THE BOOK OF PROPER NAMES
Faber and Faber, 9.99
THIS exquisite novel, the UK dbut of Belgian/Parisian Amlie Nothomb, begins somewhat in the manner of Tristram Shandy. A hiccupping foetus causes homicide, then the suicide of the murderess, in whose womb the hiccups had occurred. Could this baby be anything less than a fable in waiting, a Gothic princess, a macabre Muse?
Indeed she could not. For a start, her proper name is Plectrude, which seals her fate as surely as Johnny Cash’s ‘Boy Named Sue’. She is adopted by her aunt, who lavishes "wild passion" on her; her hypnotic gaze makes other children cry, and she is nearly flung out of primary school until - by answering automatically to quick-fire questions - she flukes the designation of genius. After this, she is a model of surrealism ("a right angle is ninety degrees Celsius"), and a child with a strict aesthetic. Her willingness to court death in pursuit of the sublime becomes as mesmerising as her beauty.
At the starry ballet school of the Paris Opra, she finds the life she was surely born to: a regime of starvation, relentless toil, sadistic psychology and emotionless longing. She excels, and starves so brilliantly that she breaks a leg getting out of bed. Anorexia, here, is as richly metaphorical as it is shatteringly real. On the cusp of recovery, she is rejected by her aunt, who exorcises her own lost dreams by spelling out to Plectrude, in an act of supreme cruelty, the circumstances of her birth. Plectrude has no choice: what had previously been inscribed deep in her struggle with flesh and bone now becomes overt inheritance; so she, too, must give birth at 19 and then kill herself.
She doesn’t - but the elegant revenge she enacts on the circumstances of her own creation is far too satisfying to reveal. The novel is, in any case, shimmeringly resistant to synopsis, and the temptation to quote is overwhelming. Here is one ravishing aside, in Shaun Whiteside’s superb translation:
"...the fact that this insanity respects a code and an iron discipline does nothing to detract from the deranged aspect of the whole business: classical ballet is the set of techniques designed to present as possible and reasonable the idea of human flight. Consequently, why would one be surprised by the grotesque and gothic attire in which the dance is practised? Could one expect such a demented project to be adopted by people of sound mind? This lengthy interpolation is directed at all those who see the ballet as nothing but a source of amusement."
Amlie Nothomb is such an utter astonishment, the shock of reading her for the first time is like realising you have inadvertently missed a whole movement, or a century, in the scheme of things. Comparisons founder. We might invoke the heroines of Zazie in the Metro and Trop Belle Pour Toi, then proceed to Freud, Angela Carter and Švankmajer’s Alice in Wonderland, putting them all together with a Prokofiev score, yet still not coming close.
Only one question remains: after 13 novels, multiple prizes, bestseller status and translations into 30 languages, what on earth has British publishing been doing all this time, instead of bringing her to our attention?