In this week’s PEN Atlas despatch editor and translator Michele Hutchison introduces some of the greatest Flemish writers…

Book lovers in the Netherlands and Flanders will not have been able to escape the centenary of Louis Paul Boon’s birth this year (1912-1979) though farther afield the writer has yet to become an obvious inclusion in the canon of twentieth century European literature where he could sit comfortably alongside Samuel Beckett, James Joyce or Céline. Here, the centenary is being celebrated in style with a whole series of literary events, massive press coverage, a website and an exhibition in Antwerp. Perhaps it will have some impact abroad.

© Jo Boon, Erembodegem
© Jo Boon, Erembodegem

Louis Paul Boon is considered one of three great Flemish writers: the other two being Hugo Claus and Willem Elsschot. Born to a working class family in the factory town of Aalst, west of Brussels, Boon evolved into one of the leading modernist writers of the period. Pinnacles of literary achievement are the complex novels Chapel Road (1953) which I read in English when I first arrived in Holland, and its sequel Summer in Ter Muren (1956). His oeuvre is diverse and also includes historical adventure novels about medieval bandits, autobiographical works and a dated and somewhat questionable collection of annotated erotic photographs. 

A hundred years after his birth, very little of Boon’s work has been translated into English but the Dalkey Archive Press are making some headway. Paul Vincent’s translation of their third Boon novel, an accessible title My Little War, was recently awarded the 2011 Vondel Prize. In other languages he has fared better with reissues or new translations a frequent occurrence; the most recent were in Turkey and Germany. Greet Ramael of the Flemish Literary Foundation tells me that foreign interest in his books remains lively. 

Praised primarily for his social and political engagement but also for his innovative style, Louis Paul Boon broke free of the conventions of the novel, sampling text mediums, experimenting with form and voice. Belgian Dutch was an excellent conduit with its wide range of dialects and registers, a much more diverse form of the language than standard Dutch.

The linguistic richness of Belgian Dutch is something which makes Flemish literature stand out today. Of course not all Flemish writers make use of it, some like Peter Terrin (The Guard, MacLehose Press) are pupils of Elsschot and prefer a classical pared-down style without dialect. Others, such as Dimitri Verhulst are clear proponents of Boon’s ‘volks Vlaams’ – working class Flemish. Verhulst is a fellow Aalstian and Boon’s influence can be seen across his oeuvre – from a tongue-in-cheek homage in a chapter of Problemski Hotel to the social critique in Godverdomse dagen op een godverdamse bol or the verve and setting of his most recently released novel in translation, The Misfortunates. His translator, David Colmer, agrees that the influence of Boon is visible in his work but also sees a crucial difference, ‘Verhulst aims to please his reader, to entertain.’

Verhulst himself is quick to acknowledge his debt to Boon but the Belgian press has also picked up on Geertrui Daem and Joost Vandecasteele as possible heirs. Geertrui Daem was also born in Aalst and is a generation older than Verhulst so she has already amassed quite a body of work. I have only read her most recent novel, De bedlegerige (De Bezige Bij Antwerpen, 2011); set in 1957 in a working class community, the highly strung son of a domineering mother takes to his bed. Keenly observed and in places acutely funny, it is portrait of a time and place not only in its action but also in its language, a challenge for any translator.

Boon was terrified of urban expansion and industrialisation, and these formed recurring themes in his work. Young writer and stand-up comedian Joost Vandecasteele has been pegged as a Boonian because of the social analysis inherent in his fiction. Aline Lapeire, editor at De Bezige Bij Antwerpen where his second novel Massa has just been published, says, ‘like Boon, he paints a picture of contemporary society and captures the zeitgeist in a unique individual style’. Massa has one foot in the real world and the other in a future technological dystopia; his debut Opnieuw en opnieuw en opnieuw was notable in its references to other narrative forms such as computer games and the graphic novel – like Boon he refers to the media around him.

There was another side to Boon I learn at Flemish publishing house, Uitgeverij Vrijdag. Director Rudy Vanschoonbeek tells me that Boon was ‘a precursor of the current mediatised era where authors become popular through appearing on chat shows’. Working class hero turned 1960s socialite, Boon wrote the society column in newspaper De Vooruit and went on to host a TV quiz show. None of Vrijdag’s stable of authors are real Boonians in style, though I do hear an interesting anecdote in which Geertrui Daem’s experiences of being edited in the Netherlands are compared to those of Louis Paul Boon when he moved to Dutch house De Arbeiderspers with Chapel Road. Apparently the working class Flemish character of the writing was (partly) edited out, ‘or made more readable as is an editor’s task’ Vanschoonbeek hastily adds.

Though there are some excellent Flemish publishing houses, many authors opt to be published by the more powerful Dutch houses who distribute across both territories. That Flemish writers sometimes claim their work is ‘censored’ by Dutch editors points to the tensions and differences between users of standard Dutch with its Calvinist genes and its flamboyant Catholic working class cousin. 

About the author

Michele Hutchison (Solihull, 1972) worked in publishing in the UK before moving to the Netherlands in 2004. She now works as an editor at a Dutch literary publishing house and as a freelance translator. Writers she has translated include Joris Luyendijk, Rob Riemen, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and Simone van der Vlugt. 

Additional Information

For more on Boon’s life visit LP Boon exhibition ‘Villa Isengrimus’ at the Letterenhuis in Antwerp (ends 4th
 November) 2012.

Boon 2012 centenary website (in Dutch)  

Dalkey Archive Press, LP Boon in translation

The Flemish Literary Foundation 

Dimitri Verhulst at Portobello Books 

Peter Terrin at MacLehose Press

Flemish publishing house Uitgeverij Vrijdag

Joost Vandecasteele at De Bezige Bij Antwerpen