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May 16, 2017

Best European Novels (4): Belgium

Belgium is a small country and its literature is split into two languages, Flemish (Dutch) and French. Happily, there is a lot of talent writing in both languages. The "Big Three" 20th c. classical novelists from Flanders are Willem Elsschot, Louis Paul Boon and Hugo Claus. The greatest Belgian who wrote in French (and therefore was often wrongly thought to be a Frenchman) was Georges Simenon. In fact, Simenon used often Belgian and Dutch settings in his novels, especially in the 1930s, such as in his semi-autobiographical Pedigree.

First the best novels in Flemish:

1. Willem Elsschot, Cheese (1933)
Willem Elsschot (1882-1960; in real life called Alfons de Ridder) was a writer and businessman (in advertising) from Antwerp, who because of the combination of these two functions, has been dubbed the “Flemish Italo Svevo.” He wrote eleven short novels, of which the highly amusing Cheese (Kaas) is the best, a gentle fable, timeless in its skewering of the pretensions and pomposity of the urban bourgeois man. A humble shipping clerk in Antwerp becomes the chief agent in Belgium for a Dutch cheese company and takes delivery of ten thousand full-cream wheels of this red-rinded Dutch delight. But he has no idea how to run a business, or how to sell his goods. He is more focused on setting up his office with a proper desk and typewriter, rather than doing the hard-selling that is needed. When his employer comes to Antwerp to settle the first accounts, he panics... See my full review. Soft Soap and The Leg (Lijmen / Het Been) are two more examples of humorous novels by Elsschot which lead the reader to reflect on the absurdity of life.
English translation and preface by Paul Vincent (Granta Books, 2002).

2. Louis Paul Boon, Chapel Road (1953)
Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979) was a Flemish novelist and journalist who was a serious candidate for the Nobel prize in Literature. He gave up literary language for regional Belgian Dutch words and expressions with which he colored his writing in a Faulknerian way. Boon combines social engagement (an important characteristic of Belgian literature) with advanced literary techniques. Chapel Road (Kapellekensbaan) is his masterpiece. Its interesting construction combines several narrative threads, including an almost postmodern one where the writer and his friends discuss how the story should develop further. The story itself is set in the 19th c. and is about a young woman who wants to escape from a grey industrial town "where it is always raining, even when the sun is shining" (the town is a fictionalized Aalst, the town where Boon himself grew up). A third thread in the book is a reworking of the classic myth of Reynard the Fox. Boon’s other famous novels, both available in English, are My little war (Mijn kleine oorlog) and a sequel to Chapel Road, Summer in Termuren (Zomer in Termuren).
English translation: Adrienne Dixon (Dalkey Archives, 2003)

3. Hugo Claus, The Sorrow of Belgium (1983)
Hugo Claus (1929-2008) has been called the most important Flemish writer of the 20th century. He has written over 20 novels, 60 theater pieces and thousands of poems. Unfortunately, very little has been translated into English, and what has been translated is difficult to find. Claus' best work is the semi-autobiographical "bildungsroman" The Sorrow of Belgium (Het Verdriet van Belgie), a book that has been compared to The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass. It is the story of the coming of age of the protagonist in a right-wing, Flemish nationalist family during the German occupation in WWII. When the young man discovers the anarchist literature that has banned by the Nazi's, his eyes are opened to a new world, one which had been forbidden by his far-right environment and he is inspired to become a writer himself.
English translation: Arnold J. Pomerans (Overlook Books)

4. Dimitri Verhulst, The Misfortunates (2006)
Dimitri Verhulst (born in 1972) was born in Aalst, like Louis Paul Boon. He shares the older author’s critical but compassionate view on Belgian life. Verhulst’s most famous novel is The Misfortunates (De Helaasheid der Dingen), a loosely autobiographical story of a young writer who reflects on his youth growing up in a family that knew no sobriety. Both his father and his uncles had an unwavering commitment to the pub. The boy grows up amid the stench of stale beer, and it seems that the same fate is waiting for him, until he makes his own plans for the future. Both comedic, crude, heart-warming and humorous.
English translation: David Colmer (Portobello Books, 2013)

Then the best novels in French:

1. Georges Simenon, Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945)
At his death in 1989, Liegeoise writer Georges Simenon had published over 375 works, including 75 novels and 28 short stories in his fictional detective series featuring Inspector Maigret. The Maigret series has been translated into over 50 languages, making the Belgian Simenon the most translated French-speaking author in the world. More than that, Simenon also wrote more than a 100 serious novels, called "romans durs." These "hard novels" were not detective stories but darkly realistic psychological novels, books in which he displayed a sympathetic awareness of the emotional and spiritual pain underlying the routines of daily life. Some famous titles are: Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Pedigree, Tropic Moon, The Engagement, The Blue Room, The Widow and Red Lights. In the "romans durs" Simenon tried to display the full range of his talent, often addressing existentialist themes. One of the best is Monsieur Monde Vanishes (La Fuite de Monsieur Monde, 1945), in which Simenon addresses one of his favorite themes: the urge to cast off a familiar, restrictive life. The middle-aged Monsieur Monde is a prosperous Parisian businessman, the owner of a factory and conservative family head. One day, feeling unloved by his family and associates, he just walks out on his life, leaving everything behind. He travels to the Riviera where he happens to strike up an acquaintance with a prostitute, then moves on to Nice with her. He has no plan and no ambition; when his money is stolen by a chambermaid, he shows no anger. But then by chance he meets up with his first wife, now an opium addict, and the question of moral responsibility poses itself. Can Monsieur Monde remain uninvolved, a person on his own? See my article on Simenon.
English translation: Jean Stewart (NYRB, 2004)

2. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Monsieur (1986)
Jean-Philippe Toussaint (born 1957) is a Belgian prose writer and filmmaker, who was educated in Paris. He was strongly influenced by Beckett and the Nouveau Roman. Monsieur, which was filmed by Tousssaint himself in 1990, is typical of his work. It is a minimalist series of vignettes from the life of an introverted, quiet man who lacks any strong interests or will power. Although he is utterly passive, he still manages to keep his head above water and seems always content. You might compare him to the "uncarved block" of Daoism, while his way of life embodies the idea from the Daodejing that the qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength. Nothing happens in this novel, but Toussaint still manages to keep his readers interested. In his quirkiness, Monsieur Toussaint also has some traits of that other nay-sayer, Melville's Bartleby.
English translation: John Lambert (Dalkey Archive, 2008)

3. Amélie Nothomb, Tokyo Fiancée (2007)
Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan of Belgian parents in 1967. In fact, her father was the Consul-General for Belgium in Kobe (later also Ambassador in Tokyo). Despite her background in a diplomatic family, in her public persona and her writing Nothomb is the embodiment of unconventionality. Since her debut with Hygiene and the Assassin in 1992, she has written a novel a year (of the concise French type, it should be admitted). She has been widely translated and won many prizes. One of her best novels is the semi-autobiographical Tokyo Fiancée (Ni d'Eve, ni d'Adam), in which an affair with a Japanese suitor, Rinri, serves as the impetus for fun discoveries about the Japanese way of life, especially food culture. Rinri is really in love, and although Amélie likes spending time with him, she doesn't love him. She also doesn't want to give up her independence. After he proposes, she struggles with the question how to best refuse this sweet and shy boy. Another excellent book set in Japan is the popular Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et tremblements), in which a Belgian woman returns to Japan, where she lived as a child, for a job at one of the country's major corporations. The cultural misunderstandings pile up like a train wreck until the woman (again called Amélie - both novels are semi-autobiographical) gives up trying to adapt to the Japanese way of working. See my full reviews of Tokyo Fiancee and Fear and Trembling
English translation: Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2008).