Belgian Literature: Some Classic Authors and Works You Might Wish to Know
Even though Belgium, as a neighbour of France, Germany and England, lies on the crossroads of the most well-known and widely read national literatures of Europe, its own cultural heritage is hardly known and but scarcely read. This is a shame, as Belgian literature, in both its Dutch and French canons, has some wonderful classics that merit more attention. Many of these books and many of the authors that wrote these books are visibly present in Belgium in the names of streets, prizes, publishing companies and on Belgian student's reading lists. Others have influenced other more internationally well-known artists and writers.
Below, I have compiled a selection of some of the most interesting classics for international readers. This means that I have restricted myself to literature from the modern era (19th and 20th century) as literature from the medieval and pre-modern era is usually not available in translation and might be very difficult to understand for those without a very good basic understanding of Dutch or French. Furthermore, I have restricted myself to novels and plays, as poetry relies too much on language that can go lost in translation to be of interest to non-Dutch and non-French speakers.
Before you read on, it is important to understand a little bit of the literary culture of Belgium in which these authors wrote and in which these books were written. Even though Belgian literature has many similarities with English, French, German and Dutch literature, there are some differences:
- Belgian literature is a conglomerate of two separate literatures, especially today. While in the past the intelligentsia was generally bilingual and French mother tongue speakers read and were friends with authors with a Dutch mother tongue and vice-versa, now there is a big divide between the two. Dutch literature written in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, called Flanders, is now more readily identified as a part of Dutch literature in general or as Flemish literature, rather than Belgian literature. French literature written in Belgium, primarily in Wallonia and Brussels, is conversely more easily identified as French literature, or Walloon literature on its own.
- Belgium has been the centre of many historical events and has seen the rule of many foreign despots before its creation in 1830. Moreover, even after its creation it was not spared a role on the world's stage. All this history has had an impact on its national culture and psychology. Belgium literature likes working with this history, sometimes explicitly, but also often implicitly, which makes for spectral subtext.
- Belgian literature is stylistically often very descriptive. This can be seen very well in one of its most important genres, regionalist fiction. In this genre, the scenery is at least as important as the plot, if not more, and long descriptions of rural and natural live are common. Another feature of (primarily more recent) Belgian fiction is that it focuses a lot on thoughts and mental meandering, which makes it often very memoir-like.
- Especially in older works and especially in Dutch works, language might be very different from contemporary standard Dutch. This is because Dutch has changed more than French or English in the recent past. Moreover, some works are very dialect heavy, because the standard form of Dutch was only a recent innovation in 19th century Belgium (and imported from the Netherlands).
- Some important themes of Belgian literature are Catholic influence in education and life, melancholia, World War I and II, human strength, rural life and inability to transcend personal or societal limitations. Oftentimes works with more intellectual characters show characters trapped in their own mind, while works with dumber, more instinctive characters tell stories of breaking boundaries.
Hendrik Conscience - The Lion of Flanders
When talking of Belgian literature, there is no better person to start with than Hendrik Conscience. Conscience was a popular 19th century writer, who is often credited as the writer 'that taught his people to read' because he and his stories were loved by people of all classes. While he initially started with poetry in French, it was with Flemish novels that he became famous. Like Walter Scott in Scotland, Conscience helped create Belgian and Flemish national culture and, appropriately, conscience with works like De Loteling (The Conscript), Baas Gansendonck (Boss Gansendonck), De omwenteling van 1830 (The Revoltion of 1830) and De leeuw van Vlaanderen (The Lion of Flanders).
Especially this last work, with which he broke through on the public scene, remains important in Belgian and specifically Flemish conscience. This historical novel about the medieval 'Battle of the Golden Spurs' between the citizens of the rich Flemish trade cities and the foreign French aristocracy perfectly illustrated Flemish attitudes towards the French speaking upper class at its time of publication, attitudes that have only hardened since. The novel shows a Flemish history to be proud of and inspired many to be like its strong, courageous and hard working characters. Moreover, it reminded its first readers that the battle for independence from foreign rule they had themselves fought for, only some years before, had been a just one.
Georges Eekhoud - Escal-Vigor
In contrast to Conscience, Georges Eekhoud did not care for language politics. Even though he came from a Dutch speaking family in Flanders and primarily wrote about Flemish people and culture, he wrote his novels in French, because French was the lingua franca at that time. His work sometimes feels fantastical from our current perspective, because the picturesque images he draws sometimes seem too crisp or idyllic, but like Flaubert he liked to focus on social outcasts and the faults inherent in bourgeois society as well. His most famous work does just that.
Escal-Vigor gives us the first story about male homosexuality of its time in which the love between men is not frowned upon. It depicts how a young count comes back to his ancestral seat, called Escal-Vigor, and there falls in love with the son of the richest farmer of the county. Two women, one saintly and one hellish, complete the picture and the plot as they show opposite reactions to the discovery of the counts sexuality. While the fury of one kills the lovers and their beautiful romance, the compassionate nature of the other calls her to a vocation as a proto-gay rights activist.
Gerard Walschap - Houtekiet
Houtekiet is a unique novel on this list and in the realm of literature in general. It tells the story of how a village, and with it civilization, organically grows around a wild man named Houtekiet when he begins relationships with women. This novel can be described as an allegory on the inherent natural strength of men and the power of women to harvest this strength for the greater good.
Walschap was a controversial, but successful writer. While he, as a young man, wanted to become a missionary himself and was heavily invested in the Catholic project, he just could not keep himself from writing about real people and real life. Unintentionally, he shocked the Catholic establishment with his novel Adelaide, which describes an already genetically predisposed woman driven to madness by doubts, ideas and the strict dogma of Catholic society. This meant a break between Walschap and Catholics that only grew as he kept on writing, making for a scathingly critical depiction of the clergy in his most famous work, Houtekiet.
Virginie Loveling - A Gunshot
Virginie Loveling could be described as the Belgian Jane Austen. She like Austen holds a central position in her national literature because of her great wit and insight. Differences are that she liked topics and plots that were a bit more controversial for her time and that she, unlike Austen, did stand at the centre of the literary circles of her time. Aside from her own writing, she co-authored with her sister Rosalie and once even with her nephew, Cyriel Buysse, who was also a famous writer in his own right.
Her novel, Een Revolverschot (A Gunshot) tells the story of two sisters of which the oldest is already on the verge of becoming an old maid, who are confronted with a young bachelor who moves in across the street. This man decides to flirt with both before committing himself to an engagement to the youngest sister, kicking the plot of wrath, guilt, death and gunshots into motion. Refreshingly for an author of her time, Loveling stays away from morality in this novel and blurs the lines between hero and antihero.
Louis Paul Boon - Chapel Road
Boon is probably most well-known to the average Belgian as the author of Pieter Daens, a historical drama based on the real life events of the political struggle in the industrial township of Aalst, which was made into a popular movie. However, to the literary elite, Boon remains the author of the most important experimental masterpiece of Belgian fiction: De Kappelekensbaan (Chapel Road). After its translation into English in 1872, this novel made him a serious contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Chapel Road is unusual in its form and content. It tells of Ondine, a young ambitious girl in Aalst in the 19th century, who tries hard to escape her reality, but always fails. The novel has three layers, the layer of the story of Ondine, the layer of Boon himself, who is clearly visible in the writing and the layer of Reynard the fox, of whom stories are told in the newspaper that circulates in the Ondine layer. All these merge with each other and break with the traditional form of the novel.
Marguerite Yourcenar - Memoirs of Hadrian
Marguerite Yourcenar was a French Belgian author and a daughter of nobility. Even though she grew up in a predominantly French atmosphere, the connection she felt with Flanders was great. "I cannot imagine myself without Flanders", she said, "without the region in which I for the first time in my life was first confronted with the purity and power of the big things: the water, the air and the earth".
In her most famous work Mémoires d'Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian) about Roman emperor Hadrian, she combined her love for antiquity with melancholy and this love for the spirit of the world. In this novel, Hadrian takes the word through letters and the reader can follow him experience life, change and, at the same time, stay the same. Memoirs of Hadrian is a truly calming peace of fiction by an author who can make the most influential characters in history seem as swept along with the currents of life as well all sometimes feel.
Stijn Streuvels - The Flax Field
Regionalist fiction used to be one of Belgium's most welcome literary exports and Stijn Streuvels stood at the centre of it. Writing about the simple rural life and detailing the forces of nature extensively, he made quite a name for himself. He reached the shortlist for the Nobel Prize for Literature more than 13 times, but never won.
In De Vlasschaard (The Flax Field) he describes the archetypal tale of a father who has to learn to deal with the fact that as his son grows older and more capable, he grows lesser. A farmer, he decides that the time has not yet come to hand the responsibility for the maintenance of his price crop, flax, over to the next generation. However, when the flax begins to fail due to his miscalculations and his son takes matters into his own hand, things come to an explosive climax.
Marie Nizet - Captain Vampire
One of the most scandalous aspects of Belgian literary criticism is its utter neglect of Marie Nizet. Marie Nizet was a Belgian fin de siècle writer from a literary family. She was well-educated and had an interest in Romania, probably because of a Romanian émigré that lodged at her family home. She had a promising career writing stories and poetry about Romania, before she married and stopped writing.
Her last novel, Le Capitaine Vampire (Captain Vampire), is one of the only classics with a supernatural theme in the whole of Belgian literature. However, this does not mean Captain Vampire was insignificant, as theorists have marked the novel as a precursor and inspiration for Dracula. Unfortunately, nowadays, the story only exists in an English translation by Brian Stappleford. In Belgium, the novel cannot be found in either French or Dutch. Only the National Library of Belgium, where Nizet's father worked, holds a copy.
Maurice Maeterlinck - Pélleas and Mélisande
Maurice Maeterlinck was the only Belgian to ever win a Nobel Prize, though others, as shown above, came close. He wrote in French, but was born in Ghent, West-Flanders, in the late 19th century. His renown is primarily due to his symbolist plays, even though he wrote essays on natural history and philosophy as well.
His most famous work is undoubtedly Pelléas et Mélisande (Pélleas and Mélisande). This play inspired at least 5 composers, of which most notably Claude Debussy, who made it into an opera. It tells the story of a young woman, Mélisande, who is found by Golaud, a king, and marries him, but who eventually falls in love with Golaud's brother, Pélleas. When the king discovers their mutual love, he becomes madly jealous and in his madness kills them. The story relies heavily on symbolism to illustrate the theme of creation and destruction. Realism and emotion are not its goal, as they only distract from the theme. Any actors portraying Maeterlinckian characters should therefore act like marionettes, letting themselves be apathically pulled by the threads of fate.
Hugo Claus - The Sorrow of Belgium
Another well-known and highly acclaimed writer from Belgium is Hugo Claus, a more contemporary novel writer from the middle of the 20th century. Aside from a novelist, he was also a poet, playwright, painter and filmmaker. Together with Louis Paul Boon, he belonged to de Vijftigers (‘those of the Fifties’), an experimental group opposing the strictness and style of their predecessors. Common themes in his work are religious symbolism, which is closely linked to the repression of Catholic society, sexuality, Freudian relationships with mother and father and World War II.
In Het verdriet Van België (The Sorrow of Belgium), he tells the story of a young man who decides to become a writer and the experience of this young man growing up in a Nazi-sympathising household during World War II. The Sorrow is a modern day experimental bildungsroman and is semi-autobiographical in its depiction of a young man becoming a writer to then write about himself. Many consider this work Claus’ magnum opus as it is certainly his best known work.
Georges Simenon - Pietr The Latvian
Among international classic crime fiction, Georges Simenon holds a strong position. Agatha Christie might have written about a Belgian detective, but Belgium had its own home-grown fictional detectives as well. Georges Simenon was a prolific Walloon writer of articles, psychological novels and most importantly detective novels, featuring the French detective Maigret. He once accepted the offer to write a novel in three days and three nights as a public show, but this plan was boycotted by the literary establishment among others, who thought such a spectacle unworthy of the association of literature. Simenon was not an ordinary pulp writer however, as he was acquainted and conversed and was friends with many now famous artists, like Pablo Picasso and Josephine Baker.
In Pietr Le Letton (Pietr The Latvian), the first novel in the Maigret series, the detective has to tackle the question who is Pietr the Latvian? In the seedy streets of Paris, Maigret and his pipe hunt for clues. Pietr The Latvian is the first novel of Simenon’s to which he gave his name, making it a good starting point if one wants to get into his work as well.
Of the novels and plays discussed, which one seems most interesting to you?
© 2018 Douglas Redant