“I’ll just choose a machine, shall I?” I ask, standing with Amélie Nothomb in the gym of the Washington Square Hotel.
About a dozen contraptions of indeterminable purpose are crammed into the tiny, carpeted room. We have met to discuss her book, Tokyo Fiancée, originally written in French. The English translation was released by Europa Editions this February.
Dressed entirely in black from her hat to her shoes, Nothomb cuts an imposing figure. As we sit on our respective exercise machines, she stares at me frankly, expectantly. I am a little intimidated. This is probably why, seconds into our interview, I lose track of my first question and blurt out that I want to be a writer.
For one who aspires to the profession, Nothomb’s work is worth emulating. Tokyo Fiancée refuses to submit to the reader’s expectations because Nothomb refuses to represent the story as something other than what it is: the nebulous struggle of two people to connect across barriers of language and culture.
Yet her honesty does not make the book unreadable or ambiguous. Rather, it posits a solution: a new kind of relationship. As Nothomb tells me, it is “the very first relation[ship] with an other ... that works.” Her happy ending defies the social expectations of romantic love and embraces camaraderie rather than marriage. And she illustrates it with bold, unconventional language.
Even the genre of the book is unpredictable. “Would you describe this book as mostly autobiographical? Is it a memoir? Is it a novel?” I ask.
“I consider it as 100 percent autobiographical memoir,” she replies. She speaks heavily accented, somewhat eccentric English. “For me, there is no contradiction ... First, it is a piece of writing, it is a novel, but the facts are 100 percent autobiographical.”
The reader senses this upon reading Tokyo Fiancée, and not only because the narrator is also named Amélie. The book feels honest. It is narrated in the first person, and, at its most striking moments, the novel plunges readers directly into Nothomb’s psyche. Surrounded by the thoughts, images, and emotions racing through her head, it is impossible not to empathize with her.
Though she wields language powerfully, Nothomb is intensely aware of its fallibility. Indeed, the failures of language, and the way humans compensate for it, fascinate her. Language fails writers, as well as their subjects, and she compares her own search for the right words to shooting a gun, aiming her forefinger at me to demonstrate:
“It’s like, if you are a shooter ... I have a feeling when you try to shoot something from the front—I don’t know why, it does not work. If you go from on the side it will work ... There’s no explanation to that, it’s just I noticed it, go on the side.”
Throughout Tokyo Fiancée, Nothomb shoots from the side. She makes literary references and describes certain elements of language to express pivotal moments in the novel’s central relationship. These techniques are hardly an effort to avoid the complexities of the relationship—in fact, they may be the only way to accurately express them.
Nothomb acknowledges that the complexity of human relationships does not always allow them to fit into conventional patterns, and that complex relationships cannot be described in a conventional way. Had she not defied convention, Tokyo Fiancée would not be as emotionally honest, or as compelling, as it is.
Nothomb’s willingness to attack the intricacies of human existence in her writing parallels her willingness to attack them in life. As she states explicitly in the novel, she has always conceived of herself as being comprised of multiple identities. She tells me that she discovered this “thanks to the great poets I wrote—I read in my life.”
That verbal mix-up seems at first merely to be a struggle with language. Nevertheless, I am struck by the idea of her “writing” the great poets of her life. Her sentence does not obey the conventions of grammar, yet it allows me, in two words, to understand what she must have felt upon reading these poems for the first time: that a great mind has written something that speaks to you so clearly that it becomes a part of your identity—that someone has written you so perfectly that you feel as though you’d written the poem yourself.
She specifically mentions poet Arthur Rimbaud as an inspiration: “He wrote that, that very great sentence: ‘Je est un autre,’ which you can translate by ‘I is an other,’ not I am an other. ... which is very true.” I begin to see what enables Nothomb to navigate human relationships so skillfully. Not only her writing, but also her very being seeks to embrace the other, to incorporate it into herself. This is evident in her admiration of Rimbaud, her tendency to conflate his life with her own. She suggests that this ability is not a rare gift, but a human characteristic.
A man opens the door and leans in, clearly hoping to use the gym. We stare at him for a moment and he leaves, but it is evident that the interview is coming to a close. Nothomb, with an eloquence that I sense is not unusual for her, unites the themes of her novel and her life in one stunning comment.
“Who’s ‘I’?” she wonders. “We have no idea and maybe we change ... several times without even noticing it, or sometimes we notice. ... It’s natural, we are not liars—it’s just that—we are—we are not stones.”