Amélie Nothomb – Barbe Bleue – Blue Beard (2012)

In 1992, Belgian author Amélie Nothomb entered the literary scene with a bang. Her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin – L’hygiène de l’assassin, was so successful, that to this day, it’s always the one novel mentioned together with her name. One could almost assume that she has not written anything else. One couldn’t be more wrong. Since 1992 she has published a novel per year. I read her first and wasn’t too keen on it, so I never returned to her until I saw Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard) in a book shop. I love fairy tale retellings or reinterpretations and Blue Beard is one of my favourites. Knowing that she’s famous for her dry, acerbic style, I thought it would be interesting to see what she would do with a tale like this. I was pretty sure, it wouldn’t be fantasy or fantastical and I was right. I had hoped I would like it, but I didn’t expect to like it so much. It’s clever, witty, and whimsical.

Saturnine, a young lecturer at the school of the Louvre in Paris, is looking for a room. When she sees and ad offering rooms in an elegant mansion in the 7th arrondissement, she’s thrilled. The rooms are big, the rent is cheap, what more could she wish for? Of course, she’s not the only one interested in the offer. The place is swarming with women. As Saturnine finds out to her surprise, most of them didn’t come for the rooms, but because they want to catch a glimpse of the rich, notorious owner. All of his eight former tenants have vanished and it is rumoured that he may have killed them. Because Saturnine is from Belgium, she had never heard of the story before. One of the women, applying with Saturnine, predicts that she will be the chosen one as she’s the youngest and the prettiest. And she’s right.

When Saturnine sees the host for the first time she’s totally underwhelmed. He’s not very attractive and full of mannerisms. He’s a Spanish nobleman with a long, flourishing name. Don Elemirio is very proud of his origins and of himself. He shows her around and tells her she can go anywhere she likes with the exception of one room with a black door. He warns her that it wouldn’t be dangerous for her if she entered.

Saturnine isn’t a nosy person and so she’s never tempted to open the door to the forbidden room, but she would like to know what happened to her eighth predecessors.

On the first evening, her host begs her to join him for dinner. She accepts and this will be the first of many dinners. They are all eccentric and downed with large amounts of the most expensive champagne. During these meals, Saturnine teases the nobleman but he doesn’t really get it. He stays serious and finally confesses he’s in love with her. Saturnine is shocked that someone could fall in love so quickly and very certain that she will never love him back. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the mysterious and many talented Don Elemirio fascinates her.

If you’d like to find if she falls for him, and whether or not she’ll access the forbidden room and what happened to the eight women before her, you’ll have to read the book.

To tell this whimsical retelling of the famous Blue Beard fairy tale, Amélie Nothomb uses mainly dialogue. There are only few descriptions and some of Saturnine’s reasonings added. The result is very lively as the discussions are so witty and original and touch upon subjects as diverse as the Spanish Inquisition, Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna, and the perfect color. Saturnine is anything if not feisty. Any other woman would have fled the premises. While she teases, questions, and criticizes the nobleman, he shows her a world of idealism and perfectionism that’s as far from our world as could be.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a clever reinterpretation of an old tale. Since it’s so dialogue heavy, I could imagine it would make a wonderful play.

Most of Amélie Nothomb’s books have been translated into English, but not this one.

I’ll be reading another of Amélie Nothomb’s books bery soon. After having read a few rave reviews I got Les CatilinairesThe Stranger Next Door.

Have you read any of Nothomb’s books. Which ones would you recommend?

Georges Simenon: La chambre bleue – The Blue Room (1963)

The Blue RoomLa chambre bleue

While I’ve read some of Simenon’s Maigret novels, I hadn’t read any of his so-called “romans durs” until now.  Many people say they are far better than the Maigret novels and after having read The Blue Room –  La chambre bleue I think I can understand why. I can also see the influence the romans durs must have had on some newer authors like Pascal Garnier. Luckily for me, I liked Simenon’s novel much more than the Garnier novel I’ve read so far. The Blue Room is excellent.

The book starts with a scene in a hotel room – the blue room. Two people, Tony and Andrée, have just made love and he’s standing in front of a mirror, wiping away blood from his lips. The book starts in medias res, with a conversation. Andrée, who is watching Tony from the bed, is asking him, if she’s hurt him. Apparently she bit his lip. From the way she asks, we can deduce that it wasn’t as accidental as he believes. No, she probably bit him, so his wife will ask questions. What Andrée doesn’t know is that she’s not Tony’s first affair and that his wife is likely to ignore this one just like she ignored the others. Andrée then asks Tony whether he loves her and would love to spend his life with her. Tony’s not very attentive and says yes. A fatal error as the reader will find out very quickly. At the end of the scene in the hotel room, the book seamlessly switches to the examining magistrate’s chambers, where Tony is trying to defend himself in front of a psychiatrist and his lawyer.

The scene in the hotel room is a pivotal moment. From there the book moves backwards and forwards in time, unfolding Tony and Andrée’s whole story, from when they met as kids, to when they became lovers. It also switches from scenes set in the past to scenes in the present in which Tony, who has been arrested, tells his side of the story. The way Simenon has interwoven those narrative strands is pretty amazing. Nowadays, we’d have the different strands either separated by breaks between paragraphs, or chapters. Not so here, which makes it much more fluid, much more like watching a film.

Simenon’s style is hard to describe. It’s unadorned but so precise. Everything he chooses in his descriptions works masterfully. It’s like we’re looking at his characters through a microscope. The tiniest ugly little detail is laid bare.

While I don’t think his books are about suspense, it was suspenseful nonetheless because for a long time we have no clue why Tony got arrested. Nothing in the pivotal scene let’s us suspect that.

The Blue Room is a cruel, bleak analysis of a love affair that goes terribly wrong, written in evocative and pared-down prose. A great little book.

If you’d like to read a more eloquent review of the novel, here’s John Banville’s review of the Blue Room. He goes as far as comparing Simenon to Kafka.

The Blue Room has been made into a movie. I hope I can watch it soon.

 

 

This book was on the 20 under 200 list I did last summer. I must admit, I’ve been slacking. I’ve only read five or six from that list.