There are plenty of faults to be found in Hemingway’s writing. The man could be accused of writing stories the way some people write shopping lists, the kind of people who send you fuming through the aisles of the grocery store with unnecessary details like “crusted white bread,” “chicken poultry,” and “hand-sized gloves.” You can know the addresses of half the bars in Montparnasse before setting foot in Paris just by reading The Sun Also Rises, and yet have no clear idea what state the protagonist’s genitalia is in.
The easiest way to dismiss Hemingway, though, seems to be to cast him, without historical context, as a sexist, a chauvinist who almost certainly had tingly feelings for F. Scott Fitzgerald that he couldn’t express without punching someone. Certainly, probably, all true allegations.
Amélie Nothomb’s Pétronille gives the reader a way to judge the techniques of Hemingway without any dangling junk getting in the way. There are as many male characters in it as there are female characters in any given Hemingway novel. If we were adrift in space, our warp nacelles drained of power, we could throw the two short books together, creating an explosion of matter and anti-matter that would send us clear to the other side of the galaxy.
“Intoxication doesn’t just happen,” Nothomb, novelist, writes as a character named Amélie Nothomb, who is also a novelist. “It’s an art, one that requires talent and application.
“Haphazard drinking leads nowhere.” Had Hemingway read this in the months before he set pen to paper on The Sun Also Rises, he might’ve given the book up for lost; its entire premise revolves around drinking as a mechanical, reflexive part of moving through life, as rote and meaningless as lighting a cigarette the second you rise to street level from the Métro.
In the book, fictional Amélie Nothomb befriends the eponymous Pétronille, a young writer and fan of the author who looks like a “fifteen year old boy.” She is more or less the companion Nothomb has been looking for: a “comvivion” with whom she can share the ephemeral joy of getting almost tanked on champagne. The two become close in the way that only truly closed-off people can, seeming to take each other for granted—Pétronille begins writing books, gets published, and the two both take it as a fait accompli, nothing extraordinary.
As Nothomb’s character passes through the novel, her momentum, her narrative EKG hums along languidly. All the action, all the excitement is put on Pétronille, a symbol of youth overtaking age in the unending cycle of creative life, but the cartoonish extremes of that life seem arbitrary; events happened that seem designed to give the character meaning rather than the character giving meaning to the events. If fictional Amélie Nothomb is the mundane, rut-stuck middle-aged protagonist, Pétronille is the young, erratic savior, the Clementine to Nothomb’s Joel in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, the Natalie Portman to her Zach Braff in Garden State. If there’s anything transgressive about Pétronille, it’s that there is never any sense that the title character will pay off in the way most Manic Pixie Dream Girls do—she persistently flames out and never comes close to igniting something dormant in Nothomb. She is, perhaps, the embodiment of the fallacy itself, a cigarette you can feel turning your cells cancerous.
Pétronille gets by on its pace and brevity—a longer version would disintegrate under the too-weak nuclear force at its center. It is frequently funny where it seeks to be, although some potential laughs struggle to escape the thick plastic wrap of the book’s indifferent, flat tone. Vivienne Westwood makes an emphatic appearance like an amorous matador but disappears from the text without having bent any of the pages. Pétronille is very much the skeletal frame of Hemingway novel, some kind of reconciliation between the crowded safari of The Sun Also Rises and the stationary duet of The Garden Of Eden. After twenty-three novels, it’s difficult to imagine that any of this wasn’t exactly Nothomb’s intention.