To Hell With Politeness (and With the Stranger Next Door)!
Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of two Belgian diplomats. Her books are dark and a little gothic, just like herself. One of her earliest works was The Stranger Next Door, a postmodern classic published in 1995. It is the story of a married couple who crave tranquility but fear silence.
Mr. and Mrs. Hazel have found their place in the world: a small house at the river, pretty and secluded — the perfect place for their retirement.
They have spent their whole lives dreaming of growing old together in peace. Their new surroundings are deserted except for the house of a single neighbour on the other side of the river. They think:
“We’re lucky! This neighbour won’t disturb us!”
The two couldn’t be more wrong.
Enter the Stranger Next Door
It is precisely that neighbour, Palamède Bernardin, who will drive Émile Hazel insane.
He pays the Hazels daily visits without being invited, melts into “his” armchair and asks for coffee. When he first comes around unbidden, the Hazels think nothing of it. Just a friendly neighbour visit.
But Palamède returns every single day at 4 o’clock sharp. Every day, he just sits there and doesn’t talk at all. The Hazels know they have to get rid of him or he will destroy their peaceful island.
The problem is: They are too polite to just throw him out. Our well-behaved Professor Hazel explains:
“I didn’t dare to behave like a brute.”
With every visit, Mr. Hazel loses a bit of his seemingly solid identity. In spite of Palamède’s silence, Émile feels the need to converse with his guest. His compulsive ramblings turn into a fight he can’t win.
At the same time, Émile also loses his credibility as a narrator — a common occurrence in postmodern literature.
A Societal Parody
Mr. and Mrs. Hazel turn into a parody of 20th-century French society: They are healthy, slender, educated — and think themselves better than Palamède and his severely obese wife, whom they only describe as a “cyst”.
Nothomb’s grotesque writing style shows in Émile’s words when they meet the cyst for the first time:
“It was a mountain of meat wearing a dress, or rather being wrapped in fabric.”
Towards the end, Émile’s perception of good and evil becomes completely distorted. He thought he had found his place in the world when in reality, he has only found his own terrifying nature.
Émile Hazel is not a hero, and he doesn’t need to be one. Amélie Nothomb’s way of telling this story is all the more compelling. She doesn’t mind ridiculing human abysses or her own academic environment in a brutally honest way.
When the book was published in 1995, French author Didier Sénécal wrote: “Amélie Nothomb is truly evil” — and that’s good.
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