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Amélie Nothomb: Le crime du comte Neville [The Crime of Count Neville]

Henri, Count Neville, owns a château with extensive forests in the Belgian Ardennes. His family has owned them for over two hundred years. However, Henri is now completely broke and will have to sell. He is particularly devastated at losing his heritage and is worried that whoever buys the château may well knock it down and chop down the forests. He is even more worried that it may be bought by a restaurant chain who might Disneyfy it. This, not surprisingly, causes him sleepless nights.

Henri is sixty-eight. He married a woman, Alexandra, twenty years his junior when in his early forties. His father strictly forbade Henri from marrying Alexandra, as he felt, rightly, that Henri was only marrying her for her beauty and not for her family background, which was only minor aristocracy. Henri disobeyed his father and has been proved right, as he is still very much in love with Alexandra. They have three children. The oldest two – Orestes and Electra – are everything a parent could want – bright, industrious, obedient and lively. The youngest one, now seventeen, Sérieuse, was like her older siblings but, since reaching puberty, has changed. She is morose, sullen and solitary. She does not speak at the dinner table and, after dinner, goes up to her room and reads. She has no friends.

Henri has two strong points. He is scrupulously honest. He worked for many years as the manager of an exclusive golf club/restaurant. He could have helped himself and made a lot of money, which would have been very useful now but was too honest. His other great skill is as a host. He has always been the perfect, genial host and, indeed, learned much from King Baudoin, who once visited the golf club and spoke to everyone as though they were the most important person in the world. The Nevilles hold a sumptuous garden party at the château every year and Henri prides himself on his ability as a host. The cost of this means that it is bread and water for the rest of the year, but it is a long family tradition, from well before Henri was born. This year’s, however, will be the last and Henri is naturally saddened by it but is determined to go out in style.

At the start of the novel, he receives a phone call one morning from a local clairvoyant. She had been wandering in the forest late at night, picking mushrooms, when she came across Sérieuse, out on her own and clearly very cold. The clairvoyant had taken her in. The Nevilles had not noticed her absence, assuming that she was still in her room. When her father picks her up, Sérieuse tells him that she merely wanted to see what it was like to spend a night out in the open and she was not in any danger or, indeed, particularly cold. The clairvoyant expresses her concern to Henri and also foretells the future. He will soon hold a sumptuous gathering, which, obviously, he is well aware of, and, at this gathering, he will kill one of the guests.

Henri is very perturbed by this. He is not too worried about the thought of killing someone. After all, accidents do happen. However, he feels that killing one of his guests would really detract from his reputation as a host. He could, of course, discount the clairvoyant’s prediction but feels that it will come true and, anyway, this is a fable, and not real life. He makes a list of the guests and picks, from a shortlist, those that he would not be sorry to see die. One particularly obnoxious person is selected. He consults a friend, an expert on the Belgian aristocracy, and asks whether there is any precedent for this. There is and, as long as it is done in the heat of the moment, his family’s social reputation will not suffer. However, if it is done in cold blood, they will be excluded by everyone. While wondering what to do, Sérieuse comes to see him and reveals that she has overheard his conversation both with the clairvoyant and the aristocratic expert. She has a solution. He should kill her. She is tired of life and feels no emotion and would welcome death.

Nothomb herself descends from the Belgian aristocracy. Indeed, the sale of the Nothomb château is mentioned in this book. It is clear that while she mildly mocks them for their foibles, old-fashioned customs and strange ways, she also retains a strong affection for them. She praises their noblesse oblige approach to life and their preservation of an ancient way of life. It is clear that she feels the passing of, at least, the Belgian aristocracy is not a good thing.

This novel is a fable. It is set in the contemporary period, with much of the paraphernalia of modern living, but it is also set exclusively in an old château and its surrounding forests and exclusively concerns the aristocracy and the people they have immediate contact with. The plot is relatively simple and has a few of the features of the traditional fable – the noble aristocrat, the slightly unbalanced daughter, the beautiful wife and the strange clairvoyant in the woods. As such, it is something of a new approach for Nothomb but, as with her other works, though light, it is a good tale, well told.

Publishing history

First published in 2015 by Albin Michel
No English translation