The French Writers of Belgium: What Gives Them Their Identity
by RENÉ MICHA
LAST June, writers from France and Belgium gathered at the Cistercian abbey of Royaumont, near Paris, for a friendly discussion of their art. After this meeting, which was said to demonstrate a perfect unity of views “in literary matters as well as in the larger field of human relations,” a journalist concluded it was an established fact that “there is just about as much difference between Belgian writers and French writers as there is between French writers from Provence and French writers from Brittany, or Parisian writers from the Rue St. Jacques and Parisian writers from the Porte d’Auteuil.” There was no meaning, this journalist added, in “the tags which our Belgian friends rather self-consciously pin upon themselves: Belgian writers in the French language or French writers of Belgium.1 Where Maeterlinck, Verhaeren, Plisnier or Michaux were born has long since ceased to be of any importance in France.”
This opinion that the place of birth or even ethnic traits cannot prevail over the unity of language and literature is widely held not only by Frenchmen but among Belgians too. However, such was not always the case. At various times in their history, the inhabitants of this couniry had to contend against foreign occupation or influence, and it affected their disposition. After 1830, for instance, when Belgium was constitutionally established as an independent state, the Belgians were liable to exaggerate their feelings of individuality. Textbooks and political speeches of the period display a patriotism all the more naive for its actual novelty. And when Napoleon III’s coup d’etat in 1851 drove into Belgium writers like Victor Hugo and publishers like Hetzel, a distrust of France was aroused. In their meetings with these exiles, Belgian writers became conscious of all that set them apart from Paris. A little later, Baudelaire came to Belgium to make money, and found, for the most part, grounds for bitterness and scorn. His Amoenitates Belgicae reveal, with extravagance but sometimes with truth, the aesthetic and moral discordances between the two nations.
Curiously enough, in the eighteen-eighties Belgian and French writers started getting together within the same literary movements and literary magazines, and endorsed the idea of a single French literature, just at the moment when, for the first time, distinctive Belgian characteristics were manifesting themselves strikingly.
Today, the situation is the following: In practical matters, there is no reason to set Belgian writers apart from French writers. The life they lead, as writers at least, is similar; the most prominent live by their pen, the others have another occupation with which they earn their living.
Publishers, however, are much fewer and smaller in Belgium, so that quite a number of Belgian writers, and among them the best, get their works published in France. And some of them have made Paris their home.
In intellectual matters, the prevailing view is, as I said at the beginning of this article, that Belgian literature is but a province of French literature. This view allows for particular shades of thought and feeling, for particular idioms in the language, but assumes a fundamental unity of inspiration and expression.
I am tempted to contest this theory. I believe that however important the bond between a literature and its language, there appears to be an even stronger bond between a literature and its people. There are differences, to be sure, between British English and American English, between Iberian and American Portuguese or Spanish, but there are far greater differences between the literatures of these countries. There exists very clearly a literature which is English and another which is American; one which is Portuguese and another which is Brazilian.
WHAT is the situation in Belgium? Does the literature produced on that soil and by Belgians differ from the literature written a few hundred miles away and by Frenchmen?
In its present form, Belgium is hardly a century old. And yet the Flemings and Walloons who inhabit it have lived together for hundreds of years; since the treaty of Verdun in 843 they have formed —on territory sometimes larger, sometimes smaller— a working partnership in which Flanders played the leading role.
Only a certain community of character can explain the fact that two groups of people, differing in race and language as the Flemish and Walloons, and each of them subjected to the enticements of powerful neighbors akin to them in race and language, unremittingly reconstructed a unity which wars and treaties would dispute. Their persistence was all the more singular in that there are no mountains or rivers to favor their union; on the contrary, this plain of theirs, just a bit hilly in spots, is wide open to all the highroads and waterways.
The originality of the Belgian character is not that it is a blend of various strains (for every character is a blend) but rather that it blonds these strains so slightly that they show up one after the other, and often run to the extreme. Even when the Germanic and the Latin traits appear together, they do not fuse: one side or the other prevails in turn without ever wiping out the opposition. That proverbial “Belgian common sense” is a compromise which a people continually torn apart finds between its opposed tendencies. One might almost deny the existence of any properly Belgian character, if it were not that this endless corning and going from thesis to antithesis, from reason to unreason, leads, not to a synthesis, but to a sort of equilibrium: an equilibrium of heavy-handed reason and flowers of invention that run to the fantastic. Serious things, here, become ponderous; work becomes grinding hard labor; the taste for the concrete leads to commonplaceness; the distrust of ideas turns into a hatred of debate; a traditional faith cloaks itself in ceremony and superstition. In return, the imagination soars, becomes ornate and disordered; mysticism flowers in many parts of the country; entertainment assumes riotous colors and intensities.
Many nations, we know, went off to the Crusades in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. The Christians involved followed their native temper and customs. Most of them behaved like soldiers, a few like Christian soldiers; and merchants, plunderers, adventurers, and loafers were not excluded. The German among them was a roughneck or a dreamer; the Frenchman a knight of St. Louis-the-King, the champion of many a joust. But the Lotharingian — i.e. Belgian — Crusader was all things at once. He fought bravely; established trading-posts; carried off fabrics, spices, and jewels in his bags, and fabulous beasts on his banners; he made the maidens pregnant and inspired the chansons de geste. Such a man, more or less, was Godfrey of Bouillon who now has his statue in Brussels: grandson of the Knight of the Swan, first king of Jerusalem, he triumphed over Evil, but fled (unless it be his brother) before his thirty wives and thirty illegitimate children.
To the foreigner’s eye, the Belgian — eating, drinking, working, playing cards — seems the snuggest and most settled of mortals: down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, familiar or strange in the same way as things-in-themselves. Yet no one is more extravagant in his folklore, in his painting, in some of his writings and sayings.
Listening to a Belgian speak, the foreigner (particularly the Frenchman) will be struck even more strongly by this subjection both to the real and to the unreal which, shortening the distance between words and their object, sacrifices reflection and certainly elegance; finds words that are picturesque, though often inapposite; creates a language that is mimetic but flat.
The very proximity of French and Flemish — languages quite different in character — increases the incongruities in each of them. From time to time, however, a sudden show of strength, a flash of wit, a telling oddity, make one forget about harmony or elegance. Michel de Ghelderode obtains powerful effects from such incongruous verbal marriages; he invents supplications, imprecations, nicknames, derived from the Flemish, and these Flemish thrusts tear apart the already over-taut web of his own French writing. Henri Michaux, carrying this same tendency still further, sometimes breaks into a brand-new language.
Belgian literature, then, is wrought in the image of the Belgian people and their character. Reacting, of course, to the main trends in European letters, it has tendencies and schools of its own; undergoes foreign influence; and, less often, exerts its own influence abroad. And yet, whatever these variations and elements shared with other literatures, it retains features which give it a recognizable identity. The Flemish may put their emphasis on color as against the Walloon’s preoccupation with music: but there is blazing color in the writing of the Walloon Camille Lemonnier, and there is music at the heart of the works of the Flemish Maeterlinck. Such contrasts are slight in terms of a common direction — a nearness both to the real and to the unreal — which to the present day connects Flemish writers such as Franz Hellens and Michel de Ghelderode with Walloons such as Georges Simenon and Henri Michaux.
BELGIAN literature is a picturesque literature, more descriptive than evocative, clear sighted and inquisitive, composing in space rather than in time, exuberant and streaked with triviality, but to the point. It is not incapable of storytelling, I think, but it has little gift for going beyond concrete reality, for giving significance to an anecdote or depth to characters. It has little inclination to transpose what the writer has seen into universal terms, though it does have an affection for sly morality plays.
That is why there is more poetry than fiction in Belgian literature. It has, to be sure, produced many plays, but what is fine about them has to do with vision and language rather than with action. Maeterlinck’s theater displays, through the genius of a great artist, what Kleist termed the “tragic innocence" of the marionette. Ghelderode’s theater shows us Goya and Bosch as through a magic lantern: the frenzy of drowning creatures, fixed as on a slide. In both cases we have the theater of a visionary, presented with a fiery commentary by an impassioned showman.
If Simenon runs counter to this line of argument, it is only slightly. The story itself does not matter much to him: what matters are the place, the men, the women of his choice. He uses, as the dreamer does, precise memories, which he reshuffles and deals out afresh. This particular setting, these particular faces, which he patiently reveals to us, form the story little by little. For years, he kept to only two hours of writing each morning; and, the rest of the day, he would loaf or attend to practical matters, leading the life of his characters. When he sat down at his typewriter, he was in a hurry to get down all that the needle of the Arabian Nights had engraved on the corner of his eye. His novels are usually made into movies, but on the screen they lose their veracity: on film, the plots seem trivial or hard to believe, for all the atmosphere is lost. Yet this same atmosphere, in the books, fills the eyes and ears of the reader, creating anew, as Brueghel did in his Bethlehem or his Babel, the skies, trees, and houses of Flanders.
As for Belgian poetry, it inevitably eludes eutand-dried formulations: in Belgium, as elsewhere, it is a free-wheeling, many-mirrored art. Such poems as Verhaeren’s Les Campagnes Hallucinées, Maeterlinck’s Serres Chandes, Max Elskamp’s La Louange de la Vie, Eric de Haulleville’s Tramontane sur son grand Cheval, Henri Michaux’s Mes Propriétés, Théo Léger’s Les Puissances de Chagrin, differ in subject and style, and already belong to different periods. And yet the reader is impressed in each one of them by the prerogative given to the material things of life. In each case, the outside world is the subject for description, imagination, rapture: even the poet’s very self, seized in its physical being and exposed on the scaffold, finds itself reduced — like the Prevaricating Judge in Gerard David’s painting—to the most concrete terms, a structure of lines and colors: ut pictura poesis. The only exception to this school of pictorial poetry is perhaps Odilon-Jean Perier, whose poems are a world unto themselves. If a cup of tea is the point of departure, it is in the manner of Mallarme’s incidental poetry; if the poet speaks of Brussels, it is with the tender mockery of Apollinaire.
Belgian literature runs to the fantastic. It describes things unseen as well as what it sees; and gives to the invisible an everyday look. It does not present things through a looking-glass, but a diabolical reflection is there, all the same. The human scene is a haunted one.
As in some of the masterpieces of Brueghel or Jan van Eyck, realism is applied to both the real and the unreal. The title, Réalités Fantastiques, which the Belgian novelist Franz Hellens gave to one of his works, aptly suggests the commutation between reality and mystery, the exploration of the uncanny within the familiar, which characterizes other, widely different, works of literary trompel’oeil: Maeterlinck’s Les Aveugles and his La Mort de Tintagiles, Franz Hellens’s Melusine, Simenon’s Les Pitard and Le Voyageur de la Toussaint, Ghelderode’s Sire Halewyn and La Farce des Ténébreux, or Marcel Lecomte’s Les Minutes Insolites.
The proper word for this literature, then, is not clumsy but unbalanced. I am not referring to the language, whose lines, to be sure, twist and break under the impact of color; a language which dazzles more than it charms. I am referring to the composition itself.
Novels, comedies, poems, which depict but do not evoke, which offer an image of things, concretely, but not their broader meaning — such works, whether fiction or fact, impose on the reader a sometimes burdensome task of elucidation and of interpreting in general terms. Reality is presented to us piecemeal, and we have to step backward to set the pieces in their proper place; to make them jibe with our knowledge; to recreate perspectives and a horizon. We have to make the effort which is required to get at the essence of things and to the hearts of men — in short we have to do for ourselves what other literatures do for us. There is nothing further from Stendhal and his flashing generalizations than these immediate experiences which have meaning only in themselves and do not lead any further. Occasionally, perhaps, a broader meaning appears, a kind of proverb or picture of popular wisdom. But it does not move us right away; it strikes us only upon reflection.
I should like to mention a final trait. A literature of this sort, which gives primacy to the concrete, has a need, and an instinct, for comic situations; for the concrete, naturally, includes laughter. In sum, Belgian literature is a painter’s literature. Hence its qualities and its faults.
Translated by Nancy Lenkeith
- In Belgium, two languages are spoken: Flemish with its many dialects, and French with its Walloon dialects. There are also two literatures: one in the Flemish language, which is discussed in the Dutch section of this publication, another in the French language, which is the subject of this article. Except when direct reference is made to Flemish letters, the words “Belgian literature,” “Belgian writer,” etc., here designate only Belgian writing in the French language. Such is the case even when I compare or distinguish between Flemings and Walloons. The latter write only in French, but many Flemings use this same language. If, for instance, I should happen to connect Michaux, who is a Walloon, with Ghelderode, who is a Fleming, the connection belongs strictly within the French sphere.↩