Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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Belgian literary writer Amelie Nothomb’s latest book, The Book of Proper Names, has been a best-seller in France and has sold few copies in its English translation. The protagonist, Plectrude, overcomes a tragic start in life to bloom in a magical childhood, then wither with anorexia and other disorders in ballet school. The search for artistic perfection in her life becomes consuming. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 44-52:


Plectrude’s status had changed in school. She had moved from pestiferous outcast to adulated best friend. Had she been adored by a clod, she could have gone on being undesirable. But in the eyes of the pupils, Roselyne could do no wrong. Her sole defect, which consisted of being a new girl, was but a very temporary stain on her character. They began to won­der if they hadn’t been mistaken about Plectrude.

Of course, no discussions about this actually took place. The thoughts circulated in the collective un­conscious of the class. Their impact was all the greater for it.

Certainly, Plectrude remained a dunce in arithmetic and many other areas. But the children discovered that a weakness in certain subjects, particularly when it was taken to extremes, could sometimes have something admirable and heroic about it. Gradually they came to understand the charm of subversion.

The teacher didn’t.


Plectrude’s parents were again summoned.

“With your permission, we are going to have your child undergo some tests.”

Denis felt profoundly humiliated. They were saying his daughter was deficient. Clémence was delighted: Plectrude was extraordinary. Even if they detected a mental defect, she would take it as a sign that her child was one of the elect.

So Plectrude was subjected to all kinds of logical se­quences, abstruse lists, geometrical figures containing irrelevant puzzles, formulae pompously called algo­rithms. She replied mechanically, as quickly as possible, in order to hide a violent to desire to laugh.

Was it chance or the brilliance of instinct? She did so well that everyone was astonished. And thus it was that within the space of an hour, Plectrude went from class dunce to genius.

“I am not surprised,” her mother commented, vexed at her husband’s amazement.


The change of termiinology conferred advan­tages, as the child soon became aware. Previously, when she couldn’t work out a problem, the teacher would give her a pained look, and the more hateful pupils laughed. Now, when she couldn’t get to the end of a simple task, the teacher contemplated her like the alba­tross in Baudelaire’s poem: her massive intelligence prevented her from doing basic adding and subtracting. Her fellow pupils were ashamed at having so stupidly reached a solution.

Given that she really was intelligent, she wondered why she couldn’t solve easy math questions. During the tests, she had given correct answers to exercises that were actually far harder.

She remembered that she had not been thinking at all during those tests, and concluded from this that the key to everything was absolute thoughtlessness.

From that point onward, Plectrude took care not to think when solving a task and instead wrote down the first numbers that came into her head. The results weren’t any better, but they weren’t any worse, either. Consequently she decided to keep to this method, which, by virtue of being just as ineffective as the ear­lier one, was fantastically liberating. And that was how she became the most highly esteemed dunce in France.

It would all have been perfect had there not, at the end of each school year, been annoying formalities de­signed to select those who would be lucky enough to move up to the next class.

This was a nightmarish period for Plectrude, who was only too well aware of the role chance played in these events. Fortunately, her reputation as a genius preceded her: when the teacher saw her results in mathematics, he concluded that the child’s answers might be right in another dimension, and ignored the scores. Or else he questioned the little girl about her reasoning, and what she said left him flabbergasted. She had, you see, learned to mimic what people thought was the language of a gifted girl. For example, at the end of a stream of utter gibberish, she would conclude with a limpid “It’s obvious.”

It wasn’t obvious at all to her teachers. But they pre­ferred not to advertise this fact, and always gave their student their blessing to move on.


Genius or dunce, the little girl had only one obses­sion: dancing.

The more she grew, the more amazed the teachers were by her gifts. She had virtuosity and grace, rigor and imagination, prettiness and a sense of the tragic, precision and spirit.

The best thing was that it was impossible not to see that she was happy dancing—prodigiously happy. You could feel her delight at handing her body over to dance. It was as though her soul had waited ten thou­sand years to do just that. Arabesques freed her from some mysterious inner conflict.

She had a sense for the theatrical: the presence of an audience highlighted her talent, and the keener the fo­cus upon her, the more intense her performance.

There was also the miracle of her slenderness. Plec­trude was, and would remain, as thin as a figure in an Egyptian relief. Her weightlessness defied the laws of gravity.

Finally, without consulting one another, her teachers all said the same thing about her: “She has the eyes of a dancer.”


Clémence sometimes had the feeling that too many fairies had leaned over the child’s cradle. She worried that Plectrude would attract the thunderbolts of the gods.

Fortunately, her other daughters accommodated themselves to the miracle without great difficulty Plectrude had not encroached upon the territories of her two older sisters. Nicole was top of the class in sci­ence and physical education, Beatrice had a flair for math and a knack for history. Perhaps out of an in­stinctive sense of diplomacy, Plectrude was hopeless in all these subjects—even in gymnastics, for which her dancing seemed to be of no help to her.

So Denis assigned access to a third of the universe to each of his children. “Nicole is going to be a scientist and an athlete, maybe an astronaut. Beatrice will be an intellectual; her head crammed with numbers and facts, she’ll analyze historical events. And Plectrude is an artist brimming over with charisma; she’ll be a dancer or a politician, or both at once.”

He concluded by laughing loudly, from pride rather than doubt. The children enjoyed listening to him, be­cause his words were flattering, though the youngest couldn’t help feeling slightly perplexed, both at these predictions which struck her as vacuous and at the as­surance with which her father made them.

Despite being only ten years old, and not advanced for her age, Plectrude had nonetheless learned one im­portant thing: that people on this earth did not receive what was their due.


But being ten years old is the best thing that can happen to a human being. Especially to a little dancer in full command of her art.

Ten is the most sunlit moment of growing up. No sign of adolescence is yet visible on the horizon: noth­ing but mature childhood, already rich in experience, unburdened by that feeling of loss that assaults you from the first hint of puberty onward. At ten, you aren’t necessarily happy, but you are certainly alive, more alive than anyone else.

Plectrude was a knot of the most intense vitality She was at the summit of her reign over her dancing school, of which she was the uncontested queen. She ruled over her class, which threatened to turn into a dunceocracy in which the one most useless at math, science, history, and geography was the undisputed genius.

She ruled over the heart of her mother, who nur­tured an infinite passion for her. And she ruled over Roselyne, whose love for Plectrude matched her admi­ration.

However, Plectrude’s extraordinary status did not turn her into one of those stuck-up ten-year-old mad­ams who think they are above the laws of friendship. She was devoted to Roselyne and worshiped her friend every bit as much as her Roselyne worshiped her.

Some obscure prescience seemed to warn her that she might topple from her throne. She remembered when she had been the laughingstock of the class.


Roselyne and Plectrude had already gotten mar­ried several times, most often to each other. On some occasions they also married a boy from their class who, in the most fabulous of ceremonies, was represented sometimes in effigy, sometimes by Roselyne or Plec­trude disguised as a man—a top hat did the trick.

The husband’s identity in fact, was of little impor­tance. So long as he displayed no unacceptable vices (piggishness, a squeaky voice, or a propensity to begin his sentences with, “Know what? . . .“), he was suit­able. The purpose of the game was to create a nuptial dance, a kind of dance-play worthy of neoclassical drama, with songs whose lyrics were as tragic as hu­manly possible.

Inevitably, after all too brief a marriage, the husband got turned into a bird or a toad, and the wife locked up once more in a high tower with some impossible task to perform.

“Why is the ending always so sad?” Roselyne asked one day.

“Because it’s much nicer that way,” Plectrude as­sured her.


That winter, Plectrude invented a sublimely he­roic game. It involved allowing yourself to be buried in snow, not moving, and not putting up the slightest re­sistance.

“Making a snowman is too easy,” she had decreed. “You have to become a snowman, or else lie down in a garden under the snow”

Roselyne looked at her with skeptical admiration.

“You be the snowman and I’ll be the one who lies down,” Plectrude went on.

Her friend didn’t dare voice her qualms. The two girls found themselves beneath the snow, one lying on the ground, the other standing up. The one standing up soon ceased to see the fun in all this. Her feet were cold, she wanted to move, she had no desire to become a living monument. On top of that she was bored be­cause, apart from being statues, the two little girls had agreed to remain silent.

The recumbent figure was exultant. It had kept its eyes open, as corpses do before others intervene. It had relinquished its body, parting company with the sensa­tion of freezing, and from the physical fear of leaving its skin. All that remained was a face open to the forces of the sky

Plectrude’s girlish ten-year—old frame was not pres­ent, not that it would have been much of a burden. The recumbent figure had preserved only the very minimum of itself, in order to put up as little resistance as possible to the pale curtain of snowflakes.

Eyes wide-open contemplated the most fascinating spectacle in the world: descending white death, sent down by the universe as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, of some single vast mystery

Sometimes the eyes studied the body, which was covered before the face was, because the clothes acted as insulation. Then the eyes returned to the clouds again, and gradually the warmth faded from the cheeks, and soon the shroud was complete and the recumbent fig­ure stopped smiling so as not to spoil its elegance.


Fans of experimental literature will be the readers who most appreciate The Book of Proper Names.


Steve Hopkins, November 21, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2005 issue of Executive Times


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