17 June 08 | Chad W. Post

Michael Orthofer from Complete Review is responsible for getting me interested in Amelie Nothomb. He’s reviewed twelve of her books, grading all of them between a B and an A. (Most are in the A or A- range, with Loving Sabotage—published by New Directions—receiving an A+.)

Unfortunately, despite this praise, Nothomb has been overlooked in America, and in fact, her last few books have only been published in the UK and not in the U.S.

And to add to that—this interview, which is in one of the UK’s largest and most respected papers, doesn’t seem to be tied to a recently released or forthcoming title . . . I feel like I must be missing something: why would a newspaper interview a literary author (especially one from Belgium) without some pressing cause? Those Brits and their literary coverage . . .

The interview itself is pretty fascinating, starting with the autobiographical elements in her work (and the way this is limited):

Fear and Loathing, awarded the Académie Française prize in 1999 and skilfully filmed by Alain Corneau in 2003, tells the story of the year she spent working for a big Japanese corporation, following Amelie-san’s catastrophic encounters with the company’s hierarchy. The Character of Rain, first published in 2000, reimagines the author’s early years in Japan, charting her transformation from an unresponsive piece of living matter to the beloved focus of the household. Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, which won the Prix de Flore at the end of last year, returns to the same period of her life as Fear and Loathing, but this time tells the story of her love affair with a young Japanese man. [. . .]

Nothomb’s autobiographical fiction is further constrained in time, dealing only with her life before the publication in 1992 of her sensational debut, Hygiene de l’Assassin (The Assassin’s Purity). Since then she has gone on to become a fixture of the French literary calendar, publishing one bestseller a year, as regular as clockwork. This formidable track record has gained her legions of adoring fans, and an army of envious detractors, but her success has yet to find its way into her fiction. Her literary digestion is very slow, she explains, and her life after the age of 25 “doesn’t inspire me”.

And if you think a “bestseller a year” is impressive, that’s nothing:

Sixteen published novels represent only a fraction of her prodigious output, however. Nothomb declares herself to be in the middle of her 64th manuscript, having reached a rhythm where she completes three or four manuscripts a year, publishing only those which she feels comfortable sharing with others.

She’s the Joyce Carol Oates of Belgium! (Although with fewer annual publications, of course.)

I also got a kick out of her refusal to read for The Guardian books podcast:

Confident, witty and courteous with a quick intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and the assurance brought by continued success, it is all the more puzzling that Nothomb should be unwilling to do a brief reading. She modestly suggests that she isn’t gifted as an actress, and cites the difference in literary cultures between England and France, where writers seldom perform their work in public. But the real reason for her refusal is a question of identity. Her literary voice is so vibrant, so baritonal that on first meeting, her light, airy speaking voice comes as something of a surprise. It’s a curious mismatch of which she is only too aware. If she was to read her own work, she says, she would betray it.

This interview has convinced me to go pick up some of her other works (and to have Open Letter check out a few of the untranslated ones) after 2666, Senselessness, etc., etc.


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