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On the Seawall: "Nothomb makes a virtue and a trademark out of brusqueness."

Date: Feb 18 2013

In 2009, the Pentagon reported that the number of troops diagnosed as overweight or obese had more than doubled since the start of the Iraq occupation – from 2% to 5% of those deployed. I’m guessing that the story, which ran in newspapers globally, was the trigger for LIFE FORM, Amélie Nothomb’s sly novella, the eighteenth of her twenty longer works of prose fiction. It was published as UNE FORME DE VIE in 2010.

Narrated by a widely read novelist named Amélie Nothomb, the story traces her correspondence with an American who identifies himself as Melvin Mapple, an infantryman posted in Iraq. They exchange letters for about a year beginning in January, 2009. By March, after engaging Nothomb’s attention through his critical assessment of George Bush’s war, Mapple reveals the core anxiety that caused him to cultivate the empathy the novelist:

I’m suffering from an illness that seems to be more and more common among the American troops in Iraq. Since the beginning of the conflict, the number of patients has doubled and is still growing. Under the Bush administration our pathology was kept hidden, because it was considered degrading for the image of the US Army. Since Obama, the newspapers have started talking about us … I am obese. And not by nature.

The resonance of LIFE FORM deepens as the speaker reflects on her letter-writing habits; she receives piles of envelopes in the mail. “As a rule, I’m not wild about lengthy missives. They are usually the least interesting kind. For over sixteen years I have been getting such a huge amount of mail that I have involuntarily developed an instinctive and experimental theory about the epistolary art. Plus, I have observed that the best letters are never longer than two two-sided letter size pages … [Mapple’s] letters were so fascinating that they did not even seem long. You could tell they had been written in the grip of absolute necessity: there is no better muse. I could do nothing but reply at once, contrary to my usual habit.”

My initial fear that the novel is a camouflaged anti-imperialist polemic quickly dissipated. Soon Mapple and Nothomb develop a strange mode of artistic collaboration: his body is regarded as a work of art and protest. The 400-pound soldier conceives of his extra bulk as a woman named Scheherazade living inside him. Nothomb replies breathlessly, “You are surfing a wave of artistic modernity.” She wants “the big shots of the body art world” to recognize Mapple as a notable contemporary.

Amélie Nothomb is a wildly popular writer among Francophone readers. Born in 1966 to Belgian diplomats, she lived in China, Japan, Laos, Burma, Bangladesh, and New York before finally returning to Europe at age 17. She claims to have become an alcoholic at age three while in Beijing, and a co-anorexic with her sister at age 13 while in Dhaka. Since 1992 when her first novel, HYGIENE DE L'ASSASSIN, was published to broad acclaim in France, she has published a slim novel at a rate of one per year. Her tersely phrased fiction often rescripts the frissons of her own experience, and the sparseness of description is influenced by the simplicity of Japanese brushstrokes. (These qualities are preserved in Alison Anderson’s fluent translations of her work.) Nothomb’s novel FEAR AND LOATHING, awarded the Académie Française Prize in 1999, is derived from a year she spent working for a major Japanese corporation. (A fine film version, distributed in 2003, was directed by Alain Corneau.) She has said that some of her novels’ concepts were developed through a ten-year correspondence with an Italian man she never met – which perhaps prefigured the fictional Nothomb/Mapple letters.

In the early parts of LIFE FORM, Mapple emerges as the more interesting character through the urgency of his letters. While speaking through her responses, Nothomb adds commentary which becomes increasingly reflective as the story proceeds. Her behavior as a letter-writer, not only with Mapple but in remembered episodes with others, points toward habits of control and managed degrees of closeness with others.

Something has to give, or give out, in her relationship with Mapple – and one of the charms of LIFE FORM is listening to Nothomb lag behind her naiveté. It is also perhaps the one weaknesses of the novel – that the reader senses what is actually occurring long before the narrator does, and that her incredulity isn’t entirely credible.

But the actual Nothomb makes a virtue and a trademark out of brusqueness – while her Nothomb-narrator’s inclination to find a similarly candid colleague in Mapple exposes the fault lines of both Nothombs. "I have my own manner, which, right or wrong, seems very recognisable," the writer told The Guardian in 2008. "There's a particular smell to my work - a smell which, by the way, I don't like very much - but it's a fact, it's the smell of my books. And I don't find this smell elsewhere."