Pétronille is a pitch-perfect short novel, and, that’s the author on the cover, Amélie Nothomb, a popular Belgian writer whose award-winning books have been translated into 25 languages.
The daughter of a Belgian diplomat, Nothomb grew up in Japan, China, New York, Laos, and Burma, and now lives in Paris. Her work is new to me, but Nothomb is a celebrity: she is famous for wearing black hats and writing a book every year since 1992. And she often is a character in her own books.
In Pétronille, the narrator, Amélie, a 30-year-old novelist, is a champagne connoisseur who explains that intoxication is an art, and that fasting enhances the experience of drinking champagne. Drunk on champagne, she sees and hears jewels tinkling and animated by a serpentine crawling. Her observations are exquisitely weird.
As they approached me, I could feel their metallic chill. I felt the rapture of snow; I would have liked to bury my face in this frozen treasure. The most hallucinatory moment was when the palm of my hand actually felt the weight of a gemstone.
Each sentence is crystalline, and her musings are as sharply observed as those of the lyrical American writer Elizabeth Strout. But her love of champagne makes her wish she had a drinking companion. Then at a book signing in Paris, she meets Pétronille, a fan with whom she has corresponded. Twenty-two-year-old Pétronille looks so young that Amélie mistakes her for a teenage boy. But Pétronille wins her attention when she gets rid of a paparazzo who disrupts the reading: she grabs him by the scruff of the neck and drags him outside, much to the gratitude of the stupefied booksellers.
Would Pétronille make a good drinking companion? Amélie wonders. She invites her to La Gymnase, a seedy cafe. Pétronille, the daughter of working-class communists, is a seasoned drinker, but is far from the perfect companion. She is snide about Amélie’s upper-class origins, but she appreciates champagne. And she is eloquent on her love of the bad boys in Shakespeare, and the ghastliness of her two years spent teaching French in Glasgow. Pétronille amuses but goes too far: during a brief walk outside the bar, she stops to pee between two cars. Amélie is appalled, gives up the idea of a drinking companion, and forgets about Pétronille.
But a few years later Amélie finds a copy of Pétronille’s first novel, Honey Vinegar, which she reads in one sitting and loves. It is a riff on the theme of Henry de Montherlant’s The Young Girls, in which an author receives love letters from female readers and somehow finds ways to triumph and reject their love. In Pétronille’s novel, the readers devour the writer. She wonders how Pétronille, a debut novelist, knows about the behavior of female readers. And then Amelie attends Pétronille’s reading: this time she is the fan. Now they are equals.
After the reading Amelie teases her.
I took her to the Cafe Beaubourg, where I was a regular. I apprised Pétronille of the fact that the establishment did have toilets.
“You can be so old hat!” she said.
At first, their friendship is supportive. In London, after Amelie is humiliated by a punk fashion designer she interviews for a magazine, she invites Pétronille to join her in London. They visit the British Museum, separating so each can see the exhibits that interest her, and meet in “Mesopotamia” before going out tor fish and chips in Soho.
Then the book takes a macabre turn. Pétronille becomes weirder, tougher, and wilder. She continues to write and to look like a 15-year-old boy, but her life takes a dark turn. She cannot support herself by writing, so she participates in drug trials for money and gets ill from side effects. Amelie cannot persuade her to quit and get a job: Pétronille would rather risk her life than work regular hours.
Amelie is like the more successful big sister, trying to help Pétronille find her way. But things don’t always work out between sisters.
Very weird, very enjoyable. Really gorgeous writing, translated by Alison Anderson.