Amelie Nothomb: From Tokyo to Manhattan

“Japan is perhaps the most important country of my life,” Amélie Nothomb said, sitting in a sidewalk café shortly before the opening ceremonies of the PEN World Voices Festival last week. She was born in Japan (her parents were Belgian diplomats) and lived there until she was five, but those early experiences stayed with her as the family moved to China, the United States, and on to several other nations: “I kept saying that I was Japanese, that one day I would go back to my country.” In 1989, at the age of twenty-one, she got her chance. “Two years later, I escaped after a professional catastrophe and a love disaster,” she continued; she wrote about her work experience in an autobiographical novel called Fear and Trembling published in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2007 that she published the book which was eventually translated into English as Tokyo Fiancée.

“I think it’s much more difficult to write about happiness than to write about any other subject,” Nothomb explained, “so I needed almost twenty years to be able to talk about it.” It took her far less time to digest the humiliation she endured at her job, where she’d eventually been assigned a position as a washroom attendant, than the good times she had with Rinri, a young man who originally hired her as a private French tutor. The scenes from their relationship in Tokyo Fiancée don’t always seem happy—his parents can be insufferably condescending; he invites all his friends to meet her, then vanishes into the kitchen and makes her fend for herself conversationally—and finally she realizes that he’s serious about wanting to marry her and she’s just as serious about not wanting to marry him. Still, she puts off telling him no because, as she writes, “to refuse would have meant breaking up, something I did not want.” She does enjoy his company, after all, and it’s only when the pressure to marry becomes too stifling that she flees to her sister’s house in Belgium.

It was in that house, recovering from both the relationship and the job, that Nothomb began writing her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin. “I did not know at all what I was doing,” she confessed. “It was a huge cathartic novel—ironic, cynical, cruel: much more cynical than what I write today.” In it, a reclusive Nobel laureate, learning that he is about to die, consents to a series of interviews, then proceeds to abuse and humiliate the journalists who come to his apartment, until one woman refuses to back down and forces him into a genuinely revealing conversation. (It’s all the more powerful a novel considering that long stretches consist of back-and-forth dialogue without even a he said or she said.) Hygiene was published in 1992, when Nothomb was only 25, and became a bestseller across Europe; since then, she’s averaged about a book a year, and though some of her earlier work has reached America in English-language translations before, in many ways it seems like the publication of Tokyo Fiancée and Hygiene by Europa Editions in the last two years has finally gained her a foothold among American readers, and her appearances at the PEN World Voices Festival hopefully boosted her profile a bit further.

Meanwhile, as we were getting ready to leave the caf&233; to do a brief video interview nearby, a French fan waved hello from a nearby table. Nothomb commented that the woman probably recognized her because of her top hat, one of several she’s been wearing in public appearances ever since she picked the first one out as a 30th birthday present to herself. “And if I want to go incognito,” she smiled, “I just take the hat off, and it’s finished.”

4 May 2011 | interviews |