“When the imminent demise of the great writer Prétextat Tach became public knowledge—he was given two months to live—journalists the world over requested private interviews with the eighty-year-old gentleman. …Monsieur Tach viewed his diagnosis [of the rare Elzenveiverplatz Syndrome, cartilage cancer] as a hitherto unhoped for ennoblement: with his hairless, obese physique—that of a eunuch in every respect except for his voice—he dreaded dying of some stupid cardiovascular disease.”
And then the unsuspecting journalists begin to arrive for their long, sharp, demeaning lashings. Prétextat Tach isn’t just a genius; he’s a misanthropic, crazed blowhard.
It isn’t every day you read something so unorthodox and dark and joyful that it challenges you to remember why you fell in love with reading in the first place. To begin with, tell me the last time you encountered a novel written purely in dialogue? I remember one. It was a faceless toss-out I found for 50 cents in a now defunct used book store 15 years ago; I began yawning before page ten and abandoned it to a lice-ridden fate. Now can you think of a novel, or any book really, that requires virtually no exposition and no devices to carry it other than the paper on which it’s written? Nothing comes to mind for me other than the Dialogues of Plato. Is that a rare compliment?
Europa Editions’ recent 2010 translation into English of Hygiene and the Assassin, by Belgian Amélie Nothomb, is more a series of pure ideas than a novel. Any longer than 160 pages and it would likely have gone flat. The gall of undertaking to write a book about such a creature as a Prétextat Tach, a hideous, obese, bigoted, misogynist writer two months away from death, solely through the vehicle of dialogue, banter, insults and verbal slaps is frightening.
As Tach himself opines to one of the journalists come to interview him, “One must have balls, a prick, lips and a hand to write.” And of course, as you would expect from a reclusive genius character, Tach’s standards are considerably whopping, and they are racist, pathological and unrealistic. He sends the first three interviewers on their way, crying, vomiting, and shaking their heads. If there was one thing I didn’t quite buy completely in the book, it was the extreme, visceral nature of their reactions to Tach, but later I mea-culpaed on that. When Nina, the last journalist to interview him, arrives he is disgusted by her womanhood (he is disgusted by women, period, no pun intended). Nina, however, does more than hold her own. The climax of the book is a breathlessly perverse act of literary erotic asphyxiation, as thrilled and titillated as you become when you see Nina’s ruthless lasso of interrogation close around Tach’s bizarre past. The micro-story of Tach’s youth, strange and full of pathological mental marrow, belongs in something from de Sade and begs for its own little volume. I woke up the following night with it knocking around in my head troubling me like an earworm.
Nothomb, by the way, wrote Hygiene and the Assassin when she was 25, and publishes a new book every year. I don’t want to hear anything else about James Franco from now on, okay?
Ingenious dialogue that is suspenseful, smart, and brilliantly expository; insults that reveal character; lopsided intellect that uses the first three journalistic buffoons as interlocutors just as unwitting and unaware of their childishness as Plato’s sophists; all of this along with the interspersion of truth and logic among Tach’s many baffling prejudices carry Hygiene and the Assassin to a surprising and delightful ending that raises questions about what, if anything, was the meaning and who, if anyone, was the winner.
“So, to get back to our balls. They are the most vital organ a writer has. If he has no balls, a writer uses his words in the service of bad faith. To give you an example, let’s take a gifted writer, and give him something to write about. With solid balls, you get Death on Credit. Without balls, you get La nausée.”
“Don’t you think you’re simplifying somewhat?”
“Are you, a journalist, serious? And here I’ve been trying, out of the goodness of my heart, to bring myself down to your level!”
“I never asked you to. What I want is a precise and methodical definition of what you mean by ‘balls.'”
“Why? Don’t tell me you are trying to write some sort of Tach Made Easy for the general public?”
“You know, there’s always a handful of idle people—vegetarians, budding critics, masochistic students and other nosy sorts—who actually read the books they buy. I wanted to carry out my experiment on those people. I wanted to prove that I could write the worst things imaginable about my own person, without impunity: this deed of self-incrimination, as you so rightly describe it, is rigorously authentic… I can allow myself to stray dangerously close to the truth, and all anyone will ever see is metaphors. There’s nothing surprising about that: the pseudo-reader, clad in his diving suit, can swim perfectly impermeably through my bloodiest sentences. From time to time he will exclaim with delight, ‘What a lovely symbol!’ That is what you call reading. A marvelous invention, very pleasant to practice in bed before falling asleep; it calms the mind and doesn’t even dirty the sheets.”
My favorite takeaways from the novel were Tach’s excoriations of “frogman” readers and his vaulted odes to balls and ballsy writing. And by the way, I had none of the qualms with this translation by Alison Anderson that I had with her translation of The Elegance of the Hedgehog—that one didn’t translate seamlessly into English, and it was a bit rough around the edges of its expressions.
I enjoyed this almost in the way one would enjoy a parable cut out of a much larger, didactic, philosophical novel. It’s very nearly Grand Inquisitor-esque (another massive compliment coming from someone whose literary hero is Ivan Karamazov). If you enjoy that high-flying sort of wonderful, “pointless” thing, you will relish Hygiene and the Assassin. If you don’t, you may find it a tedious exercise in dictionary-flipping argumentation.
All of Nothomb’s books are now on my to-read list; she is the author of Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling, also an excellent movie).