Amélie Nothomb’s first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin was first published in 1992. The English edition was published by Europa Editions in 2010. I read this novel in February of 2013. At 167 pages, I was not entirely sure what to expect. Anything I read of the author always highlights her multicultural personal life.
I do not have a lot to say about this novel. I did not really like it. First of all, a lot of the novel is vulgar. It harkens back to Louis-Ferdinand Céline and his writings – off-color, politically-incorrect, and vibrant. Nevertheless, it is not easy to emulate really good authors and, in many cases, it is not always a good idea. Oddly, I found this novel even more vulgar than one would find Céline’s. Yes, the language is vulgar, but so are the topics. I am an adult, I am not a Puritan – so my concept of “vulgar” is a bit more critical. When I say vulgar I mean to suggest a work that is vulgar and also does not have to be. So, language and topic is, at times, vulgar – but when I look at the whole concept of the novel, I do not think this was necessary for the story. Does it work with the story? Yes. Is it the only way for the story to work? No. And there you have it.
Second problem: Jean-Paul Sartre. I am not a fan of existentialism and I am an even bigger not-fan of Sartre. I really, really dislike him. And his “philosophy.” If I knew him personally – he is not someone I would trust. Also, I find his “philosophy” to be pathetic. In general, I find existentialism to be what people who want to pretend to be philosophers talk about. You know, dilettantes and such. So, you can find people in Starbucks discussing authenticity while a copy of Being and Nothingness sits on the table. All of this scene is repugnant to me. Kierkegaard was alright. . . . I will have no truck with Sartre. I mean it: I am so not sharing my truck with him.
In Nothomb’s novel she is really heavy-handed with the Sartrean concept of bad faith. If you do not know what is meant by the terminology “bad faith,” you will probably miss a lot of the “depth” of this novel. However, if you do not, in general, know about this terminology or concept, it’s okay because you are not really missing anything profound. (Oh I know my dislike of existentialism is dripping here… sorry.) “Bad faith,” like many concepts developed in existentialism, seems to me to just be a pile of empty verbiage. Yeah, sure, okay, sounds cool….. and then what?!
The main character is an author. His name is Prétextat Tach. He has been diagnosed with cancer and has only a couple of months to live. In the meantime, this Nobel Prize winner is being interviewed by journalists eager to get the scoop on this reclusive and misanthropic writer. The entire novel takes place in Tach’s “apartment” and almost all of the novel is in dialogue form. This is all a big conversation/interview. Again, some readers find this sort of storytelling to be tedious. I, personally, do not mind it, and I find that it reads quickly. However, in some places it just seems too obnoxious and fake. Ultimately, this is the same sense that I got from the usage of existentialism and Sartre in this novel: seems too fake and forced. And well, yeah, isn’t that really the overarching scenario; i.e. authenticity.
I read the novel quickly, was repulsed in some parts, was vaguely entertained in parts. When the ending came along I kind of saw where it was going and felt it was a bit drawn out. Nevertheless, you can mostly guess what will happen. Well, it happened, I went: “Huh.” …. and moved on to the next book. There just is not anything really and truly awesome and deep in this one. It’s not a wretched concept, but I think there are some pieces that did not come together perfectly. However, I will be merciful and reiterate that this is the author’s first novel.
There are only two pages that I was able to draw anything worthwhile from. I want to share what the main character says here about people who read:
There are a great many people who push sophistication to the point of reading without reading. They’re like frogmen, they go through books without absorbing a single drop of water. Those are the frog-readers. They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life. I am so terribly naive. I thought that everyone read the way I do. For I read the way I eat: that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all. You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or caviar; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau. Well, when I say “you,” I should say “I myself and a few others,” because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state: they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction. They have read, that’s all: in the best-case scenario, they know “what it’s about.” And I’m not exaggerating. How often have I asked intelligent people, “Did this book change you?” And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, “Why should a book to change me?” . . . . . . Most people do not read. In this regard, there is an excellent quotation by an intellectual whose name I have forgotten: “Basically, people do not read; or, if they do read, they don’t understand; or, if they do understand, they forget.”
The character who says all of this is convinced he is never read – and certainly never read by the readers who actually are changed by reading his works. The character is really a complete psycho who utilizes sophistry and who snarls and insults everyone. But finally, at the end of his life, he is met by someone who has truly “read” his works and who sits across from him representing the things that he despises, doubts, and denies. Bad faith. etc. the end.