This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission
The Great War is, at least in Belgian literature, a strangely forgotten war. While our landscape still bears physical witness to the scale of the tragedy – strewn with war cemeteries and scarred by old craters and trenches – echoes of the Great War in our prose or poetry are rare. Belgium saw no great novels written during and after 1914-1918. There’s a mass of private memoirs, letters, journalistic impressions and the like that are certainly interesting, sometimes even brilliant, yet in a country that, since the second half of the 19th century, could boast a lively, internationally-acclaimed literature, perhaps it is a little meagre when compared to the abundance of French, German and British masterpieces that have sprung from the all too iconic ‘mud of Flanders.’
Even our historiography remained silent about the war for quite a long time, with the first comprehensive history of the Great War in Belgium being published as recently as 1997. It seems the events unfolding in 1914, the brutal invasion of the country and the extremely harsh conditions under the German occupation, proved to be almost too traumatic for our collective memory and artistic imagination.
The war also meant the abrupt birth of modernity in my fatherland, or rather; once the war was over the middle and upper classes, who had been celebrating their ‘Belle Époque’, their Golden Age, could no longer ignore the underlying social and political injustices on which their wealth and privilege were founded. Belgium was the first industrialised nation on the continent, despite its modest size, and an economic giant. At the outbreak of the war it was the fourth largest trading nation in the world, and the most densely populated region on earth with Antwerp boasting the second largest port. The country was still utterly 19th
century in its outlook, however, and in some respects it seemed even feudal. All this came to an end when, in 1918, the Germans left a country they had thoroughly looted, its economic infrastructure destroyed, its standard of living literally bombed back to the level of the 18th century.
Amid this destruction a new nation was forged. Barely two weeks after the Armistice, the king signed laws granting the Belgians universal suffrage, which finally, after decades of struggle, allowed the labour movement to translate its vast popular support into real political power (women I should add, sadly had to wait for another war to be given the right to vote), changing the country forever.
So people perhaps simply preferred to look forward, to hope and work for the future rather than to despair at the horrors of the past war, and this is reflected in our arts and literature. The process of rebuilding the nation also meant that the immensely rich and diverse artistic legacy of the Belle Époque gradually became forgotten. The aftermath of the Great War thus created a double void, if you wish, in our national memory – and of course twenty years later another war brought new suffering and trauma.
My novel, While the Gods were Sleeping, therefore, could never be just another ‘novel of the Great War,’ as Belgium lacks this particular tradition. The book is, in a way, an attempt to write the novel that should or could have been written in the decades directly after the Great War. It pays tribute, even down to the level of syntax and vocabulary, rhythm and metaphor, to the unjustly forgotten literature in our national archives and libraries – the splendid legacy of the Belle Époque in all its glamour and its darkness. The narrative, however, remains aware that it is written in the 21st century, in a world that is, for better and for worse, the product of the forces which Europe was about to unleash in the summer of 1914.
I’m glad, of course, that when the book was published in the summer of 2008 it was immediately hailed as a modern classic, but above all I’m grateful to the many texts and stories on which it rests; the legacy from which it could breathe its inspiration, allowing me to give voice to a period that had been shrouded – both in our history and our literature – in silence for all too long.
You can write a letter as part of the project, ‘Letter to an Unknown Soldier’, with our friends at the Free Word Centre.