouvoiement. What is born in the parenthesis between a misunderstanding and the right word?
Amelie Nothomb: Nothing is more difficult than finding le mot juste. And in fact contemplation and reflection are not enough.
[In Tokyo Fiancée,] what happens between the first major misunderstanding—the marriage proposal [regarding the two protagonists] that ends up in a huge misinterpretation—and the end of the book [where the two meet up in very different circumstances], is time. It took seven years between these two events.
Nothing replaces the work of time. The biggest discovery in life—and I’m speaking of life in the sense how we live it every day, where each one of us might live, let’s say, maybe eighty years—the biggest discovery in life is time.
Time can appear at first to be the principal enemy. When you’re young, you understand that time is going to go by, pass in front of you, through you. That it will destroy you, destroy your childhood, the things important to you. And it’s true that time destroys a tremendous amount of things. And to survive this is very difficult.
I remember when I was fourteen I declared that time was the worst enemy of all. And that . . . well . . . and that now, looking down from the heights of my great age, I don’t think it’s as easy as that. Yes, time is an enemy, but it is not just the enemy, time is the main, essential discovery we can make in our life, beginning with the moment where you discover this other dimension of it.
You know who your friends are after twenty years. It takes twenty years of friendship with someone to know the worth of friendship. And this, nothing can replace. Not even the most beautiful words or the most important promises—all of that is worth nothing. It is only time that can say if it’s a true friendship.
So what enables you to find le mot juste is time.
HH: Mark Twain said, “humor is tragedy plus time.”
AN: Brilliant! That’s exactly it.