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PARIS — Amélie Nothomb, one of France’s most prolific and acclaimed young novelists, just might be its quirkiest, too. After all, she read the entire dictionary when she was 13 and then was tempted to write her own version. Her novel “Character of Rain” is an autobiography, but only from birth to age five. The pivotal event in her early years? Eating chocolate, which Nothomb said stirred her to consciousness.
Nothomb, 35, doesn’t fit the usual mold of hot, young writer. She eschews fashion and dresses in head-to-toe black. “Because its convenient,” she offers. She is also loathe to do the sort of name dropping that wins many of her contemporaries’ attention. And her subjects are unapologetically dark.
But her books are wildly popular here. On the Paris Metro, practically every young, trendily dressed woman has her nose in one of Nothomb’s novels. Her first book, “Assassin’s Hygiene,” tells the sordid tale of an obese Nobel Prize-winning writer with a murder record, who psychologically tortures three journalists who come to interview him. Meanwhile, “The Stranger Next Door” recounts a power struggle between a retired schoolteacher and his overweight neighbor who barges in every afternoon for coffee and says nothing. Again, murder is the outcome.
Her stories plunge readers into a surprising universe and her writing style is simple and naïvely elegant. In particular, Nothomb excels in analyzing the darker side of human behavior.
“All my books revolve around conflicts and relationships between people,” she says. To be sure, her characters go to extremes. But throughout, Nothomb maintains a sense of humor and irony that are rare in current French literature.
The daughter of a Belgian diplomat, Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, and spent her first five years there. To this day, she said those infant years remain the most crucial and influential. Indeed, Japan made such an impression that as soon as her university studies in Belgium were over, she went back there to settle. But she was aghast at the condition of women’s lives. “I have seen the young girls’ education. They are not entitled to an ideal, they are told they are nothing, and that they don’t even deserve to be loved,” Nothomb explains incredulously.
She returned to Belgium after one year back in Japan, but her experiences there inspired her to write yet another autobiographical novel, “Fear of Trembling.” The book concerns a young Western woman’s humiliations working at a Tokyo firm: hers, of course. An international bestseller, the book won her the Grand Prix of the Académie Française and was recently adapted for the screen by French director Alain Corneau.
So antifashion are Nothomb’s subjects that obesity is a running theme in her books. The author says she is a fan of sumo wrestling and admits to being obsessed by obese people. She volunteers that her fascination seems to be connected to the fact that she suffered from severe anorexia as an adolescent.
Meanwhile, Nothomb is practically athletic as an author. Last month, as she has every year for the past 11 years, she released her new book that recalls one of her early literary impulses. It’s titled “Robert des Noms Propres” after the French equivalent of Webster’s. But “it is nothing like a dictionary,” she says. It tells the story of an exceptional child whose life is full of upheaval. Its publication has turned out to be the biggest talking point of the French literary rentrée.