Amelie Nothomb is a writer whose life and art have always been closely connected. She has said, on more than one occasion, to have got ideas for her novels from conversations or communications with others. Life Form, her latest novel to appear in English, purports to be autobiographical in that it describes events in her own life, but the story it tells is that of someone else: a young American, Melvin Mapple, who write to her from Iraq. His first letter, with which Nothomb immediately opens the novel, is brief:
“I’m a private in the US Army, my name is Melvin Mapple, you can call me Mel…I’m writing to you because I’m as down as a dog. I need some understanding and I know that if anyone can understand me, you can.”
The novel then goes on to tell the story of their correspondence. Mapple, we discover, is increasingly obese – a result, he claims, of his time in combat:
“Some people lose their appetite, but most of them, including me, have the opposite reaction.”
Mapple even imagines the extra weight he has put on is another person. Nothomb (as she characterises herself in the novel) is at first fascinated by this, but when she mentions ironically a friend who starved herself as an art project, Mapple enlists her help to have his obesity declared a work of art. Just when we feel we know where the novel is heading (a satire that, having taken a cheap shot at the US army, is now heading for the art world), we discover that Mapple’s letters are not to be taken at face value.
The novel is, in fact, about how we present ourselves in writing, how we ‘form’ our lives. Although Mapple has deceived ‘Nothomb’, she tells him:
“What you showed me in your letter was simply another way of conveying reality.”
Just as Mapple creates a persona to write to Nothomb, so does Nothomb edit herself for the purpose of the novel. Not only that, but she is showing us, in Mapple, why she writes:
“…if every day of your life you write like a woman possessed, it is because you need an emergency exit. For you, being a writer means desperately seeking the way out.”
It is perhaps not surprising that a novelist might suggest that truth can be found in fiction, but Nothomb goes further, exploring the need to lie to achieve understanding. Even her final ‘action’ of the novel is to create a fictitious character for herself. Nothomb is not to everyone’s taste: her novels are frequent and brief – she is the pop single in a world of concept albums – but they are always interesting.