{Review} A Way of life (Une Forme de Vie)- Amelie Nothomb

12 Mar

In the land of quirky literature, it is sometimes difficult for a book to garner enough praise to gain it anything but the dubious honour of a loyal cult following. If her position in the French book charts is anything to go by, Amélie Nothomb’s work definitely appeals to a growing number of readers.

And it is definitely surreal. Prior to winning the ‘Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française’ in 1999 for her fierce Fear and Trembling, she and her work were  continually derided by critics who tended to view her work as flights of fantasy that were best left unread.

The question is this: is Nothomb still able to deliver the unique experience that endeared her to her judges over a decade ago?

‘This morning, I received a different kind of letter.’
One morning, Nothomb receives a letter from one of her readers, an American soldier called Melvin Mapple, who is fighting in Iraq. Horrified by the endless violence around him, he takes comfort in over-eating. Over-eating until his fat starts to suffocate him and he can barely fit into XXXXL clothes. Disgusted with himself, but unable to control his eating, he takes his mind off his ever-growing bulk by naming it Scheherazade and pretending that he is not alone at night with his flesh.

Although initially repulsed, Nothomb is fascinated and begins exchanging letters in earnest with Mapple.

Nothomb carefully unravelled the story from the start, developing the main characters gradually. Just fast enough to keep the story going, but not so fast as to be unrealistic. By the time Mapple started to get into the details of his life, I was hooked.

Whilst Nothomb is the narrator and plays a significant role in the novel, it is the character, Mapple’s story-telling abilities that come to the fore. The first clue we have as to this is his naming of his excess weight after the story-telling wife in Arabian Nights. For every instance that Nothomb’s character sits and tangentially contemplates her life and woes, Mapple’s gets to the heart of the issue he wishes to address in his letter.

And Mapple chooses his subjects carefully. His first letter uses strong, abrupt language to describe the war in Iraq. In later letters, he uses more nuanced language to write about his opinion of the invasion. But this criticism forms only a small part of his letters: his main focus is his weight. His size obsesses him, fascinates him, disgusts him at times and alienates him from a vast number of people, especially his slim colleagues.

In the army canteen, they mock him and his clinically obese colleagues.

‘So what did you do in the war apart from eat?’ they jeer.

They look down on the obese as undisciplined grotesques who pad themselves out with fat to make up for all manner of (supposed) deficiencies.

 Mapple writes about these daily struggles to Nothomb, who ‘will not judge’ [him]. He gives a voice to a group that previously suffered in silence, and this voice is usually eloquent and compelling.

 There are also moments when Mapple becomes repulsive, particularly when he starts to note down every calorie he has consumed in an attempt to make his body into a living art project.

The end of the novel spirals quickly out of control and into the surreal bleak comedy that made Fear and Trembling so exciting to read. Here, events move so rapidly compared to the middle section of the novel that I felt somewhat cheated by the neatness of the ending and how quickly it was wrapped up. Although that feeling was probably mostly due to my desire to have the two characters continue to exist and develop.

Experimenting with the epistolary style whilst interweaving her own private beliefs and experiences in asides to the reader; this is Nothomb at her best. She dwells on issues that have not received much press coverage, such as obesity in the U.S. Army and brings up issues that have been mentioned in the press. Such as her way of using surrealism and extended metaphors to lend weight to her work and, in some paradoxical way, to make it more real than it could otherwise have been.

Wild Night In: Win!

Read for the Read French Books and European Reading Challenges


Tags: , , , , ,

9 responses to “{Review} A Way of life (Une Forme de Vie)- Amelie Nothomb

  1. Rose City Reader

    March 12, 2012 at 20:51

    This sounds like a strange and very difficult book to read. But it also sounds fascinating. Thank you for including your review in the European Reading Challenge!

    Rose City Reader

    • wildnightin

      March 13, 2012 at 17:45

      It’s more surreal than anything else.
      Thank you for creating such an amazing challenge. 🙂 I look forward to reading more books for it.

  2. thelupinelibrarian

    March 14, 2012 at 16:20

    I’m not familiar with this author, but the book sounds intriguing. I have a friend who is interested in French literature…I will recommend the book (and your blog) to her.

    • wildnightin

      March 14, 2012 at 19:34

      There’s something about her plotlines that draw me in. She really does seem to be an acquired taste though as my Mum (and quite a few French people I’ve mentioned her to) have been quite scornful of her style.
      Does your friend have a blog? I’ve found a few people who are French or like the literature but I’m always looking for other blogs to follow. 🙂

      • thelupinelibrarian

        March 15, 2012 at 22:30

        She does not, although I am trying to encourage her to start one. I think she would have a knack for it.

        I have a couple of favorite authors who others would say are an acquired taste. It’s great to connect with a book, though, even if others don’t appreciate it!

      • wildnightin

        March 17, 2012 at 12:20

        Good luck with encouraging her. I’ve just managed to get my best friend to start blogging. 🙂

        Which authors are these? Oh yes, it is so rewarding to connect with a book- like finding a new friend.

      • thelupinelibrarian

        March 17, 2012 at 15:48

        One of my favorite authors is Aimee Bender, who writes magical realism. For readers who are strictly interested in realistic fiction, I could see how her writing could take some getting used to, but for me it’s a perfect match.


Speak your mind!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: