Even though Amélie Nothomb’s new book, Premier Sang, is not the first openly autobiographical novel she has written – Le Sabotage Amoureux (1993), Stupeur et Tremblement (1999), Métaphysique des Tubes (2000) and Biographie de la Faim (2004) all draw inspiration from her childhood and adolescence spent in the Far East – this novel is unusual in that it is written from the perspective of her own father as a child and young man.
The timing of Premier Sang is particularly poignant, because Patrick Nothomb, who was a diplomat and served as Belgian ambassador to several countries in the Far East over the course of his career, died in March 2020 at the time of the Covid lockdown. The vivid picture Nothomb paints of his extraordinary upbringing suggests that he spoke at length to her of his childhood.
The book begins and ends with a moment of extreme danger, when the young diplomat Patrick finds himself facing a firing squad in the Congo, but most of the book focuses on his life at the age of six.
With a father who was killed when he was still a baby and an indifferent high-society mother, Patrick finds himself shunted between his maternal grandparents in Brussels and his paternal grandparents, who live in Pont d’Oye, the baronial family castle in the Ardennes. His paternal grandfather, Pierre, Baron Nothomb, was a prolific but mediocre poet, who is depicted as neglecting the welfare of his second wife and large family (he had 13 children) in order to indulge his delusions of genius as a writer.
When Patrick is sent to Pont d’Oye during World War II, he and all the younger children (who are actually his uncles and aunts) find themselves having to fight over the scraps of food the parents and older children have left them. Although they live in a castle, the family must huddle together in one room to keep warm in winter. Patrick returns to Brussels emaciated and with his clothes in rags, but, as an only child, he clearly relishes the challenges of competing against and living with such a large, near-feral group of children. This training is extremely useful to him when he is later held hostage in the Congo in the early days of his diplomatic career.
Nothomb’s tribute to her father is written in the spare prose that characterizes much of her writing, but, unlike the far-fetched scenarios that have often dominated her recent fiction, this tale, not surprisingly, comes across as more deeply felt and personal than some of the brilliant but mannered earlier novels. That said, Nothomb is not afraid to make use of various literary parallels in this work, including the delicious evocation of Cyrano de Bergerac in the way her own parents first met, with each writing love letters on behalf of a shy elder sibling.
The award of the prestigious Prix Renaudot to Premier Sang in 2021 was fully deserved. Nothomb’s father would have approved.
Nick Hammond’s latest book, The Powers of Sound and Song in Early Modern Paris, is now available in paperback and as an e-book here and from online vendors.Favorite