24 July 2011

Amélie Nothomb: Robert des noms propres (2002)

In English this is The Book of Proper Names, but much is missed in the translation of this title.

At the age of nineteen Lucette and Fabien marry, although they have no idea what they're going to do with their lives. When she's eight months pregnant, Lucette fires bullets into the sleeping Fabien's head because she wants to protect her child from a commonplace name – Tanguy or Joëlle – that Fabien has decided on. In prison, after ensuring her baby daughter is baptised Plectrude, she hangs herself with a rope of torn prison sheets.

Lucette's older sister Clémence and her husband Denis then adopt the baby. Plectrude is loved by the whole family, which includes the slightly older daughters Nicole and Béatrice, who devour food and grow, whereas Plectrude eats little, and only her eyes grow. And it is her eyes that cause her to be rejected from nursery school, because they frighten everyone, almost as if she were a witch. She has no problems when she takes ballet lessons, though, as she is brilliant and loved by all.

When Plectrude begins her compulsory schooling, she hates it, and is only saved by Roselyne, a friend from ballet lessons. Later, a boy called Mathieu Saladin joins the class, and although Mathieu and Plectrude are in love with each other, they never exactly have the occasion to express it.

Plectrude is determined to make a career as a dancer, so goes to the Opéra de Paris boarding school, where there are echoes of the concentration camp (cf. Les saboteurs amoureux and Acide sulfurique), where she becomes anorexic, stops taking calcium, and eventually puts an end to any possible career as a dancer by breaking a leg.

Plectrude joins a theater group, but when she starts only reading Ionesco things become really absurd: like her mother, she gets pregnant (but through a casual relationship) and decides to commit suicide (but by jumping from the Pont-Neuf), although she is saved by the magical appearance of Mattieu Saladin, who shows her that there is life after attempting to get your leg over the Pont-Neuf.

The reader is spared a description of the years of bliss that Plectrude (now known as the singer Robert (not RoBERT)) shares with the musician Mathieu, but a character called Amélie Nothomb becomes a kind of sister to her, although she talks too much and must be dealt with, so the problem Robert and Mathieu have is 'Amélie, or How to Get Rid of It', which of corpse (sorry – couldn't resist it) is the central problem that Amédée and Madeleine have in Ionesco's 1954 play Amédée ou comment s'en débarrasser (Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It), which, as the narrator points out, is just one syllable different.

The book may end there, but not the background to the novel, which adds a fascinating dimension to it: the Robert dictionary books are an obvious link to the title, but more importantly the novel is a fictionalized biography of Myriam Roulet, better known as the singer RoBERT, who was a very close friend (like a sister) of Amélie Nothomb's for a number of years. RoBERT is a singer of songs often concerned – like a number of Nothomb's novels – with childhood and death (the latter actual or symbolic), with a mixture of the magical and the tragic. RoBERT is married to the musician Mathieu Saladin, and she (or rather Roulet) too began a classical dancing career that ended with leg trouble, and... I don't know. Did RoBERT's mother kill her father when she was pregnant with her? As RoBERT says (these being her only words in English) in an eccentric (how could it not be?) interview: 'That is the question'. Nothomb told RoBERT that she was pregnant with her, which is less bizarre than it sounds as 'pregnancy' is far from an unusual sensation authors experience when writing books. RoBERT also says that Nothomb took truths and mixed them around in the novel, partly to protect RoBERT. The four-minute interview is here.

RoBERT's album Celle qui tue (best translated as 'The Woman Who Kills') contains six tracks written by Nothomb, with the music by Mathieu Saladin: 'A la guerre comme à la guerre', 'Le Chant des sirènes', 'Nitroglycérine', 'Sorcière', 'Celle qui tue,' 'Requiem pour une soeur perdue'. It was released a few months after the novel, and it is rewarding to view both novel and album side by side: Nothomb (presumably only in certain respects) considers music to be a far more superior medium than literature, but is incapable of making music herself.

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