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Amélie Nothomb: Les prénoms épicènes [The Epicene First Names]

The word epicene is used for a noun, describing an animate object that can apply to both or either sexes. Obvious examples in English are parent, teacher and cat. When it is used, as in this case, to refer to first names, it refers to names that can be used for both males and females. Obvious examples in English are Robin, Hilary and Lesley/Leslie. In this book, two of the main characters have first names that are epicene in French: Claude and Dominique. The book could perhaps be described as a fable, even though it is set in modern France and mainly in Paris, or may even even be a parable, a fable with a moral to it.

There is a brief introduction in which a woman called Reine dumps her boyfriend, telling him she is off to marry another man who has made something of himself as, for her, there is more to life than love and sex, not least because she has seen how her mother has essentially ended up as her father’s maid and their early love has faded away.

The book then moves to Brest in 1970. Dominique (a woman) is twenty-five. She lives with her parents, has a good job with a company called Terrage and has no boyfriend. A man called Claude approaches her one day and starts talking to her. He tells her that he is soon off to Paris to set up a company. Dominique tells him the she has never been to Paris. He informs her that she soon will, when she is married to him.

Dominique is somewhat intimidated by Claude’s approach and, initially, resists him but she is flattered by his approach and finds him charming and handsome. When she takes him to meet her parents, he is charming and they are impressed. The clincher is when he buys her a bottle of Chanel No 5. The pair get married and move to Paris. The live in a nice flat but not a great one.

Claude is eager to start a family, but it does not seem to happen. They try and try but she does not get pregnant. She goes to the gynaecologist, who tells her that there are no problems with her. Eventually, he has tests and there is nothing wrong with him. But, finally, she does get pregnant. It is an awful pregnancy. She is in continual pain and the doctors can find nothing abnormal. However, she finally gives birth to a girl.

They have discussed the fact that their names are both epicenes so decide to name their daughter Epicène. Initially, the authorities won’t accept the name, even when Claude tells them that it comes from the title of a Ben Jonson play but finally accept it when he tells them it comes from the title of a Shakespeare play.

But things do not go well. It soon becomes apparent that Claude does not like his daughter and the feeling is soon reciprocated. The pair clash and then ignore one another. Despite this, Claude wants another child but Dominique, with memories of her painful pregnancy, resists. Epicène has a very good Moroccan friend, Samia, but when Claude insults Samia’s father, it is all too much for Epicène. She deliberately turns in on herself, virtually refusing to speak to anyone, though she has very good marks at school. Dominique is at a loss as what to do, till she meets a another mother at Epicène’s school. This woman is able to help her somewhat. She is called Reine.

Nothomb is telling a feminist parable here. Apart from Claude, clearly marked out as wicked and liable to pay the price for his wickedness, the main characters are all female. They either survive very well in their own world, with men either playing a minor role or, as is obviously the case with Claude, being evil, and having to suffer for their evil deeds. Indeed, Nothomb could be said to be ruthless in this respect.

This is a short but fascinating tale, even if somewhat improbable, but then Nothomb all too often is not necessarily looking for probability but, rather, simply to tell her tale and make her point, both of which she does well.

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Albin Michel
No English translation