Amélie Nothomb: Memoir of a megalomaniac

Amélie Nothomb, the bestselling Belgian novelist, is chased in the street and spends hours each day answering fan letters. Christina Patterson meets a cult figure


Biography

AMELIE NOTHOMB

Amélie Nothomb was born in 1967 in Kobe, in Japan, the daughter of Belgian diplomats. She went on to live in China, New York, Bangladesh, Burma and Laos. After studying philology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, she returned to Japan to work as an interpreter in a large company - an experience which ended in humiliation. She published her first novel, Hygiene de l'Assasin, in 1992 and has published one every autumn since. Six have been published in the UK, all by Faber: Loving Sabotage, Fear and Trembling, The Character of Rain, The Book of Proper Names, Antichrista and, now, The Life of Hunger. She lives in Brussels and Paris.

Amélie Nothomb is hungry, but she doesn't want to eat. Since rising at four this morning, as usual, she has made the journey from her flat in Paris to this members' club in Soho fuelled only by gallons of black tea. She is sipping some when I arrive - a slight, gamine figure dressed entirely in black, but with blue striped tights like candy. Her pale face looms out from a huge black hat a bit like the Mad Hatter's. "I need to be very hungry all the time," she declares in a charming French accent. "I need to be very hungry to write."

I have, in fact, merely been testing the tape recorder with a routine question about what she had for breakfast, forgetting for a moment that this idiosyncratic Belgian writer is a former anorexic. "I'm totally cured," she announces firmly. "I eat in a strange way, but I enjoy it. Everything became well when I finally understood that I enjoy being hungry. Normally, I only eat in the evening. It's wonderful. It's like an orgy!"

All of which makes complete sense in the light of Nothomb's new book, The Life of Hunger (translated by Shaun Whiteside; Faber, £9.99), in which hunger is clearly not just a metaphor. "La faim, c'est moi" says the narrator. "If Nietzsche speaks of superman," she continues, "I shall allow myself to speak of superhunger... I am not superman: I am, though, superhungry more than anyone else." The tone is classic Nothomb - wry, assured, teasing and with undertones of an arrogance verging on megalomania.

It is Nothomb the writer, of course, but there's a sense in which it's Nothomb the person as well. The book is billed as a "fictionalised memoir", but it's a category that would cover pretty much everything she has written. For the chief theme in the work of the literary and cultural phenomenon known as Amélie Nothomb is the life and psyche of Amélie Nothomb.

The Life of Hunger has already sold 250,000 copies in France. This is routine for a writer who burst on to the French scene in September 1992 and who has produced a bestselling novel every September since. She has won the Grand Prix du Roman de l'Académie and seen her novels translated into 30 languages. She has also won an adoring audience of men, women and young girls. She is chased down the street and followed home. Fans write her long, and sometimes violent, love letters. Some have named their babies after her - even if they are boys.

And it all began with anorexia. Always a voracious reader (according to her novel, The Character of Rain, she taught herself to read at three), Nothomb was, she says, "brought up in a family where literature was like a temple". It was, however, her sister Juliette who scribbled away throughout their childhood while Amélie felt "unable to put a finger in that temple". At 17, and well on her way to death, she read Rilke's Letter to a Young Poet. "I found out that the question was not 'am I good enough to write?', because of course I am not. The question was 'am I able to live without writing?'. It is," she says, with another charming smile, "the only question."

While her body was beginning the excruciating process of starting to digest food, after years of starvation - a process she describes in The Life of Hunger - her brain was beginning to engage in the process of writing, a process that would "put everything together". Juliette, still today her best friend and still, though a gourmet cook, anorexic, had stopped writing and handed her sister the writing torch. She also read Amélie's first effort, "a science fiction novel about a huge egg travelling into space", and declared that it was "clearly autobiographical".

"I never even dreamt of being a writer," says Nothomb, "because I didn't feel allowed. When I was a child I was terribly ambitious, but I didn't know at all what this great thing would become. I thought maybe," she continues, "I would become a god, or a goddess, or a president or a Nobel Prize winner." Most children, of course, experience a brief period of god-like omnipotence, but the illusion is usually swiftly dispelled. Didn't it, erm, linger on a bit long?

"Well," says Nothomb, who spent the first five years of her life in Japan, "I had a Japanese nurse who told me 'yes, it's true, you are a god'. And maybe," she adds, "it's something in my personality that is megalomaniac. You could ask the question in another way. Why did I stop being a megalomaniac and I suppose it's what happened in the sea when I was 12 years old." This experience, of being molested in the Bay of Bengal, is, like most of the seminal experiences in Nothomb's life, vividly described in The Life of Hunger. "You never really stop being the child you were," she explains, "but something else comes and breaks you. I am still a little bit megolamaniac. At two in the morning I am that. And then, after, I become a small Japanese employee."

This, too, is not just a metaphor. When she was 19, Nothomb went to work in a Japanese company in Tokyo. What was meant to be the culmination of her childhood love affair with Japan turned into a nightmare, as her colleagues launched a campaign to humiliate her. By the end of her year's contract she was, literally, posted in the loos, her only job to ensure that her colleagues had enough paper to wipe their bottoms. The experience was described, hilariously, in her award-winning novel, Fear and Trembling.

It was, however, that Japanese humiliation that pushed her into publication. "I began to think 'now, old girl, what will you do with your life? Your ambition was to become Japanese and now that's impossible... Except speaking Japanese, you can do nothing'. Without that Japanese humiliation, I would never have dared to show my work. But as I was already humiliated by the company, I thought well, what could be worse?"

She started writing her first published novel, L'Hygiene de l'assassin, as soon as she got back to Europe. Since then, she has, she says, written 56, but published only 14. She writes in longhand and once she has committed a sentence to the page, she never changes it. "It's an act of faith," she explains. "Also, it's about being pregnant. Do you change your baby? Even if it's not perfect, even if it's ugly?" It is, I point out, a Romantic approach to writing, even a religious one. "Well," giggles Nothomb, "my parents lost their faith exactly when I was born. Perhaps that explains it!"

Fear and Trembling ends with a series of dates - the character Amélie's departure from Japan and the publication of her first novel - which are also the dates for those events in Nothomb's life. Loving Sabotage, about a child's experience of love and cruelty in China, ends with an afterword, insisting that the novel is a "true story: my own. I invented nothing," insists the author, "not even the names of the characters". It seems a slightly odd thing to do. Surely, I point out, all fiction is a mish-mash of acquired experience and the borrowed experiences of others? Does it matter whether it's literally true?

"Not at all. But my readers ask me all the time, they're obsessed with that. For me, even my fictions are true stories. That very great sentence of Virginia Woolf - 'nothing happens until you write it down'... When I write fiction I have the same feeling. I wrote it so it happened... In 2000," she adds "something really great happened to me. They put me in the French dictionary! 'Amélie Nothomb, writer, born in 1967'. But it became a disease. Because now, very often when I am in my office in Paris or my apartment, I think..." - she gasps dramatically - "I'm very ashamed of what I shall tell you, 'am I still existing, am I still in the dictionary?', so I take my dictionary and think 'oh yes I am'. Sometimes I go to the big bookshops and I look at the first dictionary, second dictionary, third dictionary. Am I crazy or something?"

No, Amélie Nothomb isn't crazy, but she is certainly eccentric. This is a woman who starves herself for most of the day and then eats large quantities of Belgian chocolate. A woman who sleeps only four hours a night and who veers, she says, between "a god and a slave". A woman who is the object of a cult of beauty, but who claims she is "ugly without the hat", a woman who tells me she lives with her "great love" but will say no more than that, a woman who spends four hours a day answering fan letters because she is too polite to leave them unanswered. "Now there are too many people, too many friends, too many lovers," she sighs. "I appreciate it, but at the same time it's frightening. But," she adds, "I've been hungry for so long."

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