Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Book of Proper Names: A Novel

The Book of Proper Names: A Novel

by Amelie Nothomb

See All Formats & Editions

The Book of Proper Names is set in contemporary Paris, its main character an orphan named Plectrude. Before the child's birth her nineteen-year-old mother shoots and kills her nineteen-year-old (and somewhat feckless) father because she hates the names he's devised for their child--she fears they will doom their unborn child to mediocrity. The mother


The Book of Proper Names is set in contemporary Paris, its main character an orphan named Plectrude. Before the child's birth her nineteen-year-old mother shoots and kills her nineteen-year-old (and somewhat feckless) father because she hates the names he's devised for their child--she fears they will doom their unborn child to mediocrity. The mother confesses openly to what she has done, and why. She is arrested and thrown into prison, where she gives birth to the child, names her, to everyone's bafflement, Plectrude--an obscure saint, and an albatross of a name--and then hangs herself.

The novel therefore begins on the borderline between tragedy and absurdity, but as Plectrude grows--raised by a loving, indulgent, and eccentric aunt--it becomes a deeply moving and simultaneously chilling portrait of girlhood. Plectrude's great gift turns out to be for ballet, and she throws herself into dance as if her life depended upon it. Few novels have shown us the implacable and unforgiving world of ballet with more intuitive sympathy, yet also with a keen-eyed assessment of the true price of artistic perfection.. Inevitably, the doom hovering over Plectrude's life from birth returns to haunt her, and in the end she learns to survive in the only way she knows how--by committing an act of deadly self-preservation her mother would have perhaps understood best.

The Book of Proper Names is vintage Amelie Nothomb--alternatively mordant and poignant, a portrait of adolescence that is fierce and funny at the same time. There is nothing mediocre either about Nothomb nor her creations.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pregnant, insomniac Lucette combs an old encyclopedia for an original and fortifying name to protect her future daughter against life's woes in Am lie Nothomb's brief, unorthodox French bestseller The Book of Proper Names. Years after Lucette's suicide, her daughter, Plectrude, blossoms into a bewitching dancer. But the Paris Opera's school for ballerinas, which she enters at age 13, threatens to stifle her playful imagination despite her talisman name. Nothomb crafts this unconventional coming-of-age tale in charmingly concise prose, translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
File size:
263 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Book of Proper Names

By Amélie Nothomb, Shaun Whiteside

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Editions Albin Michel, S.A.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09103-1


LUCETTE HAD BEEN suffering from insomnia for eight hours. The baby in her womb had been hiccuping since the day before. Every four or five seconds a huge jolt shook the small body of the nineteen-year-old girl.

She had decided to become a wife and mother a year before. It had begun like a dream: Fabien was handsome and said he was willing to do anything for her. Playing at marriage had amused him. Her family, simultaneously puzzled and touched, had watched these two children put on their wedding outfits.

Shortly afterwards, Lucette had triumphantly announced that she was pregnant.

Her big sister had asked her, "Isn't it kind of soon?"

"It'll never be soon enough!" the girl replied, deliriously.

* * *

LITTLE BY LITTLE things soured. Fabien and Lucette argued. Where once he had been so happy about her pregnancy, now he said, "I hope you're not going to go crazy when you've got a kid!"

"Are you threatening me?"

He went out, slamming the door.

Lucette was sure she wasn't crazy. She wanted life to be strong and rich. Wouldn't you have had to be crazy to want anything else? She wanted every day, every year, to bring her the absolute maximum.

Now she could see that Fabien wasn't the right guy for her. He was an ordinary kid. He had played at getting married, and now he was playing at being a married man. There was nothing of the Prince Charming about him. In fact, he repelled her. He said things like, "Okay, she's having a fit."

He could be nice sometimes. He would stroke her belly, saying, "If it's a boy, we'll name him Tanguy. If it's a girl, it'll be Joëlle."

Lucette was thinking that she hated those names.

In her grandfather's library she had picked up an old encyclopedia with lists of phantasmagorical first names, names that bespoke destinies. Lucette conscientiously jotted them down on bits of paper that she sometimes lost. Later, people would find scattered around the place scraps of paper bearing the word "Eleuthère" or "Lutegarde." No one could guess the meaning of these cryptic and surreal messages.

* * *

THE BABY HAD started to move very quickly. The gynecologist said he had never before encountered such an active fetus. "It's unbelievable!"

Lucette smiled. Her child was exceptional already. All this took place in those recent times when it was not yet possible to know the child's sex in advance. The pregnant girl didn't care.

"Whichever sex it is, it's going to be a dancer," she decreed, her head full of dreams.

"No," said Fabien, "it's going to be a soccer player or a pain in the ass."

She looked daggers at him. He meant nothing by it, it was just a tease. But in such childish observations, she saw the mark of insurmountable vulgarity.

When she was on her own and the fetus moved like a thing possessed, she would speak tenderly to it: "Go on, dance, my baby. I'll protect you, I won't let you be a soccer-playing Tanguy or a pain-in-the-ass Joëlle. You'll be free to dance wherever you like, at the Paris Opera, or for little bands of gypsies."

* * *

GRADUALLY, FABIEN HAD taken to disappearing for whole afternoons. He left after lunch and came back at about ten in the evening, without a word of explanation. Exhausted by her pregnancy, Lucette didn't have the strength to wait for him. She was already asleep by the time he came back. In the morning he stayed in bed until half past eleven. He drank coffee with a cigarette, which he smoked as he stared into the void.

"Are you all right? Not tiring yourself out?" she asked him one day.

"What about you?" he replied.

"I'm having a baby. You aware of that?"

"How could I not be? It's the only thing you ever talk about."

"Believe me, it's exhausting, being pregnant."

"That's not my fault. You're the one who wanted it. I can't carry the thing for you."

"Any chance of knowing what you do every afternoon?"


She exploded with rage. "I don't know anything anymore! You never tell me a thing!"

"You're not interested in anything apart from the baby."

"All you have to do is be interesting. Then I'll be interested in you."

"I am interesting."

"Okay, then let's see if you can be."

He sighed and went off to get a box. Out of it he took a handgun. She opened her eyes wide.

"That's what I do in the afternoon. I shoot."

"Where do you do that?"

"A private club. It doesn't matter."

"Are there real bullets in there?"


"For killing people?"

"Among other things."

She stroked the gun, fascinated.

"I'm getting good, you know. I get the bull's-eye first time. You can't imagine how good it feels. I love it. Once I get started I can't stop."

"I can understand that."

They didn't understand each other often.

* * *

LUCETTE'S BIG SISTER, who had two small children, came to see Lucette. She adored her. She thought she was so pretty, so frail, especially with that enormous belly. One day they had an argument.

"You should tell him to go out and get a job. He's going to be a father."

"We're nineteen. Our parents pay for everything."

"They won't go on paying forever."

"Why are you bothering me with all this nonsense?"

"It's important, you know."

"You always come and ruin my happiness!"

"What are you talking about?"

"And now you're going to tell me I have to be sensible blah blah blah!"

"You're crazy! I haven't said anything of the sort!"

"That's it! I'm crazy! That's just what I was expecting you'd say! You're jealous of me! You want to destroy me!"

"Come on, Lucette ..."

"Get out!" she screamed.

Her big sister left, aghast. She had always known that her baby sister was fragile, but things were assuming worrisome proportions.

From now on, when her sister called, Lucette hung up the moment she heard her voice.

I've got enough problems, she thought to herself.

In fact, without admitting it, she felt that she was up against the wall, and that her big sister knew that. How would they ever earn a living? Fabien wasn't interested in anything except guns, and she wasn't good at anything. Nonetheless, she wasn't going to be a checkout girl. She wasn't sure she was up to it.

She put a pillow over her head to stop thinking about it.

* * *

SO THAT NIGHT the baby had hiccups in Lucette's belly.

You can't imagine the impact a hiccuping fetus has on a pregnant girl with ragged nerves.

Fabien was blissfully asleep.

Lucette was in her eighth hour of insomnia and her eighth month of pregnancy. Her vast belly made her feel as though she held a time bomb inside her.

Each hiccup was like a timer ticking, bringing the moment of the detonation ever closer. Fantasy became reality: something exploded inside Lucette's head.

She got up, driven by a sudden conviction that made her open her eyes wide.

She went to get the revolver from where Fabien had hidden it. She came back toward the bed where the boy was sleeping. She looked at his handsome face as she aimed at his temple and murmured, "I love you, but I've got to protect the baby from you."

She fired until the magazine was empty.

She looked at the blood on the wall. Then, very calmly, she called the police. "I just killed my husband. You'd better come."

* * *

WHEN THE POLICE arrived, they were welcomed by a child, pregnant up to the eyeballs, a handgun in her right hand.

"Put down the weapon!"

"It's not loaded now," she replied, obeying.

She led the policemen over to the marriage bed to show them her work.

"Should we take her to the station or to the hospital?"

"Why the hospital? There's nothing wrong with me."

"We don't know that. And you're pregnant."

"I'm not about to give birth. Take me to the police station," she demanded, as though it were her right.

She was told that she could call a lawyer. She said there was no need. A man in an office asked her endless questions, which she answered, such as:

"Why did you kill your husband?"

"The baby in my belly had hiccups."


"That's it. I killed him."

"You killed him because the baby had hiccups?"

She looked taken aback, then answered, "No. It's not as simple as that. And anyway, the baby doesn't have hiccups anymore."

"You killed your husband to get rid of your baby's hiccups?"

She laughed. "No, that would be absurd."

"Why did you kill your husband?"

"To protect my baby," she said, assuming a tragic expression.

"I see. Your husband threatened the baby?"


"You should have said so right away."


"And what did he threaten it with?"

"He wanted to call it Tanguy if it was a boy and Joëlle if it was a girl."

"What else?"

"That's it."

"You killed your husband because you didn't like the first names he chose?"

She frowned. She felt her argument lacked a certain something, and yet she was sure she was right. She understood perfectly what she had done, and found it all the more frustrating that she couldn't explain it. So she decided to say nothing.

"Are you sure you don't want a lawyer?"

She was sure. How could she have explained it to a lawyer? He would have thought she was a lunatic, like everyone else. The more she spoke, the more people thought she was a lunatic. That being the case, she'd keep her mouth shut.

* * *

SHE WAS PUT in a cell. A nurse came to see her every day.

When she was told that her mother or her big sister had come to visit, she refused to see them.

She answered only questions about her pregnancy. Apart from that, she stayed mute.

She talked to herself: I was right to kill Fabien. He wasn't bad, he was mediocre. The only thing about him that wasn't mediocre was his handgun, but he would only have used it in a mediocre way, against the little local thugs, or else he'd have let the baby play with it. I was right to turn it on him. Wanting to call your child "Tanguy" or "Joëlle" is the same as offering them a mediocre world, a closed horizon. I want my baby to have infinity within its reach. I want my child not to feel limited by anything at all, I want my baby's first name to suggest that its fate will be exceptional.

* * *

LUCETTE GAVE BIRTH to a little girl in prison. She took her in her arms and looked at her with all the love in the world. No one had ever seen a more delighted young mother.

"You're too beautiful!" she told the baby, over and over again.

"What are you going to call her?"


A delegation of wardens, psychologists, vague-looking lawyers, and even vaguer-looking doctors crowded around Lucette and told her that she couldn't give her daughter a name like that.

"Yes, I can. There was a Saint Plectrude. I can't remember what she did, but she did exist."

A specialist was consulted, and confirmed this as the truth.

"Think of the child, Lucette."

"That's all I am thinking about."

"It'll only cause her problems."

"It will tell people that she's exceptional."

"You can be called Marie and be exceptional."

"'Marie' doesn't protect you. 'Plectrude' protects you. That 'rude' at the end sounds like a shield."

"So call her Gertrude, then. It's easier to deal with."

"No. The first part of 'Plectrude' sounds like 'pectoral.' The name is a talisman."

"The name is grotesque and your child will be a laughingstock."

"No. It will make her strong enough to defend herself."

"Why give her reason to have to defend herself? She's going to have enough problems to deal with anyway!"

"Are you referring to me?"

"Among other things."

"Don't worry, I don't intend to trouble her for long. Listen to me. I'm in prison, I'm deprived of my rights. The only freedom I have left is to name my child as I wish."

"That's selfish, Lucette."

"Just the opposite. And anyway, it has nothing to do with you."

She had the baby baptized in prison so that she could be sure of controlling everything.

That very night she made a rope from some torn sheets and hanged herself in her cell. They found her weightless corpse in the morning. She hadn't left a letter or an explanation. Her daughter's first name took the place of a will.

* * *

CLÉMENCE, LUCETTE'S OLDER sister, came to the prison to get the baby. The authorities were only too happy to get rid of the child, born under such horribly inauspicious circumstances.

Clémence and her husband, Denis, had two children, aged four and two, Nicole and Béatrice. They decided that Plectrude would be their third.

Nicole and Béatrice came to look at their new sister. They had no reason to think that she was Lucette's daughter. And, anyway, they had barely been aware of Lucette's existence.

They were too little to realize that she had a weird name, and though they had problems with the pronunciation, they adopted her. For a long time they called her "Plecrude."

Never had anyone seen a baby more skilled at attracting love. It was as if she were aware that she had been born under tragic circumstances. With heartrending glances she begged those around her to disregard the fact. It helped that she had improbably beautiful eyes. Small and thin, she fixed upon her target her vast gaze — vast in both size and meaning. Her huge, magnificent eyes told Clémence and Denis: Love me! Your destiny is to love me! I'm only eight weeks old, but I'm still a magnificent creature! If you knew, if you only knew. ...

Denis and Clémence seemed to know. From the very first, they felt a sort of awe for Plectrude. Everything about her was strange, from the unbearable slowness with which she drank from her bottle, to the way she never cried, the fact that she slept little at night and a great deal during the day, or the way she pointed a resolute finger at things she craved.

She looked seriously, profoundly, at anyone who picked her up, as though to say that this was the beginning of a great love story, and that they had every reason to be stirred to their souls.

* * *

CLÉMENCE, WHO HAD loved her late sister to distraction, transferred her passion to Plectrude. She didn't love her any more than she did her own two children: she loved her in a different way. Nicole and Béatrice inspired an overwhelming tenderness in her; Plectrude inspired veneration.

Her two elder daughters were pretty, sweet, intelligent, agreeable; the little one was extraordinary — splendid, intense, enigmatic, crazy.

Denis was also wild about her right from the start, and he remained so. But nothing could match the love Clémence felt for her. There was wild passion between Lucette's sister and her daughter.

Plectrude had no appetite, and she grew as slowly as she ate. Her parents felt desperate. Nicole and Béatrice devoured and grew before their very eyes. To their parents' delight, they had round, pink cheeks. As for Plectrude, all that grew was her eyes.

* * *

"ARE WE REALLY going to call her that?" Denis asked Clémence one day.

"Of course. My sister insisted on the name."

"Your sister was crazy."

"No. My sister was fragile. Anyway, I think 'Plectrude' is pretty."


"Yes. And it suits her."

"I don't agree. She looks like a fairy. I'd have called her 'Aurora.'"

"It's too late. The girls have already adopted her under her real name. Believe me, it does suit her. It's like the name of a gothic princess."

"Poor kid. Things are going to be hard at school."

"Not for her. She has enough personality to cope."

* * *

PLECTRUDE UTTERED HER first word at a normal age. It was "Mama!"

Clémence went into ecstasies. Laughing, Denis pointed out that the first word of all her children — and all the children in the world — was "mama."

"This is different," said Clémence.

"Mama" was Plectrude's only word for a very long time. This word was, like the umbilical cord, sufficient connection with the world. From the first, she had pronounced the word perfectly, in a confident voice and with a clear "ah" sound at the end, unlike the mamamamam of most babies.

She uttered the word rarely, but when she did it was with a solemn clarity that commanded attention. You would have sworn that she chose her moments for maximum effect.

Clémence had been six when Lucette was born: she remembered very clearly what her sister had been like at birth, at the age of one, at two, and so on.

"Lucette was ordinary. She cried a lot, she was alternately adorable and unbearable. There was nothing special about her. Plectrude is nothing like her. She's silent, serious, thoughtful. You can sense how intelligent she is."

Denis gently mocked his wife: "Stop talking about her as though she were the second coming. She's a charming child, that's all."

He lifted Plectrude up above his head, his heart melting.

* * *


The next day, out of pure diplomacy, she said, "Nicole" and "Béatrice."

Her pronunciation was impeccable.

She started speaking as parsimoniously as she ate. Each new word demanded as much concentration and meditation as the new types of food that appeared on her plate.

Whenever she saw an unfamiliar vegetable in the depths of her mashed potato, she pointed it out to Clémence.

"That?" she asked.

"That's leek. Leek. You try it, it's very good."

Plectrude first of all spent half an hour contemplating the piece of leek in her spoon. She brought it up to her nose to gauge its scent, then she went on studying it for ages and ages.


Excerpted from The Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb, Shaun Whiteside. Copyright © 2002 Editions Albin Michel, S.A.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Amelie Nothomb's novels are international bestsellers. Belgian by birth, she lives in Paris. Her best-known novel, Fear and Trembling, (Griffin) was made into a successful film in France, and is under consideration by Miramax for distribution in the U.S.
Amelie Nothomb's novels are international bestsellers. Belgian by birth, she lives in Paris. Her novel Fear and Trembling (Griffin) was made into a successful film in France.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews