Home > 21st Century, Belgian Literature, Nothomb, Amélie, Novella > A Winter Journey, by Amélie Nothomb

A Winter Journey, by Amélie Nothomb

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Le Voyage d’hiver, by Amélie Nothomb, read by Thibault de Montalembert. 

Yesterday, I subscribed to my local media library. As I was to accomplish a repelling amount of housework during the week-end, I decided to find solace in audio books. That’s how I borrowed “Le Voyage d’hiver”, which has not been translated in English yet. On Wikipedia, the English title I found was “The Winter Journey”. But I would rather use the word “trip” than “journey” as the drug-related meaning of “trip” has a sense in this story. 

The book opens with the narrator – we will learn later that his name is Zoïle, sitting at Charles de Gaulle airport and waiting for the 1:30 pm flight for somewhere. The destination doesn’t matter as he intends to hijack the plane and crash it. He is writing his first and last diary to explain how he got idea to commit such a crime even if relating his story is pointless as his journal is bound to disappear with him in the crash.

Zoïle, whose name comes from a Greek sophist philosopher, works for EDF (1) and visits destitute people to help them reduce their heating bills by financing house improvements on thermal insulation. (2) He thus meets Astrolabe and her autistic room mate Aliénor. When he first rings at their flat, he knows that Aliénor is a writer and mistakes her for Astrolabe. He could not imagine that the gifted writer could be this ugly autistic simpleton while her beautiful friend was an ordinary person. He falls in love with Astrolabe and they start a peculiar love relationship.  

Amélie Nothomb plays with names, with literary references. Her prose is liquid, funny, easy to read/hear. Music has a decisive impact on events, the title refers to a lead by Schubert and the music of Aphex Twin (apparently a British group doing electronic music, but I don’t know about them) is heard at the climax of the book.

On a second level of reading, Aliénor and Astrolabe seem to be the division of Amélie Nothomb herself. The names both starts with an “A”. In Aliénor, we hear “alien” and “aliéné”, which means “insane” in French. Aliénor is other and insane. Astrolabe, which means “star-taker”, is nursing Aliénor, protecting her. She translates in intelligible language the books Aliénor dictates. They have an intense relationship, as if they were one unique person.  

I probably wouldn’t have bought this book. It’s a short one, less than 150 pages and only a two hours listening. Maybe it is what Anglophones call a novella, but I’m not sure. This concept has no equivalent in French and though I understand what it is, I still struggle to figure out if a book is a novel or a novella.

 I had a good time listening to The Winter Journey. Amélie Nothomb has a witted and funny style. Better, she just knows how to tell good stories with strange characters, and all the while insert subtle remarks on love, hate, beauty, ugliness and human behaviour.

This book doesn’t bring anything new to literature or will probably not be read in twenty years but it is good entertainment.


 (1) The French electricity company

(2) I think that this kind of program really exists, to meet the Kyoto Protocol engagements on saving energy to fight against global warming.

  1. September 5, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    This is a bit of a coincidence as I have a copy of Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin.
    Have you see Fear and Trembling?


    • September 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm

      I haven’t seen Fear and Trembling but I have read the book. Incredible. Even more incredible when you know it is based on her own life.
      I haven’t tried Hygiene and the Assassin, I’ll wait for your review. But I have The Character of Rain at home. Where does this title come from, by the way ? It has nothing to do with the original French title


  2. September 9, 2010 at 12:11 am

    I don’t know how they came up with the title.

    Since you enjoy the book-film connection, I’d recommend catching Fear and Trembling if you can. I’ll let you know when I get to the Nothomb book.


  3. September 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Aphex Twin are a landmark electronic/ambient music group. And yes, there are initiatives such as the EDF one pursuant to Kyoto and all that.

    A shame there isn’t an English translation. It sounds like the sort of book might make a nice refresher read.


    • September 21, 2010 at 2:06 pm

      I know nothing of electronic music. Usually, I prefer when drums are played by a human and not a machine and I tend to associate this music with aerobic classes, because it’s the only place where I hear some. Maybe I’m missing something there.

      A Winter Journey was published in 2009, with any luck it will be translated in a few months.


  4. October 17, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Hi Guy, as promised before, some news about Fear & Trembling. I watched it this week-end. The film is as good as the book. When I read it, I knew it was Nothomb’s story and I had her face in mind. So, it took me a few minutes to get used to Sylvie Testud playing the role, since they don’t look alike. But she’s good, I think.

    I liked the voice over, which really sounded like Amélie Nothomb’s “voice” in the book; the text probably comes from the novel itself.
    I also enjoyed the way Corneau showed how Amélie mentally evaded through the window. He really managed to picture how imaginative and funny Amélie Nothomb can be. In French, I would use the word “fantaisie” but I couldn’t find the right translation for it.
    The only thing I didn’t like was the soundtrack. Was it harpsichord ? Brr, not my kind of music. But it was as inadequate to the story as Amélie was in this company. It enforced the gap between Amélie’s occidental background and her Japanese environment, so it served perfectly the purpose of the fim.
    To conclude, I had a good time. .


  5. Florian Decros
    November 2, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Good review ! But just a thing : Aphex Twin is not a band, is a man called Richard D James. He uses many pseudonyms (AFX, Ritch, Caustic Window…). I don’t usually like electronic music, but I find Aphex Twin great. And A Winter Journey is a good book but for the same author, i prefer The Stranger Next Door and Life Form.


    • November 2, 2014 at 10:45 pm

      Hello, thanks for dropping by. I love comments on older posts!
      Thanks for the info about Aphex Twin, I know nothing about electronic music.
      Thanks also for the book recommendations.


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