Who’s that girl?

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Amélie Nothomb dresses entirely in black and gets up everyday
at four in the morning to drink vinegar and write novels. So goes
the hype. She is also France’s brightest literary star, the
bestseller in Paris and a gothic alternative to such books as
Three Blondes Go Dating from the depressing, fifthrate category
Chick Lit. Nothomb has tapped into a literary niche and very
comfortable it is too, I’m sure. Nothomb is the latest “enfant terrible”, according
to Ellemagazine, a literary sensation, with an “acidic yet
passionately romantic view of human nature”. You can’t
board the Paris Métro without encountering someone reading her
work. Her books, like their 5’2” creator, are tiny,
rarely more than a hundred and fifty pages long, which is ideal
for commuters. She has become part of pop culture in France, a
phenomenon with a cult following of fans, the Nothombophiles
– an intense group, who dress up as Amélie and write her
letters saying, “I am your double”, despite the
photographs, which show to the contrary they look nothing like
her. But mania is blind, a fascinating, crazed symptom of the
modern age. Publishing, like the record industry, is a
sensationalist business. From The Beatles to Harry Potter and
wizarding lunatics, fandom is part of our world. Nothomb is a perfect example of how popular culture and
publicity works. Firstly, she is a heroine, who has overcome a
stream of adolescent obstacles, from loneliness, to alcoholism,
though to anorexia. At the age of 17, she discovered writing and
Nietzsche, which apparently saved her. After reading the Twilight
of the Idols she was moved by the philosopher’s observation:
“In the school of war that is life, what doesn’t kill
you will make you stronger”. For the same reasons that
Michelle and Gareth won Pop Idol, Nothomb has made her name
– people love the David and Goliath storyline, in which the
weak, fat or stuttering individual conquers all. Secondly, she works hard. As well as the vinegar and early
morning starts, Nothomb has reeled off four books a year, since
the age of twenty and is currently working on her 51st novel. She
writes for ten hours a day, before going to her publisher’s
office and reading the crazed fan-mail, buzzing around on
approximately three hours sleep. In the Fame Academyof life, she
is the star pupil this week, with the limelight shining full beam
on her latest novel, her UK debut, The Book of Proper Names. The “slyly outrageous Nothomb both disturbs and
amuses” us in this coming-of-age fairy story that tells the
tale of “Plectrude”, who is born in a prison and goes
on to become a beautiful ballerina-cum-anorexic. In the end
Plectrude shoots her friend, Amélie Nothomb, in the head. This
meta-fiction/publicity stunt is in fact quite entertaining.
However, there is something about it which is intrinsically
French and impossible to read without imagining the ‘Môn
amour’ accent it was written in. Nothomb is part of the Zeitgeist, with her Tim Burton style
and dark, satirical wit – she belongs to the fashionable
genre of the obscure. Her personal history provides the ideal
backdrop for her surreal novels. She was born in 1967, in Kobe,
Japan and spent most of her childhood moving around Asia; she
never went to school, had no friends and taught herself Latin and
Greek. She claims she was an alcoholic by the age of three and an
anorexic by thirteen. All this strikes me as unreal, somehow
classically quirky, typically weird, the elaborate construction
of a marketing team. Parisian critics have described her as a
“Euro- Exotic cocktail”; however, she also moulds
herself to what she writes. The Book of Proper Names is more
interesting when you know that it was written at four in the
morning, by a weird little person dressed in a black, under the
influence of vinegar. However, Nothomb is not alone in her use of publicity magic;
the art of madness has been mastered by many aspiring artists
seeking fame. The Romantic poets cultivated a reputation of
living in a radical commune, smoking copious amounts of opium and
having casual sex, occasionally appearing at intellectual soirees
on the point of collapse. Byron, an unattractive, club-footed
little man who sat up all night eating biscuits and crying,
managed to spread the rumour that he was “mad, bad and
dangerous to know”. Staging publicity stunts is an old and
profitable trick of the art world, as Salvador Dali would know
only too well. So, why do we still fall for it – Amélie Nothomb: the
Parisian princess of darkness? Despite Nothomb’s miserable
history, her life is surely all parties, luxury apartments, fast
cars and stylists now? Do we seriously believe that a Goth can
remain truly Gothic after millionaire success? Surely a bit of
the gold would rub off on her personality. But this is part of
the attraction and fascination in our fameobsessed culture and we
buy into it all – even the idea of Nothomb floating around
in her Olympic pool wearing a black Victorian ‘bathing
costume’ and top hat.ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2004 

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