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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Le crime du comte Neville

by
Amélie Nothomb


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Le crime du comte Neville



Title: Le crime du comte Neville
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015
Length: 149 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Le crime du comte Neville - Canada
Le crime du comte Neville - France
Töte mich - Deutschland
Il delitto del conte Neville - Italia
El crimen del conde Neville - España
  • French title: Le crime du comte Neville
  • Le crime du comte Neville has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : far-fetched trifle, but nicely turned

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 20/8/2015 Mohammed Aïssaoui
FAZ A 20/9/2017 Julia Bähr
Le Monde . 7/10/2015 Jean Birnbaum
Die Zeit . 14/9/2017 Ursula März


  From the Reviews:
  • "Es folgen zähe Verhandlungen mit dem Vater, die die schriftstellerische Qualität von Amélie Nothomb fassbar machen: Der Gedanke, die Tochter zu erschießen, wirkt beim Lesen kaum absonderlich. Einer muss ja nun sterben, und der Ruf der Familie darf nicht über Gebühr leiden. Man hofft, dass Amélie Nothomb niemals auf den Gedanken kommt, eine Sekte anzuführen. Jeder, der ihrem feinen Witz erliegt, würde ihr in allem folgen." - Julia Bähr, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Le Crime du comte ­Neville est surtout un hommage à la littérature comme art de l’hospitalité. Ecrire, ici, c’est «transformer une simple mondanité en une extravagante ­féerie où, l’espace de quelques heures, on devient le superbe personnage que pour d’absurdes raisons on n’est pas au quotidien». Ecrire, c’est aussi s’exposer à des hôtes, attendus ou importuns, ­familiers ou étranges, et qui vous ­obligent à relancer la langue autrement." - Jean Birnbaum, Le Monde

  • "Es gibt Literatur, die ist so naiv, so daneben, dass man es nicht schafft, etwas Schlechtes über sie zu sagen. Es ist wie mit kleinen Mädchen, die im Abendkleid der Mutter durch die Wohnung wackeln. Auch wenn sie den Kleiderschrank in ein Chaos verwandelt haben -- man kann ihnen nicht böse sein." - Ursula März, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Le crime du comte Neville is a pretty absurd story, and in summary sounds downright daft: Belgian Count Henri Neville is planning his annual very fancy 'grand fête' -- a party of the year -- when he encounters a soothsayer who has some bad news for him: at the gathering he's going to kill one of his guests. Neville isn't the kind of guy to patronize much less pay attention to supposed clairvoyants, but this prophecy hits home and he becomes obsessed by it, certain it must happen. When he tries to make an end-run around it by deciding ahead of time on a victim he's surprised by his moody youngest child, his seventeen-year-old daughter, who offers herself as the sacrificial lamb, insisting that papa kill her. And eventually he comes to believe there's no way around this particular course of action ..... All things lead up to the grand party -- where fate must run its course .....
       This kind of extreme premise, and the debates between two characters (often much older man and woman-on-the cusp-of-adulthood -- as is the case with (the sixty-eight-year old) father and daughter here) it allows for are well-trod territory for Nothomb, and she handles it with the usual aplomb.
       The story isn't merely some fantasy pulled out of thin air, with Nothomb practically spelling out its lineage (as one can call it, in a novel where the outdated concept of heritable nobility plays a significant role). There's the title for one, and if you didn't catch the allusion, Nothomb soon enough has Neville headed for the local library to pick up a copy of Oscar Wilde's Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (the Folio edition) -- in which the title character is told by a cheiromantist that he is doomed to commit murder, and so promptly sets about trying to kill someone (so that he can get married without that hanging over his head). Neville isn't cheered by the story (or its (more or less) happy resolution), complaining that: "mon cas et mille fois pire que le sien" ('my case is a thousand times worse than his'). The sticking point: the specificity of who is to be the victim, as Saville might kill anyone, but Neville is fated to kill a guest he personally invited to his garden-party -- something that he, as a good host, worries is disgraceful.
       Beyond the Wilde story, there's another that hangs over the novel, an old myth. It's hinted at in the names Neville gave to his first two children: Oreste (twenty-two) and Électre (twenty). No, he didn't call the third Iphigenia -- as he then also reminds her -- but the identity is obviously implied, and Neville can't escape being identified as Orestes', Electra's, and Iphigenia's father, Agammemnon -- and the story can't escape mirroring the old myth, of father sacrificing daughter for the greater good.
       The novel opens with the soothsayer contacting Neville because she stumbled across his seventeen-year-old daughter late at night in the nearby forest: she had run away from home, with her absence having gone unnoticed. The girl is a moody child, a once bubbly and lively girl who, though not as attractive as her elder siblings, was an outgoing, energetic, friendly child until she hit twelve and a half, when all was extinguished. Ever since she's just been a morose teen -- which her parents put down to her simply sinking into that not unusual teen-phase, though as she points out, the inexplicable turn came before she even hit puberty.
       At least after that point her name fit: they hadn't named her 'Iphigenia', but her parents didn't do her any favors with the name they did settle on, the typically Nothombian appellation of: Sérieuse. She is indeed serious -- and, yes, it does allow Nothomb to have her insist at one point, in her discussions with her father: "Je suis sérieuse" ('I am serious').
       Neville looks over his guest list in trying to find a victim and can narrow it down to twenty four "individus abjects" ('despicable individuals') that he wouldn't feel too bad about dispatching. There's a problem, however, with all of these. You see, noblesse oblige, and titled Neville takes his nobility, and the sense of duty to his family and reputation, very seriously.
       Like much nobility, the Nevilles are having trouble keeping up appearances, but as long as he can he will. The money is nearly all gone, and while they won't be on the streets, it is time to sell off the family castle they can no longer afford; indeed, the 4 October fest is to be the final grand send-off, the last of his legendary, no expense spared garden-parties, as Neville insists on going out in style. But it wouldn't do to kill a guest. It would be dishonorable -- and while Neville could accept the personal fall in grace and prison sentence, he couldn't accept his family becoming personæ non gratæ, as they would if he committed such a heinous -- and improper -- act, the inhospitality of killing an invited guest. A spontaneous killing would be fine, but if planned ... no, it would be a disgrace in this polite society, and it would leave his family outcasts. And that's one thing he can't permit; reputation is everything, and reputation must be preserved.
       Sérieuse overheard the soothsayer's prophecy and offers her father the solution: to kill the daughter would be tragic, but would not bring dishonor on the family. And, she tells him, he'd be doing her a favor, too -- by putting her out of her misery. As she explains to him, she has felt nothing since she was twelve and a half -- "Et quand je dis rien, c'est rien" ('And when I say nothing, I mean nothing') -- living in a hell where nothing can move her. Unlike her well-adjusted siblings, Sérieuse has no emotional reactions or sensations; her senses function well enough, but nothing moves her in the slightest. The world and her life are a mire of endless grey. So she wants out, and this is the ideal way for everyone to get what they need.
       Of course, Neville finds her proposition preposterous. But the more they talk ..... And even when he sees an out in the wording of the prophecy that should prevent him from targeting her Sérieuse makes clear just how serious she is about this.
       Sérieuse's death-wish/plans do make for a sometimes uncomfortable read; Nothomb's heroines often wallow in similar misery but the proximity here to an actual way out of it can feel too close for comfort. Yet Nothomb's approach, in which she takes the ridiculous so seriously (with a hint of amusement about it all, too, of course) -- meaning in this case, not only the basic premise but all the to-do around Neville and his family and his garden-party -- makes for an oddly appealing (though admittedly also simply odd) story. The resolution, where everything turns out even better than anyone could have hoped for, is completely preposterous (and rather out of the blue) -- but a fitting coda, and a perfect end to all this (itself a hard enough trick to pull off).
       From how Neville is kept up at night as the fateful day approaches to serious Sérieuse's exchanges with him, Nothomb's underlying almost carefree tone manages to make for an engaging tale. There's no escaping, at nearly every turn, how bizarre it all is, from what is being proposed to Neville's old-school clinging to the fraying sense of what it means to be noble (and how the following generations -- his much younger (twenty one years younger) wife Alexandra, and then their children -- fit within a system that is now barely skeletal). But in its mix of myth and modern-day realities, its fixation on elementals, and on the depth of the characters' feelings -- for even Sérieuse state of unfeeling is profound and deep -- it's also a surprisingly rich little novel.
       Yes, Le crime du comte Neville is an uncomfortable read -- but Nothomb has again pulled off most of her tricks and created something lingering and moving far beyond what one might have expected from this.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 June 2019

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Links:

Le crime du comte Neville: Reviews: Amelie Nothomb: Other books by Amélie Nothomb under review: Books about Amélie Nothomb under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Amélie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, August 13, 1967.

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© 2019 the complete review

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