And that evening, when she informed me that she was going to be doing a signing in a prestigious Parisian bookstore, and I congratulated her, I saw her begin to fume with anger. I tried to get to the bottom of it. Out it came:
“Those bourgeois booksellers ought to be paying the writers who come and waste two hours of their life signing books for them!”
“Now now, Pétronille, what are you on about? Booksellers already have a hard enough time as it is making ends meet. As far as a bookseller is concerned, they’re taking a risk, inviting an author to sign at their store, but for the author, it’s a gift!”
“You really buy all that, don’t you? You’re so naïve! I maintain that all work deserves a salary. To do a book signing without being paid puts you in a precarious situation.”
I was speechless.
“Hey, the tide’s gone out,” she complained, handing me her empty champagne flute.
“We’ve drunk the entire bottle.”
“So let’s kill another one.”
“No, I think we’ll leave it there.”
I had noticed that the more she drank the more she ventured into the far left of the left.
“What, only one bottle? You, Amélie Nothomb, with your apartment bubbling over with champagne? It’s obscene! It’s disgusting. It’s…”
“Making things precarious?” I suggested.
In late 1997, thirty-year-old rising literary star Amélie Nothomb moves to Paris. While there, she embarks on a search for a drinking companion—not just any old lover of liquor, however; Nothomb is in search of a partner whose adoration for champagne, specifically, matches her own. Hers is a love unbridled by proper etiquette or thoughts of what goes best with what—an obsession for the drink itself, no matter its source or vintage. To this end, she meets at one of her book signings a young woman named Pétronille Fanto. The two had been corresponding for some time—Pétronille is an academic and literary hopeful who has admired Nothomb’s career from afar. Upon meeting for the first time, Nothomb is immediately taken by the young, somewhat androgynous fan and invites her to join her in imbibing. Thus, a friendship is born.
Nothomb and Fanto’s relationship, however, is unconventional and segmented by large gaps of time and stark ideological differences—some rooted in politics (Nothomb is the daughter of a diplomat; Fanto the child of a proletarian upbringing), others in the ways in which authors function both within and outside of the traditional literary scene and with varying degrees of success. These differences in viewpoint form the crux of the narrative’s conflict, much of which has to do with Fanto’s suspicious nature. From the beginning she views Nothomb’s invitation to go drinking as a person belonging to the literati deciding to “slum it” for a night with a member of the working class:
“Are you going to start up with the class struggle and dialectical materialism?” I asked. “When I invited you, I didn’t know the first thing about your background.”
“Your caste senses these things.”
The narrator does eventually succeed in winning Fanto’s trust, to some extent, as the two rotate in and out of each other’s lives—as Nothomb continues to publish to expected levels of success, while Fanto’s tumultuous literary career begins in earnest. Gradually, as the two reconnect over and over again, Nothomb begins to see in Fanto a dissatisfaction and arrogance at odds with her own success, as Fanto’s views inch ever closer to the far left, to the point where nothing about being a creative satisfies her anger and frustration at the realization that she is indeed a part of a system she so despises, and has not managed to dismantle it from within or succeed in spite of it.
This dissatisfaction hits its apex when Fanto, having had enough of the literary world and all associated with it, embarks on a trip to the Sahara, which she travels on foot over the course of thirteen months. When she returns from said trip, her distaste for Parisian and literary culture is even greater than it was before she left. She sees, in her inability to survive solely off her creative output, the flaws inherent to the very industry she’s a part of: that it is not output or talent or even who one knows, but personality—that a personality as strange and untethered as Nothomb’s is that percentage of a percentage needed to truly stand out amongst all other creatives in an otherwise unforgiving field. It’s then that Fanto is forced to supplement her income, first as a pharmaceutical test subject, and then as a performance artist of sorts staging actual games of Russian roulette for a potentially unsuspecting audience.
Much of Nothomb’s output veers into the semi-autobiographical. Several of her books, including Fear and Trembling and Tokyo Fiancée, are fictions based in reality, with locations, characters, and cues pulled straight from the author’s life. Pétronille is different—while it is autobiographical in that it stars an author named Amélie Nothomb who has written and published books identical to what’s detailed within the text, the novel feels more deliberately existential than some of the others of this ilk, with its titular character, potentially, an entirely fictitious construction meant to externalize a facet of the author’s personality. For the most part, this existentialism is kept to a minimum, with the author occasionally remarking on difficulties faced in her career, such as the time she was accused of plagiarism or the hostile response received by her novel Sulphuric Acid. It’s in this novel’s close, which I will refrain from spoiling, where the existential subtext is made text and an act of performative aggression becomes the author’s undoing as Fanto, whom Nothomb was fascinated by for so many years, is revealed as the stark underside of the frivolity to which they’d celebrated in so many instances—a gloriously disgruntled down note criticizing artistic identities inherent, constructed, and stolen.
It’s of some curiosity as to whether Pétronille Fanto, or some version of her, ever existed in the first place. From her introduction, Fanto’s appearance seldom changes—she almost always resembles that of a fifteen-year-old boy, even after more than a decade has passed. As the story progresses, more and more she appears the voice of Nothomb’s doubts as to her own writing and success. This is driven home in sequences such as when Nothomb goes to London to interview dame Vivienne Westwood and is met with an obstinate, disinterested subject who would sooner have Nothomb walk her dog for her than entertain any one of the author’s questions. In the aftermath of this unfortunate meeting, Nothomb calls Fanto and offers to pay her way to London—seeking Fanto as if she were a switch the author flips to silence whatever questions she might have regarding her worth.
In many ways, the novel’s thesis is isolated in a motto ascribed to both Christopher Marlowe and the titular Pétronille: Quod me nutrit, me destruit (That which nourishes me destroys me). Nothomb writes about her career and the literary scene into which she has inserted herself as a nervous child might discuss a popular group into which they’ve been drawn yet still feel isolated from. In Fanto, she’s given her doubts and loneliness a name and a career all its own, one that directly questions and confronts her own concerns toward the Paris literary scene and its aggressively bourgeois leanings. In Pétronille, the author finds new ways in which to strip her skin for the audience, revealing increasingly personal depths—something that she continues to do seemingly effortlessly, and with exceptional skill.