Autobiographical Fiction

With mentions of Amélie Nothomb's works

I've talked about reading authors extensively before, so I thought I would mention someone I once read assiduously. When I was a teenager, I read every book Amélie Nothomb wrote. In the French-speaking world, Nothomb is a superstar author. She writes surreal short novels (which would probably be called novellas in the UK) which deal with some repeating themes: cruelty, beauty, ugliness.

Truth be told, after a while, I started finding Nothomb repetitive, and stopped following her closely. But she is still publishing, still well-loved, and to this day has a book coming out every year which is generally met with great acclaim. I believe it’s worth thinking about what makes a successful novel – or, in this case, a successful series of novels.

(I’ve quoted a few works below. I’ve put the English title when they’ve been translated, and kept the French title if not.)

One common characteristic of her writing is “the author as a character”. She writes autobiographical fiction about her life as a Belgian expat in Japan, or as a young child in China, a teenager in the US, etc. (Her father was a diplomat, so she travelled extensively as a child.) Her work mixes travelogue, autobiography and surreal, sometimes absurd elements. For example, The Character of Rain is told from her POV as a baby, recounting her life from 0 to 3 years old, and it starts with Amélie realising she must be God. It gets wackier from there.

In books which aren't autobiographical, she may appear as a side-character. Sometimes she's secondary: she gets murdered by her characters on a day out. Other times, a non-autobiographical story features her as the main character: she time-travels back to Ancient Rome, or tells us about the (fictional) letters she's been writing to a fan.

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This blends even outside of fiction, onto the cover of the books. Traditionally, an Amélie Nothomb book has a portrait of her on the cover. But these are artificial, staged photos, with no attempt to pretend the picture represents who she is in her everyday life. She’s even writing under a pen name: Amélie isn’t her real name. So, on the one hand the cover, the stories and the narrative built around Nothomb are close to her real life, yet on the other hand she consciously distances herself from it, openly admitting that it’s constructed.

This control extends to her online presence: she hasn’t got an official author website, and she doesn’t have social media. In a way, she didn’t get caught out into blending public and private spheres of her life, because she started doing it before everyone else. And she managed to do it on her own terms, without sharing elements of her life she’d rather keep private.

Still, some books feel recursive, and not unlike Bo Burnham’s Inside in their layers of self-reflection. In La nostalgie heureuse, she describes a documentary being filmed about her life. She’s talking about a real, existing documentary attempting to capture her life in Japan. Yet she’s deconstructing it and looking at the filming process from the inside, thinking about what’s authentic and inauthentic about it. She also converses with characters – people – who have appeared in other books, so she is in communication both with the person, and with the person-as-character from her previous work. It’s not just a retelling of her life: it’s a retelling of the retelling.

All stories are at least partly inspired by the author’s life and experiences. It’s impossible not to bring who we are to the page. And all stories have an element of fiction in them, even the ones that try to stick closely to the truth: it’s impossible not to interpret and change the facts when telling a story, if only because we like our memories to make narrative sense, to have meaning, which always colours what happened. In Nothomb’s case, she navigates this very consciously, creating an interesting contrast between magical realism elements and real pieces about her life.

In The Life of Hunger, Nothomb describes writing a short story about an egg whose yolk rebels, who dies, and who ends up as a cosmic omelette spread across space, floating in the void for all eternity. Upon reading it, her sister simply comments: “That’s an autobiography.”

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That seems to be Nothomb's rule of thumb when writing. A cosmic egg breaking in space is an autobiography. A child whose parents believe they’re just a tube is also a god. Two characters fed up with the author’s meddling murder her one evening. During her anaesthetic, the author travels in time because she’s discovered the destruction of Pompei was a conspiracy.

 

And people who would never read fantasy because they think it’s a genre for children absolutely adore her, and read voraciously everything Nothomb has to offer.

There are many reasons why Amélie is so well-loved, but one of them might be the feeling of continuity. Her novels are not a series, and all books can be read in any order, but because of this author-as-a-character blend, we get the impression we are continuing her story each time we read a new book. We get to see her at different stages of her life, the ultimate recurring character.

She has other qualities, of course. She also has a punchy, biting voice, which isn’t afraid to be aggressive, a fun yet cruel writing style. The witty dialogues make her books a fun, fast-paced read. Her stories feel real, despite the surreal elements, because of the way it’s all about her, her life, her writing, her travels and her cultural specificity. She is both grounded in “write what you know” and not afraid to take risks and introduce magical elements in her tales.

If this article has persuaded you to give Amélie Nothomb a go, I'd recommend Fear and Trembling or Tokyo Fiancée or The Character of Rain (for an autobiographical piece) or Sulphuric Acid or Antichrista (for non-biographical ones).

14 Apr. 22