Amélie Nothomb: Riquet à la houppe [Riquet with the Tuft]
Riquet with the Tuft is one of the fairy stories written by Charles Perrault. While many of his stories are well known in their English version, this one is not. Nothomb, who now seems to have moved to writing modern day fables, has taken this story and updated it, setting it in modern times in and around Paris.
Enide wanted to be dancer but was deemed to be too thin. While crying about being thrown out of the dance school, the assistant chef, Honorat, consoled her. They were married the following year and have been together since then, some thirty years. Suddenly, at the age of forty-eight, Enide becomes pregnant. She is six months pregnant but no-one, including she herself, had noticed. She has a boy, Déodat (= God given). She notices and, soon everyone else notices, that the boy is remarkably ugly. She had even considered naming him Riquet with the Tuft but Honorat stuck to his guns.
The baby does not cry. Indeed, he is remarkably well-behaved and reacts well to his parents. In fact, the narrator suggests he has what in English is called emotional intelligence. We start seeing things from his point of view. For example, when a delivery man brings in some goods for Enide, he is surprised that his mother accepts this visitor. Even though he obviously cannot understand French yet, he is able to gain the sense from the sounds people make. He, however, does not make any sounds from his mouth. He does not even cry. He is surprised when his mother keep saying to him Mummy, Mummy, so, as babies imitate, he says it to her. She is naturally overjoyed and even more so more that evening when he says Daddy to his father.
His parents are overjoyed, to his surprise, so he decides to go one step further. The next day, he says to his mother That dress suits you very well, Mummy. She is so surprised that she says to him, Who are you, little chap?, to which he replies with his name. However, he finally cries – when he sees himself in a mirror and realises how ugly he is. However, he realises he can suffer with it or live with it and adapt. He chooses the second option.
We now move on to Lierre (= ivy) and Rose. They are much younger. They have a baby which they christen Trémière (rose-trémière is a climbing rose and this name combines both of the parents’ names). Trémière is a beautiful baby but does not do much, unlike the very active Déodat. Both parents have busy jobs (he is a videogame designer, she runs an art gallery) so that Trémière is shunted off to an elegant ruin. The elegant ruin is both Rose’s mother, Passerose (another type of climbing rose), and her large house in Fontainebleau. Trémière lies quietly. She is good at contemplation, Passerose tells her daughter. Granddaughter and grandmother get on very well so much so that Trémière’s first words, spoken when she is nearly two, are I love you, Granny. Her next words are I want to stay with you forever.
We follow the course of their lives. Both have a hard time at school. Déodat is teased for his ugliness and neither boys nor girls want anything to do with him. But Déodat is not stupid. He cultivates each boy individually and, gradually, he is accepted by all of them. He is helped by being very intelligent. The teachers are surprised that he can read and write, something he has taught himself, and he does so well that he can help the others with their homework. His parents have adamantly refused to have a television and he is keen on seeing one. He arranges to help one boy with his homework, in return for coming to his house one afternoon and watching TV. Déodat is mesmerised and cannot understand why his parents do not like TV. He eventually gets the message when he spends the night with the boy and the whole family spends all evening watching TV, even eating takeaway pizza in front of the TV.
However, he does not need other boys and, now that he has proved to himself that he can make friends, he becomes something of a loner again. He now has another interest. One day in the playground a bird craps on him. The other boys think it is very funny and tease him. He feels that he has been chosen by the bird. He becomes obsessed with birds and ornithology, something that will last him the rest of his life.
Trémière is having a difficult time. The other girls mock her for her stupidity, though she does get through her school work with satisfactory if not spectacular marks. However, she does not fit in but, like Déodat, she does not really care. By the time she has reached her teens, she is by far the most attractive girl in the class but the boys are put off by her apparent aloofness. (Nothomb has a long diatribe on what boys like in a girl which, she admits, she does not really understand.) A brief fling with a new boy does not go very well and puts her off boys.
Déodat has more luck with girls. Suddenly, in his teens, all the girls seem attracted to him, at least – the majority it seems – those whose first name begins with S and ends in A. But none of the relationships last long, as he feels they are too complaining and he feels that he is not affectionate enough. Their problems continue into adult life. Déodat gets married. It lasts three days. A record!, says the lawyer. An affair with his physiotherapist (called Saskia) does not work out either. Trémière has a few affairs but nothing lasting and nothing satisfactory. But both have done well in their careers and they are destined to meet on a TV interview programme.
Nothomb ends this novel with an afterword on the topic of happy endings. She states that the majority of French fairy tales have happy endings but that great literature, on the whole does not, two exceptions being War and Peace and Zola’s Ladies’ Delight. (I would add much of Jane Austen and Jane Eyre. Doubtless, there are many others.) She does not go into the reasons for this but I am inclined to share Tolstoy’s view All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In other words, happy families, happy love affairs and happy people are often not terribly interesting. Maybe a topic to be examined in more detail at another time.
Nothomb, despite her happy ending which we know is going to happen if we know the story of Riquet with the Tuft, updates Perrault’s tale well. She introduces elements that are not in Perrault (you can read the original (in English translation) here) and comments on contemporary society, all the while telling her fable well.
First published in 2016 by Albin Michel
No English translation