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

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?

Blurb
‘This morning, I received a different kind of letter.’
Plot
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.

 Review
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.

 Verdict
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

 
 

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{review} Weight by Jeanette Winterson

{review} Weight by Jeanette Winterson

Having heard only positive comments about Canongate’s The Myth series, I decided to read Weight by Jeanette Winterson. An author who loves and believes in ‘the power of story telling… and finding in them [stories] permanent truths about human nature’.

Whilst there is nothing new about retelling stories to different audiences, when skilfully done the story becomes new and takes on a life of its own.

 Brief Plot: (from the blurb)

Condemned to shoulder the world, for ever, by the gods he dared defy, freedom seems unattainable to Atlas.

But then he receives an unexpected visit from Heracles, the one man strong enough to share the burden — and it seems they can strike a bargain that might release him…

Jeanette Winterson asks difficult questions about the nature of choice and coercion in her dazzling retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles. Visionary and inventive, believable and intimate, Weight turns the familiar on its head to show us ourselves in a new light.

Review:

The pages before the introduction, written in different fonts, were poetic and rather interesting but reminded me of the opening lines of Gaiman’s Fragile Things a little too much for me to sit back and enjoy them. The first chapter, although compelling and educational threw me further off balance as the narrator whizzed through space and time in stops and starts that Dr Who would have been proud of, telling the reader ‘Your first parent was a star’. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it sort of chapter that has no bearing on the rest of the story, but I loved how the last line of every paragraph fed into the idea behind the next, even though it didn’t tie in with the myth.

There are two other chapters that have nothing to do with the main story and deal with the author and her own ‘Atlas complex’. Whilst their inclusion ties in with the main theme of the book (‘I want to tell the story again’), I felt that they were too personal to really work in the book.

Some aspects of the re-telling of the myth appealed to my inner-feminist (who comes to you with plucked eyebrows and freshly waxed armpits) and I think Hercules’ character will appeal to those who’ve always disliked the portrayal of sexist men as heroes.* Although women ‘always fall into his arms’, he shows all but one, Deianeira, contempt and loathing. He believed a woman ‘would never know what was good for her’ and casually weighs up the consequences of raping the goddess who wet-nursed him. When retouched with modern ink, Heracles becomes an odious, puerile creation whose downfall is quite satisfying. (No spoilers, but it’s worth a shufti).

 Atlas’ punishment and his way of bearing it are movingly told: ‘They had captured his body, but not his thoughts’, yet it is not really dwelt on. In addition, his character is not developed as much as I feel it could have been. All the same, by the end of the novel it is impossible not to wish him the best.

The story was a mixture of poetic prose with stand-alone sentences that had more weight and meaning than entire paragraphs. As said before, I felt that Atlas’ character was under-developed and that limited the story a little.

 Overall:

I wouldn’t recommend this to people who aren’t interested in mythology/ Canongate’s myth series. Or to people who don’t have a copy of the book to hand and a couple of hours to spare (it’s only 151 pages). Despite this, I’ll be reading the other novels in the series as it is a cracking idea.

Wild Night In’s Verdict? Wavering towards wail.

* Yes, I know that feminism is technically a modern concept and new ways of ‘reading’ shouldn’t be applied to older texts but hey, most of us do that on some level, even if we’re also reading the text to find out about past beliefs/ ideas, etc.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2012 in Books

 

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