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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

La nostalgie heureuse

by
Amélie Nothomb


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

To purchase La nostalgie heureuse



Title: La nostalgie heureuse
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013
Length: 150 pages
Original in: French
Availability: La nostalgie heureuse - France
Eine heitere Wehmut - Deutschland
La nostalgia felice - Italia
La nostalgia feliz - España
  • La nostalgie heureuse has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine reflection on memory, place, and change

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 22/8/2013 Astrid de Larminat
NZZ . 12/8/2015 Thomas Laux
TLS . 18/10/2013 Erik Martiny


  From the Reviews:
  • "Lorsqu'une émotion est trop forte et donc visible, elle s'arrange pour qu'intervienne un incident grotesque qui coupe court. Amélie Nothomb coupe toujours court. Même ses phrases, elle les casse avant qu'elles ne s'emballent. Sa prose est bridée, comme un cheval." - Astrid de Larminat, Le Figaro

  • "Nothomb ist ein subtiles Buch gelungen über jene psychischen Aggregatzustände, in denen vermeintliche Gewissheiten sich gerade in dem Masse auflösen, wie man geneigt ist, sich vertrauensvoll auf sie einzulassen." - Thomas Laux, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Taking a step back from the grim fairy-tale atmosphere characteristic of most of Nothomb's novels, La Nostalgie heureuse is, perhaps, a little less exhilarating than we have come to expect. Yet, in some ways, this is a welcome descent from the stratospheric to the (almost) ordinary world. Nothomb's willingness to lay herself bare is as refreshing and poignant as ever." - Erik Martiny, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Author Amélie Nothomb may be Belgian, and a longtime Paris-resident, but arguably Japan has been the defining place for her. Born in Kobe, her family left when she was five -- her father was a diplomat -- and she only returned to live there for a few years, when she was in her early twenties, but her life there has informed many of her autobiographical works (she more or less alternates between more freely imagined fiction and works based on her life), including her greatest success, Fear and Trembling. La nostalgie heureuse is the account of her less-that-two week trip to Japan in 2012, accompanied by a TV film crew making a film about her relationship with Japan (which aired as: Amélie Nothomb: Une vie entre deux eaux) -- asking the eternal question: can one go home again ? (and all the attendant ones: what is 'home' ? how do our memories of past experience shape and influence our present ? etc.).
       La nostalgie heureuse is labeled a 'roman' (novel), but as she explains in an interview, she has a rather expansive definition of the term:

Ma définition repose sur l’étymologie du mot roman qui traite de tout ce qui est écrit en langue vulgaire. Le roman c’est la liberté, je suis libre, je peux relater un récit et procéder comme je l’entends à des digressions, dans mes romans, je ne fais que ce que je veux.

[My definition is based on the etymology of the word 'roman', which covers everything that is written in the vernacular. The novel -- that's freedom; I am free, I can tell a story, and proceed however digressively I understand it; in my novels, I only do what I want.]
       Many of her novels have been autobiographical, but generally the events are long past -- all the way back to her infancy, for example, in The Character of Rain. La nostalgie heureuse is by far the most immediate of these, the events much closer than in most of her novels; indeed, much of it is almost documentary, a travelogue.
       The novel's opening sentence does remind or warn: "Tout ce que l'on aime devient un fiction" ('Everything one loves becomes a fiction'), and Nothomb's greatest love is Japan and that hallowed image it has become, held and shaped in her mind. Traveling back to Japan, sixteen years after she was last there, means confronting that fiction again, and seeing whether it still can or does live up to the feelings she has treasured for so long. It also means re-encountering two of the people who were closest to her: her nanny, Nishio-san (familiar from The Character of Rain) and her one-time Tokyo Fiancée, Rinri.
       Among the incidental surprises of La nostalgie heureuse is that Nothomb is not big in Japan. Or perhaps it's not a surprise: apparently they never got over how Japanese office culture is portrayed in Fear and Trembling, and didn't translate anything after that -- not until her return to Japan, which coïncides with the publication of the Japanese translation of The Character of Rain. While in Tokyo, Nothomb meets the translator of the book, and presents the odd story of how the translation came about -- the translator originally coming across the book in German translation (while she was based in Vienna, working as a stewardess for Austrian Airlines ...). Disappointed to find that so little of Nothomb's work was available in Japanese, she got in contact with Nothomb -- who wound up insisting the stewardess be the one to translate this novel into Japanese, despite her not knowing any French at the time ..... Ten years of studying French and working on the translation later, the translation came out.
       Nothomb had last been in Japan sixteen years earlier, in 1996, and there had been a similar sixteen year gap between her childhood-time in Japan and the first time she returned. There's clearly some ambivalence about facing the country again: the recent catastrophe at Fukushima had brought her Japanese feelings to the fore again -- and her writing about that incident helpt make for a bit of a rapprochement with the country that still held Fear and Trembling against her -- but she doesn't very actively pursue going back. She assumes the TV-project will fall through, and even when it is finally approved it takes her quite a while to even just admit to her family that she's going to visit the old homeland. Even after she arrives, and is traveling to the childhood home of Shukugawa she asks: "Est-il prudent de revenir ?" ('Is it wise to return ?').
       Nothomb spent her earliest years in the Kansai region, and small-town Shukugawa, where her family lived, was devastated by the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The house she grew up in and much else is long gone -- though at least her kindergarten is still familiar (even if Nothomb is stunned to realize it is a Catholic institution, which she failed to notice as a young child). The reunion with Nishio-san then is, of course, emotional -- and sad, too, as the old woman lives in relative isolation, more or less abandoned by her own children.
       The meeting with Rinri also goes fine, even as Nothomb again asks herself why she didn't truly fall in love with this in pretty much every way exemplary-seeming man. Certainly, they've both moved on by now -- and Rinri can smile when asked about Nothomb's book about him, and call it: "Une charmante fiction" ('A charming fiction').
       Time, and people, have moved on, in their different ways. Nothomb's encounter is tinged with a deep nostalgia -- 懐かしい (natsukashii), the translator suggests, the 'nostalgie heureuse' of the title. It's effectively presented and portrayed, even as Nothomb rushes through her stations (Shukugawa and Kyoto, a side-trip to Fukushima, and Tokyo) in less than two weeks, barely even lingering. Indeed, the quickness, the almost superficiality of it, just grazing all the surfaces, effectively gets to the melancholy essence.
       Nothomb's usual quirky asides can also be found here -- including at the beginning, where the difficulties of reaching Japan by telephone seem to be dwelt on for rather more time than seems worthwhile (Nothomb dealing with spectacularly incompetent telephone operators, who, for example, insist there's no Belgian embassy to be found in Tokyo). But these preparations for the trip -- or, for example, a typically Nothonbian story about a sad bonsai tree she gets as a gift (and takes to the movies ...) -- also serve their purpose, slowly setting the stage and preparing her for what lies ahead.
       La nostalgie heureuse is perhaps too documentary, and too immediate -- there's a lot to be said for looking at things from a distance -- but it's still a charming and revealing work, a welcome additional piece of -- or perhaps gloss on -- the Nothomb-puzzle.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 December 2017

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Links:

La nostalgie heureuse: Reviews: Amélie 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, 13 August 1967.

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© 2017 the complete review

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