Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Amélie Nothomb: Sulphuric Acid & The Life of Hunger

Amélie Nothomb’s Antichrista was one of the first books I blogged about, and since then I’ve been a devotee to Nothomb’s mixture of elegance, absurdity, and pungency. It’s funny, though, that although I adore her writing, something about it usually leaves me unsatisfied. It isn’t just that the novels are short: there always seems to be some element missing, some little piece that would make them ‘great’ or ‘fully satisfactory’. So consistently is that one little piece missing that I’ve begun to wonder whether it isn’t part of Nothomb’s master plan. What if the point is that full satisfaction will always elude you? If The Life of Hunger is anything to go by, this seems to be the case.

But let us consider Sulphuric Acid first. I got this and The Life of Hunger at the same time, and expected to enjoy Sulphuric Acid more. The premise sounds delicious: Concentration, a reality-TV show worse than you can imagine. Take randomly chosen prisoners. Take guards, called ‘kapos’, chosen for their stupidity and nihilism. (‘It’s a common form of naivety: people don’t know how ugly television makes them.’) Install cameras everywhere. Make the prisoners work and suffer, starve them, and kill them off two at a time; when the ratings start going down, let the viewers vote who gets killed. All this dissected by Amélie Nothomb’s sharp wit – should be good! Well, yes, but not quite. This doesn’t really work as a dystopia, as the show itself doesn’t make much sense, unless you believe that any government would openly agree to persecute random citizens for the sake of good television. It doesn’t really work as satire, as the allegory is in overdrive and the points scored are quite obvious. How easily people can become beasts – we know that; viewers are complicit if they keep watching even while voicing their disgust – we know that. All the points about Big Brother and totalitarianism and the ethics of televised suffering are nothing we haven’t heard before, many times.

And Sulphuric Acid doesn’t really work as a Nothomb novel either, as the author normally excels at the petty cruelties and eccentricities of everyday life. The brush strokes here are very broad indeed, and to begin with this confused me. The main character, Pannonique, is one of the prisoners; she is an embodiment of beauty and intelligence, part Christ figure and part hero(ine) of classical tragedy. Her antagonist is Kapo Zdena, a stupid and ugly young woman, who becomes obsessed with Pannonique, first singling her out for beatings and gradually falling in strange kind of love with the prisoner… and trying to bribe her with clandestine chocolate bars. In other words, I was expecting biting social satire and insight, and got the super-human grandeur of classicism with dashes of bizarre humour and philosophical musings on the nature of love and sanctity.

It took me half the novel to get the point, and in a book of 127 pages that’s far too much – but when I did, I saw its strange beauty and even stranger humour (which was different from the humour you’d expect from a book of this kind). I keep thinking about it, which is surely a good sign, but I still hesitate to call the novel a success.

The Life of Hunger, on the other hand, was the one I expected to enjoy less; firstly, because I’d read some bad reviews of it, and secondly, because – rightly or not – I always think there’s something absurd about a young person writing her memoirs. (Nothomb was 37 at the time of writing.) My first impression was not favourable, either: Nothomb begins her memoir with evasions and digressions – as a matter of fact, the beginning is a quirky personal essay about the history of the Oceanian island Vanuatu, which has never known famine.

But by page 20, I was hooked. Digressive and odd the book may be, but it’s an utterly engaging account of Nothomb’s early years as the daughter of a Belgian diplomat in the seventies’ Japan, China, Burma, New York, Bangladesh, and finally back to Japan via Belgium in the eighties. It’s hard to say how much of this is true, but Nothomb casts herself as a comical child with wild flights of fancy and even wilder appetites for experience, love and various foodstuffs. These experiences range from childhood alcoholism to girlish loves, and even subjects like being sexually molested in Bangladesh and her acute anorexia as a teenager are treated with fanciful humour. More than anything I was charmed by the writing, scattered as it was with little gems like: ‘My mother was a well-known glory, a revealed religion adored by multitudes'; ‘Living abroad was a respiratory condition'; ‘Twelve was an ideal age to die. The important thing was to leave before the onset of the process of decrepitude'; ‘It seems that most international terrorists are recruited from the children of diplomats. I’m not surprised’.

I’d known Nothomb’s fiction had autobiographical elements, but I never realised just how autobiographical it was, and it was strange to spot the seeds of her fiction in this memoir-novel-essay. Even Sulphuric Acid, which at first sight doesn’t seem personal at all, was there in Nothomb’s childhood obsession with chocolate and in her anorexic teenage self’s passion for concentration camp literature. The anorexia is dealt with rather quickly, but I suspect the experience shaped her writing most of all:

Those who speak  of the spiritual wealth of ascetics deserve to suffer from anorexia. There is no better school for hard-line materialism than a prolonged fast. [. . .] This obvious fact should finally be attested: asceticism doesn’t enrich the spirit. There is no virtue in deprivation.

Nothomb writes with elegant simplicity, and the original prose is easy to read even for someone with French as basic as mine. Having said that, I read these two novels first in the original, then in English, and I am now utterly enamoured of Shaun Whiteside as a translator. The wit, the elegance, the exotic flavour, it’s all there, and yet the prose is recognisably English and doesn’t have a translated feel to it at all. Quite an achievement. (Even if Nothomb calls the English language ‘barbaric gruel’.)

Final Verdict: Sulphuric Acid may be something of a disappointment – even if it fails with grandeur – but with its honesty, humour and eccentricity, The Life of Hunger takes its place as my favourite Nothomb thus far, sharing that spot with Les Catilinaires (which has been translated in the U.S. as The Stranger Next Door but appears to be currently out of print). Which reminds me: if anyone at Faber is reading this, please publish the latter. And have Shaun Whiteside translate it. Pretty please.

Sulphuric Acid (original French Acide sulfurique). Faber  2007  paperback  127 pp.  ISBN: 9780571234936.

The Life of Hunger (original Biographie de la faim). Faber  2006  paperback  143 pp.  ISBN: 9780571229543.

(Other reviews of Sulphuric Acid here, here, and via the Complete Review; reviews of The Life of Hunger via the Complete Review, and also one here.)

6 comments on “Amélie Nothomb: Sulphuric Acid & The Life of Hunger

  1. Jackie
    August 31, 2008

    Hmmmm, Nothomb sounds like a strange writer with unusual plot ideas. Though the game show described in “Sulphuric Acid” would seem like a natural imaginary progression in today’s televison. I must admit, I was surprised when you said it was about female characters, which made me think it would make a big difference. Now why would the gender difference make me think that? It’s a worrisome revelation about myself.
    All the travel makes the memoirs interesting, I bet. And the style seems lighter, so that one appeals to me. Thanks for introducing what looks to be a very unique author.

  2. Jackie
    August 31, 2008

    Forgot to ask if the same illustrator did both covers? The style looks similar, as does the font, but that could be coincidence. In fact, the “…Sulphuric..” cover is quite eye catching (pardon the pun), not only the colors, but the way the picture is made up of leafy shapes, I really like it.

  3. Leena
    August 31, 2008

    Oddly, my copy of Sulphuric Acid doesn’t say anything about the cover illustrator, but The Life of Hunger names her as Alice Stevenson. Her website is here: http://www.alicestevenson.com – and the Sulphuric Acid cover is indeed in her portfolio! It looks even more interesting in the dust jacket format. Gorgeous artwork in the gallery.

    Re: the gender difference – not worrisome so much as inevitable, I think. It does make a difference to the reader’s expectations, especially as Zdena’s sexuality is quite ambiguous to begin with. It does say something about readers, but I think knows it full well and plays with it… most of her work are similarly ambiguous.

  4. rosyb
    August 31, 2008

    Tried to post a comment earlier but it disappeared into the ether. I like the sound of the lines you quote here and I am interested to read Nothomb because a friend was talking about her.

    I don’t totally like the sound of Sulphuric Acid as it sounds a slightly tired concept. Hasn’t there been a lot of stuff about reality shows etc? Perhaps it is different though. I suppose the reality show concept, for some reason, just doesn’t appeal to me.

    I am interested in one about working in Japan – have you read that one Leena? Is it one you would recommend to me?

  5. Jackie
    September 1, 2008

    Thanks Leena for the info on the cover paintings and the link to Alice Stevenson’s website, which I enjoyed. I really like what she does with flowers & plants. And there’s a retro feel to a lot of her work that appeals to me. Thanks for pointing the way to it.

  6. Leena
    September 1, 2008

    Rosy, that would be Stupeur et tremblements a.k.a. Fear and Trembling. Yes, I’ve read it – and I both enjoyed it and didn’t… It is very funny and original and all that jazz, and as far as structure goes probably her best, but I constantly had an awkward sense of its pandering to stereotypes. Don’t know how fair that is, considering that Nothomb loves Japan, but that’s what it felt like.

    And I agree, the concept of Sulphuric Acid is pretty tired. It took me a while to realise that the concept wasn’t actually the point of the novel. I wish this had been more obvious.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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