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the Complete Review
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Les aérostats

Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase Les aérostats

Title: Les aérostats
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020
Length: 175 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Les aérostats - Canada
Les aérostats - France
Gli aerostati - Italia
Los aerostatos - España
  • Les aérostats has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : doesn't quite come off, but has enough appealing aspoects to it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
il manifesto . 28/3/2021 Paolo Tamassia
La Presse . 6/9/2020 Sylvain Sarrazin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Amélie Nothomb fa convivere finzione e autobiografia in un testo tanto esile nella trama quanto denso nelle sue poste in gioco estetiche, letterarie, esistenziali." - Paolo Tamassia, il manifesto

  • "Fidèle à son style, Amélie Nothomb ne s’embarrasse pas de formulations alambiquées, de digressions touffues, de galeries de personnages tentaculaires. Sans même rentrer dans le texte, la simple mise en page nous annonce un livre digeste, aux chapitres succincts et avenants. Les aérostats respire le récit bien aéré, qui se lit comme une partition d’Erik Satie. Mais ce dépouillement apparent, contrairement aux manœuvres de certains auteurs tablant sur la simplicité sans substance à des fins commerciales, se trouve être la clé d’une concentration littéraire terriblement efficace. (...) Amélie Nothomb nous charme, encore une fois, avec son univers décalé et ses personnages intrigants." - Sylvain Sarrazin, La Presse

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:

       Les aérostats ('The Airships') is narrated by nineteen-year-old aspiring philologist Ange Daulnoy. The novel opens with the university student describing her living situation with her flatmate, the difficult and demanding Donate -- a move up from her previous year's student lodgings, but no picnic. However, it's a different relationship that then emerges as the central one in the novel, as Ange is hired to tutor sixteen-year-old Pie Roussaire. His father, Grégoire, wants Ange to help Pie with his schoolwork, telling her the boy is dyslexic.
       Pie claims never to have read a book, but clearly he is not dyslexic. With Ange whetting his appetite, he soon enough has polished off the Iliad in a single day, and the Odyssey in four (he much preferred the Iliad). New to Brussels, he has basically made no friends here and latches on to Ange, wanting to spend more time with her and imagining them as a couple. Ange -- only slightly less isolated, as she has failed to connect with her fellow students -- mostly tries to keep things professional, but is intrigued by Pie.
       As in many of Nothomb's novels, much of it is in the form of the back and forth of quick conversation -- between tutor and student, as well as the other significant characters in the book. Ange also engages in varieties of banter and repartee with the hovering Grégoire, who spies on Ange's lessons through a one-way mirror, as well as Donate and then the divorced professor who asks Ange out; she also meets Pie's remarkably dull-witted mother.
       Ange teaches Pie a bit about the actual world -- they visit a museum (in the hopes of seeing a zeppelin exhibited), for example, which involves Pie taking a tram for the first time in his life (he gets dropped off at school by the chauffeur in the family Ferrari ...) -- but most of the lessons come through the books they read and discuss. The discussions are hardly in-depth -- mostly, Pie just reports whether or not he liked a book, and gives some rough idea what appealed to him about it, or didn't -- but the progression, and the comments along the way, are suggestive, building a backdrop for the situations Nothomb sketches out here. There is Kafka's The Metamorphosis -- a text that Ange discovered when she was fifteen and remains a great fan of, and about which she suggests: "Chaque adolescence est une version de ce texte" ('Every adolescence is a version of this text'). And Pie is taken by Raymond Radiguet's The Devil in the Flesh, not least because it involves a sixteen year-old boy sleeping with a nineteen-year-old woman ... (on the other hand, he then detests Count D'Orgel's Ball). Pie also struggles some with another of Ange's favorites, Madame de Lafayette's The Princesse de Clèves -- a book it takes him a week to get through.
       Early on, Grégoire objected to Ange going off topic (and off-site) in her interaction with Pie, but she responds that: "Tout peut être littéraire" ('Everything can be literary'), and it is through the literary that she and Pie connect, and Pie is introduced to a slightly larger world than the over-protective limited one he has been raised in and otherwise inhabits. Among the surprises for Ange is Grégoire's marvelous, extensive library that Pie shows her -- but, as he reveals, it is one that is purely for show: his father hasn't read a single one of the books in it. Still, Ange has now at least opened the doors to it, so to speak, for Pie. For Ange, too, the literary -- and language itself (she is studying philology, after all) -- are the foundations, though at least she engages some with a variety of people, rather than just withdrawing completely into it.
       Pie's parents lead completely empty lives -- they are truly vacuous -- and Pie worries about following in their footsteps. Ange has changed him -- "Grâce à vous, je suis un lecteur", he tells her -- and this leads him also to action, in the novel's dramatic turn at the end. It is a bit much, the foundations not quite there in what leads up to it, but not entirely surprising or inappropriate; it also allows for Ange to learn her Nothombian lesson in the nice conclusion, where she notes that: "La jeunesse est un talent, il faut des années pour l'acquérir" ('Youth is a talent; it takes years to acquire it') -- and that now, many years later, she finally has.
       It is an engaging enough story of adolescence and of beginning to make one's way into adulthood, with a passion for the literary appealingly woven through the story, but it meanders a bit too loosely with some of the relationships, Nothomb not sure how much to make of the figures of Donate and the professor who asks Ange out. A typically short Nothomb-novel, it can't cover all these bases well enough -- while then also leaving somewhat less attention devoted to Pie and his family than that might have warranted.
       It makes for a somewhat off-balance feel to the novel, but aspects of the sketch that Les aérostats is -- Brussels, and being a young university student with unsure footing (including academically and socially) -- are excellent (Nothomb again clearly mining the autobiographical well), and leaves a satisfying aftertaste. If Les aérostats and its stories don't quite come off to make for a fully satisfying stand-alone, it's a welcome addition to Nothomb's body of work as a whole -- yet another small piece adding bits to the larger whole.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 April 2024

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Les aérostats: 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, 13 August 1967.

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© 2024 the complete review

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