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the Complete Review
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Fear and Trembling

Amélie Nothomb

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Title: Fear and Trembling
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 175 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Fear and Trembling - US
Fear and Trembling - UK
Fear and Trembling - Canada
Stupeur et tremblements - Canada
Fear and Trembling - India
Stupeur et tremblements - France
Mit Staunen und Zittern - Deutschland
Stupore e tremori - Italia
Estupor y temblores - España
  • Translated by Adriana Hunter
  • French title: Stupeur et tremblements
  • Awarded the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie, 1999
  • Stupeur et tremblements was made into a film in 2003, directed by Alain Corneau and starring Sylvie Testud

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Our Assessment:

A- : sprightly and amusing picture of a piece of Japan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express A- 16/9/1999 Martine de Rabaudy
Libération C+ 23/9/1999 Pierre Marcelle
The LA Times . 4/3/2001 S.S.Reynolds
Le Monde A 16/9/1999 Hugo Marsan
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 30/1/2001 Martin Ebel
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 25/3/2001 Susan Chira
Die Presse A 17/2/2001 Vladimir Vertlib
The Spectator . 1/1/2000 Anita Brookner
Der Spiegel A 16/10/2000 Martin Wolf
Tages-Anzeiger C 20/10/2000 Martin Halter
TLS . 20/8/2004 Lucy Dallas
Wall St. Journal . 16/3/2001 Merle Rubin

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Those who like this sort of writing are enthusiastic, those who don't think it is just another of her simplistic pieces.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Cet exercice d'humiliation et de cruauté, qui la rétrogradera de la fonction d'interprète à celle de tourneuse de calendrier puis de vérificatrice de notes de frais pour la transformer finalement en dame pipi, n'est supportable à la lecture que grâce à la désopilante narration qu'en fait Amélie Nothomb - par moments petite soeur du Chaplin des Temps modernes." - Martine de Rabaudy, L'Express

  • "Le récit eût pu aussi bien s'intituler Amélie chez les fourmis et se révéler tout à fait spirituel, n'était la vanité (au jasmin) de la narratrice, toute boursouflée de prétentions ethnologiques et moralisantes, et qui ne le rend que rigolo." - Pierre Marcelle, Libération

  • "Again and again she bows, hilariously stubborn, to her host culture. Only her asides in this account betray any inclination toward revenge." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Stupeur et tremblements est un petit régal de lucidité et d'humour. La recette de la talentueuse romancière est dans l'art de produire un texte parfaitement calibré et dégraissé, une sorte d'élégante caricature." - Hugo Marsan, Le Monde

  • "Komisch ist nun nicht nur die leer laufende Mechanik, nicht nur der clash of cultures, der sich in einigen geradezu surrealen Dialogen austobt. Es ist auch der Kontrast zwischen dem Erzählten und dem Erzählton. Die Roman-Amélie geht über alle ihre Leiden so leichtfüssig und spielerisch hinweg, als sei sie in ein Mitmachtheaterstück mit etwas merkwürdigen Regeln geraten und nicht in harte Arbeitsrealität." - Martin Ebel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Nothomb (...) demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the intricate ways Japanese relationships are made and spoiled. And she has the classic Japanese corporation down dead to rights (.....) While at times the level of cruelty in her novel approaches caricature, Nothomb also has compassion for those Japanese who are imprisoned in this system." - Susan Chira, The New York Times Book Review

  • "An diesem Roman besticht der groteske Witz und die oft slapstickhaft wirkende Situationskomik. Virtuos geschrieben sind vor allem die Dialoge, bei denen die Mentalitätsunterschiede besonders plastisch zur Geltung kommen." - Vladimir Vertlib, Die Presse

  • "(A)n undisguisedly autobiographical account of her experiences working for a Japanese company, a recital of multiple humiliations, if anything too neat, too comprehensive to do more than provoke hilarity." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator

  • "Wie gut, dass sich keine so selbstironisch bemitleiden kann wie Amélie Nothomb." - Martin Wolf, Der Spiegel

  • "Die Abrechnung mit ihrem Geburtsland ist keine zart dahingetuschte Kalligrafie; sie trieft vor plumpem Rachedurst, triumphierendem Hohn und einem -- wie immer bei Nothomb -- körperlichen Ekel vor fetten, brüllenden Männern. Wir aber zittern nicht mit und staunen nur über die Naivität der Diplomatentochter." - Martin Halter, Tages-Anzeiger

  • "Fear and Trembling shares much that is good with The Book of Proper Names; it is dry, fearless, opinionated and gripping, but on the whole a much more dubious pleasure. (...) Fear and Trembling reads like a poison-pen letter to Japan" - Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Like her heroine, Ms. Nothomb knows when to quit. Her novel is not only small enough to put in a briefcase but over well before its vein of comedy becomes exhausted." - Merle Rubin, Wall Street Journal

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:

       Nothomb's autobiographical novel recounts a year (1990) spent working for a typical Japanese mega-firm, Yumimoto. Amélie-san, as the narrator is known, is distinctly on the lowest rung, and that in a very hierarchical business. A foreigner, albeit one who is fairly fluent in Japanese, her Western ways are at odds with the traditional Japanese system under which Yumimoto operates. Stuck in a position of absolutely no power or influence she nevertheless manages to unsettle her superiors.
       Shifted around from one mindless and useless task to another, Amélie-san shines a humorous light on the Japanese work ethic and Japanese work practices. Early on she is assigned the task of getting everyone their tea and coffee, a routine she soon has down pat. Asked to serve coffee for a visiting delegation from another company, she performs this task with the proper humility and grace expected of a subservient Japanese employee, pouring the twenty cups with Japanese refinement and care, and using the complex, proper Japanese formulae in addressing the guests. Instead of proving her worth it turns out to be a terrible loss of face for Yumimoto: the visiting delegation is suspicious of this European who audaciously seems to speak their language. She is dressed down by her bosses, who come up with the obvious solution to avoid similar faux pas in the future: Amélie-san is no longer to understand Japanese. While she sensibly argues that she was hired specifically because she does understand the language, and that she is of little use if she cannot communicate with her co-workers the edict stands (more or less -- in fact, she is apparently simply not to appear too Japanese to outsiders).
       Amélie-san learns to go through the proper channels when taking on new duties -- since she is reprimanded even for doing what is sensible and useful if she has not asked for permission from her superiors first. But even when she goes about it correctly, as when she assumes the harmless job of moving the little square that shows what day it is on all the wall-calendars, she manages to draw too much attention to herself. Punishment is swift and severe: in this instance she is assigned the Sisyphean task of photocopying a thousand page document for Mr. Saito, one of her main antagonists. Putting it in the automatic feed won't do -- Saito tosses aside the first set of copies, complaining that the copies are slightly off-center -- she has to make copies one by one. Needless to say even then the results don't please Saito, who has her repeat the exercise again and again.
       A ray of hope comes when another worker asks for her assistance. Tenshi (a name, significant like all the names in the book, that, the author reminds us, means "angel" in Japanese) needs her help in finding out as much about a Belgian butter substitute as possible. It is an urgent matter, and Amélie-san does all and more that is required. Instead of success, however, she meets with more disgrace. Even though she has done something useful for the company, by not doing it in the traditional manner she has caused more harm than good. Not least to herself.
       Mori Fubuki, a tall, stunning woman whom Amélie-san admires and sees as her friend turns out to be as close an adherent to company policy as anyone. Their relationship, which initially had been friendly, cools, and it is Fubuki that then directs what Amélie-san is to do. The Belgian sinks lower and lower, until she literally gets the lowliest position possible.
       There is much description and reflection on differing Occidental and Oriental attitudes and abilities, Amélie-san acknowledging her inferiority (at least in this place where ability is not always of greatest importance). Her gaffes are not only cultural -- she is not good with numbers, and is unfamiliar with the German abbreviation for "incorporated", ignorance which makes for other minor catastrophes -- but mainly it is the clash of cultures that is central to the book. Support and solidarity comes from unlikely sources, as do flashes of enmity. For all her good intentions (and most of them are good) Amélie-san is unable to adjust to the deferential, hidebound Japanese corporate culture, never properly approaching authority with the quivering stupor of the title. ("Stupeur et tremblements" is, readers are told late in the book, the humble (and scared) attitude -- the "fear and trembling" -- with which one addresses the Japanese Emperor, the ultimate figure of authority.)
       Amélie-san writes practically nothing of her life outside the workplace, leaving most of Japan unseen. This is a novel of corporate Japan, representative of Japan at large and yet not a true mirror. Nothomb acknowledges as much; her gazes from the window of the skyscraper housing the firm (and her thoughts of jumping) hint at a larger picture beyond. But Nothomb is as concerned with human relationships and dynamics, and these she conveys well. There is some exaggeration in these characters, and some simplification, but it almost never comes across as mere caricature.
       Nothomb writes fairly sparely, making for a short book. There are many amusing episodes and conversations, and there is also always the suggestion of more behind it. The book does, cleverly, provoke thought, moving from antic beginnings to a poignant close.
       Nothomb has a fine light style and wry voice that makes her books easily digestible. An entertaining read, a somewhat different view of Japan (as much about Nothomb herself as the country), it can certainly be recommended.

Please note and consider that this review is based on the original (French) version of the novel.

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Fear and Trembling: Reviews: Stupeur et tremblements - the film: Amélie Nothomb: Other books by Amélie Nothomb under review: Books about Amélie Nothomb under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

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

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