The Stranger Next Door – Les catilinaires by Amélie Nothomb – Belgian Novella – A Post a Day in May

I don’t know many authors who are as prolific as Amélie Nothomb. Since her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, was published in 1992, she published another 36 or more. I’ve read her first and one of her newer ones, Barbe Bleu, which I reviewed here. I always meant to get back to her and finally chose The Stranger Next Door, as I’ve come across a really appealing review on Guy’s blog here. The Stranger Next Door is one of her earlier novels, her fifth to be precise, published 1995.

The Hazels are happily married and like nothing better than solitude and being with each other. Emile Hazel has just retired from his job as Latin and Greek teacher. The Hazels are looking forward to their retirement. The only thing that’s missing is the perfect house in a perfect location, far away from any other people. Luckily, they find that house. The HOUSE. It’s amazing and in such a beautiful landscape. The next village is miles away. There is a neighbour, a doctor, so that too, is perfect. On their first day, it starts to snow, and they enjoy a wonderful walk. When they come back, they look forward to an evening of peace and quiet but at 4pm sharp, someone knocks on the door. It is their neighbour. They are not too keen on being disturbed like this but what can they do? They ask him in, and he stays for a full two hours hardly talking, looking morose, and clearly not enjoying his stay. Glad when the visit is finally over, they don’t want to think about it anymore, but at 4pm sharp, the next day, they have to as their neighbour repeats his visit. And the next day. And the day after. He comes at 4pm and leaves at 6pm, every time demanding coffee, not talking, and only answering with yes or no or not at all. It’s like a sinister groundhog day.

I often wonder if Amélie Nothomb is one of those authors who begin their stories with a “What if” question. It seems that’s exactly what she did here. What if you were living in a wonderful house, and suddenly someone turns up stubbornly every day at the same time, even though he doesn’t seem to enjoy it? What would a polite, cowardly person do?

The intrusion of their neighbour triggers all sorts of feelings and finally also reactions in them. At first, they are just helpless. How does one handle a situation like this without being rude? After a while, being rude is the least of their problems. As this story progresses and the doctor’s wife, a grotesquely obese woman, is introduced as well, it becomes more and more sinister.

This is a dark little novel with bizarre and grotesque elements and an outcome that’s quite unforeseeable. I literally couldn’t put it down. I needed to know where this was going. It’s told from the point of view of Emile Hazel and to see his polished surface crack and a new character emerge is fascinating. And also relatable. Haven’t we all, at times, felt that we should have said no earlier? That we were too nice, too polite? Most of the times, it won’t end like it does here but very often, we too might have felt – enough is enough.

If you like dark and twisted stories, you might enjoy this.

Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill by Dimitri Verhulst – Belgian Novella – A Post a Day in May

Dimitri Verhulst is a Belgian writer who writes in Flemish. He has written poetry, short stories, and novels. His novella Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill – Mevrouw Verona daalt de heuvel af was first published in Belgium in 2006. The translation is from 2009. In the book it says it was translated from the Dutch but that is inaccurate as he writes Flemish. The two languages are similar but not interchangeable.

Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill is a love story, or, to be more precise, a story about a love that goes on long after the beloved has died.

Mme Verona and her composer husband Monsieur Potter moved to a small village in Belgium. Their house is high up on a hill far away from other people, surrounded by a vast forest. Sadly, Mme Verona’s husband gets very ill and dies. Most reviews go into more details about his death, but I will refrain from that as it is a major spoiler.

Mme Verona is very beautiful and since there are almost only men in the village, they all hope she might come down and possibly choose a new mate. But she never does. She continues her life pretty much as if her husband were still alive. Of course, she misses him. But he is everywhere.

When she looked out the window at the valley, she looked with him. That was partly why she never urged visitors to stay for dinner, preferring the intimacy of the idea and feeling of dining alone with her husband. Just the two of them, and a bottle that proceeded towards its original emptiness half as fast as before.

Monsieur Potter knew he was dying and, as a last act of love, he cut down enough trees to assure his wife had enough firewood until she would eventually die as well.

In memory of her husband Madame has a tree cut down. She wants a cello made from its wood. The man who cuts down the tree, isn’t the one who will make the instrument as it takes twenty years for the wood to be ready for use.

At the beginning of the book, Mme Verona and her dog get ready to go down to the village. She knows that it will be the last time she goes there. Before she leaves, she muses that if she was asked at the gates of heaven what her one striking characteristic was, she would say that dogs always sought out her company. Just like they always sought out her husband’s company. That’s why they always had dogs or were followed by dogs. If it had been possible, they would have adopted every stray they encountered.

I liked the beginning of the novella very much. The writing is very distinct, very unusual. A mix between sarcasm, wit, empathy, and even lyricism. I expected a story about Mme Verona, but after the initial pages, the story moves away from her and we are introduced to the village and its eccentric inhabitants. We’re told funny anecdotes like the one where a cow becomes mayor for one year or those involving the vet who is also the GP for the village. As amusing as this was, I had to finish the book to fully understand its structure. It’s one of those circular stories that end where they start and only become a whole once you’ve finished it.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes that illustrate Verhulst’s style and humour.

But even when he wasn’t working, Monsieur Potter enjoyed being here, seeing the aureoles force their way down through the foliage and listening to the rustling wind, either alone or with Madame Verona, and sliding downhill with her on a sled, the winters telling him that lovers were children, trying to reach back into the past to seize the time they hadn’t spent together. Wanting to have shared their entire lives with each other, because love refused to settle for less.

About the dog looking forward to a walk:

The prospect of finally being able to empty his shrunken bladder on posts, letterboxes and car wheels elicited his most charming bark and would have him ramming his mistress’s legs with joy except that he realised she was too old for that kind of doggery, and that it would most likely lead to his having the implantation of a plastic hip on his conscience.

Madame Verona is a charming story of love that survives death. It’s ideal for those readers who like sophisticated, quirky writing and long, complex sentences.

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?