Monday, 17 October 2011

Three great Flemish writers


I tend to concentrate on French-language writer Georges Simenon (this blog is named after one of his books) so for this post I thought I'd look at three Belgian authors who write in Dutch. The titles mentioned are all available in English and dates are for original, Belgian publication.

Hugo Claus was a larger-than-life figure, a poet, playwright, novelist, director and artist. Known for his earthy language, he received a suspended sentence for offending public morals in the late 1960s, had a long relationship with Emmanuelle star Sylvia Kristel - who was 23 years younger than him - and opted for euthanasia in 2008 after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

His large, largely biographical work, The Sorrow of Belgium (1983), was canonised in Penguin's Twentieth-Century Classics series some 20 years ago (with a cover by another famous Belgian, James Ensor). Its tale of a family who collaborate through various activities in World War II is comparable to Louis Malle's film Lacombe, Lucien (1974), primarily in its viewpoint of a younger protagonist, and stirred similar controversy.

Nearly 10 years ago Granta made the perhaps foolhardy decision to publish a couple of books by Willem Ellschot, the pseudonym of Alfons de Ridder, who ran an advertising agency in his hometown Antwerp in the 1930s. His debut, Villa des Roses (1913), is the unremitting portrait of the inhabitants of a boarding house in Paris but Ellschot is celebrated for a tragi-comic masterpiece, Cheese (1933).

Cheese is one of a succession of books to feature Ellschot's 'little man' character Frans Laarmans, who finds himself lumbered with 20 tonnes of cheese much as the author is said to have been surrounded by unsold copies of Soft Soap (1923), the first of his novels to feature Laarmans. There were two more, including a final plea for tolerance in Will-o'-the-Wisp (1946), which couples Laarmans with a trio of Afghan sailors on the prowl for a prostitute named Maria in Antwerp.

Around the same time Harvill, that excellent publisher of translated fiction, put out a couple of contemporary works by journalist Erwin Mortier (the flyleaf adds intriguingly: 'He works in Ghent at the Museum of the History of Psychiatry'). The books - Marcel (1999) and My Fellow Skin (2000) - can't have been an easy task to convey in English as they're particularly impressionistic views of childhood but are highly recommended, especially the former.


  1. I really miss Harvill, the version that put out those oversized paperbacks of (mostly) wonderful translated literature. But I never knew of Mortier, so must hunt him down. I've read and really liked 'Cheese' and Claus's 'Desire', but knew nothing of their lives and other work, which you have inspired me to rectify. Thanks!

  2. Hi James, great to hear from you - hope you're well and had a good break. Yes, Marcel is one of those old, odd-sized paperbacks, with an intriguing cover photograph by Martin Reidl (perhaps from the German imprint). All the best!