Thursday, 5 February 2015

The fictional epistles of Amélie Nothomb

Full title: Life Form
Author: Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Attributes: 144 pages, paperback
Publisher: Europa Editions (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Amélie Nothomb writes the kind of novels descriptive reviewers are ill at ease to write about. That’s not because of some insurmountable complexity but because the story line often takes abrupt and highly significant turns. Since these turns are essential to the understanding of her novels, one can’t just go on saying what’s happening there without committing the most terrible crime among book reviewers, the murder by spoiling. The fact is apparent in Life Form as well. I can’t say what happens in this book without giving away its most important events. So I better refrain and stick to the rich theoretical underlayer that forms the novel’s conceptual skeleton.
Life Form is a novel about reading and writing as much as it is a novel about fat people (one of Nothomb’s favourite character types) or a novel about war, deceit, and, why not, human condition at large. Structurally, it is a semi-epistolary text featuring a lot of anachronistic (let’s not forget we’re in the age of emails and social-media stunts!) hand-written letters. Amélie Nothomb is not only the author but also the narrator and the protagonist. That, in itself, would be enough to complicate things to a considerable extent. But wait, there’s more. In between letters and narrative episodes, Nothomb manages to plant reflective signposts that stop the text and the reader for a healthy bite of well-cooked theories of the business of writing. But because her prose is so self-referential and the universe she has constructed around herself as a writer and a literary persona so dynamic and intricate, it is often difficult to draw the line between what’s the author’s and what’s the character’s. At one point in the narrative, Amélie Nothomb, the protagonist, talks about her literary inceptions in the form of letter-writing.
“Already at the age of six I was forced by my parents to write one letter a week to my maternal grandfather, a stranger who lived in Belgium. My brother and my older sisters were subjected to the same regime. Each of us had to fill an entire letter-sized page addressed to this gentleman. He answered with one page per child. ‘Tell him what happened at school,’ my mother would suggest. ‘He won’t be interested,’ I retorted. ‘That depends on how you tell it,’ she explained.”

As the character makes clear a few lines further down, this was “the only period in my life when I have experienced the anxiety of the empty page.”

Amélie Nothomb. Source: Grazia
Knowing that Nothomb has been publishing one novel every year since the publication of her first, Hygiene and the Assassin (1992), this problem of the empty page (and the subsequent absence thereof) becomes, indeed, an autobiographical detail. But this is also a point where writing is regarded as an audience-orientated matter. The unknown reader who needs to be told the story well, the fixation on the task as painful but unavoidable – all this is, in a nutshell, what writing looks like from within, as well as from without. This is also a prelude to the love-story between Amélie Nothomb (the author and the protagonist) and the writing of letters. “Even when I like someone to the point of living with him,” she says a few pages later,

“I have to have him write to me, too: no connection seems complete unless it includes an element of correspondence.”

This trafficking of letters (of the alphabet) by means of letters (as epistles) is the central factor in Life Form. Without it, the plot would make no sense. Two characters writing to each other across continents, across worlds, and across mentalities, provide the perfect background for everything Amélie Nothomb has to say about scripts, inscriptions, and missives.
Making use of the topos of letter-writing, the novel also provokes some thoughts on the virtuality of writing in general. Amélie Nothomb and Melvin Mapple, the principal (and for the greatest part the only) characters are people hidden behind words. The protection offered by these words, however, is a feeble one. When they are peeled off and the characters show through as human beings, the virtual nature of their correspondence proves to have been a deceit, a fiction like all fictions. This is why Life Form reads so well as a mystery novel, where the reader finds surprises awaiting behind every corner: a text that deceives in the sense in which many works of fiction trick the reader into loving their promises.