Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb

I always enjoy reading Nothomb's novellas. Each one has enough quirks interspersed throughout to keep the eyes moving and the mind traveling toward the magnetic pull of the final page. And there is usually a certain magic about them, not magic realism, but a charmed realism.

The Book of Proper Names is imbued with this charmed realism. About a beautiful slender dancer with a tragic past and a bizzare name, it tells the story of Plectrude's childhood and teenage years right up to the first blush of adulthood: first best friend, first love, first child. Though the final scene is abrupt and contains a cute riff on the "author's dead" trope, the novella as a whole fits together well. Like a good novella should, it reads quickly and uses its minimal space for maximum impact.

Nothomb's novellas often include autobiographical underpinnings; although the main character is Plectrude, we sense that it's just another mask for Amélie. The narrator of her novellas usually has the perspective of a child of around ten. Even though Plectrude (or any other Nothombian character) ages, the narrator in a charmed realism story must see the world as a ten year old:

Ten is the most sunlit moment of growing up. No sign of adolescence is yet visible on the horizon: nothing but mature childhood, already rich in experience, unburdened by that feeling of loss that assaults you from the first hint of puberty onward. At ten, you aren't necessarily happy, but you are certainly alive, more alive than anyone else.

This ten year old perspective is leavened with a bit of the if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now authorial tone. And even if the character isn't ten, or doesn't age, the same tone will still be found. In Fear and Trembling, the main character (in another nod to autobiography, this one is named Amélie) is a stranger in a strange land who must live in a language environment that is quite foreign to their native one. Anyone who can speak a second level to at least the level of a common ten year old will know what a charmed life it is.

Nothomb uses the novella to describe herself and her view of the world. And so we read her novellas as a species of roman à clef. The actual experience in each scene may be fictionalized, but somehow her real life experience is felt lurking behind the fiction. Like the Wizard of Oz, whose real name was behind the curtain, Amélie Nothomb uses characters' names to distract from the author behind the page. And when we get to the final page and turn to the author's photo inside the back flap, we don't really care what about her real name or even if the events were actually real. Through her storytelling and odd characters and settings, we're charmed. And that's a real as we need in a novella.

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