A couple of years ago I finally read one of Amélie Nothomb’s novels, something I’d been looking forward to but had been putting off. The novel was one of her most recent, Life Forms, and I was delighted by it. I didn’t know what to expect, but I quickly came to appreciate Nothomb’s brand of precocious humor, which is often employed to explore manipulative or destructive relationships. In Life Form, it was the relationship via mail between “the author” (Nothomb writes it as if it really happened to her, and maybe some of it did) and Melvin Mapple, a U.S. soldier stationed in Baghdad. In her latest, Pétronille (2014; tr. from the French by Alison Anderson, 2015), “the author,” let’s call her Amélie, is back to examine her odd, slightly threatening, relationship with another author, Pétronille Fanto, from the earliest days of Amélie’s literary fame until the present day.
The book begins in 1997 when Amélie had just moved to Paris, a successful thirty-year-old novelist (just like Amélie Nothomb herself). Well, let’s step back. The book actually begins with a kind of hymn to drinking:
Intoxication doesn’t just happen. It’s an art, one that requires talent and application. Haphazard drinking leads nowhere.
As an art, it can help one reach new frontiers, but it also requires discipline and respect. Amélie is appalled by the conventional approach to this art:
Drinking and wanting to avoid intoxication at the same time is as dishonorable as listening to sacred music while resisting any feeling of the sublime.
Amélie seeks the sublime in alcohol, a state of transcendent inebriation that is not tainted or minimized by food or miserable company. Yet company, for her, is a requirement to reach that ideal state. She needs a drinking companion — or, because that word is “all wrong,” a comvinion — someone with whom she can attain the sublime.
One day in 1997, already feeling that her fame placed some barrier between her and most people around her, Amélie is at a book signing when she encounters Pétronille Fanto, a young woman in her early twenties, not yet published. Amélie had already created a persona for Pétronille because Pétronille had written her a letter, and it didn’t match the actual Pétronille standing in front of her. This is not uncommon, though it usually means there will be disappointment:
To go from an encounter on paper to an encounter in the flesh implies a complete change of dimension. I don’t even know if it emans going from the second to the third dimension, because perhaps its the opposite. Often when I meet the actual correspondent, there is a regression, and I lapse into platitudes. And the awful thing is that this is irremediable: if the other person’s appearance, for God knows whatever reason, does not match the loftiness of our correspondence, then our correspondence will never attain that level again. It is impossible to forget or to disregard. Or impossible for me, at any rate. Which is absurd, because there is nothing remotely romantic about these exchanges.
In this particular instance, though Pétronille is not the same person Amélie had been creating in her mind, they begin a tentative friendship. For Amélie, the friendship is instigated because she feels she has found the convinion she has been searching for. For Pétronille . . . well, we don’t necessarily know why she agrees to hang out from time to time with an established author. At times, in fact, she seems to resent the relationship, as inconsistent as it is over the years while each woman writes and publishes novels, Amélie’s commercially successful, Pétronille’s critically regarded.
Their relationship is sporadic, and sometimes years go by without any communication. When they get together, Amélie wants to drink and Pétronille wants to do something a bit crazy, sometimes making Amélie an uncomfortable bystander. Amélie may even find something familiar in a fan letter Jacques Chessex eventually writes to Pétronille: “When I spend time with you, I feel as if I am being devoured.”
While the book is always playful and seemingly random (indeed, I stopped at one time and told my wife that I had no idea why I find Nothomb’s work so compelling when it often seems to be frivolous), the tone does shift as we get to the end. There’s a sense of the real Nothomb playing with some of her own demons, and the conclusion put a fulfilling cap on an already interesting story.