Book Review: Pétronille (Amélie Nothomb)

Every so often there comes a slim book of sublime grace. This is quite definitely not one of those books. That accolade must go to another recent read (of which more detail in due course) and, with that connection in mind, a reader might reasonably find themselves then in search of something similarly beautiful in such scarcity of pages. Sometimes, the largely arbitrary choice of reading matter results in pleasant good luck; sometimes, however, the opposite is true. Pétronille (Europa Editions, 2015, translated from the original French by Alison Anderson) is, unfortunately, a shallow, vacuous, ego-driven and poorly executed work of little grace.

Amélie Nothomb sees it fit to name one of her two main characters as Amélie Nothomb, setting the reader on edge from early on. The eponymous Pétronille Fanto is, ostensibly, a younger fan of the former’s writing (Nothomb, the character, is also an author in the book). The character-author begins to develop a reversal of the fandom trope, following Pétronille’s attendance at one of Nothomb’s book signings. This, however, is merely a device to initiate the telling of the development of a friendship: a champagne-drinking partnership, which the author suggests she needs.

Thus begins the vacuity of sundry meet-ups over a period of almost twenty years, always swilling champagne: sometimes the focus is on the disparity of Nothomb, the acclaimed and socially accepted author, and Pétronille, the up and coming, edgy and socially unaccepted, young author; sometimes the emphasis is on apparent living life in the moment, risk-taking. Always, there is a growing sense of inauthenticity in the reader. Nothomb sprays around references to her own actual books within the text and, when read along with the links to the supposed books that Pétronille begins to churn out, and the works of other writers (along with clumsy quotations), this becomes a litany of amateurish execution.

Nothomb’s ham-fisted approach to referencing other writers, and publishers, mirrors her listings of various champagne names. She attempts, and fails dismally, to draw cogent regard towards matters of class difference. Pétronille’s parents are clumsily portrayed as communists (‘Fortunately, we still have Cuba!’ said Pierre) and Nothomb’s comments on social friction are tone-deaf and witless:

‘I was staring at her with the dumb admiration common to people of my sort when they meet a genuine proletarian.’

On description of trying to hawk one of Pétronille’s novels around publishing houses for her whilst she’s ‘travelling in the Sahara’, Nothomb writes of an editor character saying:

‘Why are you going to all this trouble for this Fanto woman? You know very well that in the literary world, people with a proletarian background don’t stand a chance.’

The suspicion then lurks that Nothomb is attempting another clumsy assault: this time on the business of being a writer. In other parts of the book, she makes use of Pétronille as foil to describe how most writers don’t get paid a great deal, or she details an uncomfortable (for her) scene in being asked to interview Vivienne Westwood for an article commissioned by a magazine. The thin ruse has no great depth within it.

Whilst in London for the interview, her first ever trip across the Channel, Nothomb adds plenty of casual xenophobia and tiresome stereotyping of the English to her growing list of writerly misdemeanours. She attempts to counter all of this with tales of eating fish and chips, disingenuously aligned, we can suspect, with an ‘eating like the common people’ thinking process. There is, in addition, the rather more suspicious claim to the idea that ‘the Nothomb family is of distant English extraction. They left Northumberland in the eleventh century and crossed the Channel . . .’ This, in short turn, leads Nothomb to the ridiculous and, one can only hope, attempted self-deprecation that is:

‘When the train pulled into Waterloo Station, I almost wept for joy. As I stepped out onto British soil at last, I felt like the queen of the ball. I was sure the earth trembled as it recognised the footstep of its distant progeny.’

Any semblance of potential character depth withers away very early on in the piece (Pétronille could have been somebody interesting) and the one-dimensionality of this aspect of Nothomb’s writing is matched only by the utterly pretentious stream of thinking on which it’s all fixed (‘And what an original way to celebrate your thirty-ninth birthday! Is it an allusion to Hitchcock’s 39 Steps?’). The only plot, in loose definition, might be seen in the shallow arc taken by Pétronille from feisty fan-girl turned writer herself to a falling apart into risk-taker (she takes experimental medicines to supplement her income and indulges in Russian Roulette). Nothomb info-dumps with flagrant disregard for the reader’s sensibilities (‘I’m looking out at Paris through the window: did you know that the Eiffel Tower is hollow?’ . . . ‘You’re confusing it with Kourou in French Guiana.’).

Before the mercifully short arrival of the denouement, a note must be made on the translation. It cannot be said often enough that there is no way of knowing whether poor word choice or syntax is the fault of the original author or the translator, but suffice is to say that examples such as the following renditions of grammar are entirely ill-conceived:

‘I would have liked to be similarly good company for someone.’

‘I would have liked to bury my face in the frozen treasure.’

Finally, then, to the denouement. Nothomb attempts a fantastic twist in the last few paragraphs. It only serves to add insult to injury, being entirely unsatisfactory, utterly flawed insofar as an integrity of internal logic is concerned, and executed with the by-now usual clumsiness expected of the author. On brief reflection, in attempting to bestow upon her work some degree of depth with her clever twist, Nothomb only succeeds in suggesting that, with such haste, she’s bored of her subject matter now, already thinking of what else she might churn out in the great litany that is her growing body of work (‘over twenty-three best-selling novels’ the sleeve notes inform, ‘a novel a year, every year’ since her debut).

Pétronille, the book, and Nothomb, as character and as author, on this evidence at least, are corked offerings best shelved or sluiced.

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