I am constantly trying to drag Amélie Nothomb into the popular consciousness of the anglophone world, but alas, my reach is limited and my puny efforts have not availed me of much success. That does not mean I–a sucker for lost causes–will give up!
I first read Ms. Nothomb’s Stupeur et Tremblements, which had received a prestigious French literary prize, when I was 17. Right away I fell in love w/ her outlandish statements and acerbic observations. She went off on tangents that were at once charming and absurd and profoundly moving. Shortly afterwards I finished her Hygiène de l’assassin, which I still consider to be one of the best books I have ever read. Unfortunately, the English translation is not terribly good, which is something of a literary crime, if you ask me. I felt so strongly about it, in fact, that a while ago I undertook my own loving (and undoubtedly illegal) version, using the strategy employed by my favorite translators, the husband-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya. It’s a rather intensive process, and involves first making a semi-literal translation, and then going back over that and tweaking the phrases so that they 1) remain true to the author’s meaning while 2) fitting gracefully into their new language. Anyway, I only got through the first four chapters, and now all that work was lost in some HD incineration yrs. ago, so I doubt I’ll be pursuing it again any time soon (although we’ll have to see how much time I have on my hands while in Mauritania). Anyway, it was while reading Hygiène de l’assassin that I first encountered Nothomb’s ideas about love, which seemed cynical to the point of being nihilistic. I encountered many of the same views again in my recent reading of her book Mercure. They’re summed up rather succintly in this quote:
“Dès que l’on aime vraiment quelqu’un, on ne peut s’empêcher de lui nuire, même et surtout si l’on veut le rendre heureux.”
“As soon as we love someone, we cannot stop ourselves from destroying her, even and especially if we want to make her happy.”
In most books and stories about romance, the two lovers are at the forefront. They are the protagonists, and everything revolves around their love. In many of Nothomb’s novels, on t’other hand, les grands amours are recounted through the eyes of a dispassionate 3rd observer: a young(ish), beautiful and (above all) eminently pragmatic woman whose romantic experiences have left her enlightened but lukewarm. This is probably for the best, b/c–as far as Nothomb is concerned–to be subject to the intense love of a man is equivalent to being handed a death sentence. It’s a terminal prognosis, a pending execution.
Hygiène de l’assassin begins with the imminent death of Prétext Tach, a celebrated author, of whose many grotesque and titillating books, only one was ever “inachevé.” On his deathbed, the famously reclusive author at last agrees to be interviewed by journalists keen for answers from the the mysterious writer. Prétext–like so many of Nothomb’s great lovers, who also include Captain Loncours and Épiphane Otos–is grotesquely ugly. He’s enormous, obese almost to the point of paralysis, and also extremely vulgar and offensive.
M. Tach takes a certain relish in frightening away his would-be interlocuters, until one day a woman arrives at his doorstep. This woman is not just any journalist; she has sussed out secrets that M. Tach has long since buried and presumed forgotten, and is here to confront him w/ his past. Thus, bit by bit, the sordid tale of an incestuous love emerges.
When he was 14, Prétext lived on a secluded, edenic estate, a sort of twisted version of Burnett’s Secret Garden. His young cousin Léopoldine was 12, and under the noses of their unsuspecting parents, they had an affair (with all its implications). The day of her menarche, the exquisitely beautiful Léopoldine is murdered by her cousin, who he claims never regretted his crime, but nevertheless went into hiding b/c of it, changing his name and deliberately disfiguring himself through engorgement.
To me it seems that Nothomb is taking a direct aim at the partriarchy’s unhealthy preoccupation w/ young, beautiful girls, and also the equally disturbing corollary that beneath their purported innocence lurks some lacivious harlot who secretly wants to be violated. This girl is a figure that emerges over an over again in countless novels, songs and movies; some immediate examples that come to mind are Of Love and Other Demons and, of course, Lolita. Inextricably tied to the motif of the beautiful, young virgin is that a woman is somehow defiled w/ age and maturity–or, in other words, the development of her own personality and resulting assertions of independence which lead her to try and escape her male jailer. Léopoldine has been cast in this role of perfection, and when she dares to step outside it, she pays w/ her life. Prétext perversely sees his act as one of salvation: he has spared his cousin the baseness of female existence which will inevitably end by her being ruined and abandoned by a man to whom she has given everything. As he says:
“Asservir, engrosser et enlaidir une malheureuse: violà ce que les êtres présumés de mon sexe appellent aimer.”
Permitting myself the liberty of acting as translator, I would render this as: “Enslave, impregnate and disfigure some poor woman: this is what beings supposedly of my gender call love.” (Note that English doesn’t really a good equivalent for “enlaidir,” which literally mean “to make ugly.”–Ed.)
So even w/o having to ask, M. Tach knew that his cousin would rather be killed, rather have him render her eternally pure.
I don’t have the book here w/ me as I write this, but I vividly remember Nathalie (the journalist) taking cruel pleasure in asking Prétext something like, “Do you know what the first thing a body does upon death?”
“It empties its bladder and intestines. The first thing your precious Léopoldine did upon her death was to shit and piss.”
M. Tach becomes quite upset at the thought of his cousin performing one of the most basic and essential of human actions: excretion. And indeed, it was another natural action, menstruation, that drove him to kill her. In the ultimate denial of her right to be a normal human being, he killed her for the sake of sustaining his fantasy, which grew to take precedence over the real, living girl.
A woman constantly feels the pressure of outside forces trying to impose some kind of category upon her, whether it be the media, or the males in her life who try to confine her (perhaps unintentionally) or fetishize her or REDUCE her into convenient roles that can’t even begin to contain her actual complexity; the complexity that–as a HUMAN BEING–she shares w/ all the members of my species. And they get angry if she somehow shatters their prescribed idea of her.
In Mercure, we are introduced to Françoise, a young, regal nurse who has been contracted to travel to a small island off the coast of Cherbourg in order to minister to an elderly sea captain. What Françoise soon discovers is that she is not meant to treat the captain, but rather his ward, the young orphan Hazel. The captain claims he saved Hazel after her ship was attacked (the story takes place some years after WWI) in a bombardement that killed her parents and left her horribly scarred. In order that she might not have to suffer from seeing her face, the captain has fastidiously divested his house of all reflective surfaces, including even sinks, in case Hazel should catch a glimpse of herself in a puddle of water. Françoise is subjected to searches upon her arrival to the island, and is warned by the captiain that she must not ask Hazel any questions, or else face grievous consequences. It also becomes apparent that the conversations between the two young women are being monitored, either by the captain himself, or one of his lackies.
After Françoise is caught trying to fashion a mirror out of the mercury in her thermometors, the captain takes her prisoner, keeping her in a locked room, and letting her out only to visit Hazel. For here is the cruel truth (and may I suggest you don’t read on if you don’t want “the big secret” of the book to be spoiled. H/e, even w/o my telling you, I think you will guess it before it’s officially revealed–I did.-Ed.): Hazel is NOT disfigured; she is in fact stunningly beautiful. The sort of beauty that makes you gasp and stare. The lecherous captain tricked her by lying to her and then giving her a hand-mirror cunningly made to twist the reflection into something monstrous to susbstantiate his claim. Moreover, Hazel is not his first victim. When he was a sailor in Guadaloupe, he kidnapped a lovely young girl named Adèle, took her to the secluded island, and held her there for ten years until she eventually committed suicide. He reveals all of this quite freely and aimiably to Françoise, who is quite literally his captive audience.
Françoise cleverly escapes in the dead of night, and returns to Hazel’s room, to try and convince her to run away. Hazel doesn’t believe her. She thinks this is an elaborate ruse designed to discredit Captain Loncours.
Now, allow me to digress from the main thread of the story for a moment, in order to draw your attention to the fact that an evil old man who convinces a gorgeous young girl she is ugly and powerless so that she will submit to his advances is a not-so-subtle metaphor for 1) our society at large and 2) abusive men. It is also a commentary about the destructive effect of beauty (something Galsworthy also explored w/ his character Irene). It may seem bizarre that Hazel defends this ravaged old man who rapes her regularly, but it is in fact utterly normal, b/c persuading herself that she loves him is the only way she can rationalize her existence, the only way she can mitigate the horror of what is happening to her and survive. Her predecessor did not succeed in this endeavor, and ended up killing herself. The captain’s excuse for these ignoble acts is the great love he holds for these women, pointing out that, “‘Thanks to me, Adèle-Hazel has the life of a fairy-tale princess. She was made for that, not to become some bourgeois vehicle of reproduction.'” To him, Adèle and Hazel are one person, the embodiment of a single ideal. They do not exist as seperate beings, but rather as manifestations of his desire. He dislikes Françoise, who makes her contempt and disgust for him clear. He tries to devalue her opinion by criticizing her intelligence, implying she is stupid and sub-normal.
Interestingly, Mercure has two endings, one happier than the other. I won’t reveal them here; suffice it to say that things end badly for the captain in both of them. And yet, in both cases that eventual justice does little to erase the damage of years of exploitation and abuse. Nothomb also points out that we women are also often complicit in our own suffering. Hazel is unsympathetic b/c she claims to feel something akin to love for her captor, rather than the revulsion that the reader and Françoise share. We must work to remind ourselves that it is not Hazel’s fault, that she was kidnapped and duped by a monstrous old man. We must activate our compassion, and it is difficult. It is difficult b/c we have been taught that the victim (a noun that is, not coincidentally imo, feminine in French) is somehow to blame, that she somehow wanted and deserved her mistreatment, which makes it admissable. Like so many other unfortunate girls, Hazel has been brainwashed, and not only has she been deprived of her freedom and her innocence, she has been deprived of her voice, her ability to tell her story.