A Short Guide to Flemish Writing Today

by literary critic Jeroen Overstijns

This text was the general introduction to the evening "A Short Guide to Flemish Writing today" organized by the Flemish Literature Fund and Het beschrijf on 3 June 2010 in Passa Porta, Brussels.

Many attempts have been made, but Flemish literature has never been clearly defined. Which - for foreigners - is probably very predictable, having some notice of constitutional problems this country is suffering currently. In Belgium, political instability is not a phase anymore, it is a quintessence of our life, More than that even. It is a cliché.

So, no definitions, no boundaries, no clarity. This implies we can all go home now, or better even, respecting at least one stable definition of Flanders' essence, we could drink more alcohol than your doctor at home might think you should.

Still. We have some authors here tonight, and some good authors too.

And although Flemish literature is a peculiarly complex crossroad of ideas, influences, theories and poetics, we can clearly see these authors do share some things. And some very interesting things too.

So let me share with you my five ideas on Flemish literature. First of all. No boundaries, no defintions. But still, let's draw a line. It is correct to talk about Flemish literature. In a nationalistic sense, there has never been and there probably never will be some kind of Belgian literature. You have French and you have Dutch literature. During some moments in history, they have met but they never mingle.

This is because cultural differences with the French speaking part of this country are huge, too huge to fill up the gap. There is just no common interest. The street we're in now is the closest the cultural communities get to one another in the whole country.

Moreover, the idea of Flemish literature exists because culturally, Flemish people simply do not like their Dutch counterparts. There is also no unity there. So we're isolated.

Although most of our prominent publishing houses are owned by Dutch media companies. Theoretically, we think this is frustrating. Practically, we don't give a damn.

We do read Dutch authors but not that much. Most of the Dutch best-selling authors, an average Flemish reader has probably never heard of. This is a caricature but not a very big one.

Second idea. Related to the fact we are so difficult to define. Flemish literature is very self-conscious. Our literature is very much aware of its own uncertainties, like our culture is. It has to deal with it, so it develops it as a theme as such. Think about the writings of Peter Verhelst or Ivo Michiels.

It very much reflects on the fact that we have no stable basics. In using a variety of styles for instance, set in a tradition of an experimental writing, a tradition that is much more lively than in Dutch literature. It reflects on uncertainties in being sloganesque, but in a very obstinate way, so that you can see the uncertainties glimmering through it. Think about the novels of Tom Lanoye, the poems of Peter Holvoet Hanssen.

Number three. Although we are constitutionally linked to a French speaking community, in terms of foreign literature, we most of al read Anglo-American literature. They're so good in story telling.

Because we want to be like that too? I'm not so sure. Only a few Flemish authors set up whole structures of protagonists moving from one position to another in an ambitious framework of time and space. Flemish authors are the more intimate type. Plots are a bit grotesque sometimes, they are sometimes not what they seem at first sight. Or they are just small. One modern Flemish classic, Wit is altijd schoon, is not much more than a wife who died but keeps on talking to her son about her very small life. It is intimate, is is modest, it is emotionally moving.

There has not been a real poetical debate in Flemish literature for a very long time. only minor fights, small discussions. Which is a good thing sometimes. As a writer, you have more time to do what you really have to do: writing poems, novels, short stories and plays.

Number four is a tricky one. Because it seems to contradict this intimacy I was talking about. But social consciousness is important for Flemish writers. Writers like Walter van den Broeck have written Great Flemish Novels with a twist. As a Flemish writer, in some way or another, you have to talk about the time you're living in, in an abstract or in a very concrete manner. You link your novels to protest movements, you talk about the European ideals, you reflect on sports, poverty, nazi collaboration.

You live in uncertain circumstances. That is alluring, that is fertile. Not for politicians of course, but for writers it is. And even for politicans. Never a dull moment.

And oh, there's a last one. A frustrating one maybe. Flemish literature is partially lost in translation. Indeed, it is difficult to translate the subtle way Flemish writers are expressing their dubious attitude towards the language they are writing in, a language that most of the time looks very similar to but is never identical with the dialect they have learned during their childhood. They are themselves lost in writing. Following godfathers Louis Paul Boon and Hugo Claus, they turn this loss into their opportunity, and reflect on it. The absence becomes their reality.

These are five ideas I wanted to share. Five parts of the truth about Flemish literature. And to be honest, none of these parts are really true. That's what the authors tonight will prove to you. They will prove me wrong. That's what authors have to do with definitions. So. Do not expect to take with you some definitions tonight. But do take the authors with you, if they like. And if they don't, at least take their books with you. They're good. They're undefined. They're brilliant.

No comments: