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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Human Rites

Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase Human Rites

Title: Human Rites
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Drama
Written: 1994 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 89 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Human Rites - US
Human Rites - UK
Human Rites - Canada
Les combustibles - Canada
Human Rites - India
Les combustibles - France
Libri da ardere - Italia
  • French title: Les combustibles
  • Translated by Natalie Abrahami
  • Les combustibles has also been made into an opera, with music and libretto by Daniel Schell (1997)

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Our Assessment:

B : solid premise, solid repartee

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard F 9/1/2005 Claire Allfree
The Independent . 10/1/2005 Paul Taylor
The Observer . 8/1/2005 Kate Kellaway
Sunday Times B+ 16/1/2005 John Peter
The Telegraph D- 8/1/2005 Charles Spencer
The Times C- 7/1/2005 Benedict Nightingale

  Review Consensus:

  Generally don't think it works very well

  From the Reviews:
  • "Unfortunately, not only is the play's premise crudely contrived, the dialogue is stiff with enforced formality. As a ménage a trois unconvincingly develops, the characters' pseudo-philosophical arguments -- over, ultimately, what it means to be human -- tangle themselves in knots, smothering any clear intellectual agenda or emotional credibility." - Claire Allfree, Evening Standard

  • "Weighing up the relative merits of protecting his library and his progeny in time of war, Evelyn Waugh grimly joked that children can be replaced, books can't. The trouble with Human Rites is that the characters aren't confronted by any comparably agonising dilemma. They are ciphers whose decline is dramatised so systematically that the effect is smug." - Paul Taylor, The Independent

  • "(T)he relentlessly adversarial tone of the piece is wearing -- and while there is no shortage of intellectual kindling, there is not enough solid fuel (characterisation, incident, plot development) with which to stoke a drama." - Kate Kellaway, The Observer

  • "The play's original title is Les combustibles and Natalie Abrahami's English title is a mistake: perhaps she should have called it Auto-da-fé, an act of faith, an act of burning, a combustion of values. (...) It is cerebral and severe, but it also has fiery moral passion." - John Peter, Sunday Times

  • "Like many writers admired by the French, Nothomb seems more interested in ideas than in people, more concerned with intellectual elegance than emotional truth. Her play attempts to be mordant yet witty, fashionably minimalist yet concerned with mighty themes, but the effect is ultimately exasperating. (...) The problem with the piece is that, while it attempts to ask the same profound question that haunts King Lear (...) the writing is too slight and self-consciously smart to capture characters at the very limit of human endurance. (...) Philip Larkin once concluded that books were a load of crap. Despite flickers of talent, the same goes for this play about book-burning." - Charles Spencer, The Telegraph

  • "(I)t seems a pretty thinky, wordy and, at times, self-consciously literary piece. (...) The ending is not wholly pessimistic, either about books or people, but the piece as a whole is as bleak as Bosnia in January. Bleak and not wholly believable." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

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:

[Note that this review is based on the original French text, not Natalie Abrahami's translation, which I have not seen. All translations of the text cited in the review are mine.]

       Amélie Nothomb's novels often feature protagonists holed up in isolation, the entire action the back and forth between two or three characters, away from any outside and real-life tumult; often, the books seem practically stage-set -- and it's no surprise that she had a go at a straight-for-the-stage variation, too, as she has here. Nominally a drama, but presented without the trappings of a published play -- a cast of characters, for example --, the three-act piece can easily pass for a dialogue-driven novel.
       There are only three characters; the Professor (of literature), his student Daniel, and Daniel's fiancée, Marina. The setting is the huge library in the Professor's home, the time, the second -- and very cold -- winter of a war. The enemy is described only as 'the barbarians', and with their relentless bombing and destruction they are living up to the designation.
       Both Daniel and Marina still venture out, but the Professor can't be bothered any longer. At least the war gives him time to read -- and time to read the books he wants to, disillusioning Daniel, who finds his mentor's true tastes aren't quite the high literature he drilled into his students. And while the Professor is willing to slum it some, at least literarily speaking, he tries to maintain a certain sense of standards and decorum: despite the cold, for example, he refuses to wear his coat indoors.
       The cold is a problem, however. A big problem. When the story opens the library is practically empty: there are just a few chairs left, and a big stove, as all the other furnishings have been burnt to warm the place. Now there's very little left that might serve as fuel. Those chairs ... and the books that fill the shelves of the huge library, as Marina points out.
       Daniel tells Marina that: "Ce n'est pas du combustible" ('That's not fuel'), but she points out that they'd burn just fine. The Professor elaborates, suggesting that if they're reduced to burning books then they've really lost the war -- with Marina pointing out that the war has long been lost.
       Getting desperate, they do consider it. Maybe some books deserve to go up in flames ? The Professor says he never liked the question of what book(s) one would take to a desert island -- but he is intrigued by the question of what books one would be willing to destroy. Giving in to the situation, he accepts the mantle of 'professor d'autodafé'.
       At the beginning of the first act the bookshelves are packed full; at the beginning of the second, most of the shelves are already empty; and when the third opens there's only a sad pile of ten or so volumes left. So they go through with it, burning book after book. Nothomb has some fun with the selection process -- though she dodges the tough question by using fictional authors and works, as barely any real authors or books find mention, much less are put up on the chopping block (Fahrenheit 451 gets a mention -- with the Professor noting how hopeless that book's solution to cultural preservation (of memorizing the vital books) is in the current situation). And the scenario of course allows for some discussion of what the purpose of literature is -- 'not to warm you up', the Professor insists to Marina, though she's not convinced.
       Human Rites isn't merely a debate about the value of art and literature in extreme situations. The Professor also does his best to seduce Marina -- and among his excuses is that Daniel is a cad who plays the same game year in, year out, taking a student in the final year of her studies as a lover, and then ending their affair when she graduates. Daniel claims things are diffferent with Marina -- but then everything is different in these conditions that push the characters to extremes.
       Nothomb is, as always, very good in pitting her very different characters against each other. Unsurprisingly, she prefers one-on-one confrontations and so, for example, the entire second act has only the Professor and Marina jousting, with Daniel absent for the time being. The mix of literary and existential debate is entertaining too -- building up to that around the final book, that even Marina supports saving (and no, it ain't high literature).
       It is Marina that quotes a real author -- Georges Bernanos, of all people -- throwing his: "L'enfer, c'est le froid" ('Hell is the cold' -- with an obvious wink at Sartre's famous "Hell is other people') at the Professor. The Professor suggests he meant it rather differently, but Marina argues for the literal reading in these extreme times.
       The characters probe the questions as to what there might be to hold onto beyond the hellish cold -- other people ? love ? immortal art ? -- in Nothomb's customary sharp and pointed sparring. At play-size Human Rites is even shorter than the usual Nothomb novel, limiting how far she can take it; she gets to her points speedily and succinctly (and still nicely slyly). The glorious premise -- of what books are, or might be, worth saving -- isn't utilized to the fullest -- perhaps the biggest drawback of the limits of the stage-presentation -- but it's used well enough.
       Human Rites is enjoyable as a bite-sized read, and probably plays better in the reader's head than on the stage: although she has a theatric flair, Nothomb's dialogues and setups tend to the cerebral. So also she prefers to present invented books and authors going up in flames, and this made-up feel -- to this and the rest of the piece -- probably feels too artificial in real-life (or on the stage), but it works just fine on the page.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 February 2017

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Human Rites: 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 Drama books
  • 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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