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A Week in Culture: Amélie Nothomb, Writer, Part 2

May 5, 2011 | by

This is the second installment of Nothomb’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

Photograph by Catherine Cabrol.

DAY FOUR

In the evening we are invited to a huge turn-of-the-century building, with something of the Phalanstère to it, entirely inhabited by artists. This is the Westbeth Center for the Arts, the largest artist’s community in the world, and it is where tonight’s “Literary Safari” is supposed to take place. The name of the event disturbs me: are they going to hunt writers with guns? The organizers reassure me: writers will be chosen by artist-inhabitants of the Phalanstère and invited into their apartments to read from one of their books. My host is Dorothy, former actress of avant-garde theater, eighty-six years old, a tiny, skinny woman of exceptional vivacity and intelligence. The audience and I are invited into her strange apartment with a sinusoidal ceiling, a moving museum of the past. They suggest that I read for fifteen minutes from my most recent novel to appear in English, Hygiene and the Assasin. There is nowhere to hide: American audiences love hearing an author read her work.  So I throw myself into it, reading first in French, without sparkle, and then in English. This last exercise proves to be a considerable challenge. The mixture of emotion and effort is so intense that, literally, I liquefy: I perspire so much that I see enormous drops of sweat falling on my text. It’s very annoying. After fifteen minutes have passed, I am nothing but a puddle. The audience, very friendly, asks me questions. With reluctance, I leave Dorothy, who lays all the flowers in her apartment in my arms: I have the impression of being a diva.

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A Week in Culture: Amélie Nothomb, Writer

May 4, 2011 | by

Photograph by Catherine Cabrol.

DAY ONE

Backstage at the Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers, I meet about a dozen prestigious writers, among them Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi. They seem to have known each other for years, chatting and laughing together. I am so awed that my deep-sea-snail nature gains the upper hand and I hide in the corner with my mouth clamped shut. The proximity of admirable men and women has always had this effect on me: what can I say to them beyond a very sincere “I admire you,” of which they have no need? And so I crawl into my shell and stay quiet. At 7:30, we take our seats for the Opening Night of the PEN World Voices Festival. Each writer steps up to the podium to read a selection from his or her work in front of a full house. I am ninth on the list, which leaves me ample time to panic. The eight writers who precede me are remarkable and read their unforgettable selections with such talent. I am feeling worse and worse by the minute. Then it is time for me to take the stage. I feel like I’m representing Belgium in the Vancouver Winter Olympics, where my country didn’t bring home a single medal. I chose a very short text because I knew that I would read without stopping to breathe, thus very badly. While reading it, though, it still seems too long, and I swallow the majority of my words. It is a test. When it’s finished, I run to hide myself away. Next, we all go to celebrate. I drink lots of wine to forget the reading, and, suddenly, I feel fine, and very happy to be in New York.

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