15 July 2011

Amélie Nothomb: Une forme de vie (2010)

Perhaps only four or five of Amélie Nothomb's novels can be classed as what the French term 'autofiction', but all of them contain elements of her life - for instance, she really did, as mentioned in Une forme de vie (translated as Life Form), write this article in The New York Times 2 April 2009, in which she praises Barack Obama but criticizes Nicolas Sarkozy. It is also well known that she has no internet connection, not even a computer, and that she writes - in longhand - to many people who write to her.

Amélie Nothomb's Une forme de vie is partly epistolary, the narrator sharing her name with the author as well as one of the two letter writers, the other letter writer being Melvin Mapple, a soldier in Iraq.

The character Amélie Nothomb is a writer, and Melvin Mapple begins a correspondence with her after reading all her books. Melvin is 39 years old, and had spent some time as a tramp before joining the army, which he did solely because he was sick of being hungry, and in the army he can eat as much as he pleases. His surname reminds us of the sugary maple syrup that millions of Americans pour on their daily breakfast waffles.

It is a fact that the number of military personnel diagnosed as overweight or obese has doubled since 2003, and the fictional Melvin is an extreme representative of one of these people. He believes food is a stronger drug than opium was in Nam, and finds overeating is a form of relief from the hell of war.

But he is not without self-disgust, and as a coping mechanism calls his obesity Scheherazade, imagining the young woman of One Thousand and One Nights, after the horrors of the day, lying on his impotent body and telling him soothing stories at night. But ashamed as he is of his unspeakably ugly body, he can't stop eating: sometimes, he imagines Scheherazade is one of the civilians he has killed, and it would be killing her a second time if he lost weight.

Plus, he sees his and other soldiers' obesity as a kind of sabotage, causing the government to spend enormous amounts of money on food, special outsize clothing, medical expenses, etc: yes, this novel is of course (if only in part) a criticism of the war on Iraq.

Melvin begins to fascinate her. For some reason, the character Amélie initially thinks that Melvin comes from the Mid-West, although he comes from Baltimore, Maryland, which - the narrator reminds us - is where the 'pope of Bad Taste' John Waters comes from, and where he sets all his movies. The character Amélie has previously informed us that someone sent her a shit-covered copy of one of her novels in the mail, and she is without doubt thinking here of The Marbles sending Divine a box containing a birthday card and a turd in Water's Pink Flamingos (1972), even of Divine eating dog droppings on the sidewalk toward the end of the movie.

(One movie that the author (and/or narrator) chooses not to mention - perhaps because too obvious - is Marco Ferreri's La grande bouffe, in which four characters decide to commit suicide by overeating.)

On Amélie's's prompting, Marvin decides to turn his body into an art form and take regular photos of it. When she tells him that a gallery(-cum-café) wants a recent photo of him, he sends Amélie a grotesque naked shot, his genitals hidden by layers of fat. But when a photo of him in uniform is asked for, he runs for cover.

The reason is because, well, he's a liar and has never been a soldier: they rejected him because of his obesity.

But it's when the reader finishes the book and looks at the cover and the title that he or she starts to wonder who the really mad person is. And if the title relates to both of the characters.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, great summary! I have had some problems because i had to read it in french and it was terrible. Saved my a-levels :)

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Well, pleased to oblige, but it's always best to try to read in the original, you know :)