"Her sparse autobiographical fiction has seen Amélie Nothomb rise to the top of the French literary ladder. Always a figure of alienation, her writing has taught her she's not alone." (Interview with Richard Lea)
from The Guardian
'The only discovery of life is time' ... Amélie Nothomb.
It takes me a while to recognise the short, dark-haired woman who comes to fetch me from the lobby at the publisher Albin Michel. She advances towards me with a smile, shakes my hand and asks if I'd like to follow her to the office we'll be using for the interview. There's something about the way she says "we" which troubles me. Amélie Nothomb may be a massive star in the French literary firmament, but I never imagined she was the kind of star who would insist a PR should stay in the room during the interview. Surely my suggestion that Nothomb should read some of her work for the Books podcast, a suggestion politely declined well in advance of our meeting, was not so outrageous that she feels the need for this chaperone. It is only when this pale, neat woman composes herself for the start of the interview that I am finally sure she is no PR, but is in fact the person I have come to meet.
In the flesh, the prize-winning Belgian novelist looks nothing like the striking portrait on the front of her latest bestseller, Tokyo Fiancée
- bright white cheeks and scarlet lips peering from behind the blade of a Japanese sword - nor the wide-eyed younger self on the front of the latest French edition of Fear and Loathing. Neither is there much of a resemblance to the face of the surprised toddler which stares from the front cover of The Character of Rain, nor the high-contrast author photograph which adorns the back. None of which would be of any importance were it not for the fact that for nearly a decade, Nothomb has found her greatest success by putting her own life under the lens, fashioning episodes from her early years into short, pungent, autobiographical fiction.
Fear and Loathing, awarded the Académie Française prize in 1999 and skilfully filmed by Alain Corneau in 2003, tells the story of the year she spent working for a big Japanese corporation, following Amelie-san's catastrophic encounters with the company's hierarchy. The Character of Rain, first published in 2000, reimagines the author's early years in Japan, charting her transformation from an unresponsive piece of living matter to the beloved focus of the household. Tokyo Fiancée, which won the Prix de Flore at the end of last year, returns to the same period of her life as Fear and Loathing, but this time tells the story of her love affair with a young Japanese man.
Writing about an episode of her own life allows her to "conquer herself", she says, quoting Virginia Woolf's dictum that "Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded" with a quiet formality which has something of the schoolmistress about it - or perhaps something of her upbringing in the East.
"Of course you have memories," she continues, "and these memories are convincing. But it's really at the moment when I write them down - when I write about my relationship with that Japanese boy in Neither Eve nor Adam - that they reach a degree of reality which is incandescent, that I've really conquered a story, understood it and feel that it is really part of me." Often she has no opinions about an experience until the process has begun, she explains. "It's while writing that suddenly a point of view appears: 'So, that's what I really thought about this thing'. Then it feels part of me."
Life for Nothomb is divided into brightly-coloured regions she has written about already, and uncharted territory which she has yet to explore, though she insists this peculiar split hasn't affected her way of life. "Luckily I haven't fallen into the trap, which has claimed so many writers, of living from day to day thinking 'Ah, I'll write a book about that'." The intimate details which more and more French novelists reveal in their work are far beyond what Nothomb describes as the "natural" limits to the terrain of autobiographical fiction. She widens her eyes and puffs out her cheeks, shaking her head as she declares herself "horrified" by writers who seem almost to have begun a love affair "just to write about it", "shocked" by those who choose to write about their sex lives. "There's nothing [in my autobiographical fiction] which could wound the people involved."
Nothomb's autobiographical fiction is further constrained in time, dealing only with her life before the publication in 1992 of her sensational debut, Hygiene de l'Assassin (The Assassin's Purity). Since then she has gone on to become a fixture of the French literary calendar, publishing one bestseller a year, as regular as clockwork. This formidable track record has gained her legions of adoring fans, and an army of envious detractors, but her success has yet to find its way into her fiction. Her literary digestion is very slow, she explains, and her life after the age of 25 "doesn't inspire me".
Sixteen published novels represent only a fraction of her prodigious output, however. Nothomb declares herself to be in the middle of her 64th manuscript, having reached a rhythm where she completes three or four manuscripts a year, publishing only those which she feels comfortable sharing with others. She describes her writing as being guided completely by instinct, saying she becomes "pregnant" with a book and must deliver it, no matter what. Publication isn't her main reason for writing, it's a side-effect of a drive to write which she does not fully understand herself. After so many manuscripts she says she knows "what not to write", but every new book begins with a moment of "great anguish, of madness", a nervous terror which is getting worse and worse.
"If I get the opening wrong, it will be completely ruined," she explains. "I've noticed it a lot. I'm not someone who revises. It's always the first movement, it's that," a neat turn of the hand. "It's an instinct. Either it works straight away, or it won't ever work."
Despite her insistence that she works by instinct, Nothomb dismisses the idea that writing comes spontaneously, that there's no need to learn how to write. She began writing at age 17, and spent four or five years, and four or five novels finding her literary voice. It's a direct voice which stands apart from much of French letters, refreshingly clear, almost brusque in comparison to the easy elegance of so many of her contemporaries.
"I have my own manner, which, right or wrong, seems very recognisable," she says. "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."
She's always considered herself to be an outsider, though less so since publication. "Before I had this feeling everywhere, with everybody," she says, "I felt marginalised by the whole world. Whereas since I've been published, at least I'm not marginalised by my readers, and since I have a lot of readers that limits how much I can be marginal." Many of her readers identify strongly with her characters, she continues. It seems that the feeling of being marginal is very widespread. "There are many of us outsiders."
Now she feels much more of an outsider within her extended family. "In a family like mine a woman marries and has children," she explains. "Perhaps she might work, but that's very much on the side - the most important thing is marriage, children. Whereas with me there's no marriage, no children, and on the other hand, lots of books. They look at me and say 'Oh la la, there's something not right.' As the years go by, of course, it gets worse and worse." Success is not always easy, she says, though "the opposite, 'un-success', must also have a cost".
A similar pessimism infuses her fiction, where time passing always brings loss rather than growth. She confesses to a "tragic conception" of time, finding it "impossible to imagine that it could bring progress".
"The only discovery of life is time," she says. "It's life's true reward - the only thing which is not a loss - the discovery of time, the effect of time, the sensation of time, time passing, and the effects which time produces on yourself and others which are fascinating," she continues, her thin voice rising emphatically. "That's the only dimension which the imagination has absolutely no chance of recreating, and which is amazing to see."
These sombre reflections are quickly dispelled by a brief discussion of the various ways in which a writer can confront reality - according to Nothomb, "the great mission of the novelist". She suggests her sparse descriptions owe something to the Eastern manner of drawing with a single stroke, but cannot imagine writing in any other way. Writing, for Nothomb, is a thoroughly natural act. "That's why I call my books my children," she continues, "these are real pregnancies. It's impossible to become pregnant against nature. I adore the descriptions of Flaubert, of Balzac, but for me to write them would be against nature."
Confident, witty and courteous with a quick intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and the assurance brought by continued success, it is all the more puzzling that Nothomb should be unwilling to do a brief reading. She modestly suggests that she isn't gifted as an actress, and cites the difference in literary cultures between England and France, where writers seldom perform their work in public. But the real reason for her refusal is a question of identity. Her literary voice is so vibrant, so baritonal that on first meeting, her light, airy speaking voice comes as something of a surprise. It's a curious mismatch of which she is only too aware. If she was to read her own work, she says, she would betray it.