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


The Culture Diaries

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

Photograph by Catherine Cabrol.


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.


At La Maison Française, I meet the Turkish writer, Buket Uzuner, a very famous writer in her country. Before an enthusiastic audience, she reads the beginning of a translation of her novel, Istanbullu, where she takes on the voice of the city itself. After her reading, she speaks of the difficulty of being a woman in a country where every day there are five honor killings.

That night, in a poetry club disguised as a New York bar, the famous Translation Slam takes place. At this event two translators read their versions of a text translated into English and discuss the choices they have made. From the stage, I read a piece that I wrote for the singer RoBert in 1998, “The Call of the Succubus.” Before the reading, they show a video of RoBert singing the piece. A pretty young woman comes on stage to present her capable and faithful translation of my incantation. Next it’s the turn of an older translator who has had the wonderful idea of translating my piece into the style of New Orleans jazz. I would never have imagined my piece could blend so well with this universe of voodoo possession. I am in heaven. Next, the same process is enacted on the work of a Pakistani poetess who came to present her piece (magnificent), “Tongue Kiss.” A ravishing young Pakistani woman, who hasn’t spoken Urdu since the age of five, has come to offer her translation (very successful). She is followed by a learned, older Pakistani man, whose translation (erudite) is rich and fertile. We are all under the spell of this sumptuous text when the poet begins to attack the young woman for her translation, which evidently didn’t please her at all. The whole room thus has the privilege of not only listening to a treatise on Urdu semiology but also witnessing the humiliation (interminable) of the poor young woman. We are frozen in our shock. It is a moment that proves that the quality of a writer has little or no relation to his or her worth as a human being.


The PEN World Voices Festival has been an exciting, fascinating, and edifying experience. Now, as far as my direct involvement goes, it is finished. Today, I have only a single obligation: to be in good shape at 10:00 P.M. for the World Voices Festival’s closing party.

When I’ve completed my daily four hours of morning writing, I join my editor and friend, Michael Reynolds, in Brooklyn. We eat lunch together and stroll around DUMBO. The weather is superb. Our meandering steps lead us through this indistinct but poetic landscape that, on the shores of the East River, separates the Manhattan Bridge from the Brooklyn Bridge. I love this part of the city. From here the view of Manhattan is so striking. But I what I love most is the view of those two huge bridges: the Brooklyn Bridge is beautiful like a gothic dinosaur, and its beauty is punctuated with regular cries coming from the Manhattan Bridge each time a train passes over it.

I explain to Michael that I must take a siesta to be ready for tonight’s soirée and I lay myself down in the sun on a flat rock, protected by my hat. I doze, savoring the roars of the Manhattan Bridge. Michael and I make a plan to meet at the closing party tonight and I go off for a walk around the East Village. When I return to the hotel at 7:00 P.M., I decide to sleep for a while, once again thinking that I have to be in good shape for the ten o’clock soirée. I sink into a deep sleep. When I wake up, it’s Sunday, May 1, at 4:00 A.M. I have missed the closing night’s festivities.


Awake at 4:00 A.M., I immediately sit down for my daily fours hours of writing. Beneath it all, in the depths of my day’s production, is my bad conscience, mixed with a shameful kind of joy (typical of sea snails) at having missed last night’s soirée. I comfort myself with the knowledge that surely no one will have noticed my absence.

But I have not counted on my friend and editor’s vigilance. I get a call in my room from Michael Reynolds, who inquires as to the reasons for my defection the night before. I explain my misadventure to him. He tells me it’s nothing to worry about, but does let me know that he’s missing two days’ worth of entries for my Culture Diary on the PEN Festival: yesterday evening’s and today’s.

“I have nothing more to write, since I missed the soirée,” I respond.

“No problem. I suggest you recount how you managed not to attend the closing night.”

And that’s how I find myself now, sitting at the bar of the Standard Hotel, composing my delinquent chronicler’s act of contrition. At the very least, I think, hasn’t my poor conduct proved just what a good night’s sleep one can have in this excellent new hotel on the banks of the Hudson River?

Amélie Nothcomb is a novelist living in France. Her novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, was published by Europa Editions in 2010.

Translated from French by Cecily Swanson.