Thursday, 19 February 2015

Amélie Nothomb and the size of things

Full title: Hygiene and the Assassin
Author: Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Attributes: 167 pages, paperback
Publisher: Europa (2010)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Amélie Nothomb’s propensity for oversized characters was made apparent from her very first novel. Hygiene and the Assassin, published in French in 1992, is a novel where larger-than-life is the predominant size. It features an obese writer stuck in his bedroom with only months to live and a secret story to tell to the person who proves to be equipped with the best pair of ears to hear his message and the best pair of eyes to read through his work.
Something else is apparent in Nothomb’s very first exercise in fictional virtuosity: her talent in conducting dialogue. The novel, written almost entirely in the form of dialogues between the writer, Prétextat Tach, and four journalists who interview him, shows a unique ability to move from speech line to speech line without falling into trivialities or syncopated silence gaps. This too, one would say, is a feature of the novel’s larger-than-life-ness, whereby the spoken word is brought to bear on the issue of oral eloquence as well as on that of writing genius.
“Writing begins where speech leaves off, and a great mystery lies behind the passage from the unspeakable to the speakable. The writer word takes over where the spoken word leaves off, and they don’t overlap.”
Prétextat, who has given the world a wealth of novels for which the world has loved him back with passion, has been issued this unwriterly task of confessing a crime he committed when he was in that tricky period between childhood and puberty. He is made to perform his confession not in writing but through speech. The interviews representing the bulk of the novel (Prétextat’s exercises in oral persuasion) reveal him as a complex creature, one capable of causing both disgust and pity.

In France, the novel has been successfully adapted for the stage. Source: TV5Monde
Moreover, he’s authored a novel that describes, in an exquisitely veiled manner, the very crime mentioned earlier. This book is also Prétextat’s only unfinished work. Bearing the title of Nothomb’s actual novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, this incomplete text has been circulating through the world of devoted readers without any of them having seen beyond its façade.
“When I told you that people read me without reading me! I can allow myself to stray dangerously close to the truth, and all anyone will ever see is metaphors. There’s nothing surprising about that: the pseudo-reader, clad in his diving suit, can swim perfectly impermeably through my bloodiest sentences. From time to time he will exclaim with delight, ‘What a lovely symbol!’ That is what you can call clean reading. A marvelous invention, very pleasant to practice in bed before falling asleep; it calms the mind and doesn’t even dirty the sheets.”
His readers’ myopia justifies Prétextat’s cynicism and, at the same time, offers him the perfect place to put his crime at rest: hiding it in plain sight.
Prétextat is a writer, and as a consequence of his profession he looks for order in the chaos of life. Where this order cannot be found he creates it out of nothing, “playing the demiurge.” This discovery offers Nina, the last and only successful interviewer, the opportunity to give the constantly-irritated and irritating novelist a slap across the face when she figures out his fundamental feature, that of making up realities in the name of a fiction that’s entirely his:
“I have caught you flagrante delicto under the influence of your profession, monsieur. Like any self-reflecting obsessive writer, you cannot stand the thought that there is no mysterious correlation between your characters. Genuine novelists are basically genealogists at heart.”
This play with creation is, perhaps, the central theme of the novel. Prétextat, who has been hiding the crime his entire life, built up a whole textual wall around himself. His very name, I’m sure, is significant. Notwithstanding the existence, in the sixth century, of a real Saint Praetextatus, bishop of Rouen, the name evokes this event that started it all: the writer’s first and fundamental fiction, the text that preceded his entire career. At the age of near-adolescence, Prétextat, a wonderkid by all accounts, had devised an entire philosophy of purity (“Don’t you understand that girls die the day they begin puberty?”), which will be the end of her beloved cousin, Léopoldine. This (the pretext of his entire career as a writer), the pre-text that stood before all his subsequent fictions, is what Nina, the strangely disinterested journalist, finds out. The only person to have read Hygiene and the Assassin properly, Nina is also the one who puts an end to Prétextat’s insolent and often boorish, misanthropic and misogynistic attitude towards all who pass their mere opinions on his work. His readers’ lack of understanding is all the more significant since Prétextat’s writing is plain, unadorned. Indeed, he is an outspoken enemy of metaphors (a feature which could be equally said about Amélie Nothomb herself):
“If you could just see things as a whole, the way I see them at the moment, you would understand. Metaphors were invented to enable human beings to establish a coherence between the fragments in their vision. When this fragmentation disappears, metaphors no longer have any purpose.”
The size of Prétextat’s art is, therefore, equal to this totalizing gaze that makes figures of speech useless. He, the fat writer, has gotten to the point of totality where fragments disappear behind the curtain of perfection. And that, to him and to many like him, means being successful in the art of fiction. It means, if you like, acquiring genius. End of story.