Amélie Nothomb: Soif [Thirst]

The latest edition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Soif [Thirst]. Nothomb had long been planning to write her Jesus novel but had not felt able to do so till 2019. It tells his story, from his point of view, from the trial to the resurrection. This is not your conventional religious novel, as this Jesus, while aware of his deity is very much a human being, one who feels pain (and thirst), love and admiration for his parents and romantic love for Mary Magdalene. We follow him through his trial, night in prison, stations of the cross, crucifixion and resurrection and he tells us both how he is feeling, while giving us his views on humans, on God, on how he will be received and on what he did and why. He is critical of some of the conventional views of what he did and said (as reported in the Bible), bitter when the beneficiaries of his miracles criticise him, and explains how thirst is a key human feeling.If you are very religious, you might feel some concern about this approach but, for the rest of us, it is an interesting point of view.

Amélie Nothomb: Les prénoms épicènes [The Epicene First Names]

Latest on my website: Amélie Nothomb‘s Les prénoms épicènes [The Epicene First Names]. This is a Nothomb parable, telling the tale of a couple with epicene first names, (names which can be used for either sex) and their daughter called Epicène. He (Claude) had seduced her (Dominique) and persuaded her to marry him and move with him to Paris (from Brest). She could not get pregnant for a long time but, when she did, she had a daughter whom they called Epicène. However, there is considerable antipathy, turning to hate, between father and daughter, and things only get worse, till we learn of a dastardly plot by Claude at the expense of his wife and daughter, for which he will have to pay a high price. As always, Nothomb tells her tale well and makes her point.

Amélie Nothomb: Frappe-toi le coeur [Strike Your Heart]

The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Frappe-toi le coeur [Strike Your Heart], her latest annual novel. This is something of a change from her normal style, as it is a damning indictment of two mothers, for both neglecting and spoiling their children, with dire consequences. The heroine is Diane, whose mother Marie is looking forward to the good life, which does not include motherhood. She virtually ignores Diane, her first child, but indulges her son, Nicolas, and then overspoils her daughter, Celia. Diane goes on to study cardiology and becomes close to her university lecturer, Olivia Aubusson, who also neglects her daughter, Mariel. Diane helps Olivia become a full professor, something she has been denied for sexist reasons, but then feels betrayed by Olivia. Olivia and Marie will pay a bitter price and they will leave three scarred daughters.

Lize Spit: Het smelt [The Melting]

The latest addition to my website is Lize Spit‘s Het smelt [The Melting]. This is a début novel by a young Belgian writer and a superb novel it is. Surprisingly for a début novel, it has already been published in three other languages, with two more early next year and rights sold in several other languages, including English. It tells the story of Eva who lives in a Belgian farming village We learn a lot about her, her family and friends but follow, in alternating chapters, her story in the summer of 2002, when her two close male friends, Pim and Laurens, started behaving very badly and dragged her along with their behaviour, culminating in a traumatic event for all three, and also the present day when she is invited to an event where, it seems she will try to get her revenge for what happened in 2002. Spit gradually reveals bits of the puzzle – what happened that day, what is Eva planning, what happened to Eva’s sister, why did Pim’s brother really die – and shows a conventional Belgian village which hides many grim secrets.

Amélie Nothomb: Riquet à la houppe [Riquet with the Tuft]

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The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Riquet à la houppe [Riquet with the Tuft]. This is a modern updating of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Riquet with the Tuft. We follow the story of the two who we know are destined to meet, fall in love and live happily after. He is Déodat, son of a former dancer, who gives birth to him (her only child) when forty-eight and the chef at the dance school. He is very ugly but very intelligent. He manages to adapt to his ugliness and, indeed, succeeds in having a series of short-term affairs when he gets older. He takes a keen interest in birds and becomes a professional ornithologist. She is Trémière, very beautiful but not very bright. She struggles at school and her stupidity is taken for aloofness when she is older. Her one (very) brief fling gives her a negative view of the opposite sex. Both, however, do very well in their careers and are destined to meet on a TV chat show. Nothomb seems to be moving towards updated fairy tales which, as she says in an afterword, almost always have a happy ending while great literature generally does not have a happy ending. This is not great literature but it is a well-written and enjoyable tale.

Amélie Nothomb: Le crime du comte Neville [The Crime of Count Neville]

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The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Le crime du comte Neville [The Crime of Count Neville]. This is her twenty-fourth book in twenty-four years. She regularly produces a novel during the French rentrée and this one is this year’s offering. It will doubtlessly appear in English ere long. It is something of a change in approach for Nothomb in that it is a fable. It is set in the Belgian Ardennes and tells the story of the aristocratic Nevilles. (Nothomb herself is descended from Belgian aristocrats.) Henri and his beautiful and twenty-year younger wife, Alexandra, have three children. Orestes and Electra, in their twenties, are the perfect children. Sérieuse, aged seventeen, is sullen, morose and solitary. One night, Sérieuse is out wandering in the forest after midnight when she is spotted and taken in by the local clairvoyant. When Henri picks her up, the clairvoyant forecasts that he will hold a sumptuous party (which he knows, as he does so every year) and at this party, he will kill someone. Henri, who prides himself on being the perfect host, is very perturbed by this. He particularly wants to give a good party this year, as it will be the last. The Nevilles are completely broke and will have to sell the château. While he considers whom he might kill of the guests, Sérieuse makes him a proposition. He should kill her, as she is fed up with life and wants to die. It is a fairly simple fable, but, as ever with Nothomb, light-hearted, well-told and humorous.

Pierre Mertens: Une paix royale [A Royal Peace]

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The latest addition to my website is Pierre MertensUne paix royale [A Royal Peace]. This is a superb book about a Belgian called Pierre Raymond who is now a fairly reluctant travel guide, though this is something he has done for most of his life. However, he now needs a new focus and that focus will be his own country. In the column that he writes for his agency’s travel magazine, he intends to write about his own country and will focus on two specific aspects – the Belgian royal family and Belgian professional cyclists. His interest in the royal family stems from when he was thirteen and he was knocked off his bicycle by a car, whose passengers were King Baudouin and his father Leopold III (who had abdicated in his son’s favour). Raymond gives us considerable detail about the royal family, particularly Leopold III, who was controversial for having stayed in Belgium after the German invasion in World War II and considered by many Belgians to have compromised himself. This book was controversial as his portrait of the royal family is not always flattering. However, we also learn much about Pierre’s life and his family, a family which does divorce much better than it does marriage, as well as learning about the sometimes troubled Belgian cycling fraternity. Pierre gets to meet one of the most famous Belgian cyclists, as well as Leopold III’s widow and second wife as well as King Baudouin. Overall, this novel works very well even if the considerable detail about the royal family could put off some non-Belgians (though not me). Sadly, it has not been translated into English and is unlikely to be translated.

Pierre Mertens: Les éblouissements (Shadowlight)

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The most recent addition to my website is Pierre MertensLes éblouissements (Shadowlight), Mertens’ best-known novel. It tells the story of German poet Gottfried Benn, starting with a section on his participation in a Belgian literary festival in Knokke in 1952 but then with each subsequent chapter taking place ten years after the preceding one, starting in 1906, when he was twenty, ending with his death in 1956. Mertens gives us a portrait of Benn the doctor (he was a doctor for most of his adult life, specialising, initially, in venereal diseases), Benn the man (three wives, lots of prostitutes, a survivor of two world wars, the first spent mainly in Brussels as a military doctor, the second in Berlin, where he was banned by the Nazis from both medicine and publishing) and, of course, Benn the poet. We see little of his actual poetry, though he does discuss poetry and other art forms with family and friends but we do see a man who observes life (and, very much so, death) and clearly uses his life experiences in his poetry. Mertens gives us a superb portrait of this complex man, right up to his death. This novel has deservedly been acclaimed and, though currently out of print, it has been translated into English and is fairly easy to find.

Patrick Roegiers: Le Bonheur des Belges [The Happiness of the Belgians]

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The latest addition to my website is Patrick RoegiersLe Bonheur des Belges [The Happiness of the Belgians]. It is both a response to Hugo ClausHet verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) as well as to the political and economic crisis Belgium has been facing in recent times. Belgium is the only country where I have visited every town in the country so I have a certain sympathy with and interest in the country and its plight. Roegiers gives us a roller-coaster of a ride through Belgium’s (relatively short) history, its institutions, its culture and its problems, telling his tale with great humour, happy both to mock as well as celebrate and peopling his novel with a whole host of living and dead Belgians, most of whom you have probably never have heard of. It is narrated by an eleven-year old boy who has no name and no parents, who wanders through Belgium, both geographically and chronologically (he is at the Battle of Waterloo and in World War I, for example) meeting people from Victor Hugo to Jacques Brel to Pieter Brueghel and hearing their tale and views while, in the background, Roegiers throws in his comments, witticisms and views. He is not afraid to confront problems, e.g. the Walloon-Fleming issue, and not afraid to gently mock such issues, all the while celebrating Belgium and Belgianness. It is wonderful book, full of joie de vivre. Sadly, given that language (the use of Belgian French and French vs Flemish) is of such importance, I wonder whether it will ever be translated into English. However, if you do read French, I can heartily recommend it. Bonne lecture!

Amélie Nothomb: Biographie de la faim (The Life of Hunger)

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The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Biographie de la faim (The Life of Hunger). This one is similar to many of her other novels – the story of the young Amélie Nothomb on her travels. In this case, she follows the idea of hunger, not just for food but for anything we want but cannot easily have, while, at the same time, recounting her life as a child and the daughter of a Belgian diplomat. Japan, Bangladesh, Beijing, New York, Burma, Laos and Japan again are all grist to Nothomb’s mill as we get the usually quirky view of exotic cultures as seen from the point of view of a somewhat eccentric Belgian girl/woman as well as a host of amusing anecdotes. If you know Nothomb, you will know what to expect and, if you don’t, you will find this very amusing and pleasant reading.