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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Le voyage d'hiver

Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase Le voyage d'hiver

Title: Le voyage d'hiver
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: pages
Original in: French
Availability: Le voyage d'hiver - France
Le voyage d'hiver - Canada
Winterreise - Deutschland
Il viaggio d'inverno - Italia
Viaje de invierno - España
  • Le voyage d'hiver has not been translated into English yet

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Our Assessment:

B+ : vivid, dark, and cold -- though a bit easily (and drastically) rounded off

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 3/9/2009 François Busnel
Le Figaro . 17/9/2009 Mohammed Aïssaoui
De Standaard . 18/12/2009 Alexandra De Vos

  From the Reviews:
  • "Une fantaisie burlesque, cocasse, loufoque, délirante, diablement enlevée et au titre mystérieusement emprunté au dernier cycle de mélodies de Schubert. (...) Amélie Nothomb apporte un peu de légèreté dans un monde d'une terrifiante gravité. Son nouveau roman est épatant !" - François Busnel, L'Express

  • "Pour le reste, on retrouve ce qui fait le charme de la romancière : des aphorismes sortis de nulle part et qui forcent à penser, des scènes insensées, des morceaux d'érudition, de l'autodérision servie généreusement." - Mohammed Aïssaoui, Le Figaro

  • "Haar aforismen zijn op dreef, haar personages zijn even maf als hun namen, maar trouw aan de cru van vorig jaar is ze weer het slot vergeten. Was de inspiratie op, heeft Nothomb niet genoeg sterke thee gezet, of heeft ze er plezier in om de lezers in verwarring achter te laten ? De winterreis is een beetje déjà lu, maar zwaar op de maag ligt de teleurstelling niet." - Alexandra De Vos, De Standaard

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:

       Near the end of Le voyage d'hiver the narrator, Zoïle, explains that when he goes through with what he has planned he will be thinking of the Schubert song-cycle, Winterreise -- "parce qu'il n'y a aucun rapport entre cet acte et cette musique" ('because there is no connection between my act and that music'). Giving his entire story the same title -- 'Winter's journey' -- has already suggested otherwise, and having recounted his story of lost love and loneliness readers by this point know only too well that, in fact, the Schubert that he plans to have going through his head is the perfect soundtrack to his life at this point.
       Zoïle reveals what he has planned in the novel's opening scene, as he goes through airport security at Charles de Gaulle/Roissy. He complains about how annoying the procedure is -- and how he always sets off the metal-detector -- and recalls that once he even joked: "Vous croyez vraiment que je veux faire exploser l'avion ?" ('You really think I'm going to blow up the plane ?') -- leading, of course, to a full-body search. He doesn't joke this time -- but he admits (to the readers):

Or je vais vraiment faire exploser l'avion de 13 h 30.

[This time, I'm actually going to blow up plane at 1:30.]
       Zoïle gets to the airport far too early. He finds himself compelled to write in his remaining hours, penning this record as he waits for his (last) flight, in a sort of ultimate gesture of futility, since the document is destined to go up in flames along with him and everyone else before anyone can read it ("J'ai quatre heures devant moi pour assouvir ce curieux besoin: écrire ce qui n'aura pas le temps d'être lu"). (Except, of course, that the reader is, in fact, reading his words ...; as usual, Nothomb -- famous for her own unpublished manuscripts (three or so tucked in her drawer for every one she actually makes public) -- likes to play with the writer/reader/book disconnects.)
       So what leads a guy to such a desperate act ? Not surprisingly (Schubert's Winterreise echoing in the ears ...), it's a story of failed love -- though Nothomb's romantic vision is a broader one, as she (through her characters) maintains:
il y pas d'échec amoureux. C'est une contradiction des termes. Eprouver l'amour est déjà un tel triomphe que l'on pourrait se demander pourquoi l'on veut d'avantage.

[there is no such things as 'failure' in love. It's a contradiction in terms. To experience love is already such a triumph that one can wonder why one would ask for anything more.]
       But this is a would-be love story that, in the relationship's failure, does drive Zoïle to such an extreme and desperate act.
       Zoïle gets saddled with his name because his parents were expecting a girl and had already settled on the name Zoé -- and were so enamored of the name that they settled on Zoïle when he turned out to be a boy. (The historical figure with that name was a feeble Greek Sophist -- and early interpreter of Homer -- Ζωΐλος -- which did inspire Zoïle to go through a brief, intense Homer-translating phase.) He eventually wound up with a job for the French utility company EDF, and it's this that leads him to the house of Astrolabe and Aliénor.
       'Winter's Journey' is a bitterly cold tale, and the house of the two women its frigid pit: living there without the means to properly insulate or heat the place, the women wear layers upon layers of clothes. Zoïle is shocked by the conditions (though he notes it feels much colder there than the actual temperature would suggest) -- but quickly taken by Astrolabe, even as it takes him a while to work out the domestic situation they have going.
       Astrolabe and Aliénor are an unusual pair: the one a young beauty, the other, Aliénor, a grotesque figure who comes across as mentally retarded and whose utterances Zoïle can't understand. One of them is (of course) a quite successful writer (of Nothomb-like works), but with Aliénor almost entirely reliant on Astrolabe -- and Astrolabe dedicated to the grotesque Aliénor -- they form a symbiotic and near-inseparable entity.
       Zoïle falls desperately in love with Astrolabe (and could do without Aliénor), but they're a package, and the romantic affair Zoïle longs for falters under these frigid, oppressive conditions (and demented Aliénor's unrelenting gaze -- as she doesn't sjust observe them, she reads the would-be couple and their intimate actions).
       Eventually, Zoïle tries something drastic: if reality can not be changed, what about the perception of reality ? He sends the three of them on a different kind of journey, as they ingest magic mushrooms and trip out. The women actually enjoy it, in their own ways, but it doesn't lead Zoïle to his destination. Instead, a cold wind still blows (yes, this is one icy novel).
       After that, he decides on the course of action that leads to what he's just about set to do now. There's some planning involved, but one of the book's weaknesses is that it's a pretty harebrained scheme and doesn't sound like it would actually fly -- but it's unclear whether Nothomb is really so lazily naïve about contemporary airplane security (she's often lax in this sort of unlikely detail), or whether the sheer implausibility of Zoïle's plan is part of the point: is it meant to be obvious that he fails ? (After all, we are reading the text he took with him on the meant-to-be-ill-fated flight .....) But if he is meant to fail, then it's hard to see how she could have left his actual failure out of the book, revealing how that trip worked out.
       Le voyage d'hiver is short and very dark, and an unusual not-quite-love-story. Astrolabe and Aliénor are nominally separate individuals -- very different ones, in fact -- but they are a symbiotic whole and single entity. Zoïle's vision of a traditional kind of love affair with Astrolabe alone proves untenable, even as Astrolabe is receptive to at least some of his advances and reciprocates some of his feelings. But love, here, proves far more difficult.
       The extreme way out -- of love, and life, and loneliness -- Zoïle selects would be more effective if it were slightly more convincing, but otherwise Le voyage d'hiver packs the usual Nothombian punch, with some clever ideas and very nice turns of phrase. It's not your usual romantic tale -- and one that perhaps could have been fleshed out a bit more (Nothomb doesn't even revel in Aliénor's grotesqueness with as much ardor as she usually shows for such figures) -- but still quite successful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 April 2013

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Le voyage d'hiver: 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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